Geosi Reads Interviews Bryony Rheam:
GEOSI READS: I begin with what John Eppel said of your book, ‘This September Sun brilliantly evokes the ennui of the pre-Independence settler community who measure out their lives in cups of tea, sundowners, and illicit affairs. In this absorbing debut novel, Bryony Rheam has produced a work worthy of a place in the bibliography of post-colonial writings in Africa.’ What is it about the tea ritual we encounter in your novel?
BRYONY RHEAM: Tea making is actually a positive ritual in the novel. I consider myself to be something of a tea connoisseur; tea should be made in a certain way: the pot must be warmed first and the tea left to brew for a certain time before it is poured. Most people don’t have time for this and simply use a teabag in a mug – that’s modern life. Evelyn belongs to a different generation and the way she makes tea – including the use of teacups and saucers and the setting of the tray – all serves to create a certain atmosphere, and emphasize that her way of life is fast-disappearing.
GR: This September Sun is your first novel but before the novel came out, you used to be writing short stories. Were the short stories a preparatory mode of a sort? Did the writing of short stories influence the writing of your novel in any particular way?
BR: I can’t say that they did, except that having them published gave me the confidence to complete my novel.
GR: Take us through the process of writing ‘This September Sun’. How long did it take you to complete it? Do you write longhand?
BR: When I lived in London in 1997/98, I had an exercise book in which I used to write down anything interesting that I had seen or heard or thought of and some of these later became Ellie’s experiences. When I moved to Singapore in 2000, I joined a writers’ group and had to produce a piece of work each week, which was really good for me as I tend to lack self-discipline! I wrote the first chapter and then thought right, what do I do now? I had a story with grandparents who didn’t like each other and had to think why. Mostly I wrote longhand and then transferred it on to computer. The letters, especially, I had to write out as proper letters so that I actually got a feel for the character.
GR: Does it matter to you where you write your stories? Where was your book written? BR: Yes, it does matter. I have to be in a room where I feel comfortable and I have to sit at a table. I can’t write outside and I can’t write lying down! My book was written on various tables in various houses I have lived in!
GR: You wrote your story in a powerful first person narrative style. What informed your decision to employ this particular style? Did you so much trust your narrator to convey the appropriate story to readers?
BR: I really love a first person narrator. It’s something that’s becoming increasingly common at the moment, whereas at one time most books were written in third person. A book which influenced me greatly in this regard is The Great Gatsby – how different it would be told in third person! I feel using a first person narrator makes the situation more immediate than it would be otherwise and feelings are much rawer as well. Of course, you can’t trust this type of narrator one hundred per cent, so it’s good to also bring in other voices which may counter that strong main one.
GR: Is it appropriate to label your book as semi – autobiographical, considering the fact that you share some similarities with Ellie, the narrator?
BR: A lot of people ask me this, and I feel some people are even disappointed when I tell them it’s not a true story! I wonder if it’s because of the popularity of memoirs, especially of white writers, which abound at the moment. I cannot say that any character or event in the novel is ‘true’, although I may have drawn on certain characteristics of people I have met or things that have happened. My mother did have an Uncle Cadwallader who was an architect, but there the similarity ends. There are parallels between my life and Ellie’s, such as going to the UK to study, but I have never worked in a book shop and I didn’t begin a Phd. Miles, Tony and Mark are entirely fictional. Having said that, it’s probably true to say that I am like Ellie in character, although not as extreme, but then I am also like Evelyn in some ways.
GR: At a point in time, Ellie was keen to seek a life beyond what the small Bulawayo offered her and the country she eventually relocated to happened to be England. In her own words, she says to her Grandmother, ‘I’ll die, Gran, if I stay here. I’ll shrivel up and die.’ (p83) In Mugabe’s Zimbabwe of today, is it likely to see citizens yearning to relocate to other countries? If yes, why do you think that is so?
