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.

Interview with Beatrice Lamwaka, for Stories on Stage Sacramento

Beatrice Lamwaka

Beatrice Lamwaka was recently shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing. She was born in Gulu in northern Uganda, and now lives in Kampala, Uganda, where she works as a journalist and is currently studying Human Rights at Makarere University. She is working on a story collection called The Garden of Mushrooms.

Let me start by congratulating you for your story being featured on Stories on Stage, and for being on the shortlist for the 2011 Caine Prize. How do you feel about this recognition of your work?

Many thanks Emmanuel. I am just a girl from Alokolum, Gulu happy to know that my voice can be heard in places that I may never reach. I am excited that my voice keeps traveling further and further away from home. My writing performed to an audience that appreciates African literature gives me the confidence to keep writing because this is beyond what I had dreamt of as a writer. I hope that more of my work will travel further and further.

Your short stories have been anthologized in different publications, such as Speaking for the Generations (USA), and New Writing from Africa 2009, selected by J.M. Coetzee. Your shortlisted story is also appearing in To See the Mountain and Other Stories compiled by The Caine Prize for African Writing 2011. These publications show a significant contribution to African literature, and to writing in general. Do you believe your work is contributing to something larger than you had anticipated? What effect has the publication of your work in these important anthologies had on your writing career?

However hard I try to stretch my mind, I could never imagine that this year my short story would be performed in Sacramento or be shortlisted for the Caine Prize. The publications give me the confidence that I can make a contribution in Ugandan (African) literature.

In the Stories on Stage series, the stories are read by professional actors. What do you think is the importance of a process like this to the writer? Have you ever read your stories in front of an audience?

It brings to life what I have created and it sort of makes me feel like a god…creating something which is real. I am happy to know that my story lives without me. And that is what I want from my work. Yes, I have read my work to an audience before: Le Chateau de Lavigny in Switzerland; Nairobi, Kenya; and around Uganda.

Tell us a little about yourself as a writer. When did you start believing you were a writer? Who were your influences?

I have always wanted to write, but I seriously started to believe that I could contribute greatly to Ugandan literature around mid 2008 when I tuned myself to write, write, and look for opportunities to get my stories published, and that is why I am in different anthologies in various countries. I went ahead and founded a book club that focuses on contemporary African writers, which also gave birth to the writing club. Most of the stories that I sent out have been read by the club. I read a lot of contemporary African writers like Brian Chikwava, Chimamanda Adichie, Segun Afolabi, and Goretti Kyomuhendo and they motivate me to write.

In what ways has your background as a journalist helped or hindered your creative writing?

My background as a journalist diversifies and amplifies the issues that I strongly feel that I should write about. If I can’t voice a story as a creative work then I write articles.

Most of your stories deal with war. Why this preoccupation with war? What other issues have you explored, or wish to explore, in your writing?

I grew up in northern Uganda, which was savaged by two decades of armed conflict. This has greatly impacted my life and it is one that issues I find myself ‘easily’ writing about. My home became an IDP camp and it is one of the issues that crop up unconsciously or consciously in my writing because every time I go home it is a different experience. I have written about HIV/AIDS, university experiences, etc.

What inspired the story selected for Stories on Stage, “The Queen of Tobacco?”

I eavesdropped on a story as someone narrated it to a friend, about a woman who went out in the middle of the night to get cigarette from whoever was smoking. As soon as I heard the story, I knew that I had to write it, although I didn’t write the story right away but it played in my mind so many times and when I sat down to write it. In one sitting the story had come to life, and then I emailed it Thomas J. Hubschman, editor at Gowanus Books, who accepted it for publication in summer of 2002. It is one of my favorite stories. This was my second story to get published and the first to get published outside of Uganda.

What is the state of creative writing in Uganda? What direction is African literature in general taking?

Many Ugandans are writing, although most of the publishers focus on textbooks, so that many writers are getting published outside of the country, hence robbing the people of the chance to read such work. The establishment of writers associations like FEMRITE, Uganda Women Writers Association, and Kwani (Kenya) are encouraging young, vibrant writers who are exploding into the writing arena.

What do you think of the readership of African literature?

In Africa, many people enjoy reading what they relate with. And there is a big thirst for African literature outside of Africa, and this is a huge compensation for the high percentage of those that do not read in Africa.

In what ways has the internet affected African writing?
Internet has opened doors to the world that were otherwise closed to most writers. Our work can reach further than we anticipated.

What other words would you want to share with the lively audience of Sacramento’s Stories on Stage?
Thank you very much for listening to my story. There are a lot more stories where “Queen of Tobacco” came from. I hope that you will enjoy my story.

Originally published by Stories on Stage Sacramento

Sacramento’s Stories on Stage Features Flash Fiction

Stories on Stage, which operates from mid-town Sacramento, continues to grow. Running every last Friday of the month, the series has featured writers from across the US and is preparing to feature African writers in June. The idea is brilliant: the stories are read by professional actors, and the events are well-attended.

On Friday, May 27th, Stories on Stage will present an evening of (very) short fiction, featuring the winners of Sacramento News & Review’s 2010 Flash Fiction Contest (these writers had a stingy 150 words to work with). Kent Gray will read Paul Mann’s”79 Miles,” Cynthia Mitchell Speakman will read Peg Alford Pursell’s “Guardian,” Ashley Lucas will read Jenni Wiltz’ “Letters,” Bonnie Antonini will read Peg Alford Pursell’s “This Guy,” and Pam Metzger will read William Doonan’s “Lady Anaconda.”

Sacramento Poetry Center
1719 25th Street (Between Q & R)
Donation: $5
Performance begins at 7:30PM. Doors open at 7PM

Peg Alford Pursell’s fiction has received The S.C. State Fiction Award and been a short-list finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. She founded and curates Why There Are Words, a monthly literary reading series in Sausalito, and is fiction editor at Prick of the Spindle. She teaches fiction writing at the College of Marin, Book Passage, and in private workshops. She is currently at work on a novel. Please visit her website and blog to keep up with her news.

