Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Stories are far more important than facts": Bryony Rheam on researching and writing This September Sun

Looking back on my debut novel, This September Sun, I am conscious of how ambitious a project it was. It is a long book and it took a long time to write, but it also needed a fair amount of research. Researching the past, even if it is only the 1940s, is not as easy in Zimbabwe as it may be in a place like Britain. There are not many books either written about or set in the time. Those that are, tend to be political history which, although relevant to a certain degree, are often rather tedious to read. Film coverage is not that easy – actually it is fairly impossible – to come by and I had to rely on newspapers in the archives and interviews with some now quite elderly people.

The former are fascinating. I could lose myself all day in old newspapers. They speak of fundraising balls, teas and fetes. They advertise luxury accommodation at hotels with porters and cars meeting each train, film reels at the cinema, a list of who’s in town and who’s staying where and groceries, goods and clothes that were impossible to get in ration-strapped Britain. There is also news about the war and the small ads include the inevitable death notices of young men lost in battle.  

As a child, I loved listening to both my grandmothers talk about their lives and the places they had been to. Most people like to talk about themselves and I found a lot of elderly people very amenable to talking about their lives. Many related hardship and loss, but there were also stories of parties, lovers, New Year celebrations and life in general during the War.

What emerged was a picture of a fairly hedonistic time. On the surface of it, colonial society was fairly bland and conservative. Yet the undercurrents of change and insecurity are evident. The War, however far off it was on the other side of the world, gave life that unsteady edge. Moral values were challenged by the War: the absence of those who went off to fight and the added presence of soldiers from afar. The RAF base in Salisbury brought in an influx of men who no doubt appeared more exciting and worldly wise in comparison to the average Rhodesian. Salisbury was still a small place then and it was generally quite safe to walk around at night. With parties going on on a regular basis, it was quite common for young servicemen to walk into a party off the street and ask if they could join in.  

One lady told me how common it was for young wives to have affairs. With their husbands gone for two, sometimes three years, it was inevitable that they may find comfort in the arms of another. There were many soldiers who came home to find they had children who couldn’t possibly be theirs but, as I was told, they were often accepted without much questioning. Perhaps the war also allowed for a reciprocal forgiveness, for who knows what those soldiers themselves got up to abroad. 

From these anecdotes and pieces of information, I was able to get a number of ideas for Evelyn’s story. Sometimes, just a little snippet such as a description of the boarding houses that many young, single women lived in, was enough for me to develop into something more. I was very conscious of not getting any of the historical details wrong, but I was also aware that a lot of the information was subjective and that memory can be inconsistent with fact.

There are those, I am sure, who will shake their heads and declare the times were never like that at all and that’s why I am glad I can turn to them and quote my sources. It is also interesting to see what people remember. One of the questions I asked the people I interviewed was whether they could remember a scandal or a murder or anything particularly exciting that happened and every time I got a ‘no’, but what would then subsequently emerge are the very stories I was looking for.

In This September Sun, one of the characters tells a story about a family who lost four of their sons during the war and how, because of this, the fifth son was not sent into active combat, but kept as a trainer in the Air Force. Tragedy struck when he was killed in an aircraft accident and his parents lost their sixth son. This story is actually a true one told to me by one of the people I interviewed. I didn’t use all the information I was given. Some I thought fit for something else further down the line. Ultimately, I learnt more from my ‘real-life’ sources than I could have from any book. People have a way of bringing the past to life in an interesting and inimitable way. Stories are far more important than facts.

Reproduced from http://www.parthianbooks.com/authorsblog

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma's 'Shadows' longlisted for Etisalat Prize

Photograph courtesy Fungai Machirori
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma's debut novella and short story collection, Shadows, has been longlisted for the 2014 Etisalat Prize for Literature. Novuyo's stories have appeared in several anthologies, including the 'amaBooks anthologies Silent Cry: Echoes of Young Zimbabwe Voices and Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe. Shadows contains Novuyo's short story, 'Crossroads', which was previously published in Where to Now? and, in isiNdebele, in Siqondephi Manje?Indatshana zaseZimbabwe. Where to Now? was co-published with Parthian Books in the United Kingdom.

This is the second year of the Etisalat Prize, the first recipient of the award was NoViolet Bulawayo for her novel We Need New Names. Both Novuyo and NoViolet come from Bulawayo.

Novuyo first came to the attention of 'amaBooks as a participant in the British Council's ‘Identity and Diversities’ Project, which culminated in us publishing the young people’s anthology Silent Cry: Echoes of Young Zimbabwe Voices, in which Novuyo was first published. At nineteen, her short story, 'Scattered Hearts', published in this anthology, was described by Dr Petros Ndlovu as ‘beautiful and powerful prose which fosters an appreciation of the personality of the young author who is so gifted in thought, analysis, problem-solving as well as English expression’. Novuyo went on to represent the project at the Identities and Diversities Youth Summit in Lusaka, Zambia 2007, and later at the Global Change-makers Africa Youth Summit in Cape Town, South Africa 2009.

