Tag: NoViolet Bulawayo

Perspectives on Zimbabwe’s literary scene as Caine Prize returns

It is 14 years since the inaugural Caine Prize for African Writing was awarded to Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF). And while the fortunes for the Prize – one of the most prominent for African writing – have grown, the same has not held entirely for Zimbabwe’s local literary scene.

Once a prestigious event attracting regional and international visitors, ZIBF now goes by largely unnoticed. Vibrant writers’ groups like Zimbabwe Women Writers (ZWW) and the Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe (BWAZ) have faded into near oblivion, their prolific writers’ exploits no longer published. Kingston’s – one of Zimbabwe’s flagship bookstores – has closed down its main branch on Harare’s Second Street thoroughfare, the office space now occupied by an insurance firm.

This week, however, the Caine Prize returns for the first time to Zimbabwe with its annual workshop and public events to be held over two weeks between Harare and Mutare.

“Our return is partly based on the high number and quality of entries we receive from Zimbabwean writers, and the funding conditions that make such an expensive enterprise possible,” says Lizzy Attree, director of the Caine Prize for African Writing. “The Caine Prize has long wanted to hold a workshop in Zimbabwe and support Zimbabwean writers, but has not felt the environment was right until recently.”

Amid the economic and political decline that has exacerbated, and even prompted, the shrinking of the nation’s literary space, writing and publishing have continued. The Intwasa National Short Story competition still features as a prominent part of the Intwasa Arts Festival which takes place every year in Bulawayo; an award in the name of the late celebrated writer Yvonne Vera, who died in 2005 aged 40, is given as part of the competition. At the same time, Weaver Press and amaBooks – local publishing houses – continue to produce reputable titles of Zimbabwean fiction and non-fiction.

Two Zimbabwean writers, Brian Chikwava and NoViolet Bulawayo, have also won the Caine Prize with Bulawayo in particular going on to enjoy great success with her debut novel We Need New Names. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year and this year the winner of the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature, the novel’s first chapter is the 2012 Caine Prize winning short story, “Hitting Budapest”.

NoViolet Bulawayo. (Pic: AFP)
NoViolet Bulawayo. (Pic: AFP)

Beyond these successes, however, Zimbabwe’s literary space remains insular.

“Unfortunately reading, outside school or college syllabi, is not a priority for many people in Zimbabwe,” says Jane Morris, co-founder of amaBooks Publishers. “There are people in the country who do buy new books, but the number of such buyers is limited and discerning.”

Facing resource challenges and limited sales, Morris adds that the publishing house has had to become very selective in what it chooses to publish, at times turning down viable manuscripts. While a partnership with the Caine Prize to locally publish its annual anthology is helping to raise amaBooks’ profile, Morris again cautions that sales have been limited.

Young writers
Another issue that is immediately apparent is the dearth of young Zimbabwean writers being published.

“Of course, much can be done to augment literary spaces which already exist,” suggests Novuyo Rosa Tshuma who is one of the few currently published Zimbabwean writers under the age of 30. “However, I don’t believe young writers should wait to be spoon-fed.”

Tshuma, who is 26, bears testament to the fact that there is still a space for young Zimbabwean writers to claim, both locally and internationally. A previous winner of the Intwasa competition who has had her short fiction published in local anthologies by amaBooks, Tshuma has since gone on to release a novella and short story collection titled Shadows, which is published by South Africa’s Kwela Books. She is currently studying towards a Master of Fine Arts with the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the United States. At 22, she participated in the 2010 Caine Prize Writing Workshop held in Kenya.

“The question is, if an opportunity were to present itself today, would you have something written down on the page?” she asks.

Tshuma’s question is not easily answered, with a range of factors – some already highlighted – affecting young Zimbabweans’ endeavours, or lack thereof, into creative writing.

But it is one that fellow contemporary author, Tendai Huchu, would answer in the affirmative, having published his novel The Hairdresser of Harare with Weaver Press at the age of 28.

“What I believe though, with no empirical proof, is that, because Zimbabwe has a disproportionately sized diaspora, the nation’s literature reaps the benefits of having practitioners who interact with ideas from all across the world,” opines Huchu. “And that can only be enriching.”

Migration and transnationalism are prominent themes in Zimbabwean literature of the post-2000s; a trend underscored by the mass exodus of nationals during the political upheaval of the time.