William Doonan is a writer and professor of anthropology and archaeology in Sacramento, CA, where he lives with his wife Carmen, and his sons Will and Huey. Doonan is the author of two mystery novels; Grave Passage and Mediterranean Grave, which recount the exploits of octogenarian cruise ship detective Henry Grave. For more information about Doonan and his writing, please visit William’s “Lady Anaconda” won first prize.

Jenni Wiltz’s short stories have appeared in The Portland Review and The Copperfield Review. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California at Davis with degrees in English and history; she’s currently studying for a Master’s in English at Sacramento State University. Jenni lives in Folsom, California and blogs about her writing experiences at Jenni’s “Letters” won second prize.

Paul Mann grew up around the beaches of the Gulf Coast in Sarasota, Florida. It is a region he often visits through his writing. His stories and photos have been published in Susurrus, Sacramento News & Review, The Farallon Review and Sunken Lines. When not hunched over his keyboard, he enjoys spending time at home in California with his attorney wife, his smart and beautiful daughter, and his loyal canine companion Bode. Visit Paul’s website here. Paul’s “79 Miles” won third prize.

Bonnie Antonini returned to acting six years ago after taking a long hiatus to raise her children. She hit the ground running and has been in 20 stage plays, numerous commercials, TV shows, and industrials. She also is a poet and has had three of her poems published in the Sacramento News and Review. Her most recent role was in The Mystery Spot, where she played poet Sylvia Plath. Bonnie will read Peg Alford Pursell’s “This Guy.”

Cynthia Mitchell Speakman has been performing on Sacramento stages since 1994 when she joined Ed Claudio’s Actor’s Workshop. She performs with Story Voices, four spoken word artists that perform for benefits across the country, inspiring people to take on their lives with passion. Her son keeps her thinking young and she thanks him for being an inspiration to her. Cynthia will read Peg Alford Pursell’s “Guardian.”

Kent Gray is a man of many interests. He returned to Sacramento after attending law school in Des Moines. Kent has been in the theatre for 20 years. He holds a master’s degree from Humboldt State University and has appeared in numerous productions including playing Bo Decker in Bus Stop and Horatio in Hamlet. His directing credits include An Act of the Imagination and No Exit. In addition, Kent spent 10 years as a radio announcer working in the Midwest and California. Kent will read Paul Mann’s “79 Miles.”

Ashley Lucas has been acting for over five years. She has performed with Runaway Stage, Thistledew, and is a regular at the Playwrights Collaborative Workshops. Her other acting ventures include volunteering with the West Sacramento CERT as their Fire Prevention Trailer Instructors. Ashley will read Jenni Wiltz’ “Letters.”

Pamela Metzger was a radio announcer in the Sacramento area for 20 years. She has always enjoyed a good read on road trips, with each passenger giving their interpretation as they read aloud. The second child of 9 brothers and sisters made storytelling a necessary element in her well rounded personality. She resides in Sacramento and is in the Television advertising business. Pam will read William Doonan’s “Lady Anaconda.”

Visit Stories on Stage’s blog for more information about interviews and other events.

Zimbabwean Writer on 2011 US Foreign Press Center Media Tour

Zimbabwean writer, journalist, blogger, and gender activist, Delta Milayo Ndou will be touring Washington DC and Minneapolis in June as one of 20 journalists who have been identified by the Washington Foreign Press Center as emerging Global New Media Leaders. She is one of 4 African journalists – and the other African countries represented are Morocco, Uganda & Kenya.

The participants, selected from all over the globe will represent countries such Iran, Iraq, Israel, Oman, Yemen, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, among others.

Announcing the news of Delta Milayo Ndou’s acceptance to the programme, JB Leedy of the Washington Press Center commended the US Embassy’s Public Affairs Section in Harare for the “great nomination”, adding that nominations for the FPC Blogging for Social and Political Change tour were impressive. “We received 45 nominations for 20 available slots and all were impressive, so you can expect your participant to get a lot out of not only the official program, but networking with fellow global new media leaders on the tour,” stated Leedy.

The bloggers will be expected to do significant blogging both during and after the program, and to provide the FPC with feedback on the nature of those blog posts.
They will also be expected to find creative ways to amplify the USG message on the role of new media in civil society and press freedom when bloggers return home.
Activities during the tour include engagement in the Blogosphere to explore how the U.S Government (USG) advances foreign policy positions on the web by discussing new media strategy with top-level policy advisors, meeting with those implementing the strategy through official USG blogs to find out more about how they choose what to blog about, assess the interests of their target audiences, and gauge their effectiveness in conveying the USG message.

Some of the key discussions and activities will revolve around maintaining and promoting Freedom of Expression on the Internet; attending and taking part in Netroots Nation 2011, one of USA’s most prominent blogger conferences,an annual forum for exchanging ideas and using technology “to influence the public debate, inspire action, and serve as an incubator for progressive ideas that challenge the status quo and ultimately affect change in the public sphere.”

You can read Delta Milayo Ndou’s work on her blog, itsdelta.

African Literature and the Internet

I participated in a discussion of African writing and the internet. Below is an excerpt, as well as a link to One Ghana One Voice (OGOV) for the rest of the discussion.

Prince Mensah: Considering the present shape of African writing, what visible steps are being taken to use the Internet as a medium of communication? Are those steps enough? What impact does all this have on indigenous readers who might or might not have access to the Internet?

Michelle Labossiere Brandt: The Internet is turning out to be a fantastic gift to the African writer, and an immediate way to publicize one’s creativity. It is the diving board, a place to launch and in doing so extends out to those readers who don’t have access to the Internet!