Shadows is a winner of the 2014 Herman Charles Bosman Prize. bookshybooks.blogspot.com, in her review of the Etisalat longlist, commented, 'With this debut novella and collection of short stories the reader is introduced to a startling new voice in African literature. Novuyo Tshuma sketches, with astounding accuracy, the realities of daily life in Zimbabwe and the peculiar intricacies of being a foreigner in Johannesburg. Vivid, sparse and, at times, tragically beautiful.'

Monday, November 10, 2014

Togara Muzanenhamo on the BBC and at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival

Zimbabwean poet, Togara Muzanenhamo, whose forthcoming poetry collaboration with John Eppel, Textures, is to be published by 'amaBooks, read his short story, 'The Silt Path', on BBC Radio 4 on 10 November, and participated in the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival the same weekend.

You can listen to the short story, for the next four weeks, on:

Togara's poetry, below, was featured on the 'Ink, Sweat and Tears' website as part of ‘Poetry & Disobedience’ at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival 2014
(from: http://www.inksweatandtears.co.uk/pages/?p=7720)
Posted by Kate Birch on Nov 6, 2014

from Lyra

He could smell the ocean. Almost hear the water
rushing up against the rocks. Great sprays of salt
banking up then falling back. Red carcasses of ships
rusting all across the shoreline. He clutched his hip.
The brass fragment jutting out – an ‘S’ with a bolt
loose at its upper most tip. He stopped. The sputter
of an engine. Looking over his shoulder he could
see a small black dot trailed by a tail of dust. Fuck.
The cliff face was bare and steep, his body pressed
flat against it, black like an ant. He was at the most
difficult point of the climb. Here he judged the rock-
face jutting out above him, a large shelf he would
have to scale using only the strength of his arms.
Pain tore through his body, his legs cycling the air
as his arms trembled above his weight. He pulled
himself up onto the top part of the shelf, crawled
for a bit, then just lay there on his belly, sucking air.
Beneath him, because the sand was already warm,
all he saw was fresh blood creeping out. A red stain
growing silently. He looked up, ahead. The mouth
of the cave gaped back at him. Black. He slithered,
angry with pain, towards the entrance, rowing hard
on his elbows. In the cave: cool air, a thin footpath
disappearing deep into the distant sound of rain.
The smell of water over stone fell heavy with iron.
A constant trickle riding away, deep to where colour
knew no other colour than black. The sound of a fire
crackled and spattered. The light at first vermilion
on the dome of the cave, then a whole riot of crystal
sparks revealing wet constellations: reds, purples,
blues – bright for a second or two – became alluvial
shadows, smoke cloaked. Incandescent. His people’s
words ran through his mind in rapid, furious bursts
of prayer. He could hear every whisper. Soft trickles of
water flowed along cold walls, compelling his thirst.
An arm cradled his head. Dregs of sediment and rough
indefinable grains seeping into the froth of his beard.
A woman’s voice echoed. A constant stream of cool
water flowed over his forehead. The cave’s colourful
display washing in waves. Its walls wet ­and fissured.
If it’s them, they’re coming down the south tunnels.
Sound carries deeper there
. There were others though.
Others in the caves. They would hear the shouts echo
through the water corridors. Horrible screams. They’ll
kill us all. We have to leave him!
 He lay stretchered.
Water neck high. Oily rainbows beneath the dirty flame
slithering in their wake. Ahead the black passage stared
back at them like a lair. Deep, cold and uncertain.
For hours. Nothing. The cold on their skin like a numb
suit. Darkness echoing off the wet rock. They held still.
Occasional voices. Movement in other tunnels. The hum
of a fan powering some sort of machine. They held still,
huddled like eels in the cramped recess. The machine
humming closer with the slow swish of wading. The light
growing stronger on the cave’s wet walls, almost bright
as day, then suddenly brighter. Cold. Clinical. Clean.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Gonjon Pin reviewed

The Gonjon Pin and other stories - Tendai Huchu shortlisted for prestigious Caine Prize award

by Diana Rodrigues

A version of this review appeared in Harare News

Before you turn the first page of ’amaBooks  latest offering to the literary world, The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories, spare a thought for the distinguished panel of judges who will have taken time off from their full-time jobs to read through the 140 short stories from 17 African countries that were entered for the 15th annual Caine Prize. Wasting no opportunity, Zimbabwean journalist and literary judge Percy Zvomuya even perused manuscripts while travelling by commuter buses between Harare and Chitungwiza, much to the interest of fellow passengers. Other judges included South African novelist Gillian Slovo and Nigerian Helon Habila, who won the Caine Prize in 2001, while the Chair of Judges was Jackie Kay MBE, Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University.

