Revelations and Reversals: Writing Inside the Continent

Revelations and Reversals: Writing Inside the Continent

Revelations and Reversals: Writing Inside the Continent

Each time I publish a novel I learn something new about a paragraph, about interpretations concerning the text I have just finished, about the nation for which I have composed it. Writing is about revelations and reversals.

When it comes to the spectrum of experiences so much seems to happen in so little time. Nothing is ever stable in writing, and often, I reverse my earliest convictions about narrative, and about publication. Only a few truths remain my own, especially the passion for writing, and for that, each writer has to define and secure. Such truths belong to those inexplicable moments sheltered by our intrinsic feeling and the treasures we dare believe necessary to share.

I am not sure which is more important, practical wisdom in publishing or just writing. At this moment, I know far less about publishing, and much more about my own motivation for composi­tion. There are a lot of young writers in Zimbabwe interested in solutions to publishing and less so in solutions to writing - I think these are sometimes related but separate values. Sometimes there is too little reading. A love of writing must be matched, if not exceeded, by a love of reading. To write must also be to imagine a book being read. The two acts are a unity.

At times, the relationship between an author and a publisher can be special and crucial to the development of both. I first published in Canada in 1992. It took two years before that book was read in Zimbabwe. The book was about Zimbabweans.

Then, I was still trying to find my identity as a writer, to decide perhaps, if I wanted to write at all. My link to the Zimbabwean community felt necessary to that growth, and I was restless. I needed certain contours, a prism. I needed a landscape. I needed some totally familiar horizon, then I would be whole. I moved to Zimbabwe in 1995, to Bulawayo. This is where I was bom and raised.

I knew, by 1993, that my book on Nehanda, a revered figure in the national consciousness of Zimbabweans, had to be published first in Zimbabwe. Nehanda dominates much of the religious and political activity in this nation. It would be my first novel. The publication of Nehanda coincided with the celebration of 100 years since the first Chimurenga, Zimbabwe's armed resistance which Nehanda, as spirit medium, had launched. This woman, the main force behind that first resistance to occupation, represented for me our pre-colonial link with land, death, time, and all our philosophies of identity. When the book was accepted and published by Baobab Books that marked for me the beginning of my career, properly, as a writer. That first publication had been important, but I felt at sea somehow, and lacked a certain immediacy to subject matter, to theme. I needed to be a witness, a participant.

With Baobab was Irene Staunton. We rose into each other's worlds with an immediate sisterly affection in her office in 1993. I was charmed by her entire being, her acute intelligence. She had such a belief in Nehanda, and treasured and protected it. Even today, as publisher and editor, when she offers a suggestion I feel immediately that she is protecting my book from harm, that it is her book. I have often been asked, 'Are you writing a book for Irene?' I am not often asked, 'Are you writing?' Perhaps this is because after that, I would indeed say 'I am writing a book for Staunton. I hope she likes it.' Before I wrote Without a Name, I told her the story first. Her response enabled me to write it. She was enthusiastic and seemed to identify the core of the narrative and make it hers, even while it was only a seed in my own mind, a little more than an intuition. She has always been fair, honest and very close to my text. I treasure this. She has understood and respected my style and method. We are friends. I know the relationship we have is rare, and I have stayed with Baobab since. A publisher can shape your sense of stability and family, which to me was important. Some writers do not need any kind of anchor. I am the sort who needs to phone the publisher and say, 'What do you think of this idea for a novel?' Even when I am already convinced. If I have had a reader as I write, it has often been my publisher.

Publishing in Zimbabwe was important for another reason, to control the availability and cost of books to local readers. The books which are imported into Zimbabwe usually cost a lot more than those produced locally. I wanted to contribute to a situation in which Zimbabwean readers have easy and immediate access to their own authors, to their own cultural product, rather than wait for import or the negotiation of contracts with publishers abroad. This is a delayed process.

In the rituals of launching books and celebration in Zimbabwe, local authors meet, communicate and share ideas. Nehanda was launched by Zimbabwean author Chenjerai Hove, and he spoke in words which evoked an ancestral heritage, and this suited my own mood, and he set the book free, as he said it, like the ancestral bird Shirichena, which is our beginning, into the sky. This was a spiritual setting off, which many local people in the Harare Gardens, under­stood on that occasion. This was an appropriate reception for Nehanda.

We have a community of authors to whom the publication, circulation, and celebration of any single book is a shared activity. Zimbabwe is like that. We discuss covers and reviews, we discuss prizes. We laugh, we create.

This is not to say international publication is unimportant to us. In fact, it is crucial to the cultural exchanges which widen our readership, to the spread of our literature and cultural product. The successful translation of a book furthers understanding of our cultures and histories, and demonstrates the influences on the conventions of the novel which, rising from our own backgrounds and traditions, we have been able to generate. As African writers we feel initiated into an international culture of art and reading; the activity becomes less personal and solitary, and moves beyond nation. Often we discover that the challenges to writing, to the creative act itself, are identical. The passion for insight and discovery, and the desire for an appropri­ate form and language to capture every possible inspiration. The struggle for writing is the struggle for expression.

In publishing at home, one felt part of the swing of things, and as our own literature is young and growing, the contribution seemed more direct, more committed and engaged. You watched the interest grow, and in my case, the necessity for a literature that grows out of women's experiences, a literature that suggests transformation and a challenge to taboo, that invents a language to banish women's silences. Nervous Conditions was the first novel in English by a Zimbabwean woman writer; Nehanda was the second. Nervous Conditions was published abroad before appearing in Zimbabwe; this had not been the author's first impulse.

Zimbabwean women are working hard to establish a national literature in which their experiences are accommodated. I can only hope that what I have done, so far, gives Zimbabwean women hope and confidence that they can pursue a career in writing, and that it is necessary for them to describe the worlds in which women often discover themselves - sometimes shattering, sometimes ennobling.

The publication of Butterfly Burning (1998), for example, was a high moment in my own motivation to return home. I found a final fulfilment and realisation of that impulse I had carried through in 1995. I wanted to write on Bulawayo, a city where I was bom and where I currently live. While growing up, I wished to read a novel set in Bulawayo, among the streets in which I grew up, in the township, and the people there. I wanted to capture their fears, their style, their survival. I wanted to celebrate the love of music and the harmony of it all. It was a unique moment for me to be in Bulawayo, living on one of these same streets, and writing Butterfly Burning. I was happy to publish this novel first in Zimbabwe. Each novelist should encounter a familiar street in the folds of a book. It is a wonderful feeling.

There are many reasons why some of what I describe might change; Baobab is currently for sale and might change hands. The cost of books, even when published locally, has escalated due to the devalua­tion of our dollar. The Zimbabwean public cannot afford books as well as other immediate needs. The education system is transforming rapidly, there is so much more to think of. And for me, as a writer, only one truth - to travel into that unbounded space, the imagination.