Abigail George Interviews Emmanuel Sigauke
Abigail George (AG): Do you believe in the power of writing by hand?
Emmanuel Sigauke (ES): That’s a power I used to rely on, but now I feel there is power in typing as well. For the last ten years, I have resorted to word processing in creating new works. I use blogs to draft some of my works, especially poetry; then I transfer the drafts to a regular word processing program when I am ready to develop them. Lately, when I have tried to write by hand, I end up losing or misplacing the papers, or when I spend too much transcribing them. It is thus easier to work directly on the computer.
AG: What kills the mastery of creativity and the flight and tenderness of the adrenaline of imagination? Particularly when the writer is in the “zone”.
ES: I don’t think I will do justice to this brilliant question, but I can blame distractions, all kinds of distractions, such as surfing the internet or watching live streams on facebook, or Youtube. These social media influences are sometimes so talented they can easily rob a writer’s time.
AG: Write or “steal” an excerpt from your diary as a writer and here talk about how you edit your work, where you write, what you treasure, what sport you participate in. For Haruki Murakami it is running. What is your morning, afternoon, and evening routine like?
ES: “Initial passage of a big novel.” That’s a sentence I wrote on at the beginning of flash fiction piece on 17 December 1992 in Harare (Of course, I didn’t know about flash or metafiction then). I went on to type (using an old manual typewriter) a single-spaced page featuring a woman named Dzvuke trying to fit in Mazvihwa, a rural district in Zimbabwe. All along she had spent much time in the cities, as a sex worker, and has returned to her village to find a husband and settle down. Reading the page now, I am shocked by the didacticism of its narrator, representing the moral norms of rural Zimbabwe at the time. But I don’t throw away any piece of paper easily, which is why this page migrated with me to the USA and has stayed with me, unfaded, for nearly thirty years. I am retyping and expanding it now, not into the big novel I had envisioned, but a short story of a decent length. Or I can just compress it further as a flash fiction piece.
Editing my own work takes a long time, years sometimes. My longest manuscript is of a novel I have been working on since 1999. It has become so dense and complex that my editing of it now is to try to understand what it is trying to achieve. Certainly not a Finnegan’s Wake, but it has accumulated so much detail that I now am trying to break it down into a manageable form.
I don’t have a dedicated location for my writing, so I use different areas of the house, and I move a lot. I write on my laptop most of the time, which gives me flexibility of location. I like to write listening to the sungura music of Zimbabwe and singers like Simon Chimbetu and Nicholas Zakaria cause me to produce a lot of content. When working on poetry, I also like to listen Kwasakwasa or Congolese rhumba, but the only problem sometimes I leave a poem mid-stanza to dance. When I dance alone, I can recognize how good I am, but that feeling disappears when I am in a crowd of other dancers.
I also used to run or jog, but over years I have slowed down to walking. In fact, shootings of jogging blacks in America have somewhat traumatized me that whenever I go jogging, I become too aware of being seen. Besides that, body joints are beginning to creak and cause discomfort. Walking is better for me now, and I sometimes do it for hours, listening to my favorite books on Audible. I have over 488 titles on Audible, some of which are 42 hours long each (Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables will need a time investment of 52 hours!
There is much reading I need to catch up on, reading from different literary traditions. Although I will answer a question about my favorite books later, I just want to say I am lately being drawn to philosophy, the big names people study in graduate school–, and I find that their being erudite and impenetrable allows to value the power of language, what you can expose or hide in a well-crafted sentence. I am also discovering that a messy sentence is not necessarily a bad sentence, because, what’s a bad sentence? I can only fail to answer this question if I silence the English teacher in me for a moment., and that’s a good thing for creativity.
As for routine? I can’t function with a predictable routine. But sometimes I take up those challenges like 30 poems in 30 days, or a novel in one month. Often, it ends up being 30 poems in three days; then I spend the rest of the month revising the 30 poems, sometimes turning them into 90 or 120 poems.
AG: What television shows do you like watching?
ES: I don’t watch television with any useful level of concentration, so I don’t have specific shows that bring me to television, but I will pick snippets of Netflix series here and there, or shows that I am curious about, such as Bob Hearts Abishola.
AG: Where are you from?
ES: I am from here; I am from wherever I am when asked this question. There are contexts in America when this question has been asked with a hostile tone. So my answers to it have gone through many phases and have made me react in different ways, such as: “How about you first tell me first where you are from?” “I’ m from Atlanta.” “Where am I from? Why?” “ Why do you want to know?” And so on…
Sometimes the person understands what’s going on and rushes to point out the obvious: “Your accent. It sounds Zimbabwean”. And I think WTF? What is to sound Zimbabwean? I thought I lost a lot of that accent! So, suddenly I’m interested, suddenly I want to cooperate: “Yes, I’m Zimbabwean. How could you tell it was a Zimbabwean accent?”
“I went to school there, exchange program, at the University of Zimbabwe.”
Not only am I only cooperating now. I confirm that I really from Zimbabwe, and I went to the University of Zimbabwe too, and I want to ask this enlightened person what year they stayed in Zimbabwe.
But to answer your question quickly: I grew up in Mazvihwa, Zimbabwe, and lived in Harare for ten years before permanently migrating to the United States, where I have lived for 26 years.
AG: Talk to us about who influenced you the most in your life?