The Caine Prize for African Writing, now considered to be Africa's leading literary award, provides a great incentive for aspiring writers to have their voices heard. The prize of GBP10,000 is also a considerable attraction, and this year, to celebrate the Prize's 15th anniversary, each shortlisted writer received GBP500.

Every year a selection of talented writers are invited to a Caine Prize workshop, where they can hone their skills, receive inspiration from each other, and benefit from the guidance of dedicated editors and mentors. This year the workshop was held at Leopard Rock Hotel, in the misty Bvumba mountains just outside the border town of Mutare. Zimbabwean writer and activist, Isabella Mtambanadzo, described the recent workshop as 'a gift' and an opportunity to 'stretch creative imaginations and push down literary boundaries.' Stories that emerged from this workshop, as well as entries for the Caine Prize, also appear in The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories.

Although Zimbabwe cannot claim to have a vibrant reading culture, the country has nurtured a phenomenal number of gifted writers. In 2004 Brian Chikwava won the Caine Prize for 'Seventh Street Alchemy', a story about the denizens of the notorious Avenues in Harare; in 2011 NoViolet Bulawayo's 'Hitting Budapest' was the winner. Of the 17 stories appearing in The Gonjon Pin, seven are written by Zimbabwean authors, and among the five stories shortlisted for the prize is 'The Intervention' by Zimbabwean Tendai Huchu. Born in Bindura and educated at Churchill High School, Huchu now lives in Edinburgh and whenever his muse releases him from his desk, he plays chess or browses in bookshops. In 'The Intervention', Huchu highlights the cultural shifts experienced when Shona families leave Zimbabwe and bring up their children in Britain. Shona names like Simba have no significance beyond a reference to the Lion King to children born in England: when Simba attempts to explain that Simbarashe means the Lord's strength, the 'kid just looked at me blankly like I was talking effing Zulu.'

The shortlisted author Efemia Chela, who was born in Zambia to Ghanaian and Zambian parents, grew up in England and studied French and Politics at Rhodes University. Her short story, 'Chicken', describes a farewell party at her parents' house and her move to another city where she 'rented a room in the bum end of town' and 'plotted' her future. Foodies will enjoy the description of the 'culinary event' of her farewell feast. Her parents' 'cross-cultural' marriage inspired a Zambian/Ghanaian fusion of 'slow-cooked beef shin in a giant, dented tin pot' and 'swamp-like spinach stew flooded with palm oil, thickened with egusi, specked with smoked mackerel and quartered hard-boiled eggs.'
Because she hasn't followed her parents' wishes and studied a practical subject such as law, jobs are hard to come by and she works as an unpaid intern. After a one-night stand with a girlfriend who leaves a crumpled R100 note 'on the blue crate I called a nightstand' before leaving, her financial situation becomes desperate. Briefly considering prostitution she eventually resorts to selling her eggs to an ovum bank called FutureChild Inc. Although concerned about the futures of these yet-to-be-born children, there is enough honesty and strength in the narrative for the reader to assume that all things will eventually be well.

'My Father's Head', by Kenyan Okwiri Oduor, was the wining short story. Reminiscent of the magic realism found in Ben Okri's Famished Road, a young woman, mourning the death of her father in an accident with a cane tractor, tries to draw a picture of him, but finds she cannot remember the shape of his head. Eventually his shade appears on the verandah, ' slung over the wicker chair....just like in the old days...'
Unsure how to deal with his presence, she eventually invites him into the house and makes him a cup of tea. As they converse, we realise that Simbi has come to terms with her father's death. Although he says he will leave the house and go north to Eldoret, he will be returning to the spirit world. Oduor stimulates the imagination while continuing to hold the reader in a skilful and satisfying narrative.

Every year the Caine Prize for African Writing brings forth a wealth of talent and an exciting selection of short stories to delight readers everywhere. In the same way that avid readers look forward to the Man Booker Prize, now open to American writers, the public will be pondering 2015 and the inspiration that the Caine Prize brings to African writers.

Monday, November 3, 2014

On Writing - Bryony Rheam

from: http://bryonyrheam.blogspot.com/

Bryony's Blog

I think one of the hardest things about writing a novel is convincing others you are up to the job. For some reason, saying you want to be a writer is akin to saying you want to be an astronaut or a brain surgeon.  You get that look – you know the one adults use with children?  Oh, that’s nice!And really you know they’re inwardly shaking their heads or, worse, they’ve already dismissed the thought so that, the next time you mention it, you either get a blank stare or that look my mother used to give me when I insisted on doing something she didn’t like – Well, we’ll speak to your father about it, but I doubt he’ll like it either.