Let me use my own community as an example. Our goal as an organization (RIFE & RIFG) was twofold: bring poets from Africa and Canada together to publish an anthology to raise money for a project in Ghana, and educate the average Edmontonian poet and reader as to the incredible pool of African writers/poets. We have achieved those goals and it all started through the long arm of the Internet, one of our main sources being OGOV. Since that time a number of local non-African poets have now become interested in African literature/poetry. Some of these local poets don’t have access to the Internet but they are avid readers, and come out to poetry readings.

The long arm of the Internet is a bridge for global writers to share their talent and inspire one another and thereby perhaps impact the world at large in a positive and creative manner.

Emmanuel Sigauke: Most writers have websites, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, and they use these as tools to publicize their works, to create a platform. These are effective tools of communication, but as there is too much of a wide choice of information online, what’s needed is a more effective channeling of the information to make sure that it reaches as many people as possible. In other words, there should be networking, targeted linking of the media that the writers use.

While the Internet is helping develop the literature in urban Africa and in the Diaspora, there is still a wide gap in communication with the majority of African readers. Many people in African countries have no access to the Internet, so whatever programs are represented online should be replicated on the ground in different communities and especially at the grassroots level. Writers should also be involved in outreach programs that promote reading and writing in Africa.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes: The state of African writing is a big question. I’d say it’s abuzz with possibilities and disjointed (which is not necessarily a bad thing), meaning that the next few years will tell us what is really happening.

Steps being taken – as Michelle has shown, and Emmanuel has touched on – are as diverse as the forms and stages of writing themselves. I was recently contacted by a Ghanaian poet who sent me links to tracks from a forthcoming CD online to listen to. That triggered two thoughts – one, we use technology very quickly and effectively (I live in the UK and wouldn’t have thought of getting cross-continental feedback) and two, the Internet means that the distance between the practising writers and aspiring writers is very small – there is a lot of promise in that if we (the practising writers) stay accessible.

As for indigenous readers, this can only be better for them, because they barely had access to work when there was no Internet anyway so there is no way technology can impoverish them, it can only enrich their experience – even if it starts with something as simple as quotes in text messages.

Martin Egblewogbe: As a result of low Internet penetration in Africa, I strongly suspect that most users of literary websites dedicated to African writing tend to live in the diaspora, and may have a readership that is mainly non-African. In this regard, unless the target audience of a Ghanaian writer is global or non-African, there is a fundamental disconnect when the work is published online; this is the disconnect of speaking without the possibility of being heard. To most people on the continent, the publication simply doesn’t exist. Therefore, the impact in terms of widespread acknowledgement is naturally constricted (to an extent, this is also quite true of many hard publications).

It is quite clear that our social reflex has not yet quite adjusted to the Internet, especially when it comes to publishing literary works: we can see potential, we know it can be used for something, but we are not very sure what, or how it will be achieved. We may yet be surprised.

At this present time, the use of the Internet as a medium for publication has both detrimental and positive effects, both on the writer and the art, the extent of which depends on the fronts listed earlier. I will probably expand on this as the discussion progresses.

Ivor Hartmann: From my own interaction as, and with other African writers, I’d say we’re on the cusp of a never before seen explosion of African literature. This is not without its pitfalls: anyone can now self-publish, but this does not mean that what is self-published will be good. I say it often but it still holds true: writers have to have good editors. We still need gatekeepers, as not everyone who thinks they are a great writer (and we all think that of course), is necessarily so. But (and its a big “but”), there is plenty of room for mediocre writers too, and market forces.

In Africa (and Diaspora) we writers have the tendency to want to be the next Soyinka, Marechera, etc. In other words, to excel strictly in ‘literary’ writing. Who can blame us? They are Africa’s literary heroes whom we of course aspire to. This however leaves a wide open gap in all the other genres that needs to be filled, and is currently filled with imported writing. It is this gap that I’d like to see filled locally.

There is a desperate need for more (affordable) print books on the ground in Africa. We writers may have heartily embraced the online world, but not so much our potential local readers for many reasons (89.1% of Africa does not have online access). There is an ever growing technological divide, and the vast majority of Africa will not have access to the digital literature age that is fast upon us. This means that while African writers do indeed now have access to far more international markets, the same can not be said for local markets where affordable print still rules.

Read the full discussion at One Ghana One Voice.

A Reader and Writer: Miriam Shumba (Zimbabwean Novelist)

Miriam Shumba is the author of two novels, Show Me the Sun and That Which Has Horns, both published in the USA by Genesis Press. She has had several short stories and articles published in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and the United States. She earned her teaching degree at Rhodes University in South Africa and continued her education at Walden University. Miriam has taught elementary school in several countries. She moved to the United States in 2001 and now lives in Michigan with her husband.

Miriam Shumba’s 2010 Reading List

1. The Shack [book cd] : a novel/ William P. Young
2. The Bishop’s Daughter / Tiffany L. Warren
3. The First Lady [book cd] / by Carl Weber
4. Serena : a novel / Ron Rash
5. The Piano Teacher / Janice Y.K. Lee
6. Finding Nouf [book cd] / Zoë Ferraris
7. The Christmas Sweater [book cd] / Glenn Beck with Kevin Balfe and Jason Wright
8. Esteemable acts : 10 actions for building real self-esteem / Francine Ward
9. Your best birth : know all your options, discover the natural choices, and take back the birth experience / Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein ; foreword by Jacques Moritz.
10. Roses
11. An Elegy for Easterly : Stories / by Petina Gappah.
12. The Boy Next Door : a novel / by Irene Sabatini.
13. Knockout : interviews with doctors who are curing cancer– and how to prevent getting it in the first place / Suzanne Somers
14. The Actor and the Housewife [book cd] : a novel / Shannon Hale
15. Once Upon a Day [book cd]: a novel / Lisa Tucker
16. Roses / Leila Meacham
17. Her mother’s hope / Francine Rivers.
18. Shameless [book cd] / Karen Robards
19. Powder necklace : a novel / Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond
20. Fireworks over Toccoa / Jeffrey Stepakoff.
21. The help [book cd] : a novel/ Kathryn Stockett
22. Strangers at the feast [book cd] : a novel / Jennifer Vanderbes
23. Unaccustomed earth : stories / by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Interview with Miriam Shumba

1. Your reading list consists of both print and audio books. Which medium is provides a more effective reading process for you? Does a read get the same effect from a book when listening to it as when reading it? To what extent are both processes considered reading?

