Monday, June 22, 2015

Owen Sheers: an interview with contemporary literature’s renaissance man

Owen Sheers has been published several times by amaBooks - his poetry in Intwasa Poetry and in Short Writings from Bulawayo III, and a short story, 'Safari', in Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe. He has visited Zimbabwe on several,occasions, and The Dust Diaries, his creative non-fiction account of the life of his great uncle, the 'maverick missionary' Arthur Shearly Cripps,  is mainly set in Zimbabwe. His new novel is 'I Saw a Man'.

from The Guardian, 13 June 2015

From a distance, Owen Sheers’s new novel appears to be missing a title; the cover looks bare but for the image of a flight of stairs, black against a backdrop of bilious yellow, and it’s not until you have the book in your hands that you make out the words lacquered over the top. Tip it to the light and “I Saw a Man” gleams into view like heat haze over tarmac. Put the book back on the shelf and it sinks back into the picture, leaving you wondering whether you saw anything at all.

The title is taken from the opening verse of Hughes Mearns’s well-known “Antigonish”, which Sheers quotes at the beginning of his novel: “Yesterday, upon the stair,” it goes, “I met a man who wasn’t there./ He wasn’t there again today/ I wish, I wish he’d go away…” It’s a queer little poem, shifting back and forth between witty epigram and soured, creepy nursery rhyme, and the cover realises it beautifully. But it’s also a neat metaphor for the provisional, ambiguous story Sheers has written.

The curtain lifts on the borders of Hampstead Heath on a torpid summer afternoon, at the moment when a man, believing his neighbours’ house to be empty, steps inside. Michael Turner has drifted to London following the sudden death of his wife; in the blank aftermath of the tragedy, he finds himself caught in an oddly accelerated friendship with the family next door. Through the details of their connected lives, interspersed with snapshots of Michael’s inching progress through the house, the novel establishes a network of cause and effect that reaches all the way around the world, from the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US, which sees a father lose his job in London, to the drone operator in a bunker in Nevada who obliterates a man feeding chickens in Pakistan. It twists and turns and plays its cards close to its chest, showing its full hand only in the final pages, when we are forced to reassess everything that has gone before.

The ambiguity that makes Sheers’s novel so compelling is there in him, too: as a writer, he’s impossible to pin down. He started life as a poet, publishing his first collection fresh out of university, but despite racking up great reviews, a clutch of prize shortlistings and a tour with Carol Ann Duffy, Sheers decided that his next move would be to up sticks for Zimbabwe to research the life of his great-great-uncle, Arthur Cripps. The book that arose from his story, The Dust Diaries, blended fact, fiction and conjecture to the extent that it’s sold as non-fiction in some countries and a novel in others; either way, it snagged him the first of many awards (Wales Book of the Year 2005) and the praise of no less an authority thanDoris Lessing. From there, he doubled back to publish a second poetry collection,Skirrid Hill, followed that up with a one-man play on the life of the poet Keith Douglas, then brought out his debut novel, Resistance – a crowd-pleasing historical epic that sold more than 50,000 copies. The book before I Saw a Manwas Pink Mist, a verse-drama on the Afghan conflict, a stage version of which will have its world premiere at the Bristol Old Vic this July. When we meet he has the first draft of a new play “still warm off the printer. Like a fresh kill” in his bag. And this is just the whistle-stop tour: other highlights include an anthology of British landscape poetry (and a TV series to accompany it), a three-day Passion play co-created with Michael Sheen and a stint as the Welsh Rugby Union’s writer in residence. Truly, he’s contemporary literature’s renaissance man.

With a CV like that, his “natural opposition to categorisation” is unsurprising, but when pressed he concedes that in the past he’s called himself “a poet who writes in other forms”. It was only with I Saw a Man that he consciously sought to change the label; here, for the first time, he “wanted, in quite a geeky way, to feel like a novelist writing a novel”. The fictional elements of The Dust Diaries had given him the taste for invention, but his first novel, which tells the counterfactual story of Wales under Nazi occupation, didn’t ultimately allow him its full licence. “Resistance was based on a piece of history that didn’t happen,” he says, “but to portray it with credibility, every room needed to be properly furnished. This time, I wanted to invent something from scratch.”