                Zimbabwe had descended into complete economic and political chaos while I was in the throes of writing This September Sun and suddenly everyone was writing their memoirs: the war years, the years on the farm, their years in Africa.  I remember clearly someone’s response to me telling them that I was writing a novel: they laughed.  Is everyone in this country writing a book? I felt summarily dismissed.

                If I wasn’t writing my memoirs, what was I writing?  Fiction? Oh, that’s nice – but it probably won’t be much good!  One of things I have discovered since becoming a writer is that the ‘job’, for want of a better word, is shrouded in mystery, as is the person.  By this I mean that no one ever expects to actually know a writer. Well, not a good writer anyway. Writers are faraway people who sit in some distant land penning novels surrounded by the mists of secrecy. A writer is not your next door neighbour, nor your colleague at work or your customer buying a litre of milk and a loaf of bread.  If you are a writer and you appear to be normal like anyone else, then you really can’t be very good.

A friend of mine who bought a copy of my book declared he was quite surprised to find himself engrossed in it.  To tell you the truth, he said, I didn’t actually think it would be much good.  And why?  Because you don’t expect people you know to write well!  A similar comment came from a colleague of mine who told me she was enjoying reading the book, and was quite surprised.  Don’t get me wrong, she said.  It’s just that, well, I know you.

Being taken seriously as a writer continues after you have had a book published, especially when you want to give up your job and dedicate yourself to it wholeheartedly.  There is still a sense it is a hobby and that you can easily dedicate a couple of hours to it a week; hours that usually come out of your weekend.  If you are really serious about it, then why not get up an hour earlier or, better still, write late at night, when you've already done a day's work, made a meal for a family of four, done homework with your children, made sure the washing up is done and prepared for the next day?  It’s forgotten that writing is actually a job.  Yes, it is the sort of job I enjoy doing, but it needs a lot of time dedicated to it and, not only that, but mental space, too.  Also, it’s very easy to get into the sort of routine where you hardly ever get a break because, when you aren’t at work, you are working at your novel.

Weekends are also for family time.  My fear is that my children will come to resent my writing, although I only get the chance to sit down and write when they are otherwise occupied. Because writing is such a solitary occupation, it is impossible to get them to join in in any way. Enid Blyton is the world’s most prolific children’s writer, writing over 700 books, yet her youngest daughter couldn’t stand her.  Blyton saw her two young daughters for an hour a day which is obviously why she managed such an output.  Rosalind Prichard, daughter of Agatha Christie, had incredible respect for her mother, but described her as ‘distant’.  She was looked after by a nanny and then went to boarding school.  As an only child, it must have often been a lonely life.

However, I have also come to agree with Christie who once wrote about writing: ‘All you need is a chair and a table and a typewriter and a bit of peace.’  Waiting for the ‘right’ moment is a waste of time.  Sometimes I write while waiting for the kettle to boil or supper to be ready.  The most important thing is to write, even if it is only a few lines.  I find that once I start writing, I start thinking, and writing every day, even if it is not a huge amount, gets the ideas going! 
My latest work is a crime novel.  It is a challenge because it is completely different toThis September Sun in that I have had to start at the end and work backwards.  Still, I often come up against technical difficulties  - A can't be doing that then because A is supposed to be with B until two o'clock when C arrives - so I tend to walk round in a bit of a reverie, talking to myself under my breath and occasionally shaking my head - or pulling my hair out.  Then I'll suddenly get a burst of inspiration, usually while doing the washing up or brushing my teeth, shout ‘Yes!  Of course!  That's it! ’ and go and jot it down before the moment is lost.  The great thing about having a work in progress is that it comes everywhere with you and even the mundane can become a source of inspiration.  I was in an IT training session recently where the trainer had a habit of putting a box around keywords which he wrote on the board and I thought this would be an interesting habit for one of my characters to have.  On another occasion, a pair of shoes suggested a character and a tree the murder weapon.

Sometimes my dream of being a full time author seems to retreat before me, much like Gatsby’s green light, at other times, I just need to remind myself that I am already an author. If no one else will take me seriously, I must.  I've come now to introduce myself as an author, rather than a teacher and try not to be so apologetic about my success.  Writing, as I said, is a solitary job.  There is no one to drive you but yourself and there are few to cheer you along the way.  My hour, or more likely, my snatched minutes every day with my notepad or laptop, keep me balanced and, if not sane, at least a little less insane that I might be without it.