Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Bongani Kona, shortlisted Caine Prize writer from Zimbabwe, interviewed in the Daily News

This year’s Caine Prize anthology, The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things has just been published in Zimbabwe for the local market by Bulawayo-based publisher, amaBooks.

The publication of this collection, the fifth of the Caine anthologies published by amaBooks, the anthology, packed with accomplished story-telling, includes pieces by two Zimbabwean writers. NoViolet Bulawayo, who won the Caine Prize in 2011, is featured in the book, as is Bongani Kona with his short-listed short story, “At Your Requiem”, from this year's anthology.

The Weekend Post this week spoke to Kona to about his newly found fame.
Below are excerpts of the interview.

Q: Can you tell us who Bongani Kona is?

A: Firstly, thank you so much for the interview. I’m a writer and editor based in Cape Town. I was born in 1985 and I grew up in Hatfield, Harare, and I lived there until I was 18. When I completed my A’ Levels at Prince Edward School I left Zimbabwe to go and study in South Africa and I worked as a freelance journalist for few years before I decided to go back to the University of Cape Town to study for a Masters in Creative Writing.

Q: Congratulations on being short-listed for the Caine Prize this year, it is quite an achievement. How did it feel to be catapulted onto the literary scene?

A: Thank you. It was really an unexpected gift but one that came at the right time. I think all beginning writers need encouragement. You fail more times than you succeed and it’s important just to keep at it.

Q: Your short-listed story, ‘At Your Requiem’, which appears in the Caine Prize collection for 2016, The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things, will be available to readers in Zimbabwe through the publication by local publishers, amaBooks. Is this your first publication in your home country? Is it particularly significant for you to have your work available to a Zimbabwean audience?

A: Yes, and it’s an incredible thing that the anthology is available for sale to Zimbabwean readers, and for me personally it means so much. No Violet Bulawayo, who is one of my favourite writers, also has a story in the collection.

Q: I understand that you are presently studying for a Masters degree in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. There has been a lot of discussion of late about the usefulness to writers of creative writing programmes. Do you think your studies have played a major part in improving your writing?

A: Yes, I’m currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at UCT and to be honest, I don’t think anybody will ever be able to give a definitive answer on the usefulness of creative writing programmes.
We’re all different and you know best what you need. I’d been working as a freelance journalist for many years and I signed up to the programme because I wanted to explore writing fiction. And in that respect, it’s helped develop my writing and it’s what I needed to do.

Q: What gave you the idea for ‘At Your Requiem’? It is a dark, painful story.

A: I wrote the story in November 2014 and I’d spent the first seven months of that year documenting cases of sexual violence for an NGO in Cape Town. And I think some of those experiences subconsciously worked their way into the story. But the spark for the story came from a poem with the same title. I don’t remember who wrote the poem, but I found it in an old copy of New Contrast, a South African literary journal. I was really moved by it, and everything else followed from there.

Q: Do you think that writing as a journalist has helped prepare you for being a writer of fiction? Are there any particular lessons that you have learnt as a journalist that you see yourself using in your creative writing?

A: Definitely. One of the most important things that journalism teaches you is to be observant and curious about how other people live and that’s been really useful.

Q: It’s probably a question you have been asked before but here it is again – what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

A: I would say read as much as you can and just write. Even if a word of what you write never gets published, it doesn’t mean you’re wasting your time.

Q: Are there any particular Zimbabwean writers you particularly admire?
A: I’m a big fan of Petina Gappah and NoViolet Bulawayo. I also admire Brian Chikwava, Panashe Chigumadzi, Tendai Huchu, Percy Zvomuya and of the older writers, Charles Mungoshi, Yvonne Vera and Dambudzo Marechera.

Q: What about in Africa?

A: There are too many but perhaps one way to limit the scope of the question is to say, from the books that I’ve read in the last year, which do I recommend? The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga, The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso, Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Tales of the Metric System by Imraan Coovadia and Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila.

Q: What are you working on at the moment?

A: I'm working on multiple projects at the same time and I’m afraid I can’t say more than that.

Q: I’m sure that being short-listed for the Caine Prize resulted in you being interviewed on numerous occasions. Is there one question that stands out in your mind as being a tough one to answer? If so, how did you answer it?

A: Actually, I've been lucky enough to have pretty straightforward questions thrown at me and none stands out as difficult to answer.

Q: Your parting shot?

A: Thank you very much for interview Jeffrey and again, it’s really amazing that The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things is available to Zimbabwean readers. It's a great collection of short stories by writers from diverse parts of the continent.

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