Interview _ Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende

Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende was born in Zimbabwe. She worked in Germany for a number of years before moving to Scotland where she was a student at the University of Glasgow. Currently, she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

One of her short stories has been featured in Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe (amaBooks, 2011).

In this interview, Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende talks about her concerns as a writer:

Do you write every day?

No. I do not write every day. That is in part due to time constraints but also because I spend a lot of time reading or creating stories in my head so that when I do sit down to write, I write as opposed to thinking.

I am putting together a short story collection and working on a novel.

I create stories while I am chopping vegetables or folding laundry. Then when I have half an hour to sit at my computer, it is to put down something. The writing usually ends because I have something to attend to, like the pot of burning stew!

Often times I have a notebook close by to jot ideas down as I go about my daily activities, including grocery shopping.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

So far the biggest challenge I face is juggling family life and finding the time to write. My daughters are 10, 8 and 5 (twins) and they require a lot of energy and attention, which leaves very little time for much else.

I have learnt to be extremely efficient in my use of the little time that I do have.

When did you start writing?

I started writing and enjoying it when I was in Grade 7. I was about 12 years old.

Over the years I have written creatively and, also, as a scientist. Currently, I write literary fiction. Short stories mainly.

When I started writing seriously last year, I was doing it mainly for my friends who I went to school with and those who knew me growing up. Over the years many of them have suggested that I write and so I started a blog purely to share stories with friends and family. My friend, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, who I have known for 10 years, read some of my pieces and hooked me up with a couple of editors of literary journals and the journey began.

My most significant achievement as a writer has been to turn a personal passion into something to be shared as a way to entertain and perhaps to enrich others. This, above all else, gives me the greatest satisfaction.

My only hope is that whoever gets to read my stories enjoys them as much as I enjoy writing them. My hope is also that my stories appeal to those who are familiar with the environment and the experiences that inspire the stories as well as to those who enjoy a good, well-written story no matter what the story's context or background.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

My personal experiences have an impact on my writing in many ways. I recognize that my prose style borrows heavily on the oral, story-telling tradition that was very much a part of my childhood. My experiences living in the village provide a rich context for many of my stories.

My extensive travels and living in different countries has shaped many of my views and beliefs and this comes through in some of the characters I create, as does personal loss and challenges that I have had to face.

Being a wife and a mother also feed my writing tremendously.

Which authors influenced you most?

I draw inspiration from many writers from different backgrounds and eras. The ones that come to mind, because I read them over and over again, are: George Orwell, for his crisp uncluttered style; Milan Kundera, for his audacious and oftentimes crazy characters; Toni Morrison, for her uncanny ability to revisit the same subject matter and present it in unique ways through compelling characters and use of language; Chinua Achebe, for telling a story that would have an indelible impact on my young psyche as an African teenager in a predominantly white school; Tsitsi Dangarembga, for weaving an amazing tapestry in which I could locate myself as a Zimbabwean woman, in her book, Nervous Conditions.

There are so many more writers who have influenced my work and my desire to write and share my stories: Chris Mlalazi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Charles Mungoshi, John Eppel, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Yvonne Vera and so on and so forth.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My one major concern is the fact that there seems to be an expectation that as a writer who is Zimbabwean and therefore African, I cannot create art for art’s or write for writing’s sake. There seems to be this expectation that as a writer I have the responsibility of being a good ambassador for country and for continent.

What concerns me is the definition of good ambassador. Who is articulating it and the parameters that are used to define the 'good ambassador'? I live in angst over the fact that I may be accused of pandering to the west by presenting an Africa that fuels their hunger for sad stories of war, boy soldiers, famine, poverty and corruption. It seems that this is quite an issue based on the criticisms that have been leveled against contemporary writers whose work I identify with.

I think, for me, the best way to deal with this issue is to simply write what I like and to tell stories that help me make sense of my own world. Anything less than this, writing ceases to be the joyful passion through which I can be fully myself.

I also accept that inherent in the decision to get published is the risk of uncomfortable scrutiny and criticism. Not everyone will like what I write ... that is totally fine.

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