Interview with Na’ima B. Robert, author of ‘Far from Home’, an Novel about Zimbabwe

In this interview, I chat with Na’ima B. Robert, author of the new novel ‘Far from Home’, which I just finished reading. It is a novel about growing up, family, Zimbabwean colonial and post colonial history which chronicles the pains of land dispossession and loss of home.Some of the central issues of the novels are captured in the following description, given at the author website:

“Katie and Tariro are two girls linked by a terrible secret, grappling with the complexities of adolescence, family and a painful colonial legacy as their lives play out against the tragic history of the land in Zimbabwe….Atmospheric, gripping and epic in scope, Far from Home brings the turbulent history of Zimbabwe to vivid, tangible life, challenging the reader to see it with new eyes.”

The Interview

Emmanuel Sigauke: First, congratulations on the publication of ‘Far from Home’. What prompted you to tackle the controversial (and topical) land issue in Zimbabwe in this novel about family and growing up?

Na’ima Robert: For some time, I had been angered by what I considered biased reporting of the land reform programme by the BBC. There was no mention of the history of land ownership in Zimbabwe, a crucial factor that has influenced politics in that region since the late 1800s. I wanted to highlight that history in a way that would cast a slightly different, more nuanced light on the recent reforms and the continuing debate in the region. I can’t write unless I feel strongly about a particular issue – and this issue spoke to me on many different levels: as someone who grew up in Zimbabwe, as an African and as a minority writer trying to contribute something new to the literary landscape.

ES: What influenced you to depict the lives or struggles of two girls growing up in different circumstances, Katie and Tariro? What was the purpose of portraying these two stories side by side?

NR: I really wanted to highlight the parallels in the two girls’ circumstances and play with the imagery of black and white, past and present. I wanted to make the link between the incidents that got so much media attention a few years ago and what took place decades ago, and on a much wider scale.
I would never have written Katie’s story on its own as that is a story that has now been told many, many times. But I did consider concentrating on Tariro’s and going into even more detail about her experiences up to 1980. In the end, I decided to keep that for a future novel.

ES: You are right; it seems that most memoirs coming out of Zimbabwe have represented Katie’s perspective and not Tariro’s. In other words, there are many memoirs by white Zimbabweans published in the Western world, than there are those by black Zimbabweans. What could be contributing to this discrepancy?

NR: I think the political situation in Zimbabwe is an extremely emotive one and that much of the Western media has picked sides in the debate over land. Obviously, what happens in Zimabwe – whether we rise or fall – will affect other countries in the region that are wrestling with their own land ownership issues. So the media’s focus has been on portraying the land reform programme as a failure, on Zimbabwe as a failed state, Mugabe as an evil dictator, the MDC as the saviours, the caricatures continue. The truth is a lot more complex than that – just read Ian Scoones’ work! In terms of literature, we have seen a number of black Zimbabwean writers gain recognition in the last few years, which is fantastic. However, I have not come across any literature, published in the west, that goes against the accepted version of Zimbabwe’s recent history. Perhaps there is a fear that western audiences will not respond well to such an approach or that it will be difficult to secure a publishing deal with anything that seems to contradict the received wisdom about our political situation. In terms of importance, I think it is absolutely crucial for a variety of voices to be heard, both for the benefit of those who are interested in our country and its history and for us to be able to better understand our country and what has shaped it, what is continuing to shape it. We may not agree with each other’s views, but they are our views and experiences nonetheless – the culture of the dominant narrative devalues and marginalises others’ experiences. In the case of Zimbabwe, there are differences along racial, cultural, social and political lines – if we are to survive as a pluralistic, tolerant nation, we must be able to weave a coherent national narrative, a common ground, a shared history, in light of these differences.

ES: What challenges did you experience in depicting the lives of these two different girls? Which one was easier to write about?

NR: Once I had done the necessary research, Tariro’s story just flowed. She grew on me as a character, almost instantly. For some reason, I felt a strong connection with her, with her lifestyle and her hopes and dreams. She was a wonderful character to write. I got her.