I Saw a Man arose entirely from that single striking image of a man easing open his neighbours’ back door, which dropped into Sheers’ head fully formed, “the first time that’s happened to me. Of course it led to a load of questions: who is he, why is he entering like that, where’s he at in his life?” In the end, he borrowed from his own backstory to fill in the blanks: the setting is based on a real street in Hampstead, where Sheers “rented a couple of flats at a time when, like Michael, I was pretty nomadic”, and the book, which he wrote between other projects over seven years, teases out some of the questions he was grappling with in his own life. “When I started it,” he says, “the idea of family felt very distant; I couldn’t work out how people did it.” Three times, he got to 10,000 words before beginning again, “which was a big psychological kick in the teeth; it’s much easier when a poem doesn’t work. But it did mean that by the time I found the right voice, that possibility of the domestic was much closer. My final deadline was my wedding.”

These days, Sheers is a father as well as a husband, and (like Michael and his wife in I Saw a Man) has lately left London for Wales’s Black Mountains. Although he was born in Fiji, where his parents were working for the Ministry of Overseas Development, he did the bulk of his growing up in a small village in Abergavenny, one of just 14 children at the local primary school. Wales – and specifically, that bleak, beautiful corner of it – has been lodestone and muse for him: the Black Mountains’ furthest outlier, Skirrid Hill, provides both title and unifying metaphor for his gorgeously elegiac second poetry collection, and Resistance is set in one of the area’s most remote valleys. Yet though its influence runs through his work, for the duration of his professional life he has lived elsewhere, only recently finding his way home again. Oxford and the University of East Anglia’s creative writing course came first; it took him a long time to find his feet (“There were more kids from Eton in my college than had gone to Oxbridge from my school for a decade, and there seemed to be a secret rule book that everyone else had access to”), and his affinity for his homeland was enhanced through his absence from and longing for it.

By the time he left UEA, he was “skint. So I applied for [TV production company] Planet 24’s graduate programme and ended up working onThe Big Breakfast”. I goggle; he laughs. The contrast with UEA’s rarefied environment was marked; suddenly, he found himself “in a living version of Martin Amis’s Money, inventing puns and booking novelty acts at four in the morning and researching Arthur Cripps in the afternoon. It was a very odd split life.” In the end, a rupture was forced. Arts Council Wales offered him a grant to work on The Dust Diaries, so he quit his job and moved into his parents’ caravan on the Pembrokeshire coast for a winter, where “the day’s main event was walking along the cliffs. The grand idea was that I was going to write and surf, but there weren’t any waves that winter. So I got on with writing.”

The Dust Diaries made a minor impact, but it was with Skirrid Hill that Sheers really hit his stride. As well as cementing his reputation as a writer of Wales, it sowed the seed of what would become his other essential subject. The opening poem, “Mametz Wood”, visits the scene of one of the first world war’s bloodiest battles, where “even now the earth stands sentinel, / reaching back into itself for reminders of what happened”. War – its tolls, its terrors, its physical and psychological scars – has haunted his work ever since; it wasn’t, he says, something he set out to write about, but one poet led him to another, one conflict to the next. He followed up his radio play on Douglas with a second on Alun Lewis, the Welsh poet whose centenary is this year, and approached the task from a novelist’s perspective in Resistance. Then he moved on to contemporary conflicts, publishing The Two Worlds of Charlie F, a play “based on the experiences of very recently wounded service personnel” in 2012, and Pink Mistin 2013. “Post-9/11 conflicts have run in exact parallel with my writing life,” he explains, “and you feel as though you want to reflect that, even if it’s through historical prisms. Plus, growing up where I did, I knew kids who entered the army at 15. Britain’s the only EU country that allows you to join the army as a child soldier. It’s scandalous, and I wanted to make people aware of that. I keep saying I want to stop, though. I’m quite warred out.”