BR: Yes, I think most school leavers want to leave the country and, in fact, it has become the norm to do so. One of difficulties I’ve had to face being a teacher, is that most of the pupils I teach don’t want to stay in Africa and many a time I have felt I am educating people to go and enrich another country. When I wanted to leave, it was to explore the world a bit, but now I think that young people just don’t see any future in Zimbabwe. There’s a whole generation missing (people in their twenties). I think when you’ve travelled a bit and if you’ve got a family, you might come back later because it’s still quite a safe place and the pace of life is so much slower than it is in the developed world.
GR: Would you suggest Tony’s pronouncement as the major setback confronting the growth of Zimbabwe? I may want to quote what Tony said to Ellie, ‘We both want to be in control…both black and white. The problem in Zimbabwe is that whites want to live first world lives in a third world country… The problem with blacks is that they want to do things their way…’ (p187)
BR: I think it’s one of a number of obstacles that Zimbabweans have to deal with. I find a lot of people saying that things shouldn’t be this way or that way, because it isn’t like that in the UK or America. While this point is often a valid one, I don’t always feel it’s a very helpful one. Things happen differently in Africa and that’s what we all have to accept. By this, I don’t mean that we accept corruption and violence. I’m talking more about a way of life and a way of thinking. There has been a great break down in black African life because of the merging of two very different cultures. We see the breakdown of the family, especially the extended family, as well as a general spiritual and moral decline. It was once the white community which I would have said was in trouble, now I think it’s the other way around. I reckon Africa has to find an African solution to its problems. Western ideas don’t really work here.
GR: To whom is your novel intended for? Is it for white Zimbabweans or black Zimbabweans or both or for anybody at all?
BR: Just before the book was published, I was worried that it would appear to be very much a ‘white’ novel; after all, the majority of characters are white. However, I am pleased to say that I have probably had more feedback from black readers than from white. A couple of these readers have commented on how much they identified with Ellie, despite the obvious racial differences, which has been great. I never really thought who the book was intended for when I wrote it.
GR: What are some of the challenges you encountered in writing ‘This September Sun’?
BR: Time! I’ve come to realize that you need to treat writing as a job if you intend to make any money out of it. You have to have set times that you write and you have to be consistent. However, until you actually have a book published, it’s often hard to be taken seriously, or even to take yourself seriously, so you tend to waver with your discipline. I couldn’t afford to give up my job to write, so unfortunately teaching took up a lot of time, especially all the preparation and marking.
GR: You have received some special prizes in the course of your writing career. For instance, you won the Intwasa Arts Festival koBulawayo Short Story Competition in 2006 and the Zimbabwean Book Publishers Award for 2010. Do prizes matter to you in anyway? Does it have any influence on your writing career?
BR: I think the most important thing you gain from winning a prize is a boost of confidence. It makes you feel that you are on the right track and that someone out there likes your work. It’s all promotional as well, so you hope that someone might read your work because they heard it won a prize. I feel it would great to be at least nominated for a major prize – I’m sure most authors do.
GR: One of my favorite moments in your novel has to do with Tony’s words to Ellie. I quote, ‘Africa is Africa… Accept it and move on.’ (p249) Do you think the post – Independence Africa we see today is just too unbearable for its own citizens to carry on living?
BR: Well, some people don’t have much choice, do they? This comes back to what I was saying earlier, if you keep comparing Africa to other places, you will always be disappointed. If you compare life now to life in the past, you are unlikely to be disappointed as well. But this is something we seem to spend a lot of time doing. When I lived in Zimbabwe, I felt a lot of people talked about the past – things they used to do and they way life used to be – but when you suggested that there were some things they could still do, they didn’t want to do them! Everyone, from the poorest person on the street to the richest in town, can make a difference, but we’ve developed this mindset that it’s someone else’s problem.
GR: How did you meet your publishers? Was it tough haunting for publishers to publish your novel?