Katie, on the other hand, was a challenge. I think that this is mainly due to the fact that I grew up with an antipathy towards ‘Rhodies’ and it was very difficult for me to get past that and do justice to her story. I believe I did manage to, in the end. Having said that, there were many aspects of her life and family that I found more relatable because I didn’t grow up in a traditional Shona family – her feelings towards her father and mother are, for me, closer to what I know than Tariro’s, for example. But once I got into Katie’s character, it became easier to tell her side of the story. One of my early critics said that she felt that I found my voice through Katie but I’m not sure whether that is true. I think different readers will respond to the characters in different ways, depending on their own backgrounds, their own values and whichever one ‘speaks’ to them.

ES: For me, Tariro’s world was more familiar, relatable. It represented the rural landscape I grew up in, punctuated with its massive baobab trees, its happy moments and little dramas. Reading the Tariro story then, I was happy to encounter the familiar, and appreciated the research you did to render the enthnographic details realistically. One question I have though is that didn’t this section feel a bit romanticized for you, idealistic in places? Or was your intention to give the kind of life lived by Tariro’s people a little more dignity?

NR: You’ve definitely picked up on something there: I believe that, as a writer, you are responsible for how your material is presented as different forms of presentation will elicit different responses in the reader. Through the use of tone, language, imagery, we writers have the power to influence the reader and persuade him or her to see things the way we want them to. It could just be the difference between saying ‘Nhamo roared like a wounded lion’ or ‘Nhamo roared like a savage beast.’ The two have different connotations. Unfortunately, growing up in a post-colonial society has made me sensitive to how we as Africans are portrayed, both historically and in the present day, and so this will affect my own word use, or even characterisation. Some may argue that this is self-censorship but I believe that I have a responsibility as a writer not to further an agenda I don’t subscribe to, to take ownership of the messages in my books.

ES: You used the Shona proverb ‘Mwana washe muranda kumwe’ (A prince is a slave when from his kingdom) as an epigraph of the novel. Can you explain it in the context of the events in ‘Far from Home’?

NR: One of the recurring themes of the book and, indeed, our history as Zimbabweans, black and white, is the loss that is incurred when one’s home is taken away or left behind. The loss of security, of identity, is often more painful than the loss of the physical home itself, property etc. Both Tariro and Katie feel this sense of loss acutely and it reminds me of the white Zimbabweans who fled the country at independence and settled in the UK and Australia – they were known as ‘When-wes’, as in, ‘When we were in Zimbabwe, we had a maid, a cook, a tennis court etc…’ because their standard of living, their prospects, their sense of self all suffered as a result of that move. Similarly, many black Zimbabweans have to counter racism and unemployment when they go to work abroad – the indignity of being treated like an immigrant scrounger, like someone with no history, with nothing to offer, is a heavy price to pay for living and working ‘far from home’. Petina Gappah’s short story, ‘My cousin-sister Rambanai’ reminds me of this proverb too. We have all heard the stories of Zimbabweans leaving the country to go to the UK to wipe old people’s bottoms – that is a real-life illustration of this proverb. More worryingly, we are encountering these threats and indignities ever closer to our borders as the latest xenophobic attacks in South Africa illustrate.

ES: The novel makes great use of historical facts. How much research did you do for this novel? How far back did you go in your historical inquiries?

NR: I was able to pull on a lot of different sources for the book: my own memories, what I had learned in history lessons at school, speaking to people, reading novels, reading academic papers. It was important for me to anchor the story in a historical period and, for that, you need to get to know the period intimately. That proved quite a challenge as I didn’t have access to a library full of books – and online resources were thin on the ground, particularly regarding the more personal details. That was where novels and memoirs helped: I read Chenjerai Hove, Shimmer Chinodya, Tsitsi Dangarembwa, Alexandra Fuller and Doris Lessing. I also had a handbook of Shona traditions and found a delightful research paper (dating back decades!) on Shona proverbs and idioms. I really enjoyed that foray into Shona culture, something I never had the chance to do while I lived in Zimbabwe.
The hardest part to research was the era of ‘freedom ploughing’ – I couldn’t find any secondary sources for it whatsoever! I was limited to YouTube when it came to video so I had to be content with watching snippets of Neria and BBC documentaries.

ES: Once you had done adequate research for your novel, how often did you find yourself departing from the factual to the imaginative? Was there a time when once the story took off, you didn’t have to keep returning to the researched material?