He hasn’t quite managed this with I Saw a Man: war and Wales still feature, but their retreat from the foreground marks a new stage in Sheers’s career – and might explain why he gives the impression of being faintly bemused by his latest creation. “Before this, if you’d asked me which two books I’d never write, I’d have said, a book set in Hampstead and a novel about novel writing, which this turned out to be. Both tend to drive me mad. But having lived in temporary places in Hampstead surrounded by that sense of establishment, there was a tension that I found I wanted to explore. And I did end up thinking, what’s the point in writing in a form if you’re not going to interrogate it? It’s a negotiation, obviously; the book also has to be an absorbing read. The novels I really love are both. I hope,” he frowns slightly, “this is, too.”

It is. I Saw a Man is Sheers’s most mature and coherent work to date; taut as a thriller, but resonant with motifs of intimacy and distance, guilt and redemption, and the nature of stories and storytelling. The only shame is that his name doesn’t appear on the cover.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

'I write whatever the fuck I want, whatever matters to me'

from Short Story Day Africa

Tiah caught up with Tendai Huchu to discuss dividing time, philosophy, clichés and stories; long and short. 

TIAH: Your latest novel, The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician, has three separate narratives that are independent, yet not. Did you use any special software or organising technique to keep them straight? Or did their storylines gradually reveal themselves to you chapter by chapter?
TENDAI: I tried to have the novellas that make the novel function like the three hands of a clock. So, the Maestro is your hour hand, very slow, little happens on the surface. The Magistrate is the minute hand and holds the whole thing together with a little more going on. Then the Mathematician, in present tense, is the second hand going tick, tick, tick, tick, at a relentless pace. I have to confess this was a rather inelegant solution to the problem of how to bring these narratives together, because I think each one could have carried a novel on its own. I started with the Magistrate, you find throughout the story, you always return to him before you’re shunted elsewhere, so he’s your docking port to the other universes. I then had to retrofit the other two narratives to work around his story and, abracadabra, there you are. It was a bit tricky because some sections had to be redone if and when they jarred the overall working of the timepiece, because independent as they seem, the hands are all headed towards 12 o’clock. Does this make any sense? I guess what I’m trying to say is that doing the thing was a pain in several different orifices simultaneously.
TIAH: It has been said that Boethius is one of your favourite philosophers. What about him sparks your interest?
TENDAI: I suppose I have a romantic connection with the story of Boethius. The very idea that he could produce The Consolation of Philosophy in extraordinary circumstances, in jail, essentially knowing his own life was about to end, is remarkable. It has been said that this book kept classical philosophy alive in the Middle Ages, and, as a layman from a non academicky background, I find it a beautiful and highly accessible work which covers an astounding range of thought in a slim volume. Boethius battles with problems that are no less important today; he really does speak to you directly like an ice pick to the heart. The idea itself, a conversation between the dude and Lady Philosophy who answers his queries is very innovative for its time (and any era for that matter). I find reading him both comforting and stimulating. I really do wish philosophy as a discipline was made compulsory in our schools, because it’s like downloading a software upgrade into your mind that enables you to “think different”, to question everything and not take anything for granted. It’s the antidote to our modern solipsism and some of our more destructive impulses. I should stop now.

"I think the core cliché lies in the idea that African writers can be told what to/not to write, or that they are victims of ulterior motives and/or influences outside of the practice of their art which writers elsewhere are somehow immune to."

