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Writing away from home



Many great novels of the past hundred years have been written by writers who were working or were domiciled away from their motherland.

It is assumed that distance from home offers the writer a certain amount of objective perspective.

In the Castle of My Skin is the first and much acclaimed novel by Barbadian writer George Lamming, which was originally published in 1953 and was written within the author’s first two years in London.

It has been hailed as the most searching description of Barbados.

VS Naipaiul’s Miguel Street published in 1959, is set during World War II on Miguel Street located in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago.

Naipaul was in London in 1955 when he conceived and wrote these linked short stories.

One can see that for Lamming and Naipaul, the writing comes out of looking back at a life and people that one has left behind in the homeland.

The current migration of young Africans from Africa to the West for economic reasons has given birth to a rich literary tradition that tries to open up the challenges and even the opportunities brought in by this mass movement.

I cannot help but see that in Diaspora literature there is an antagonistic relationship between the destination and the home left behind by the one who travels.

This is more closely related to the old but constantly resurfacing ‘centre – periphery’ theory.

Generally the western city is the centre and the home of those in the Diaspora is the periphery.

Leila Aboulela, Brian Chikwava, Andrew Chatora, Noviolet Bulawayo and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi are some of the African writers who write away from home (Africa) with different results.

The UK-based Zimbabwean writer, Brian Chikwava, won the Caine Prize for African writing, Africa’s highest literary award for his short story “Seventh Street Alchemy”. In February 2010 his debut novel, Harare North, won the Outstanding First Creative Published Work category in Zimbabwe’s National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA).

In March 2010 Harare North alongside Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly was among the books selected for the Orwell Prize longlist.

Written, far away from the writer’s homeland, just like, In The Castle of My Skin and Miguel Street, Harare North is the story of an anonymous young man who has travelled to Britain, partly in search of opportunity, partly to escape persecution at home.

He has heard in his native Zimbabwe that in ‘Harare North’ – the nickname for London – work is abundant and well-paid.

When he lands in Harare North, the unnamed protagonist carries nothing but a cardboard suitcase full of memories and a longing to be reunited with his childhood friend, Shingi.

He finds himself in Shingi’s Brixton squat where the inhabitants are struggling in various ways to make ends meet.

This is the story of a stranger in a new and unfamiliar land – one of the thousands of illegal immigrants seeking a better life in England – with a past he is determined to hide.

In fact, he’s planning to head back to Zimbabwe as soon as possible, if he has made the required pounds to bribe those who are pursuing him back home.

The group of people who make the narrator’s world live miserably. Shingi struggles and sometimes scavenges for food.

Sometimes he works as a toilet cleaner. The narrator digs trenches and cleans tables and floors in a food outlet.

Life in “Harare North” is not all roses as the migrants expected.

The novel has been celebrated for using an English language that tries to imitate the local languages of Zimbabwe.

The English language in this novel is consistently and evenly broken artistically and that is one of the things to remember about this novel.

At some point the nameless narrator describes the tenacity of the Zimbabwean president this way: “Comrade Mugabe is powerful wind; he can blow snake out of tall grass like it is piece of paper…Then when he drops it, people’s trousers rip as they scatter to they holes.” (pg.8-9).

And on restating his plans in the UK, the narrator says: “I just want to get myself good graft very quick, work like animal and save heap of money and then bang, me I am on my way back home.

Enough pound sterling to equal US$5 000 is all I have to make, then me I’m free man again.” (pg. 6).

There is also this hilarious passage: “Even while inside toilet I hear she talking to Paul about how, like many Zimbabweans who don’t know what else to do in the UK, I am only going to end up becoming one of them BBCs – British Buttock Cleaners – looking after old people that poo they pants every hour.”(pg.41).

Brian Chikwava was born in Bulawayo in 1972. Chikwava left for England in 2002 where he studied civil engineering at Bristol University whilst horning his writing skills by trying his hand on poetry and short stories.

Harare North (2009) is Brian Chikwava’s first novel. Chikwava won the Caine Prize for African writing in 2004 for his short story “Seventh Street Alchemy”.

Chikwava also has other short stories that have appeared in various short story anthologies such as “The Jazz Goblin and His Rhythm”, “Fiction” and “Zesa Moto Muzhinji”.

Below is the interview that I did with Brian Chikwava. I wanted to take him to the basics and find out how he is able to write far away from home.

I wanted him to locate himself in the space of his birth and the space that he writes from.

Memory Chirere: At the Oxford Harare North launch in May 2009, I asked you from the audience, “What do you anticipate to be the kind of response to your book back in Harare?” You said,

“Laughter.” Now, Harare has responded and you have won a NAMA award. Congratulations. I was in the audience during NAMA and there was a huge applause as somebody received the prize on your behalf. I didn’t know you had so many fans and readers in Harare. Any special messages?