NR: Once I had done my initial research, it was the personal relationships that moved the story. Reading this interview might give the impression that the book is a tract about land ownership but I think you will agree that it is a very personal story about families caught up in the throes of political turbulence and how that affects them individually. Those personal relationships, particularly the romance between Tariro and Nhamo and the relationship Tariro has with her mother, were where I felt free to imagine and craft a story that was moving and heartfelt. I cried while writing certain parts of Tariro’s story – while writing the words! Ufunge! That has never happened to me!

ES: This is always my favourite question: Are you an African writer? What does it mean to be an African (or any other) writer?

NR: I’d be happy to be considered an ‘African writer’, merely because so many writers I admire are themselves African writers. But to adopt that label would be somewhat disingenuous. Like most people, my identity, both as an individual and as an artist, is more complex than that. If I claim the title of ‘African writer’, I must then also be a ‘Muslim writer’, a ‘black writer’, a ‘multicultural writer’ because all of these identities have informed my work thus far. And that is the essence of the label, isn’t it? That the consciousness that informs the book has been shaped by that particular experience. And since ‘Far from Home’ is totally inspired by my roots in Zimbabwe, by my experience and consciousness as an African, for this book at least, I am proud to be called an ‘African writer’!

ES: So does the label depend on context? Are there ever benefits in being labelled this or that writer? Or is a writer just a writer not matter what labels the readers will have for her? I ask this because, as you know, it’s been a hot issue in Africa, writers seemingly rejecting the African writer label, or accepting it in, as Ikhide Ikheloa—an Nigerian critic—has pointed out, convenient circumstances, such as African writer conferences and residences.

NR: Well, as someone who started out as a ‘Muslim writer’ and is now flirting with the ‘African writer’ label, I think that what happens is that, after achieving a measure of success amongst your peers (be they African, Muslim, Arab or whatever), you start to feel like a big fish in a small pond. You may want to spread your wings, or target a new readership or simply prove (to yourself and others) that you can make it in the big pond. And then, if you are recognised by the fish in the bigger pond (the West, the mainstream, whatever you want to call it), you are then keen not be pigeon-holed and labelled as ‘that fish from that pond’ because you are trying to grow past that. If I think about it, to be labelled or call yourself an ‘African writer’ means that your ‘Africanness’ informs your work in some way – whether it is your choice of stories, your language, your characters or your consciousness. And I mean this in an authentic African sense, not a clichéd version of Africa held by outsiders or foreign ‘experts’. Incidentally, I love the way Chimamanda Adichie describes this in her Ted Talk, ‘The Danger of the Single Story’. Now, can a black African writer of romance stories set in New York with an all-American, all-white cast be considered an ‘African writer’? Probably not, I’d say – but the question is not whether you are ‘African enough’, it is whether you writing is good enough, at the end of the day.

ES: What is the significance of your title, “Far from Home”?

NR: So many things! There is nostalgia there, a palpable yearning for what was and what perhaps can never be again, on the part of the characters, for me personally and, I suspect, many Zimbabweans who may read the book, especially those in the diaspora. And of course, it relates to the theme of the novel: what home means to different people, whether a home can be regained once it is lost, how one goes about finding a new home, be it in the Tribal Trust Lands or in a London tower block.

ES: A lot of those in the diaspora become permanent residents or citizens of their host countries; can they achieve a state of being “near home” in this regard? Isn’t an interesting feature of our new global order the ability to transform our views on home, place, belonging? Or are we, as long as we are away from the old home, always far from home?

NR: Well, as someone whose parents settled ‘far from home’ due to apartheid laws against mixed marriages, who moved to the UK to study, became a Muslim, married a London-bred Ghanain and currently reside in Egypt, the whole issue of ‘home’ is an emotive one for me. I do long for simpler times when you were born into a culture and grew up in, married and raised your children pretty much in that culture – just for the certainty, the continuity, the sense of rootedness. However, this is no longer a feasible reality so I have set my sights on making my home wherever my family is and wherever we feel a connection and a sense of belonging. That will probably mean that I will call about 4 countries ‘home’ but I’m hoping that will only enrich me and my children – and provide more fodder for writing and probably some more labels along the way.