TIAH: You have been quoted as saying, "I write whatever the fuck I want, whatever matters to me." What cliché of African writing frustrates you the most?
TENDAI: I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m ‘frustrated’, rather benignly baffled. Maybe I come across as reactionary here, but I think the core cliché lies in the idea that African writers can be told what to/not to write, or that they are victims of ulterior motives and/or influences outside of the practice of their art which writers elsewhere are somehow immune to. They have no autonomy, no agency and are ultimately at the mercy of western publishers or whoever else we choose to blame. So, we find ourselves in a position where this sort of bullshit is thrown around, but no one really interrogates what it actually means and/or whether it has any real merit. Example: folks writing about poverty – well, how many of us are actually rich/well off? I’m not and have never been. Oh and by the way, we want ordinary Africans to read prose, presumably that means poor people too, but Yahweh forbid their lives should be represented in the very same fiction. There’s also a slightly annoying lumping together that irons out the incredible diversity in the works African writers produce. I mean, if you read  contemporary writers like Maaza Mengiste, Teju Cole, Nnedi Okorafor, Mukoma Wa Ngugi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Zukiswa Wanner, Lauren Beukes (I could go on and on here) you find this incredible diversity of thought and so many mind-blowing ideas which deserve serious interrogation, which you can engage with via other modes of thought and literary criticism, yielding great intellectual rewards, without resorting to some of the default, overly simplistic modes of interpretation we so readily employ (often revolving around, but not limited to, some imagined audience these works are supposedly written for). I suppose in a way the cliché itself actually wins out as meme, because we talk about it over and over; we’re talking about it right now, which probably nullifies everything I’m saying, because pretty soon we’ll be having this same conversation all over again.
TIAH: We sometimes hear people complain that they don't read short stories because they fall in love with a character and then it is done, like a summer fling. They want the long romance of a novel. You have written a number of short stories, including the 2014 Caine Prize shortlisted 'The Intervention'. You are also one of this year's Writivism short story judges. What about the short story appeals to you, as a reader?
TENDAI: The short form and the novel are very different beasts. I couldn’t blame a reader for preferring one over the other any more than it would bother me if someone preferred sonnets to haiku. Courses for horses and all that. I do think, though, that in this digital age, the short story may well gain an edge, and it is thriving online. There’s probably more digital literary magazines out there than there are readers (yes, this is an exaggeration, bite me). I don’t buy into the myth that short stories are a training ground for the novel, or that they are supposed to carry ideas which wouldn’t last the marathon of a novel. It’s simply not true. They can be ambitious, epic in scope even, and I think they burn with a greater intensity, simply because the brevity demands a different method of storytelling. As for the fling thing, I’m not too sure, in both forms (novels and short stories) some will stay with you longer than others, some demand rereading whilst others don’t. I am thoroughly enjoying the pool of Writivism stories because of how daring the writers are (most of them are new writers with nothing to lose, so they just go for it) and the range of ideas I’m encountering is both intriguing and heart-warming.

TIAH: Lastly, what question do you wish I'd asked? Please answer it.  
TENDAI: I’m just relieved to be done with it to be honest. Thanks for having me… “I’m going to a pretty place now where the flowers grow.” 

On Tendai's Bedside Table

I’ve been reading The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster and I also dip in and out of online magazines for my SF and Crime fix. There’s so much great material out there and so little time. I have 43 books on my bedside waiting to be read. (Don’t believe me – see pic attached). Note to self – DON’T BUY ANY MORE BOOKS.

Tendai Huchu’s first novel, The Hairdresser of Harare, was released in 2010 to critical acclaim, and has been translated into German, French, Italian and Spanish. His multigenre short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Manchester Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Gutter, Interzone, AfroSF, Wasafiri, Warscapes, The Africa Report and elsewhere. His new novel is The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician

Monday, June 15, 2015

Togara Muzanenhamo interviewed in Meander Magazine

Comfort in good times and bad

The Zimbabwean poet Togara Muzanenhamo (1975) is one of the guests at the  Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam. Sander de Vaan spoke to Togara shortly before his arrival in the Netherlands.

