Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende, whose short story Christina the Colourful was published in Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe, is interviewed by Pamela Stitch on:
This month, we found ourselves within the realm of short story narratives and who best to speak with but short story author - Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende who is Zimbabwean but based in the United States. It was a fun interview, as we got to talk about life, stories, books and much more.
Why don’t we have your books here in the United States? How did you start writing?
It is because right now I am working on a collection of short stories and I am also working on a novel. My first born is 10, I have an 8 year old and I have twins. So, I am trying to manage my home and my writing life. I started writing at the end of 2010, it was actually Sarah Ladipo Manyika that was actually very instrumental in my starting to write. Sarah has been telling me that I need to write. For some reason in 2010,I actually started. It was in the midst of the craziness that I started putting down my first piece. When I gave it to Sarah, she said, oh my goodness, I can’t believe that you are not writing. Since, I started writing, I have been published in several anthologies. You can find some of my work in Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe, published by ‘amaBooks and an online journal called Story Time. I have two others which are due out soon in two separate anthologies - one called Liquid Gold and I have another story coming out that was commissioned by a photographer in the UK. I am currently working on a collection of short stories.
What will these short stories be about - will it be about life in the UK, Diaspora or Africa?
I mixmatch of all those things but my life is rooted in the experiences that I’ve had in Zimbabwe, UK, it is an eclectic mix of stories, urban Zimbabwe, rural Zimbabwe and there are some diaspora pieces featuring Nigerian films. I have Gambians, Sierria Leonians, people from all over the continent. So I feel I am more African than Zimbabwean.
I know that you went home to Zimbabwe recently, how was it?
From my personal perspective, there is no place that I’d rather be than in Zimbabwe. What I experienced back home was a greater appreciation of my people than I ever had. Zimbabweans are very hardworking people. Wherever I visited, be it in urban areas or in the rural areas -everyone was emphasizing what to do to make a living. People do not want handouts, they want to work for their money. That has stuck to me and in my own spirit there was a shift from why anyone will want to go to this place to a why not. My love for Zimbabwe is so big.
What was your first story?
The first story I wrote when I seriously started writing was called Christina the Colourful. It was about the life of a young girl. She's the misfit. Her mom and her father had four girls prior to her. In having her, they were attempting to have a boy. She knows immediately that she is unwanted. In this story, she talks a lot in her mind. She tells the story of her favorite aunt who is her father's sister and also the black sheep of the family. She adores her aunt and is fascinated by her. So they try to arrange a marriage for this aunt to tame her and the aunt does the most unheard of thing which makes it impossible for her to come back to the village. You have to get the book to find out what happens.
Your stories seem to be women forward ...
Another thing that I am is a hard core feminist. Always have been. My feminism is an organic type. It is not one bought or adopted from an ideology. I have gotten a lot of criticism from people who tell me that it is adopted. My feminism comes from the fact that I have always refused to be treated less because I am a girl. That has always infuriated me. I am known in the village as someone who could go into a rage if I am treated differently because of my gender. For a long time, I refused to wear skirts and dresses. I don’t know anyone in my family that is like that - in my family I am known for being this way. Another reason that I say that it is an organic kind of feminism is because the women I grew up around were everything that I didn’t want to become. A lot of my uncle’s had second, third wives and a small house. I remember that I saw women that were mere shadows. I remember that I wanted to be a nun because they seemed to be the only ones that seemed to have some form of autonomy. To me marriage meant being caged in, loss of freedom, abuse, and I remember that I didn’t want that.
So what changed:
Nothing changed but as I walked my walk, someone came that loved me the way I was and so there was nothing to change. He has no issues with me. We have been married for 14 years, so that validated who I am. That being pro women and being militant about being pro women doesn’t mean that I can’t be married. You know being a feminist doesn’t necessitate not being married, it is about choice, it is about being able to choose and live with your choices and exercise your choices in freedom. That for me is feminism.
What will your novel be about?
The novel is set in post colonial Zimbabwe, a middle class family. Not one of those typical African stories. It seems to be out there that the acceptable literature for African writers is the literature of poverty, war and women being abused. So it’s success might be questioned in terms of literary success and readership. I believe I am writing another African story that doesn’t get more play, because a lot of the stories out there are about war. It is really about family life post independence.
What African author inspires your writing?
My mentor - Sarah Ladipo Manyika. She is of grace, beauty. Tsitsi Dangarembga and her Nervous Conditions, Yvonne Vera, Ama Atta Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta. For me those are women that inspire me. They wrote stories that to this day, I can go back and reread. On current authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, when I read her writing, I seriously need to lie down, get comfortable, get something good to eat and then read. That’s my ultimate my pleasure. Another author is Lola Shoneyin. Her book blew me away but when I picked up her poetry ahhh, this woman has haunting poetry. Other people that I have mentioned, I read, Helon Habila - Oil on Water, and his writing is the kind that relaxes you, it is not verbose. His descriptions are tight, so succinct and his story moves at a pace that I liked. His is a nice pace. You envision it and you go to that place that he is talking about. Tricia Nwaubani- I Did Not Come To You By Chance. Chris Abani, On Becoming Abigail which is a novel.
Writers in Zimbabwe?
I have to give kudos. There are two publishers that are doing a lot to push African writers. One is ‘amaBooks, another is Weaver Press. I think that they do an amazing job in trying to put together an anthology of Zimbabwean writers and they encourage young Zimbabwean writers in Zimbabwe. I really think that’s against all odds, they are trying to keep literature alive and the love of reading. I think writers, publishers, parents in particular have to encourage people to have a love of reading. My prayer is that the written word doesn’t die out. If you have a society of non reading people, it can only put the society at a disadvantage.
What challenges did you face?
Time. You know being a mother of small children, you do not have much of a support system here. I might not write everyday but in my mind I write. Working in my mind is what I have learnt to do as I watch my kids, cook, you know that I have learnt to be super efficient with my time. I walk around with a notebook. Everything is working out in support of my writing. My husband is completely supportive of it. My children love it and they want to be the main character of my writing.
What word of encouragement will you give people who want to be like you?
You know I have been asked this question so many times. If you are passionate about this and you want to write. Get a piece of paper, get a pen and start writing. Another thing, that I will advise is to read other people's works. Read other writers. You are already half way there if you are a reader. Know your voice. Everyone has a story to tell and it is about finding your unique voice to tell it. You will be surprised that if you put those words to paper, you hear the voice that’s you. Submit your work. For the longest time I would write and keep stuff, there is nothing in this world as good as having someone out there validate your writing. Don’t be scared of rejection. Don’t give up.