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Excerpt from Travelers by Helon Habila, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel

by Helon Habila

Travelers by Helon Habila X
Travelers by Helon Habila
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2019, 288 pages

    Aug 2020, 304 pages


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We came to Berlin in the fall of 2012, and at first everything was fine. We lived on Vogelstrasse, next to a park. Across the road was an Apotheke, and next to that a retirement home, and next to that a residential school for orphans. The school was once a home for single mothers, but eventually the mothers moved on and only the children were left. The school is made up of two cheerless structures— one noticeably newer than the other— behind waist- high cinder- block walls and giant fir trees. In the evenings the children ran in the park, jumping on trampolines and kicking around balls, their voices cutting through the frigid air clear as the bell ringing. In the mornings they sat in the courtyard behind the short fence to craft wooden animals and osier baskets under the watchful eyes of their minders. Once, out early with Gina, one of the boys, anywhere between the ages of eight and ten, sighted us and rushed to the low wall, he leaned over the top, almost vaulting over, his face lit- up with smiles, all the while waving to us and shouting "Schocolade! Schocolade!" I turned away, ignoring him. Gina stopped and waved back to him. "Hello!" How his eyes grew and grew in his tiny face! Surprise mingled with pleasure as he ran back to his mates. He repeated this whenever he saw us, and Gina always indulged him, but I never got used to it. I never got used to the thin, eager voice, and how the other children, about a dozen or so, stopped and raised their eerily identical blond heads and blue eyes to watch him waving and calling "Schocolade!" as if his life depended on it.


I first met Mark when he came to the house with one of Gina's flyers in his hand. "I am here for this," he said, waving the yellow flyer. It said Gina was working on a series of portraits she called Travelers, and she was looking for real migrants to sit for her. Fifty euros a session, to be paid for by the fellowship. I pointed him to the guest room she had converted into a studio. Soon their voices carried to the living room, hers polite but firm, his questioning, arguing. He was being turned down, and I could have told him not to press, Gina would never change her mind. Later, when I asked her why, she said he wasn't right and didn't elaborate, but I guessed he looked too young, his face was too smooth and lacking the character only time and experience brings. Last week she had drawn a lady and her four- year- old daughter. I met the lady in the living room waiting for Gina to set up her easel, still wearing her outdoor coat, an old woolen affair, and when I asked her if she wanted me to take the coat she shook her head, I turned to the daughter, did she want a drink, she pulled the child closer to her. The week before that it was a man, Manu, who told me he was a doctor in his former life, now he worked as a bouncer in a nightclub, waiting for the result of his asylum application. His face was lined, prematurely old, and I knew Gina would love those lines, each one of them an eloquent testimony to what he had left behind, to the borders and rivers and deserts he had crossed to get to Berlin. She would also love the woman's hands that tightly clutched her daughter's arm, they were dry and scaly, the nails chipped, no doubt ruined while working in some hotel laundry room, or as a scullery maid.

Mark came out of the studio and stood by the living room door, a wry smile on his face, his red jacket in one hand, still holding the yellow flyer in the other hand. Behind him Gina, in her paint- splattered overalls, was already back at her painting, dabbing away at the easel, her face scrunched up.

"I'll walk you to the bus stop," I offered. I had been indoor all day reading, I needed to stretch my legs, or perhaps I felt sorry for him, coming all the way for nothing, or I might have sensed something intriguing about him, something unusual that maybe Gina had sensed as well, and for that reason had turned him away. That same thing that made her send him away had the opposite effect on me, it drew my attention. Right now he looked dejected, as if he had already made a budget for those fifty euros, which he was now realizing he would never see. I asked him if he had ever sat for a painter before. He hadn't. Who had, apart from professional models, but he thought what she needed were ordinary people, real people, and wasn't he real enough?

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Excerpted from Travelers by Helon Habila. Copyright © 2019 by Helon Habila. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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