Both mediums are enjoyable. I always have a print book at home and an audio book in the car. For some reason I rarely listen to audio books at home and when I tried I found myself falling asleep. Listening to a book from some exotic location the actors/readers imitate the accents very well and it adds richness to the story. The story interests me more that way. Both processes should be considered reading because at the end I’m satisfied with the story in print and audio. Once in a while it’s nice to have both audio and print so I can reread some parts or see how things are spelt.

2. Do you always read as a writer or a reader? Do you read when you are working on your own writing? Does this slow down or speed up your writing?

I can’t help reading as a writer. It’s enjoyable to look out for fresh ways to describe people, for instance, or to find out how flash backs are used. The way words can transport you to another time in space and wreck havoc with your emotions fascinates me, so my notebooks are always close by. Keeping my “writer’s cap” on doesn’t really slow me down if I am lost in a good story.

3. What is the audience of your novels?

My audience is both male and females who enjoy reading about life and relationships but who also hope to grow and change after reading my books. I see people from 16 years onwards picking up my books and liking the stories.

4. How have your books been accepted in the United States?

From the reviews I’ve received the books have been accepted very well. I’ve attended book clubs where my books were discussed too and that was encouraging. Several people told me that they could identify with the characters even though they are from the US and the characters are from Zimbabwe.

5. Are your books available in Zimbabwe or any African country?

They are available in South Africa and right now I am in the process of making them available in Zimbabwe and Ghana initially then spread to other countries.

6. How do you deal with the issue of translation? In other words, are there cultural concepts that you find difficult to present in English?

Absolutely. I even had to translate the title into English and that proved challenging too. I know that there are so many phrases we say in Shona that get lost when translated into English. What I do is to write some sentences in Shona then add the translation immediately after so the people who speak Shona will really get the nuances and those who don’t understand the language will at least know what was said and not get confused.

7. You read short story collections like An Elegy for Easterly and Uaccustomed Earth? Considering that you are publishing in the novel sub-genre, what do you think of the short stories you read? How well do you appreciate the short story sub-genre?

I find most short stories engrossing. Before publishing my two novels I enjoyed and still enjoy writing short stories. I wrote for Drum Magazine in South Africa and Parade Magazine in Zimbabwe and the issues I had with writing them is the same I have when I read them. The challenge for me is that I get attached to certain characters and feel disappointed when the story has to end. Another thing is that not all the short stories in an anthology are enjoyable, and it takes me a while to get into the next short story after having been so absorbed in the one before. They are entertaining and thought-provoking and they are quick and hit you like a whirlwind with all the senses and emotions packed into a short work. With Jumpa Lihiri I noticed that she did continue one short story and I was so excited to see the characters back again in another short at the end of her collection.

8. You also read one of the contemporary Zimbabwean novels, The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini, which has been received well in some circles of the US readership. What’s your opinion of this book?

Irene’s novel is incredible. When I picked it up the cover drew me, which shows the importance of captivating covers. It was set close to the time when I was a teenager and I could relate to her protagonist. It was like taking a literal tour around Zimbabwe because she mentioned almost every place of great significance in Zimbabwe including our mysterious magnificent ruins, The Great Zimbabwe. The love story was breathtaking and handled very well. I thoroughly enjoyed her book and it got me excited about all the other new books coming up from Zimbabwe that I can’t wait to read. It’s great to see the children of Zimbabwe telling their own stories like never before.

9. When writing, do you care about the genre your work will come out in? Does it matter to you whether a work will be received as literary or popular fiction?

It would be great to see my work stand the test of time, and be enjoyed by generations either as popular fiction or literary.

10. In a radio interview, you stated that your current publisher features Christian (or is it spiritual) literature. What are the characteristics of this genre?

From the books I’ve read this genre is about characters that are Christians or become Christians. These are books to inspire you and in a way celebrate the love of Jesus in stories that are entertaining. This genre is so broad and can be divided into romance, science fiction, mystery and so on. I don’t know how I feel about categorizing books that way as it means that certain people will not read great works just because they are under the Christian section. Fiction should just be fiction and not be separated by religion.

11. What do you think of the reception of African literature in the USA? Do think this is the African writer’s time in (1) the USA (2) the World?

Many people who have book clubs in the USA tend to enjoy reading books from around the world and some even introduced me to authors J. Nozipo Maraire who wrote Zenzele, A Letter for My Daughter. In the US the books I hear about tend to focus on controversial and disturbing topics and my worry is that the same themes are marketed. What I’ve seen usually revolves around civil war, or politics. I think most people are interested hearing about Africa’s struggles which are truly there but every country has them but their stories are more varied. I haven’t seen that many novels on regular every day stories of families, romance, and friendships. I think it’s time to show more variety. We have more to offer and want to tell all our stories, not just one story.

12. What is your advice to aspiring writers looking to market their works in the United States?

My advice is to definitely find the publishers who are interested in multicultural books in the US. There are not that many out there but the book that I used to locate my publisher is called Writers Markets and it’s published every year. In there you can search for the agents and publishers who want your genre. The United States has always been a multi cultural and there is room for African writers and those from all around the world as well.