Harare North, Chikwava’s novel offering, is set in London, for instance, while the protagonist in Bulawayo’s book, Darling, moves to Michigan to flee the political chaos of her Zimbabwean homeland. Guardian First Book Award winner, Petina Gappah, also wends in narratives of Zimbabwean life abroad into her 2009 short story collection, Elegy for Easterly.

But the Caine Prize is not without its critics, many of whom feel the initiative peddles an ideological agenda that provides a template of how to write about Africa, something ironically satirised by past Caine Prize Winner, Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainaina.

“Unfortunately, it makes bigger headlines to critique writing on the basis of subject matter, than on the basis of literary or linguistic style and accomplishment,” states Attree, adding that the hope of the Prize is to provide a window into a continent often misunderstood in the West. “If this window involves telling tales that are hard to read or which detail the often terrible events that occur in countries all over the world, then so be it.”

In dismissing the idea of an ‘authentic’ African or Zimbabwean narrative, and producing texts about such a space, Tshuma concurs.

“I encourage every writer to discard this word, ‘authentic’, from their vocabulary when writing,” she says. “There are many different Zimbabwes and different ways of seeing Zimbabwe; I don’t feel confined at all.”

Selected from seven African countries, the 13 workshop participants will each produce a publishable short story to be featured in the 2014 Caine Prize Anthology. The workshop runs from March 21 to April 2, with the writers also visiting with schools and engaging in public talks.

Fungai Machirori is a blogger, editor, poet and researcher. She runs Zimbabwe’s first web-based platform for womenHer Zimbabweand is an advocate for using social media for consciousness-building among Zimbabweans. Connect with her on Twitter

NoViolet Bulawayo makes Man Booker Prize longlist

Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo is the only African on the Booker longlist that includes celebrated authors like Colm Tóibín and Jim Crace. She’s on it for her debut novel We Need New Names, set in a shantytown called Paradise in Zimbabwe.

The longlist for the prize, one of the English language’s top fiction awards, names 13 writers from seven countries.

Selected from 151 titles, it also includes authors from Britain, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Malaysia and Ireland.

Announcing the list, the judge Robert Macfarlane said: “This is surely the most diverse longlist in Man Booker history: wonderfully various in terms of geography, form, length and subject.”

“These 13 outstanding novels range from the traditional to the experimental, from the first century AD to the present day, from 100 pages to 1 000, and from Shanghai to Hendon.”

If you thought the name NoViolet Bulawayo is an improbable one, it’s probably because hers is a moniker. Born Elizabeth Tshele in 1981 in Tsholotsho, in the south of Zimbabwe,  she moved to the United States when she was 18.

NoViolet Bulawayo. (Caine Prize)
NoViolet Bulawayo. (Caine Prize)

A previous winner of the Caine Prize, she is also the recipient of the Truman Capote Fellowship. She won the Caine Prize in 2011 for the story Hitting Budapest, included in her debut novel as the first chapter.

The beautifully written story is told using a deceptively simple but mature child narrator. It begins: “We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I’d die for guavas, or anything for that matter. My stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.”

In total, seven women are on the list, the others being Alison MacLeod with Unexploded, Charlotte Mendelson with Almost English, Canadian Ruth Ozeki with A Tale for the Time Being, and New Zealand’s Eleanor Catton with The Luminaries.

The judges will meet again in September to decide a shortlist of six books and the winner will be announced at a ceremony on October 15 in London. – Percy Zvomuya and Reuters.

This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian.

African debut novelists to watch out for

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo and Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi are two highly anticipated books by debut novelists. Bulawayo won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story “Hitting Budapest” about a group of children navigating life in a Zimbabwe shanty town. Read it here. She turned it into a full-length novel, which I was fortunate to get an advanced reader copy of. The book is scheduled to be released on May 21.

I first encountered Taiye Selasi on a radio interview. She shared her experience of meeting renowned author Toni Morrison who encouraged her to write after she shared her love for the craft with her.  Her first short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls” was published in Granta in 2011 and featured in The Best American Short Stories of 2012. Ghana Must Go has generated a lot of hype in the literary world thanks to rave reviews by Morrison and Salman Rushdie.

A common thread in Bulawayo’s and Selasi’s novels is the issue of home. Where in the world do the characters fit in; where do they call home? Both writers show how immigrants fit in (with mixed results) when they move to America, and how they relate to the folks they left the longer they stay away.