(from meander Translated using Google translate)
How would you like to present youself to the Dutch public? 
I was born in the Zambian city of Lusaka and raised on a farm about 50 kilometers from the city of Harare in Zimbabwe (the homeland of my parents). After school I started studying Business Administration at The Hague and Paris. And in The Hague, I started writing poetry. After my studies, I returned to Zimbabwe where I first went to work as a journalist and then as a screenwriter. In 2001 I moved to England to pursue a Master's in creative writing headed by Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy. Five years later, my first book, Spirit Brides (Carcanet Press), which was shortlisted for the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. In 2012 I was invited to the gala of the Southbank Centre's Poetry Parnassus in London, where I recited poems accompanied by Seamus Heaney, Kay Ryan, Wole Soyinka and others. My second collection, Gumiguru, appeared in 2014 and shortly thereafter followed Textures, published by amaBooks in Zimbabwe. Textures was written in collaboration with the Zimbabwean poet John Eppel.
Zimbabwean poetry is not well known in Europe.Where are you situated in the contemporary poetry of your country? 
It is true that the poetry from my homeland is not well known, but still has a number of poets who have received recognition in Europe and other continents. Take for example Julius Chingono, who appeared several years ago at Poetry International. And poets like Chirikure Chirikure, Chenjerai Hove, Tsitsi Jaji, Dambudzo Mara Chera, Charles Mungoshi, Blessing Musariri and Musaemura Zimunya are also reasonably known abroad. About my own position, I can not say too much, because my work has only been available since last year in Zimbabwe.
What is poetry for you? 
For most of my adult life poetry has been an integral part of my thinking. When I began to write poetry, I wanted to be no 'poet'. It was mainly my fascination with language for a word, the magic of the language rhythm, the power of an idea or a thought. And that is true to this day true: the more poetry I read, the more intrigued I become about her function.
Which poets have influenced you? 
The first poet that really touched me was Seamus Heaney. He gave his poems an honesty and depth which particularly appeal to me and there are always new things to discover, no matter how many times I read or listen to his poems. 
Furthermore, I admire the poet Charles Simic, because he has been able to change my perspective on the physical and emotional worlds of poetry. Les Murray was a great teacher about the landscapes and rural life with which I am familiar. And Musaemura Zimunya has very beautiful poems written about my country. Four books given to me in my early days as a poet have especially touched me: The Wild Iris (Louise Glück), Hotel Insomnia (Charles Simic), Trembling Hearts in the Bodies of Dogs (Selima Hill), and Spirit Level (Seamus Heaney).
What makes you think the difference between a good poem and an extraordinary poem? 
When I started to read poems, something interesting happened: the silence of the written word produced music in my mind, a music orchestrated with images that sprang from words and feelings - words, images and thoughts that came together in a sort of honesty or truth. A good poem arouses certain elements of that music, but an extraordinary poem pulls you into the words and feelings, so that you are part of the art. 
I experienced this for the first time when I read 'Postscript' by Seamus Heaney. Suddenly I realized I was part of the words and the music. 
How do you usually start a new poem? 
A poem can occur in different ways. Normally, it starts with an idea that sits in my head singing for a few days, weeks or even months. This happens especially when I'm not familiar with a subject and I need to do research for a text. As I sit pondering how to reforge a thought into a poem, I read as much as possible about the subject and create a first draft. Then I create a whole new set of sketches and trial versions until I am satisfied with the final text. 
But I begin a poem by regularly - usually at night - sitting at my desk and simply writing down everything that comes to me. Then it is kind of blindly walking around, when I'm never sure of the result and there is no specific goal. Sometimes I write three to five sketches, which I then store, and later, when I have time or I am looking for material for a poem, again take in hand.
I was charmed by your poem "Six francs seventy-five." Poetry can also provide comfort? 
I have always benefited greatly from reading poetry. Both in good times and in bad times. Many people resort to poetry at sad moments or in doubt. And listening to poetry also has a calming effect. Poems can cause emotional healing and growth.
Each night we bought red wine from a small supermarket 
Not too far from the Seine, where an overweight deaf counter 
Smiled whenever we Walked in. At the counter he read our lips 
As we bought the cheapest wine we could find - never any change 
Ashes each time we paid, we paid the exact amount of coins you 
Counted, one by one, into his open palm: six francs seventy-five.
Late in the evening you'd count up another six seventy-five 
And we'd walk through the narrow streets back to the supermarket - 
Fumbling through rich Parisians On Their Way to dinner; and you, 
Who loved the city for our anonymity, Became fond of the young counter 
Who Seemed alone and estranged and liked us too for the change 
We brought to his long nights, When He read our hearts and lips.
Remember, when, we figured out what he asked behind his mute lips, 
"Why come twice, why not save yourself the walk and buy four or five 
Bottles in the early evening? "We laughed, as nothing would change 
The way we bought or the walks we firing, hand in hand, to the supermarket. 
The following evening, as we paid, we looked into the eyes of the deaf counter 
And Said, "It's our habit" and left it at That; and he smiled, more so at you.
From That Night on - every night, this game with him and you; 
He'd lift his finger and wait for the silent words to form on our lips 
And we'd say, "it's our habit"; and he'd laugh - the deaf counter - 
As we played our game and all we needed was six francs seventy-five 
On those evenings near the banks of the Seine, in That small supermarket - 
Always paying the exact amount, never receiving any change.
Then you left and went away, and so heartfelt was the change - 
Each night I cried, and it's safe to say That he too sorely missed you. 
In the evenings I still walk the narrow streets to the supermarket - 
Remembering our walks in expensive coats, the jokes and your pale lips, 
The way you kept the coins in a velvet pouch - the six seventy-five 
That you'd always count into the soft, open palm of the deaf counter.
The night before I went away, I looked into the eyes of the deaf counter 
And told him I was leaving the next day, his round face changed, 
Something sad swelled in his young eyes as I Placed the six seventy-five 
Into his palm; he then signed to the sky, asking if I was on my way to you - 
But no words this time, I could say nothing, no words of you from my lips. 
I packed the bottles of wine and slowly Began to exit the supermarket.
The deaf counter ran to me, tapped me on the shoulder as I thought of you, 
With no change to his eyes, he shook my hand and silently Said with his lips, 
"It's our habit, and exactly six seventy-five." I smiled and left the supermarket.
From: Spirit Brides