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is doing awesome!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A helper monkey made this abstract painting, inspired by your stats.

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,700 times in 2010. That’s about 6 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 9 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 120 posts. There were 21 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 5mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was January 6th with 79 views. The most popular post that day was Zimbawean Author Gets Joint Book Deal .

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were,,,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for zimbabwean literature, dambudzo marechera poems, adichie the thing around your neck, famous african literature, and moments in literature.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Zimbawean Author Gets Joint Book Deal August 2008


Famous Characters in African Literature September 2008


Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck: A Brief Review March 2009


Digital Libraries Devaluing Literature? March 2008
1 comment


Hard Times Have Freed Zimbabwean Literature February 2009
1 comment

Stories on Stage Calling on African Writers

Sacramento-based Stories on Stage will feature stories by African writers on June 24, 2011 at the Sacramento Poetry Center. Valerie Fioravanti, founder and coordinator of the reading series, has asked me to recommend African writers who are interested in submitting their stories for this special feature. I think it is a great opportunity to create more awareness of African fiction and for Northern California readers to discover the diversity of African writing. The stories are read or performed by professional actors.

Here is what Valerie is looking for:

“Two stories will be featured at each event, one from a writer with a short story collection or equivalent publication history, and one from an emerging writer. An emerging writer need not have previous publications in order to be selected. To submit a story for possible inclusion in the series, email your story as an attachment (.doc or .rtf only), and include a brief bio and publication history, if applicable. Please submit only one story, between 1000-4000 words. I am looking for stories that work well when read aloud, and not all short stories make a smooth transition off the page (this is true of some of my best stories. If you’ve never read your work aloud, I recommend a test run before you submit). Short stories only, please. No novel excerpts, essays/memoir, short plays/scripts, or monologues will be considered…” Email stories to valfiora[AT] and cc

The Sacramento Poetry Center is based in Mid-town Sacramento. It presents poetry readings every Monday and short story readings every last Friday of the month. The Stories on Stage has been running for a year and it has helped bring high-quality fiction writers and performers to the SPC.

Valerie Fioravanti says:

“I write fiction, essays, and prose poems. Stories from my linked collection, Garbage Night at the Opera, have appeared in North American Review, Cimarron Review, Hunger Mountain, Night Train and others. These stories have received four pushcart prize nominations and Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXVIII. I received a Fulbright Fellowship in Creative Writing to work on a novel set in Italy, Bel Casino, which is one of two novels currently in the works. My essays and prose poems have been published in Eclectica, Silk Road, Puerto del Sol, International Living, and others. I live in Boulevard Park in midtown Sacramento, where I run the Stories on Stage reading series and Midtown Writing Workshops.”

Visit Stories on Stage for more details on the series.

Tolu Ogunlessi on the 21st Century Nigerian Literary Scene

Tolu Ogunlessi discusses the Nigerian literary scene since 2000 in this rich article entitled “Things Fall Together: Nigeria’s literary scene in the 21st century”, which is so good I think Tolu should consider making literary profiles for other African regions. I have the feeling that in all African regions, there has been an increase in literary production, but what would be interesting is to find out what the reading trends on the continent have been. Below is an excerpt of Tolu’s article.

Interestingly, another arena that has seen significant change, and provides evidence of an impressive cultural renaissance in Nigeria, is the one in which Adichie herself occupies a vantage spot: the literary arts. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the Silverbird Lifestyle Store in Victoria Island, was cramped with guests attending the 4th edition of the monthly BookJam reading series; featuring Adichie, Kenyan’s Binyavanga Wainaina, and UK-based Nigerians Chuma Nwokolo and Sade Adeniran.

Lagos is suddenly a hot new destination for writers from all over the world – courtesy of the exploits and efforts of writers like Adichie. Her four-year-old annual Creative Writing workshop, sponsored by Nigeria’s oldest and biggest beer company (which before now appeared to be more at home with sponsoring music festivals and talent hunts) has brought Jason Cowley, Nathan Englander, Binyavanga Wainaina, Jackie Kay, Doreen Baingana and Dave Eggers to Lagos, to facilitate writing sessions. This year Ama Ata Aidoo, Niq Mhlongo and Chika Unigwe are the guest writers.

To read the rest of this brilliant article, go to 3 Quarks Daily, which I now follow with a passion. What a rich website.


Title: Sunflowers in Your Eyes – Four Zimbabwean Poets

Editor: Menna Elfyn

Publisher: Cinnamon Press

ISBN: 978-1-907090-13-4

Year: 2010

Reviewed by Tinashe Mushakavanhu 

Zimbabwean poetry has been largely a choir of male voices. The absence of women is too visible in KZ Muchemwa’s Zimbabwean Poetry in English (1978), Musaemura Zimunya and Mudereri Kadhani’s And Now the Poets Speak (1982), Flora Veit-Wild’s Patterns of Poetry in Zimbabwean Poetry (1988) and more recently Jane Morris’ Intwasa Poetry (2008). The agenda of this book is to give women their voices as the editor Menna Elfyn outlines in her preface, ‘this book goes some way in redressing this imbalance.’ 

I read the book with so much relish. It is an empowering book in many ways. In poetry as well as in the other artistic fields, the Zimbabwean woman is often restricted to a subordinate role as a muse, confidant and comforter. This book brings a refreshing insight as the four poets – Ethel Kabwato, Fungai Machirori, Joice Shereni and Blessing Musariri reach out to many dreams.

 While, it is easy to get lost in the maze of implications concerning gender, these poets write without shouting WOMEN even though sometimes it is a legitimate claim for dignity and equal opportunities. The book is rich in the variety of expression drawing on different styles. The themes are very much wide-ranging and incisive. 

