[Interview_2] Christopher Mlalazi

In an earlier interview, Christopher Mlalazi talked about the effect the political environment in Zimbabwe has had on his writing.

Since then he has gone on to publish an award-winning collection of short stories, Dancing with Life: Tales from the Township ('amaBooks Publishers, 2009) and a novel, Many Rivers (Lion Press, 2010).

Dancing with Life was awarded the Best First Creative Published Book prize in the Zimbabwean National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA) and it received honourable mention in the 2009 NOMA Award for Book Publishing in Africa.

Christopher Mlalazi also received the 2009 Oxfam Novib/PEN Freedom of Expression Award for "The Crocodile of Zambezi", a controversial play he co-authored with Raisedon Baya. The play was banned by the Zimbabwean authorities.

In this interview, Mlalazi talks about Dancing with Life and the collaborative playwrighting he has been doing:

How would you describe Dancing with Life: Tales from the Township?

Dancing With Life is a collection of short stories which I wrote between 2004 and 2008.

I started writing them just after I had gone through the Crossing Borders, an online creative writing mentoring project, which was a British Council/Lancaster University initiative.

Before that I had been trying to write my novel Many Rivers, which was published this year by Lion Press (UK). I think delving into the short story genre came as a result of trying to find formula on how to tightly wrap up the novel, a thing I had been failing to do. I remember it didn’t take me very long to teach myself to do that with the short stories. Maybe it was also a result of the creative writing mentoring I had just done.

So, there I was, writing short stories as if I was possessed, and meeting with success on them. too. I remember I saw myself also starting to be invited to represent Zimbabwe in literature festivals and workshops around Africa, which was a pointer to me that I was now on the right track, that my stories were making an impact, and which writer would not like to see that happening to them?

To come back to the question, Dancing With Life is a reflection of the struggles and suffering of Zimbabwean people living in a disintegrating society with its farm invasions and our economy taking a nose-dive. I regard this short story collection as a series of snap shots of this trying period and I try to be as honest as I can in my depictions so as not to misinform readers. I try to be as near to the truth as I can get in the hope that this will leave people asking themselves deep mind-changing questions.

Are there any stories in Dancing with Life that were easier or more difficult to write than others?

Yes, there are some stories which were difficult to write, and there are some which were easy.

I would like to point out "Broken Wings", which depicts the rape of a young girl struggling to cope with her mother who is dying of AIDS, against the backdrop of the political control of food distribution and the breakdown of the health system. I remember one day when I was revising this story, I felt something tear in my heart, a feeling which, strangely, I had not experienced when I was writing the story. "Broken Wings" is so dark, it is so painful that I wonder how I managed to write it... I guess the truth sometimes can be very painful.

There are also the direct political stories, like "Election Day". These, I guess, were written in anger, when I was trying to laugh at the political machinations happening in the country and also trying to make my future audience, the reader, also take them in that light and really laugh at the stupidity of it all. We might ask, are somethings that are done for political expediency really worth doing? Is it really necessary to pick up a stone and chase an old woman for her vote?

Where and when was the collection of short stories published?

Dancing with Life was published by 'amaBooks Publishers of Bulawayo in 2008 and was launched at the Academy Of Music in May 2008 during the Bulawayo Music Festival..

In the past 10 years, 'amaBooks has risen to be one of the two leading publishers in Zimbabwe and being published by them has been an honour.

Also, 'amaBooks published my very first short story way back in 2003 and, ever since, they have published my short stories in every short story anthology they've published -- we have a long and fruitful history together. Every writer aspires to have their work published, for that is the reason that makes us take pen and paper and write isn’t it so?

Another big advantage in working with 'amaBooks is that they are in Bulawayo and it makes it easy to meet and discuss the work face to face, and also living in Bulawayo, they understand the cultural, the regional and political context of the stories.

I would also like to thank the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe Trust for funding this project because with the hyper-inflation Zimbabwe has experienced of late, the book would not have seen the light of day. Special thanks also goes to ama’Books publishers for taking up the project.

Again, I think the drive behind the need to have this book published was also an attempt by me to add my voice to the protest against the no rule of law phenomena that was gripping our country at the time of writing.

How has the book been received?

The book has been received well in literature competition because, in a space of a year, it now has one award and one mention in prestigious competitions. But I cannot say the same of the reading public, because, strangely, the reading culture in Zimbabwe seems to be dying and few people are buying books these days.

Being mentioned in awards has given me that extra drive to want to write more and better stories, and right now I am working on another novel which is almost finished.

Recently two of your plays caused a lot of controversy. Can we talk a little about them?

Both plays are political satires that question bad politics in the African continent.

The first one, titled "The Crocodile of Zambezi", tells the story of a geriatric leader who has come face-to-face with his alter-ego that is accusing him of mis-rule. This is the one I collaborated on with Raisedon Baya.

The other one is an adaption of one of my short stories, "Election Day", which appears in Dancing with Life. The short story was first published in the 2006 Edinburgh Review and it tells the story of a country on election day and the opposition leading the ruling party by a very wide margin. Everybody around the president of the country has panicked and they want to flee the country, fearing the masses whom they have been ruling badly, but the President is adamant and is insisting that he is not fleeing anywhere. When the final vote is announced, the ruling party emerges the winner and questions are raised about vote rigging.

How did the idea for these plays come about?

The plays came about through a deliberate act of reacting to the present political status quo of the country we live in.

Writers and artists are inspired by the moods of their surroundings.

Are your plays written exclusively for performance or will they also be available in print?

It is very difficult to publish in Zimbabwe at the moment because of the economic dynamics. So, for now, the plays are for stage only but we hope that one day we will be lucky and find a publisher who will take them on.

How did you and Raisedon Baya link up?

We met in arts circle. Bulawayo is such a small town and a friendship developed. We both have a healthy respect of each other’s work.

In 2006 we collaborated in a TV drama titled The King's Kraal which was flighted on national television. This was a very fruitful exercise, because it demonstrated to us that we click very well in such exercises. Then Raisedon came up with the concept for "The Crocodile of Zambezi". We tossed this around and finally came up with the script.

Raisedon did the directing.

How does the experience of writing a play with another writer compare to doing the same thing on your own?

Writing with another writer gives you purpose. You both put your all because you don’t want to appear to be the one who is slacking.

It is also exciting because you get to know a lot of new things from the other writer, like style and how far you can go on aspects or themes -- things which you, as an individual, might have considered no-go areas.

Collaborations are also good in the sense that if you both have names in writing circles, you increase your audience.

What are the challenges inherent in the exercise?

Working with a writer who is as good as Raisedon brings no challenges. You turn around the story. It’s a matter of coming up with an idea and you will be safe in the knowledge that it will be aptly treated when you toss it over to him. Besides being a good and creative writer, he is also a very brave writer.

Is this something you would do again?

Definitely. I would also like to urge other writers to invest in such exercises because we grow when we learn from each other.

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