We Need New Names


The story is told from the point of view of 10-year-old protagonist, Darling. We first meet her and her friends Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina as they cross a forbidden road which takes them from their shanty into a nice suburb called Budapest. She describes Budapest as having big houses, with satellite dishes on the roofs, neat gravelled yards, tall fences and huge trees heavy with fruit. And for this group of hungry children, it’s the fruit they’re after – guavas. Though they know not to overindulge due to the resulting constipation, they still do because the guavas are the only way to kill the hunger.

As each day passes every one of them shares their dream of leaving for a better place. Times are tough in Zimbabwe; economic and political instability have rocked the foundation of many people’s lives. Jobs and money are scarce, and those with means (or sheer courage) have fled, often leaving behind the elderly and the very young. Darling’s dream is to go to America, to be with her Aunt Fostalina. Her friends mock her, saying this will never happen but she hangs onto it against all odds. They each hang on to the promise of a better future, elsewhere.

Darling eventually gets her chance to move to America but not before bearing witness to some pretty grim happenings that could have been pulled from the front page of Zimbabwean news dailies. These would otherwise be painful encounters to describe but Darling’s naïveté and innocence take away some of the ugliness.

In the second half of the book, Darling is now in America living with Aunt Fostalina and her family. She bears the bitter cold winters and homesickness with a shocking level of maturity for someone her age. She reasons that she can deal with the snow and the absence of her closest friends because at least she has food, lots of it, and all kinds of it. Here, she doesn’t go hungry.

Though she struggles to make friends due to the typical, idiotic behaviour of school children, who make fun of others for looking and sounding different, she remains focused and adjusts quite admirably to her new life.

As time passes, the more she adjusts to America, the further she drifts from Zimbabwe and the people she left behind. This guilt eats away at her, and she becomes exiled in a sense.

Overall, this is an enjoyable book. Bulawayo does a good job of illustrating the effects of poverty on a nation’s psyche, the alienation felt by those who make the difficult decision to leave home, and their longing for home.

I had some minor quibbles. There are some areas of the book, particularly in the second half, that I felt could’ve been touched on better and perhaps even tied up a little neater for better flow. It felt a little disconnected at times and took away some of my enjoyment.

However, if this book and its writer has been on your radar, definitely give it a try.

Ghana Must Go


 “Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs. At the moment he is on the threshold between the sunroom and garden and considering whether to go back to get them. He won’t.”

These are the opening lines that introduce us to Kweku Sai, “a renowned surgeon and failed husband”. It is through his dying that we learn about him and the family he leaves behind.  In this three-part story, Selasi goes back and forth in time unravelling the tale of the Sai family.

As a young man, Kweku leaves Ghana on a scholarship to attend medical school in the US. In New England, he meets and marries Folasadé (Fola), a young Nigerian émigré. Fola abandons her dream of attending law school with the understanding that supporting Kweku’s dream is enough. Together they have four children – Olu, Taiwo, Kehinde and Sadé (Sadie).

Their story is typical of most immigrant families in the country: both parents working extremely hard to make ends meet while demanding academic excellence from their children so as to escape the traps of poverty with which they are all too familiar. Kweku loves his children but he struggles to understand and relate to them. His duty is that of a provider, not a friend or confidant. When the eldest three children are in their teens, an unfortunate situation spirals out of control and Kweku leaves. Fola must regroup, pick up the fragments and forge ahead.

The second part of the novel focuses on how Fola and her children, now adults, react to Kweku’s death. Each of them carries painful personal secrets. These secrets, like boils, are painful and need to be lanced and drained before healing can begin.

In the third part of the book they all agree to travel to Ghana (where Fola is now living) for Kweku’s funeral. Though not easy, their time there allows them to finally deal with the emotional fallout of events that have held them back for so long.  This time is fraught with incredible pain, confusion and mistrust but ultimately they emerge better from it. Kweku’s second and final departure brings his family together again in every sense, in contrast to his earlier exit which fractured familial bonds and sent them all reeling.

Selasi’s writing is enjoyable, poetic and quite dense, but at times the writing gets in the way of telling the story. Since the story unfolds through flashbacks, it’s often hard to follow who the speakers are and what exactly is happening. This is true especially for the first part of the book, which I found to be slower and difficult to read due to the amount of detail the reader has to wade through.

With the added psychological dimensions given to each character, it’s hard not to be affected by their pain and anger. My heart grieved for this family.

Ghana Must Go is definitely worth the read. I look forward to seeing how Selasi’s writing evolves during her career. There is strength in it that begs for more stories.

Bwalya Chileya was born in the early 80s and raised in Malawi and Zambia. She holds a masters in business administration and works as a project manager. She reads and writes stories in her free time. Connect with her on Twitter