 What is remarkably interesting about the poetry is the autobiographical element, which is often central to women’s poetry as it allows them to express the sufferings, the pain and the deferred dreams of their personas.  However, in Sunflowers in Your Eyes, the poetry is celebrating a life that despite its hardships and injustice is often happy. It is an expression of injustice but also a celebratory expression of life.

 Ethel Kabwato is the most political in the book as she tackles the difficult subjects that have come to define what has been dubbed the Zimbabwe crisis, subjects of land, violence, patriotism through an intelligent employ of irony and wit. Despite being the youngest, Fungai Machirori’s poetry is of yearning, of self-exploration, of seeking answers to questions relating to her identity as a born free, ‘a composition ‘of many things. Joice Shereni writes more about personal relationships and relationships with the larger society. Blessing Musariri’s ‘assured poems’ are of resilience, of journeying away because as she asks in Holding on, ‘Everybody has moved on/What (are) you doing standing still?’ Hers is a more daring poetry that challenges us to alter our perceptions and our minds.

The four young women have proven beyond doubt that Zimbabwean women can write poetry.  Sunflowers in Your Eyes will considerably increase the depth and breadth of our knowledge of ourselves and a constant reminder of the redefining of those selves.  It is a very personal and yet political collection.


BREAKING NEWS from Lion Press

Lion Press ( London ) and artsinitiates-zimbabwe are calling for entries in a short story competition running from May 1 till June 30 2009.

The stories selected will be published in an anthology expected to be out by December 2009.

Ten entries will win prizes. Monetary prizes will be given to the best five stories while material prizes will also be given to the other five winners.

First prize winner will get US$200, second prize is US$100, third prize US$70, fourth prize is US$50 and fifth prize is US$25.

Mobile phones will be given to the other five winners in the ten-winner group.

The stories can be on any topic, must be not less than a 1000 words long and be in English.

Lion Press Ltd is a publishing company founded by Zimbabwean writers in the Diaspora, to cater for the publication needs of Zimbabwean and Southern African writers.

It also offers services ranging from assisting with story-line development, editing, proofreading, illustrations, typesetting and cover design.

The company also translates books or documents from Shona/ Ndebele to English, and vice-versa. In addition, the company sells books in Shona and Ndebele in selected bookshops in Southern Africa and the UK .

To date, Lion Press has published the award-winning writer Christopher Mlalazi, music researcher Joyce Jenje-Makwenda, Sarudzayi Chifamba-Barnes and is working on works by renowned authors such as Alexander Kanengoni and Ignatius Mabasa.

The Lion Press Ltd is run and managed by a team of seasoned Zimbabwean authors and illustrators.

It owns an online store for selling a range of Shona and Ndebele books published by other companies.

Artsinitiates-zimbabwe is the country’s premier arts and culture online media that runs news items, poems as well as short stories.

It was founded in 2008 as part of the Imagine Afrika initiative that seeks to expand and promote the arts and culture sector by engaging people involved in the industry.

Interested writers can send their stories to wonderguchu@yahoo.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck: A Brief Review

The new book by Chimamanda Ngozie Achidie, The Thing Around Your Neck,  is rich with references to history, culture and literature.  In this short review, I focus on two stories whose events recall Chinua Achebe and Tsitsi Dangarembga. In  “Tomorrow is Too Far”, Adichie creates a protagonist that reminds of Tambu in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. There is the theme of sibling rivalry caused by forces beyond the children’s control. The girl resents her brother, Nsono whom everyone treats better; the mother is happier putting him to bed than she does when she is in the daughter’s room. And the girl notices that the mother’s care for her children is really geared towards comforts for the boy than for the girl.

 Back in Nigeria, where the children spend their vacations, the grandmother treats Nsono like a prince, cooking food that only he should enjoy, telling the girl that she should see this as an example of how to take care of a man.  The girl always feels ignored and this is not good for the boy.

As in Nervous Conditions, the brother dies, a death the sister accidentally causes but blames on the grandmother. Like Tambu, she at first is not sorry that her brother dies because the family’s attention shifts to her, although the mother is never the same again, and the girl will not see the grandmother again until she goes to back to Nigeria, eighteen years later, to pay her last respects.  This story is Adichie’s stinging critique of the patriarchal society and its effects on both Nigerian and American values.  Adichie looks at the negative and positive aspects of these values, honestly depicting the circumstances her characters find themselves in. 

In “The Headstrong Historian”, Adichie plays pastiche by taking characters straight out of Achebe and providing a new historical perspective. For a moment we are reminded of Umuofia when see the names Okonkwo and Obierika, and the time is the same as in Things Fall Apart–the coming of the white man, the conversion of the villagers to Christianity, the pacification of the tribes of the Niger Delta, Europe’s mission to civilize and to bring light to Africa; but this time we have a very practical woman, Nwamgba, playing a leading role in utilizing what’s useful from the white men, sending her son to school to learn English, because she has seen how much power the language has, but her dream is the demise of her values, as the son changes beyond what she has hoped.

Two cultures in contact and contest, two cultures not trusting each other, and this time both sides are presented as viewing the other as savage. There is nothing new in Adichie’s portrayal of Nigerian history, except that she gives a stronger voice to to her female characters; we see things from their point of view. And then we have a headstrong historian, rewriting the history of her people which has been blighted by European misrepresentation.

“The Headstrong Historian” could as well be a chapter in the Appendix of Things Fall Apart. Some of the questions Achebe raises at the end his novel are answered in this story. The connection is deliberate (Adichie has been labelled the literary daughter of Achebe) and she is showing showing what daughters can do, extend the legacy of their fathers. The daughter in the story, not to be confused with the author, of course, takes it upon herself to reconstruct her people’s history. Having been educated in the mission school system, she knows the whiteman’s religion, but chooses to rebel against it as she sees the contradictions it carries. So she reconnects, against her father’s wishes (he is a catechist), with he grandmother who had always known that she will play a special role in the spiritual future of the family. This is where Adichie takes the popular Umuofia story to new heights.