Brian Chikwava: Was very pleasantly surprised and must thank the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe for the good work they are doing. Such surprises make writing a bit more bearable.

MC: To the reading public, you first appeared with the short story ‘Seventh Street alchemy’, in Writing Still, 2003. There is no trail of you before that. How were you made?

BC: I started off trying my hand not at fiction but visual art reviews. That was after I joined the short-lived Zimbabwe Art Critics Association. After learning how to write a review, I thought I may as well try the short story and poetry. I had to ditch poetry quickly because I feel shockingly well off what was acceptable.

MC: It is also reported that you were ‘once a member of the now defunct Zimbabwe Association of Art Critics’. What was all that about?

BC: The Zimbabwe Art Critics Association had the noble hope of getting more art enthusiasts to engage with art. Those who felt moved to try their hand at art reviews were given a guiding hand and sometimes with the help of Barbara Murray, then editor of Gallery Delta Magazine, ended up with their work in the Herald or the Daily News.

MC: It is said that you collaborated with some of Harare’s upcoming jazz musicians then. Who are these musicians and what instrument do you play?

BC: Oh yes, we did mess about trying overly ambitious experiments that we had to abandon in exhaustion. A number of the experimentally inclined people who are now scattered across the globe leapt in; the likes of ex-Luck Street Blues Pascal Makonese; Noble Mashawa, briefly of Andy Brown’s Storm; the long-suffering Luka Mukavele who kindly gave us use of his recording studio, and his Mozambican compatriot, drummer Suleiman Saide.

MC: You recorded and released ‘Jacaranda Sketches.’ What is this about?

BC: I sometimes think it was only a platform for trying out new things in the then new London environment. But for a number of reasons, I’m increasingly terrified of even listening to it now since it demonstrates to me how capricious good judgment can be – one year you think you have, and the next you are shocked by the choices you made.

MC: You are a Science major, writer and musician. Is this a mixed quest? Are you ambidextrous?

BC: Unfortunately not. But I am right handed but left footed.

MC: So far I have seen all your stories in group anthologies: ‘Seventh Street Alchemy,’ ‘Zesa Moto Muzhinji,’ ‘Fiction,’ ‘Dancing To The Jazz and His Goblin Rhythm’ (my favourite) and others.

What is your relationship with the short story form and should we expect an anthology?

BC: I’ve been thinking about an anthology but somehow feel terrified of making a start. That’s because I find stories a bit of a tight rope walk. Hopefully I will rediscover the courage.

MC: Harare North, your debut novel has been applauded for ‘experimenting with language’. Ikhide Ikheloa says you use ‘pretend-language,’ back in Harare, Irene Staunton says you use ‘patios’.

My students wonder what you wanted to achieve because “Zimbabweans are well known for their ability to speak English.” In what circumstances did you decide to abandon the standard English language you used in the short stories?

BC: I tried standard English and it just didn’t work. The manuscript read stilted and the character had inhabit. That’s when I thought of – is it Achebe, I can’t remember? – who talks about bending the English language in order to make it carry the weight of the African experience.

The language that I use in Harare North is not a true language in the sense that it is not spoken on the streets of Zimbabwe, but I believe it expresses the Zimbabwean sensibility better than standard English.

MC: Harare North has been referred to as being ‘fearlessly political’ and for being laugh-out-loud funny’. What did it take to maintain the various balances that one finds in this novel?

BC: I think you can properly inhabit a character, a lot of things fall into place and you cast aside the eye that constantly makes judgments and concentrate on only making it a decent piece of art.

MC: This might be too personal, but at how many points, if any, does your path and that of your main character come together?

BC: No, not at all. The story genuinely crystallised after I met an ex-Lord’s Resistance Army guy on the street. We had a chat and he told me how he missed his past life, how he missed holding his AK47. At first I thought it was all a joke but quickly realised he was serious.

More than anything I was struck by his stance, knowing how un-pc it is to confess to loving the LRA. So I thought, well, why not create a Green Bomber who comes to London and is just as unyielding in his beliefs.

MC: In Harare North the characters go through stubborn pride and ironically, shame and self-loathing too. Is this the psychology of exile?

BC: In the right dose, stubborn pride is good if one is an exile, I think. But what I also did not want to do is to fall into representing Africans in exile as objects of pity, which they commonly are in the media. As for self-loathing, I guess that can be the price one pays for a rigid approach to life.

MC: Again the students wondered whether you are saying home is better than exile in spite of the socio-political and economic challenges in Zimbabwe? In Harare North, the diasporans are clearly marooned.

BC: Yes, that message is missing because I could not do that without being didactic. But I also think that the question of home vs exile is complex and requires a nuanced approach.

MC: What have you learnt from doing and reading Harare North yourself?

BC: I’ve probably been demoralised to realize how much I’ll have to do before I can write a book that is anywhere near perfect.

Memory Chirere

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