[Interview] Rory Kilalea

Rory Kilalea has worked in the Middle East and throughout Africa, directing documentaries as well as in various production, script-writing and management positions. Films he has been involved with include Jit (1990); A Dry White Season (1987) and Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1986).

He has also taught broadcasting, writing and performance at the University of Zimbabwe as well as improvisational drama at the British Council in Athens, London, Johannesburg, and in the Middle East.

Writing under the pen-name, Murungu, his poetry and short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies in countries that range from Ireland; Malaysia; South Africa; the United Kingdom; the United States and Zimbabwe.

His writing includes the collection of short stories, The Arabian Princess & Other Stories (Zodiac Publishing, 2002); “Whine of a Dog” which was shortlisted for the Caine Prize 2000; “Zimbabwe Boy” which appears in Asylum 1928 and Other Stories (Fish Publishing, 2001) and was shortlisted for the Caine Prize 2002; and “Unfinished Business” which appears in Writing Now: More Stories from Zimbabwe (Weaver Press, 2005).

In 2005, one of his plays, “Zimbabwe Boy,” was adopted for the Africa Festival at the London Eye and has been performed at the National Theatre in London. Other plays he has written include “Ashes”; “Diary of David and Ruth” and “Colours.”

In a recent interview, Rory Kilalea spoke about his concerns as a writer.

When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer? And who would you say has influenced you the most?

I have always written. I suppose I knew that I would write when I was 11 years of age when a class was captivated by a story I wrote. I still have a copy of it. It was a transformational story about a young girl who becomes part of a vision that she saw.

Doris Lessing, Katherine Mansfield and [Joseph] Conrad were formative short story influences. What I found appealing about them was the fact that they were able to create in a short format, an indelible image which never left my imagination. I still think of “The Secret Sharer” or the “The Lumber Room” and imagine what these writers did with spare use of words to create a world of the ‘now’. It was then that I realised the short story is more than a simple ‘story’ -- it is a moment which can have great impact. Alice Munro does the same -- and even though I sometimes feel, when I am reading her, that I do not want to go further into the (often) dark areas of her characters, I am compelled to. Her skill is the teasing away of layers until you get to a core. These writers are masters.

Then I began to read local Zimbabwean writers -- [Charles] Mungoshi captivated me. He dared to write about and think things which I had not seen written by a black Zimbabwean and in his writing, he was able to show the same struggles, the same hopes as all Zimbabweans -- and of course his writing was of such quality that it had a universal appeal. [Shimmer] Chinodya is also another example of daring to say what others feel (or may feel) it is not correct, or politically correct, to record or explore. That is our function as writers -- to tell it as we see it. And these writers do.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

The role of an outsider looking in.

In what way are you an outsider? And, when you look in, what do you see?

Hmm … now here is a tough question.

Psychoanalysts would say that growing up as a poor white person in a black country may have been part of the reason that I was not part of the normal (whatever that means) white community; that I went to a non-racial school in Bulawayo; that my parents were very Catholic to the extent of praying that I would become their salvation by being a priest. But I tell you when it first occurred to me, I was standing against a mesh gate of our small house in Paddonhurst in Bulawayo and watching a machine tarring the road, splattering pieces of liquid tar into the air, smelling poisonous, but nicely intoxicating. And I refocused and saw a black boy on the other side of the road doing exactly the same as me -- I knew (just as I knew in the Zimbabwean writers I read later) that we were on a similar path. We saw similar things -- dreamt similar things -- but there was fence between me and the boy.

I am looking into a struggle of achieving and understanding our role as Zimbabweans and all of the strange contradictory nature of that.

I have left behind the intellectual romantic hopes of togetherness, and now watch with a detachment. As a result, without the anchor of my family’s faith, I have extracted a terrible price for being adrift. Feeling is different from observing and I have been left with the heart of a romantic and the mind of a cynic.

And there is another thing -- I do not fulfil the ethic of a Rhodie Rugger bugger. For example, I appreciate male beauty -- which of course is anathema to the president in his current situation. As much as I know that most of this rhetoric is politics, it does not ever make the ‘otherness’ go away. Perhaps I have always lived as the secret sharer and want to share that place with my readers.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

Very much. My life has been a disparate one and thus -- either through film making, the anti-apartheid periods, the war in Zimbabwe, living in the Middle East -- has always provided material.

Emotional values are of interest to me when you use different life experiences. For example, as a Zimbabwean making a film about an Arab wedding, observations become my palette I suppose.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face and how do you deal with them?

Finance. The work ethic to keep on doing the writing when I know that I am short of money and then have to go away on another venture to make films or do radio or whatever.

I try to be disciplined. This is much harder than anyone can imagine. The hurdle after a hiatus brings with it the terror of wondering whether what you write has any relevance or meaning or quality at all.

How many genres do you work in?

I think I have written about forty short stories. Five theatre plays. Zillions of film scripts and adverts. Many radio plays for SABC, Zimbabwe Radio and the BBC.

I have many published short stories all over the world; a collection of poetry; one children's book on Arabian fables; a book which is to-ing and fro-ing about Islam and life in the modern Middle East; three half completed novels and one that is complete and in the final stage of edit -- which is terrible.