Remember Okonkwo always wished he had son who would take care of the family’s legacy, and when he saw that his youngest daughter had the wisdom he wanted to see in a man, he was proud but not satisfied; as a girls she could not play that role. But in Adichie’s story, which deals with an Onicha that needs its culture preserved and its story told correctly, the girl Afamefuna is the “headstrong historian” searching in every village for clues of his people’s past, traveling to museums in history to follow traces of that history, which were plandered as part of the civilizing mission. Where a British admnistrator a chapter entitled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of Southern Nigeria”, Ifamefuna will write a book entitled Pacifying with Bullets: A Reclaimed History of Southern Nigeria.  And she will do this alone, even if it means later getting divorced from her husband in 1972.

The rest of the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck deal with contemporary issues of immigrant life, taking us from Nigeria to America and back, showing successfully that the dreams that drive us are sometimes our downfall, yet the desire for life, for happiness, will forever drive us.  Her thematic range extends from corruption in Nigeria (the stereotypes), to corruption in America (the usual stereotypes), but it is her balanced approach to life in these two places that leaves the reader satisfied. The basic message seems to be that wherever we are, wherever we go, we are the same problem-ridden people, manipulative, but vulnerable, ambitious but ambivalent.

As I read these stories, most of which are older than Adichie’s two novels we have all fallen in love with, I enjoyed the grace with which the stories are told; then there is the sensitivity or compassion, the honest and humble storytelling voice, showing that in Adichie we have a writer who will keep us asking for more.

Ivor W. Hartmann: Rising Star of African Speculative Science Fiction

On the 14th March 2009, “Earth Rise” by Ivor W. Hartmann was nominated for the international Ursa Major Award in the Best Short Fiction category.

Ivor W. Hartmann is a Zimbabwean author, writing from economic exile in Johannesburg, South Africa. “Earth Rise” and its UMA nomination, represent a major step for African Literature. Firmly set in the genre of Speculative Science Fiction,it shines a welcoming light for African writers to expand from traditional genres, which seem to restrain African Literature.

In Ivor Hartmann’s words, “African genre fiction, which was a sleeping lion, is now changing. Already if you listen carefully, you can hear the start of our African Roar.”

As described by Jim Steel of The Fix (TTA Press, the publisher of Interzone, Black Static, Crimewave,):

“Ivor W. Hartmann’s “Earth Rise” starts with a man waking in his coffin. Obviously we must then travel back and explore his life. Everyone will end up here, but what, exactly, was Thomas Church’s path? He was a scientist in an unnamed African country, trying to develop nanotech wonders for a military dictator. So far he has failed, but there is a ready supply of test victims who keep being marched in to die from the results. His conscience plagues him, but he has to protect his loved ones. Agents, however, have targeted him and want to steal what he has developed. And what has he developed? The story spirals out, and the beginning is not the end, and to say more would be a sin against the author.”

The Ursa Major Awards, more formally known as the Annual Anthropomorphic Literature and Arts Award, is presented annually for excellence in the anthropomorphic arts. It is intended as Anthropomorphic Fandom’s equivalent of the Hugo Award ® presented by the World Science Fiction Society, mystery fandom’s Anthony Award, horror fandom’s Bram Stoker Award, and so forth. The UMA is a global public award and anyone may nominate and vote for candidates for the Awards. These Awards are decided by the fans, not by a committee.

Voting for the UMA finalists is still underway, you too can cast your vote for Earth Rise here.

Congratulations to Ivor for this great nomination. He right in saying that African writing needs to diversify into other genres. I have always felt that we can easily have a Stephen King, a John Grisham, or a J.K. Rowling in Africa.

A Moment in Gappah’s “The Annexe Shuffle”

Of the stories written by Petina Gappah that I have read, there are some whose narrator luxuriates in the musicality of language, introducing an ease in narration only exemplified in few instances in Zimbabwean literature. The few instances can be found in Charles Mungoshi, Memory Chirere, Yvonne Vera, and of course, now, Petina Gappah, who promises to take it to a new level. Here is a taste of the language play I am talking about, exemplified in “The Annexe Shuffle”, the Per Contra version:

They bring her to Dr. Chikara, Emily; the Dean of Students on one side, the Warden of Swinton Hostel on the other. Dr. Chikara is not who she expected. His office is an empty space with nothing on the walls. There are no books by Freud and Jung. There is no couch in sight. He does not talk about the id or the ego. Instead, from behind his government-issue desk, he directs her to a government-issue chair.

He smokes Kingsgate cigarettes, one after the other.

He writes down everything she says.

‘Canst thou minister to a mind diseased?’ she asks him. ‘Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow?’

He writes this down.

‘May I have a cigarette,’ she says, without a question mark.

‘Do you smoke?’ he asks, with a question mark.

‘I do now,’ she says as she lights one of his cigarettes. She coughs out smoke through teary eyes.

He writes that down too.

‘I am sending you to the Annexe,’ he says, ‘the mental wing at Parirenyatwa Hospital.’

The word mental and the word hospital combine to produce a loud clanging in her mind. ‘I am not mad,’ she says.

‘No, of course you are not mad’, he says. ‘Madness has nothing to do with it. You only need rest, all you need is rest.’ Read more in Per Contra.

There is something pleasurable about the style, and it makes me want to read more. Although I am yet to read the short story collection, I can safely say, based on the few anthologized stories of Gappah I have read, a new narrator is born in Zimbabwean literature.

Or did I state that  I have seen traces of this narrator in Toni Morrison, in Paradise, for instance? I have, but as you know, each individual is distinct. This narrator promises to make us laugh, cry, curse, but managing still to make us love her/him.