ES: My brother—Mukoma—who was 18 years my senior, who as an eighteen-year-old heard that a baby had been born in Mafuva and quickly prepared himself for the role of raising me since our father had died months before I was born. My mother died several months after giving birth to me, so before her relatives decided what was going to be done about me, Mukoma showed up and declared that he would raise me, and surely, he went on to not only raise me, but also to allow me to rise and follow my dreams.
AG: Do you use emotional pain to write?
ES: Yes, a lot of it. I think it is Ama Ata Aidoo who said, “I write because I feel too much.”
AG: How many hours do you write in a day?
I don’t keep track; I’m not that organized, but I plan to be systematic about it now that you have asked.
AG: Talk to me about your latest manuscript. What themes does it deal with?
ES: I am currently putting together several collections of poetry. In the last ten plus years I have written a lot poetry, scattered in different computer files and self-addressed emails. I was going through the boxes in my garage the other day and I noticed loads of poetry pages there too. So now I need to put it all together in 80-or 100-page manuscripts that I can send to places. Some of the poems are terrible, of course, but I want to give them a chance, and using the more mature creative stamina I now have, beat them into shape. For that reason, I am also reading hundreds of poems of different styles, and this is liberating my creativity.
I am also returning to Shona writing, which I interrupted with my pursuit of English. I am enjoying myself, and I think my Shona poetry is stronger than English. I am thus preparing a Shona collection for a publisher in Zimbabwe. My main motivation comes from my friends Memory Chirere, Ignatius Mabasa, and Tinashe Muchuri who have kept Shona literature alive in all the years of my linguistic exile.
I am always writing fiction too. I don’t pursue specific themes usually, but lately, I am exploring the Zimbabwean Diaspora in the USA.
AG: Do you find it easy to write? What genres do you write in and how much work does it take to write a sentence for you?
ES: I am probably a stellar horror and fantasy writer, but my literary training continues to haunt me, discouraging me from exploring multiple genres. Many years ago, in Glen View I had a friend named Organ Madawu, who saw me agonizing in my production of literary prose and set a challenge for himself, to prove to me that writing was easier than I was making it seem, and he went on to write a Shona novel in one week, entered it into the Literature Bureau annual manuscripts contest. Indeed, he won that contest and published the novel. That, of course, did not change my approach to writing. I still agonize, searching for the sentence that shakes the earth.
How easy is it for me to write a sentence? Very easy, and I have written a lot of sentences, but I keep going back to those sentences to reshape and reshape them.
AG: How many books have you written?
ES: Ten novel manuscripts, three collections of short stories, at least five collections of poetry, and the first part of a memoir. (And here I hear myself sounding like some of the students I have worked over the years, introducing themselves as the authors of dozens of novels). But, of course, most these don’t seem like books yet since I they are only manuscripts. I must step up my manuscripts marketing skills.
AG: How do you choose a title for a book?
ES: Titles come from a sentence or phrases that sounds good or linger in my imagination for a while; sometimes, I look for the title in the body of the work after I have written it (I do this with poetry a lot).
AG: Have you won any awards or grants or any other achievements and how important are they to you?
ES: Not a lot. I won the Lion Press Short Story Contest once, with my short story “Call Center”, which was later published in a book co-edited by Zukiswa Wanner. My short story collection was shortlisted on the NAMA award (Zimbabwe). My friend Memory got the prize in our category, and I celebrated with him. Other achievements are the scattered publications of my poetry and short stories in different journals and anthologies. In addition to writing, I have spent years promoting other writers. I have been a judge in writing contests, such as Writivism and others. I have also edited short story collections and have taught in writing workshops.
I find it hard to produce my own creative work when I am working on others’ writing, but I feel this is about to change as I plan to reduce such commitments and “work on me.” But again, I am the editor of Munyori Literary Journal, which keeps me busy, and the newly launched Chisiya, which is dear to my heart.
AG: Where do your creative energies come from?
ES: Memory. Much of the work is autobiographical. I have sharp memories of a Mazvihwa childhood, memories of my life in Harare, and memories and re-memories on American soil. But reading helps me a lot. Right now, the success of the African writer, especially the woman African writer, is inspiring me to treat writing with a great deal of responsibility, because these writers—I don’t know how they work—are showing us how it’s done, how you take a story and tell it, make it find its way into the wider world.
AG: Recommend 20 books to aspirant writers and mention the book and the writer that transformed your life.
ES: I read all kinds of books and my taste changes all the time, but I try to read anything I can lay my hands on. But here is a list of twenty-one titles:
• Mother Tongues by Tsitsi Ella Jaji
• Song of Solomon by Toni Morison
• Bones by Chenjerai Hove
• Down Second Avenue by Es’kia Mphahlele
• We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
• House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
• Rukuvhute by Chirikure Chirikure
• Orbit by Victoria Chang
• The Theory of Flight by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu
• Born in a Second Language by Akosua Zimba Afiriyie-Hwedie
• Bright Dead Things by Ada Limon
• Jimmy’s Blues by James Baldwin
• This Mournable Body Tsitsi Dangarembga
• Nehanda by Yvonne Vera
• One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez
• The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner
• A Mercy by Toni Morison
• A House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera
• Black Insider by Dambudzo Marechera
• Cemetery of Mind Dambudzo Marechera
• Black Sunlight Dambudzo Marechera
This list just represents books I am reading or rereading currently, or ones that I am keeping within sight for inspiration.
The first writer to influence my writing is the Zimbabwean prolific author Aaron Chiundura Moyo, whose novels I read when I was in primary school. It was after reading his books that I decided to become a writer and have never looked back.