Princess of Arabia, the book of folktales, was published by Zodiac Press. My short stories have also appeared in the Caine Prize anthologies and in Irene Staunton’s various anthologies. I have also been published in anthologies by Silverfish books in Malaysia, as well as in Ireland for the West Cork Literary Festival.

The other novel, as yet unfinished, is untitled and based on the corruption of life with rigid rules in Arabia.

Plays I have written include, “Friends” which is based on the life of John Bradburne, the man who lived with the lepers during the bush war and “Colours“ which was adapted for radio by the BBC.

Are there any links or connections between your writing and the work you are doing on film and radio?

The main connection is that it is communication.

I am currently writing another play for the BBC -- so the writing can join the disciplines together sometimes. The bad thing about it is that it does tire you creatively and then it is doubly difficult to get from a news-reading desk to the computer for a script.

Do you write everyday?

Yes, every day but not always on the same thing though. The hardest pieces are the ones I try to put on the back burner which is the worst thing any writer could do. For example, “The Reluctant Mombe” was really tough. I had the experience of meeting a woman in the situation of being forgotten as a person of age. To try and retain truth and be honest at the same time took some soul-searching as well as being ruthless.

The story began when I was employed by the BBC to interview old people who had been forgotten by their families and who where living in penury. To divorce oneself from the horrible reality of seeing old people who had grown up with hope and now felt discarded was very hard. Mortality and the finiteness of human loyalties and love were the issues I had to contend with and in fact divorce myself from when I wrote the piece.

The other hard piece is section of my novel which deals with Zimbabwe -- again the same problem -- divorcing myself from the realities of a hard-felt life.

What is the novel about?

The Disappointed Diplomat is about the role of a young man trying to forget his home in Zimbabwe and finding that home is not only a place but a state of mind. . He walks away from the woman he has fallen in love with and asks the question, "Perhaps the bus driver will know the way home…”

The man is trying to forget the heartache of a broken love affair -- both with his country and with his black girlfriend ( he is white). He has to deal with the expectations of the English establishment and, much like the people who search out spies for their own cause, he feels he is being courted for reasons beyond his comprehension.

He never does have the full answers. Perhaps the novel is more of a journey to a stage where he can at least ask the salient question knowing that there will be another journey ahead.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

The middle section of the novel which is about Zimbabwe -- the passion I have for my home and the plethora of ideas were too much for the shape and structure -- the old "more is less" dictum was very hard to follow.

I love Zimbabwe like no other place and can so fully understand the need to justify ones existence by having a piece of land -- which was why the war was fought -- or partly anyway. And perhaps that too is part of the problem -- that our unflinching loyalty to the land has caused a blinkered attitude to the realities of what and how we are governed. You see, like most of us in the Diaspora, the ‘Zimbabwe’ we think of is romanticised into a nirvana which in fact is not a reality.

I am working in the Middle East now as I could not afford to continue teaching at the University of Zimbabwe. and this poverty affects me. How does it affect people in the bush? I know how it affects them. But do I see the starving bellies and the hopeless eyes of the street kids? Ah no... just like the chefs I pass by in my car and wonder if the old man they are leading to beg alms for is really blind. Of course I know he is not but I also see the kids are hungry. I see people rolling up their windows as if they are trying to press a nosegay to their face to avoid a bad smell. Ah yes, I can see -- but I do not really look -- and that is a crime.

The mirror is an unkind place. Yet we all sit back and wait for the old man to die and wish for a better future. It was the same with Ian Smith and with Welensky etc .... a blinkered reaction to the reality.

I will never leave Zimbabwe for ever -- it is inconceivable -- I have lived in many places in the world picking up stories and experiences. But home is Zimbabwe. I do not think it will get better soon. Rankness in Denmark is not as easily assuaged as it was in the final act of Hamlet. From cheating sanctions during Smiths days to doing black market in Mugabe's days is the same behaviour and we have grown up to think only in those terms. To conceive of a straight society where you change money in a bank for real is ridiculous. We have never done it. That is how deep the level of damage has been.

What sets The Disappointed Diplomat apart from the other things you have written?

It is a novel. My metier is poetry and short stories.

I had too much to say. The long form was also a challenge and I had to push myself further

In what way is it similar?

Good question -- from the short form to the long form was the mission -- and finally I had to employ the same writing technique -- spare writing. I was not inclined to do that in the beginning and the first number of drafts were pedestrian and unprofessional.

It was a learning curve to be able to spill out as much as possible for the story -- then realise that the same techniques of short story could be used as well to convey meaning and narrative. I started by putting too much into the story -- overwriting and making basic errors. Re-reading ensured that I had to edit and make it more professional.

What will your next book be about?

An action and cruel novella about the undercurrents of life and the questionable morality of living in Dubai. Drug importation, pimping … the list goes on and on … despite the maxim of the prophet. A man would be married and have two boyfriends for sex. The more rules you impose on a people, the more they seem to want to break them. I would come home to my house and find blocks of pure resin being sliced up for sale in the market as unadulterated coke and dagga. Wrong?

Who can say? But it does beg many questions -- and perhaps I saw the similarity of the corruption of soul in our country to what the Arabs are doing in this plastic Dubai where western society has taken over their sleepy life and left them feeling disassociated.

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