Saturday, June 6, 2015

WIN-Zimbabwe on the launch of 'Textures'

 The Writers International Network of Zimbabwe newsletter, issue no 90 of 5 June 2015, covers the launch of John Eppel and Togara Muzanenhamo's poetry collaboration Textures.


The Harare launch of ‘Textures’ (2014, amaBooks) an anthology of poetry written by the duo John Eppel and Togara Muzanenhamo did have the classic feel of writerly openness coupled with rare and significant background detail which is never revealed in the written work. The launch of ‘Textures’ took place at the Book Café in Harare on Thursday May 21. 


(An excerpt from his interview with Beaven Tapureta (WIN) on the sidelines of the book launch)

“Young poets write in English because that’s how they feel they will get acknowledged or noticed but they do not have enough grasp of the language to use it in poetry. They can use it in prose but it’s different in poetry. Poetry is very subtle. There are some young poets who are starting to achieve profound poetry…. Problem with our children in this country is that they don’t read. You have to build up a basis, a tradition for yourself to be a writer. You have to read and know your poets…. If you want to write in English, read great poets who have written in that language. If you want to write in Shona, read great Shona poets…. Youngsters today are controlled by the digital world, television and internet – they hardly read. When you read something, it’s an effort, you take in material.” - John Eppel.

Photographs courtesy of WIN-Zimbabwe

Togara Muzanenhamo and John Eppel pose with their 'Textures' after the launch

Eppel autographs a copy of 'Textures' for a reader

Togara happily signs autographs

The silence of 'Textures' speaks between thoughtful Togara Muzanenhamo and David Mungoshi 

A meeting with Jane Morris (centre) of amaBooks, publishers of 'Textures', is always lively and inspirational. Here she is enjoying the launch with established writers David Mungoshi (on her right) and Memory Chirere (on her left)

Ignatius T Mabasa probes the poets
ZIBF Events Coordinator Mrs. Shato also came to listen to the poetry and discussion

Rumbi Katedza, distinguished film maker, chats with David Mungoshi

British Council (Zimbabwe) Director Samantha Harvey delivers her speech

From left: Jackie Cahi, Brian Jones and Jane Morris participate in a dramatic poem led by poet Togara Muzanenhamo (not in the picture)
Writer and publisher Ignatius Mabasa (right) in conversation with Togara

John Eppel (right) answers a question asked by Mabasa

Eppel reading his poem from 'Textures'