I have also found that longing for the past, for the ‘original’ home, is often best cured by actually going back there: you will either love it and resolve to return, permanently, as soon as is feasible, or you will find that you have both grown and changed in ways you could not have imagined and that, really, you now have your feet in two homes. And then you just have to work that however you can.

ES: A very important question a reader may ask after reading ‘Far from Home’ is: To whom does land in Zimbabwe belong? And as far as land is concerned, what does ownership mean?

NR: We could ask that question about every country that has ever been colonised: who owns the land that the Native Americans once called their own, or the Maori, or the Aborigines? One of the reasons I wrote the book was to encourage people to ask that self-same question. In the case of Zimbabwe, the received wisdom in the West is that the land belonged to the ‘legal owners’, the commercial farmers. The idea that that ownership should be called into question has not been fully explored. I hope that readers will ask themselves that question and reach their own conclusions after reading the book and seeking information from more sources. Your comment about the Bantu not being the original inhabitants of the land only makes the issue more

ES: The Tariro section of the novel shows a deeper connection with nature, a more organic kind of relationship in which the humans’ lives are part of the environment. Even Tariro herself is described as the “baobab’s daughter.” Was this a statement on how the relationship with the land is conceived in the different phases and experiences depicted in the novel?

NR: Even I was taken aback by how different the two girls’ voices were. On a cultural level, an emotional level, even a linguistic level, these two 14 year olds are totally different. Tariro is, as you say, quite literally, the ‘baobab’s daughter’ and I think her section exhibits the organic, almost spiritual connection with the land that was at the heart of her society. That connection is palpably different to the relationship the commercial farmer has to the land. Katie loves the land too, but it is not a fundamental part of who she is. She does not work it with her own hands, doesn’t grow the food that she eats, and she leaves it to go to boarding school. There is a barrier there, a physical disconnection. The land is special to her for what it represents: her family home, security, memories, rather than because it has intrinsic worth.

ES: To the Zimbabweans (both white and black), covered in your novel, reconciliation, or a clear sense of forgiveness or togetherness seems only possible when the principal characters meet in the UK, far away from home. Is this displacement, or alienation from home the only hope for redemption for the characters? What is the special message in this way of resolving the story?
The novel ends on a note of optimism, the possibility of rebuilding Zimbabwe with open hearts and cooperation, “willing hands”. How long do you think such dreams of rebuilding will be realized?

NR: In order for Katie to truly hear Tariro and appreciate her story, she had to grow as a character, as an individual. She could not have done that had she remained in Zimbabwe, sharing her parents’ paradigm. Her growth was crucial and, really, she had to be broken before she could be fixed again, just as Tawona says at the end of the novel. Tariro too has no knowledge of her own strength until she loses everything and has to fight to make her way to the other side of her pain, anger and humiliation.

Indeed, many of us who leave our homelands find that we achieve a greater sense of clarity about who we are – and who we are not – when we step out of that context. Of course, this clarity comes at a great price but, sometimes, that price is a necessary downpayment on a stronger, clearer sense of identity.
In the final analysis, great change does not come without pain, without loss and, unfortunately, the post-independence land situation in Zimbabwe was untenable. It was unjust to the vast majority, to the landless poor. Their issues had to be addressed. Obviously, a combination of factors led them to being addressed in a way that almost brought the country to its knees but, if we look at history, we see that this is part of a historical pattern. Bastille Day in France is, after all, a celebration of a royal massacre. I do not say this to minimise in any way the suffering of the Zimbabwean people but we may find that, with the passage of time, with a more honest discourse, the story of Zimbabwe will not be viewed as the great African tragedy, but as a process, as a journey, one that will, I hope, see us living the dream that Tawona articulates: that we join hands as Zimbabweans, regardless of race, ethnicity or creed, to rebuild our country in an even better, more just image than before. ‘Pie in the sky!’, my father said, but I am an eternal optimist so I had to hold to that hope at the end of the book. Tawona’s vision is an articulation of my own.

ES: Most of the white Zimbabweans in the novel never really consider themselves Zimbabwean. How has such a choice contributed to the chaotic land reform and politics in the country?

