I always tell my students that I never had a chance to read children’s books. Where I grew up, there were no libraries, and it was thus hard to be exposed to the books other children were reading. The earliest books some of us read were set books, starting with Shona novels by writers like Aaron Chiundura Moyo. These books were available in the villages, some in tatters from being exchanged among numerous hands.
Literature in English arrived later, with the obvious selections from British literature like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, and, in some cases, Virginia Woolf. Then there was Wole Soyinka, and there was Chinua Achebe. These were the texts for our literature courses, and while we didn’t have enough copies for each student, the few we had were shared among many students. And the few who managed to buy their own copies in Zvishavane would also share them with many friends in the village. I read every word in these books, copied expressions, and interesting words and when I wrote essays, I would use some of these expressions, and next thing I am distinguishing myself as a good writer and the best student in the English course.
Outside of the classroom, there were those who had books to read for entertainment. Among the boys, the James Hardley Chase series was popular. The boys were looking for the sex scenes in these books. I read the books too and paid particular attention to the style of writing, how the writer kept me glued to the page with vivid images. I could picture the cities that were featured in the novels, cities in Europe and America.
But the first book I remember owning is Burr by Gore Vidal. My brother had a copy of this book and it seemed to be one of his treasured belongings. I don’t remember what I liked about the book, but somehow I was entranced by the writing style, and the expressions the author used, which I imitated in my own writing. Step by step, I started acquiring my own books, from friends who passed them to me, and from teachers who wanted to support the work I was doing in English and Literature.
Before long, I started writing my own stories. Back then I wasn’t writing for publication, because I would know where to begin. the satisfaction came from recreating stories of the village or making up stories, putting them on the page. I filled out many exercise books and read the stories to my friends. Their admiration and seeming enjoyment of my stories kept me going. I had a ready audience waiting for more.
Once I started visiting Harare, my access to books grew. I fell in love with the Harare City Library, and my neighbors in Glew View were avid readers of Mills & Boon and Pacesetters. They gave me all the books they had already read, and I returned to the rural areas with a box of books that the other kids would devour. We would read and discuss the stories. We had a book club without even knowing it. I also had a larger audience for my writing.