Conversation with Petina Gappah

Petina Gappah is a rising star, and in this insighful interview, she talks about her writing career, her soon-to-be-released short story collection, Elegy for Easterly, and her views on Zimbabwean literature.

1. Congratulations on the publication of An Elegy for Easterly. What does this big step mean to you?

Thank you very much. It is a huge step. It means the fulfilment of a life’s dream. To be published by Faber, to be in the company of T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Siegfried Sassoon, William Golding, Orhan Pamuk, Owen Sheers , P.D. James, Kazuo Ishiguro and other writers I love is almost too good to be real.

2. How has your personal background contributed to your writing of Elegy for Easterly; for instance, are there traces of yourself in any of the characters in the stories?

I think of my writing as a compulsive form of theft. Every story I have written is based on at least one true thing. This could be something that happened to me, to someone in my family, to a friend, to someone in a friend’s family, or something I read. My Aunt Juliana’s Indian was inspired by my childhood memory of Muzorewa’s UANC campaigning in the townships of Salisbury in 1979 and 1980. My Cousin-sister Rambanai tells a story that is familiar to most Zimbabweans, the shedding of an old identity to assume a new one in the diaspora. The Maid from Lalapanzi was inspired by the memory of some of the domestic workers who assisted my mother when I was growing up. The Mupandawana Dancing Champion was inspired by a news report in The Herald. And so on. Stories sometimes come to me when I least expect them: I was walking at Victoria Station in London a year ago, and playing a private game that I call “Spot the Zimbabwean” – I have the finely-honed ability to spot a Zimbabwean in any crowd – and I saw two people who looked Zimbabwean. To prove this to myself, I moved closer to them, and heard one of them say: Ufunge, kubva musi waauya haana kana kumbotengawo kana nyama. I thought, Bingo, then I thought, Now there is a story there.

3. How long have you been writing fiction?

Almost every writer says, I have been writing since I was 3, or I began to write before I drew my first breath, or something like that. I was not such a prodigy, alas. I have been writing for as long as I have been aware of the power of stories to create a firmer reality than the present. Not that I would have put it in those terms then, I was just a kid who liked stories and thought I’d try to write a few of my own. I wrote my first “novel”, if you can call it that, when I was about 10. It was set on Mars and called Return to Planet Earth! I was also ballet-obsessed at the time, and my second (and self-illustrated!) novel plagiarised quite shamelessly the Drina books by Jean Estoril. To amuse my brother and sister, I also wrote nonsense poetry in imitation of Ogden Nash and Hillaire Beloc, whose poetry we loved. These literary gems were taken for rubbish by the man who helped in our garden, and he burned them with other trash.

My first published story, “Marooned on a Desert Island”, was published when I was in Form Two, in the St. Dominic’s school magazine, Santa Dee Blues. My first earnings from writing came when I was in Form 4, when I won an award of 100 dollars in the Randalls Essay Writing Competition. I then started writing really bad poetry like this: “The beggar in the street sang out to me/I hurried on, averting the sight/To look on such suffering must be/Avoided at all cost/And still his raucous voice haunted me/ His raucous voice still taunted me.”

It was grim. Happily, I very quickly got over that stage.
Then I went to university where I became consumed by my law studies, by being a Marxist-Leninist, and by falling in and out of love. I kept a journal through my university days, but wrote no fiction. I left Zimbabwe in 1995 for postgraduate studies, then I started working as a lawyer in Geneva in 1999. Although I sometimes contributed the occasional opinion piece to newspapers, I wrote very little but talked all the time about how I wanted to be a writer. Like an unfortunately large number of writers I have come to know, I wanted to be a writer without actually doing any writing! I really only started writing, and, this is a crucial distinction, finishing things, in 2006. My first short story, Something Nice from London was published that year. My second story, At the Sound of the Last Post did extremely well in the SA PEN contest, and the rest followed from there.

4. It’s been said that your book deal with Faber and FSG is a big step in Zimbabwean literature. Do you agree?

The book deal is one thing, whether the books are any good is the question that will determine whether this is a big step for Zimbabwean literature. And that, of course, is not for me to judge. But there is this: I have found that in publishing, it helps to have a precedent. So the fact that both Brian Chikwava and I are being published by top publishers may, depending on our success, make other publishers take a closer look at other Zimbabwean writers who are coming up.

5. I have often told people that you are a hardworking writer, have noticed that you are involved in many writing projects. You have participated in international writing contests, have won second place in the PEN/Africa Prize judged by J.M. Coetzee. But you have also been a columnist for media outlets like Zimbabwe Times, where your stinging criticism of poor governance in Zimbabwean politics has intrigued readers. You are also a satirist of the highest order, and you maintain a frequently updated, professional blog. On top of all this, you are a busy lawyer. How do you manage to do all this, and in what ways have you been able to balance fiction and non-fiction works in your writing career?

Thanks for those kind words. I believe it was Susan Sonntag who advised writers to engage with the world. Hemingway shot things, climbed mountains and wrote. Scott Turow writes thrillers, and runs a legal practice devoted to death penalty cases. P.D. James worked for the NHS, raised her children as a single mother, and gave us the wonderful Dalgliesh novels.

Lady James in particular is an inspiration, because she shows it is possible to have two lives: she had solid professional achievements before she turned to writing. I was a lawyer before I became a writer, I published academic papers on international trade law before I published fiction. I see no conflict at all between my professional life and my writing of fiction. If anything, the one feeds the other, and I am grateful to have both. I love my job and being a lawyer, and I love writing….

The full interview will appear in the March/April Issue of Munyori Literary Journal, which is also going to feature works by Valerie Tagwira, Naomi Benaron, Dike Okoro and others.

The Faber & Faber edition of Elegy for Easterly will be released in April, and you can read the first lines of all the stories on Petina’s author website.