NR: When I was doing my research for Katie’s side of the story, I came across an interesting and very apt description of two types of white Zimbabweans: Rhodies and Zimbos. According to this description, Rhodies are white Zimbabweans who either consider themselves still Rhodesian or think of pre-independence as the country’s golden era and never embraced Zimbabwe, as a country, as a culture. When Katie describes her world, it is a world totally divorced from the world of other non-white Zimbabweans, as you will find in many white Zimbabwean memoirs. My introduction to this world was through Alexandra Fuller’s breathtakingly honest memoir, ‘Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight’. If anyone wants to know the Rhodie mentality laid bare, in its rawest form, they need to read that book.

On the other hand, there is Uncle James – he is a Zimbo. According to the article I mentioned previously, a Zimbo is a white person who embraces the concept of a post-independence Zimbabwe. A Zimbo is usually comfortable with all sorts of people; race is not an issue. He or she will integrate, maybe speak Shona or Ndebele, maybe have a relationship with a black Zimbabwean – but the key difference here is a sense of belonging and respect for the country and its people.

The Zimbabwe I grew up in was still divided along colour lines and I think that this was largely due to the legacy of colonialism and racism that many Zimbabweans would not or could not free themselves from. This meant that there was a very ‘us against them’ mentality when the land issue came to a head. It was easy to paint the picture of the whites as ‘settlers’ because they lived very much as they had done before independence, apart from the rest of the population.

ES: In your dialogue, you embrace the use of Shona, for which you provide translations in parenthesis. Why did you choose not to offer only the translated versions of the dialogue; or, why did you just not leave the Shona untranslated, and maybe provided hints to the reader to figure the meaning out of the context? Is thi an audience issue, or is it a way of capturing the flavour of the original language, while offering a translation?

NR: The use of Shona was crucial to Tariro’s section as distinct from Katie’s English narrative. In addition, Tariro and her family would have all spoken Shona anyway and I always like for readers to get a feel for the language of the narrator and its rhythms. On the other hand, I expected that a lot of non-Zimbabweans would read the book and I was wary of the language being a stumbling block for them. Oh, and my editor insisted on the translations in parentheses.

ES: What other works have you written, and what are you working on currently? Which works has satisfied you the most?

NR: After writing several multicultural children’s books, I wrote a book about my journey to Islam and the (true) lives of Muslim women in the west (‘From my sisters’ lips’). Next up was my first novel for teens, about a Somali girl who has to come to terms with big changes when her father comes to live with them after being missing in Somalia (‘From Somalia, with love’). Then my next teen novel was entitled ‘Boy vs. Girl’ and looks at the pressures facing a twin brother and sister of Pakistani origin, including family expectations, religion, culture, gangs, illicit romances and Mini Cooper-driving niqabi (woman who wears the veil).
In addition to cooking up ideas for a follow-up to Far from Home, I am currently working on a novel about a young African-Caribbean couple from opposite sides of the tracks – a bit like a black Westside Story with a conscious urban edge to it. It is due for release in Black History Month (UK) 2012 – so maybe this time I will be billed as a ‘Black British writer’  I know it’s cheeky but when you are as multicultural as I am, you become accustomed to wearing different hats – simply because is not enough.

About Na’ima

Na’ima B Robert is a published author and magazine publisher. Her books include the popular ‘From my sisters’ lips’, and teen novels, ‘From Somalia, with love’ and ‘Boy vs. Girl’. She is founder and Editor-in-Chief of SISTERS, a magazine for Muslim women. Na’ima has also been published in The Times, The Observer and The Muslim Weekly as well as several online publications.

Na’ima defines herself as ‘Muslim, Black, mixed-race, Southern African, Western, revert and woman all in one’. Descended from Scottish Highlanders on her father’s side and the Zulu people on her mother’s side, she was born in Leeds and grew up in Zimbabwe. She went on to gain a first-class degree from the University of London and began writing when her first child was a toddler. Na’ima has written several award-winning children’s books. Her frank and honest autobiographical celebration her adopted Muslim faith, ‘From my sisters’ lips’ was published by Transworld Publishers to much acclaim. Na’ima then published two teen novels, ‘From Somalia, with love’ and ‘Boy vs. Girl’ with Frances Lincoln. Her third novel, ‘Far from home’ is a crossover YA/adult novel, set in Zimbabwe.


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