BR: I answered an advert looking for short stories for a collection back in 2002. I had a couple of stories published by amaBooks before I asked them if they would be interested in looking at it. It has been hard finding a publisher for the novel outside of Zimbabwe. It was very difficult getting a foot in the door and just getting someone to read it.
GR: You have on many platforms talked about how much you’ve loved the ‘The End of the Affair’ by Graham Greene and ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf. Were these books useful to you in the writing of your novel? In other sense, are you often influenced by the kinds of books you read?
BR: ‘The End of the Affair’ definitely was an influence. I had a problem with writing Evelyn’s diary entries because they had to become more than just usual entries, and so I read the diaries in this novel a couple of times. It also helped me to ‘become’ a woman in the 1940s. Virginia Woolf influenced me in the sense that Ellie is very sensitive and self-conscious as many of Woolf’s female characters are.
GR: Is it appropriate to say that black Zimbabweans dominate the house of Zimbabwean letters? I am tempted to believe so because only a few names of white Zimbabwean writers come to mind or perhaps I may be wrong. Names like John Eppel and Doris Lessing comes to mind upon reflection. Is that so?
BR: Yes, I think they do and that’s only natural. Doris Lessing may be a famous writer, but I don’t think she’s the first name that springs to mind when you think of Zimbabwean writing.
GR: Can you help with a few names – just to enlighten us a bit?
BR: Tsitsi Dangarembga, Dambudzo Marachera (I actually feel drunk when I read his work!) and Chenjerai Hove. These I feel are the ‘old masters’ of Zimbabwean writing. There are white writers like Peter Godwin and Alexandra Fuller, but they don’t live in Zimbabwe anymore and so that seems to remove them somewhat.
GR: Do you read reviews of your book? How do you take it if you read an unfavorable review?
BR: I read all the reviews, and am happy to say that I haven’t really read anything negative so far. I think as a writer you have to realize that some people just aren’t going to like your work, but if there are some that do, then it’s great.
GR: Characterization in novels is one critical area most readers look out for. How do you choose the names of your characters? From where did you get character names like Ellie or Evie Saunders?
BR: Ellie is a name I have always liked, which is why my younger daughter is also named Ellie. I considered changing the name after we had given it to her as the book hadn’t been published at this point, but the character had grown so large in my mind, I didn’t feel I could change it! I got the name Evelyn from an old trunk I bought for $100 (when it couldn’t buy you a loaf of bread). The lettering on the trunk read: Miss Evelyn Saunders, Passenger to Southern Rhodesia. I do have to think about names as they must suit the character.
GR: In recent times, publishers are introducing e-books into the book industry. Your novel is also available as an e-book. Are you enthusiastic about e-books?
BR: Not really. I fear normal books may die out, which will be a great shame. There is nothing better than shelves full of books!
GR: Do you read your work out loud while you are working on it?
BR: Yes, I do. I also have conversations aloud, which must seem rather strange to anyone looking in the window. I can’t write dialogue without speaking it aloud.
GR: Have you ever revisited your novel and wish you had a line or paragraph changed?
BR: Yes, just recently I had cause to do so, and I thought I would probably cut some bits out. I see that the novel works without those bits, but at the time I thought they couldn’t.
GR: Did you know as a child that you wanted to be a writer? Take us through how you ended up a writer?
BR: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was very young. My dad bought me a second-hand typewriter when I was about eleven and I used to write stories about a dog called Merlin. It wasn’t until I did a creative writing workshop when I was at college that I really started writing though. I’ve always had lots of thoughts, but haven’t put them down. The tutor was very encouraging and I started writing articles for a college magazine. Then I lived in London and kept the exercise book of notes that I told you of.
GR: I read somewhere that your next novel is going to be about murder. How true is this?
BR: It’s true! I’ve already started writing it. It’s about five very different people who are drawn into solving the mystery of who murdered a Bulawayo woman found dead in her house. I just hope I don’t take another ten years to write it!