[Interview] Bryony Rheam

Bryony Rheam is a Zimbabwean writer.

Her short stories have been featured in anthologies that include Short Writings from Bulawayo I, II and III; Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe (‘amaBooks, 2008); Laughing Now (Weaver Press, 2007), and Women Writing Zimbabwe (Weaver Press, 2008).

Her first novel, This September Sun was released from 'amaBooks in 2009.

In this interview, Bryony Ream talks about her writing:

How would you describe your novel, This September Sun?

This September Sun is a mystery/romance novel. It may have a deeper meaning and could be read as having post-colonial undercurrents, but that was not the main reason why I wrote it.

It's about a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe who longs for a more exciting life elsewhere. She returns to Zimbabwe from the UK when her grandmother is murdered and is forced to face some hard truths about her family history.

The novel begins on the day Zimbabwe gets its Independence from Britain and it charts the changes, both good and bad in Zimbabwe over the next 25 or so years.

The main character, Ellie, struggles to find an identity for herself in a country where she feels increasingly sidelined. She never really feels she fits in in Britain either.

What would you say was the aim behind your writing the novel?

To tell a story.

Perhaps also to express something of myself. I'm very much like Ellie - I don't feel I fit in anywhere in particular.

Who is your target audience?

I suppose it would be Zimbabweans of my age group, but it seems to have appealed to a wide range of people of varying age groups and racial backgrounds.

I do feel my own age group and those younger than me don't really have a 'voice' which represents us. A lot of Zimbabwean writing has centred on the war, but if you were born within the last 35 years, the war doesn't have so much relevance.

For people of my generation, we tended to be brought up on stories of the war and I feel the older generation want to hang on to the bitterness and loss associated with it ... It holds you back from looking forward and living in a present which isn't weighed down with racial politics ... I think my generation would like to live 'normal' lives, not worrying about the legacy of the past.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

Many people think that This September Sun is a true story, but it isn't.

I do draw on personal experience, but can quite honestly say that no event is absolutely true in the novel and no character is a true copy of someone I have met in real life.

Which authors influenced you most?

I think Graham Greene and Virginia Woolf.

I love the way Greene writes a story that indirectly raises lots of philosophical questions. I like the stream of consciousness style of writing of Woolf's and how the smallest things have the greatest significance.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concern is to tell a good story, one that makes you think and one that you get so involved in, that the characters live on beyond the closed book. I don't want to get bogged down with delivering a specific message.

I really enjoy writing and feel such a sense of accomplishment when I have finished something.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

At the moment, I have a full-time job and two young children. There isn't much time for writing in my life!

I also feel that the western publishing world is suspicious of white fiction writers from Africa. It would be easier for me to write my memoirs!

I think that western publishers feel that white writers cannot possibly give an 'authentic' view of Africa. The West tends to see famine, wars and AIDS as 'Africa' and feel uncomfortable about publishing stories of middle class people who are not struggling to survive.

I think this is because the West still carries the 'white man's guilt'. They also have a certain idea of Africa and want that image to be fulfilled.

I actually find African readers and publishers far more sympathetic. I have been really pleased to receive so many positive comments about my writing from black readers.

When did you start writing?

Ever since I was a child I've been writing something.

I stilll have a little book of stories that I wrote when I was about 11 about a dog called Merlin. I always dreamed of being published and used to send stories off to various publishing houses which, of course, were turned down at that stage.

I started writing short stories in my early 20s. At the end of 2002, I saw 'amaBooks' advert looking for short stories for their first anthology, Short Writings from Bulawayo, and I sent off "The Queue", a story I had started writing a couple of years earlier.

"The Queue" is about an elderly white woman who cannot cope with the circumstances in which she is living. She has to deal with petrol queues, rapid inflation and just the general difficulty of living in Zimbabwe if you have little money. She thinks back on her life and tries to come to terms with her loneliness - her son lives in Australia and her husband is in a home as he has Alzheimer's. The story ends with the woman's death.

Do you write everyday?

I wish I did!

I write very erratically.

I lack discipline, I'm afraid!

What motivated you to start and keep working on This September Sun?

I was in London having a conversation with two friends. One of them happened to mention that at Independence, the British flag was burned at Brady Barracks. Thus, the first line was born!

After that I joined a writing group. It was great having a weekly deadline to meet. I am not very disciplined on my own though and after I left Singapore, which is where I had joined the writing group, I became lazy and wouldn't write as often.

It was only when my daughter was born that I began to write again - every time she went to sleep! I did a lot then and then I had a couple of weeks when I was by myself and I used to sit for hours and write. I was determined to finish it.

It took me about 10 years to write the novel.

The parts of the novel which are set in the 1940s and 50s were the hardest to write as I had to get all the historical details correct. I did a lot of research to get them right.

I actually enjoyed the research the most as I really loved hearing all the interesting stories people had to tell. I learnt a lot - like the fact that you could buy wonderful ice cream in Abyssinia during the Second World War!

The novel was published in Bulawayo at the end of 2009. I knew Jane and Brian of 'amaBooks as they had published my short stories previously.

What sets the novel apart from other things you've written?

My short stories deal more directly with the political situation in Zimbabwe, whereas the political situation is more in the background in my novel.

The novel is similar to the short stories in that it's about relationships between people and how we are all products of our environment.

How would you compare writing short stories to writing novels? Is the process the same?

It's completely different, although I still have to manage to write a short short story - I tend to write rather long ones!

It's easier to write the short stories because you can get to 'the point' more easily.

What will your next book be about?

It's going to be a murder, also set in Bulawayo, but this time it's a murder that will have to be investigated and the murderer discovered.

How many books have you written so far?

Just the one book, This September Sun, published by 'amaBooks in 2009.

I've also had short stories published in the following anthologies:What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Having This September Sun published. It was a major achievement for me!

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