[Interview] Sarudzayi Barnes

Sarudzayi Barnes was born in Zimbabwe and was a student at Domboramavara Primary School before going on to Monte Cassino Mission and Harare High School. She is currently studying Law with the University of London.

She runs a publishing company, The Lion Press Ltd, which specialises in African and Afro-Caribbean children's stories in particular and other African and Afro-Caribbean literature genres in general. She also distributes and promotes books written in African languages.

Her books include The Endless Trail (Author House, 2008) and The Village Story-Teller: Zimbabwean Folktales (The Lion Press Ltd, 2008).

In this interview, Sarudzayi Barnes talks about her concerns as a writer.

When did you start writing?

I started writing when I was doing Lower 6 at Harare High School in 1990. I participated into a short story writing competition which was facilitated by the Curriculum Development Unit, which was based at the University of Zimbabwe, I think, but I am not sure. A few months after the competition, I received a prize of $50, which was a lot of money then. The judges invited me to go to the CDU because they wanted to encourage me to take writing seriously, and they also wanted me to develop the story further, but I ignored them. I did not go, I cashed my cheque and blew it up on something else.

In 1996 I wrote a play which I called "Sarudzayi", which I set at the University of Zimbabwe campus, because I thought U.Z. students were detached from real life out there. As students, we lived in a fantasy land, expecting well paying jobs, driving good cars, renting or owning immaculate flats or homes.

When I graduated with my B.A. in 1995, I was posted to teach in a rural school in Mavhuradonha, at Mavhuradonha School, that’s when it hit me that a university degree was not a passport to good living. But luckly for me, I soon left that job and got a better and more challenging job with the National Archives of Zimbabwe. I decided to re-write the play "Sarudzayi", but sadly I could not get a publisher. I wanted the play to be turned into a ZBC TV drama, and I gave a guy called Shoko my manuscript, and he just disappeared with it when he left the ZBC. My hopes were shattered, so I turned my mind away from writing.

In 2002, I was already living here in the U.K., I decided to write Zimbabwean folktales, I wrote about twenty of them (I still have the manuscript), and I began hunting for a publisher. I gave it to a friend, who said the way the folktales ended was too violent and no publisher was likely to publish them. Because I usually ended the folktales with the wrong-doer being punished, either being chased from the village, becoming insane or being killed, just like we were told these stories. I was frustrated and put the manuscript in a suitcase under my bed.

I was participating in a demonstration at the Lords Cricket Grounds in London in May 2003, because we wanted the England Cricket Board to boycott cricket games with Zimbabwe, and because I was one of leaders of the demonstrators, a guy called Ian Noah came to interview me. By then he was working for Intermedia Press, or I think it was his company I really don’t know. We spoke about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, and I told him about my desire to write something about Zimbabwean politics. He gave me his business card and said he would love to work with me, guide me on the project and help me by publishing my book. So I came back to Coventry full of ambition and hope, that at least I found someone who could help me air my views through writing. I started working on How Mugabe Mugged Zimbabwe (and Made Mugs Out of the Rest of the World), a title Noah suggested, straight away. I was documenting things from a journalistic point of view, so Ian Noah advised me to put a bit of analysis into the book. I approached a Zimbabwean academic called Collin Zhuawu who has a Masters in International Relations and together we worked on the book. We signed a contract with Noah, the book was due to be published on 10 December 2003 as print-on-demand, but that’s when we last heard of Ian Noah. We phoned his mobile several times and left several messages until we got tired, but he did not return our calls. The book appears on online bookshops but we never managed to buy copies of the book. I don’t really know what happened. Ian Noah was very keen to see the project succeed, and many of our friends who ordered the copies never got to get any, so I don’t really know what happened to Ian Noah. I don’t think he sold any copies at all. Whatever happened, I think, was something beyond his control, because he was a genuine person. Again after the failure of this project, I shelved writing, but in 2007 I decided to write again, because I had learnt about self-publishing. I thought of what could be a more pressing issue among my fellow Zimbabweans, then decided to write about problems faced by Zimbabweans who emigrate to the U.K., S.A., Canada, Australia and America etc, for both political and economic reasons, how they are leaving children to fend for themselves in Zimbabwe, or husbands and sometimes wives, for many years while they work and send money to their broken families. I thought about things like immigration issues, HIV and AIDS because the whole separation process bring in temptations. I also realised that HIV and AIDS are things many Zimbabweans are not comfortable to talk about, yet it’s something affecting us. So I wrote The Endless Trail and paid Author House £635 to have it published. They gave me 20 copies for free, and I sell the book through Lion Press Ltd.

My book was published on 13 March 2008. I was thrilled when I received the first copy. I went everywhere with it, showing anyone who cared to listen or to see it. But there are some people, I thought they were my friends, whom I gave free copies and up to now some of them haven’t even bothered to read the book! That’s when I realised that a lot of Zimbabweans don’t have a reading culture. I told myself that if I am to continue writing, I should aim to make my writings international and not Zimbabwean centred.

In July this year I decided to register my own self-publishing company, The Lion Press Ltd, so now I self publish my books and I also help other writers to get published. On 30 September 2008, I published The Village Story-Teller: Zimbabwean Folktales (which is basically that manuscript I had put in my suitcase in 2002 because I could not find a publisher). I improved on the stories and published them. The book has been well received by African children here in the U.K., some African-American children as well, who got the copies through my friend who is a talk-show producer, Fritz Kanyile Ka-Ngwenya of the Afrodisak Show. The book has been well received.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

I write about what I see everyday. I fictionalise things that I see or hear. So my work is a kind of socio-economic history. In The Endless Trail I wrote about real historical events, the formation of the MDC, the 1998 and 1999 ZCTU mass stay-aways, the queues for fuel, the tense political situation in Zimbabwe leading to the brain-drain.

I wrote about how Zimbabweans in the U.K. see Gatwick as maenzanise, where everyone works side by side, the Zimbabwean educated and those who were selling crafts in neighbouring countries or vegetable vendors; former house-maids now working side by side with their former employers in nursing homes and factories.

Who is your target audience?

Initially I wanted to target Zimbabweans and other Africans. Now I write for everyone, and I have changed my writing language and style as well, because in The Endless Trail I wrote a lot of Shonglish to retain the Africanness flavour, now I write standard English for all communities to read.

In the writing that you are doing, which authors would you say influenced you most?

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Alexander Kanengoni, Alexander McCall Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kei Miller (especially), Andrea Levy, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiongo.

I love Caribbean literature and I want to write my next book in Jamaican Patois. Kei Miller writes about everyday in Jamaica. He writes about the plight of gay people, gangsters, Rastafarians, oppression etc. I am a Rastafarian Sistren myself, and I kind of identify with a lot of things he writes about. When you read his books it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction. When people read The Endless Trail, they ask me if it’s a true story, and I say, no, it’s fiction, and still they want me to tell them what happened to Jenny, because I leave them in suspense, and I say I don’t know. So they want me to serialise the book. So now I am working on Just Another Day, which a sequel to The Endless Trail.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

It is very difficult to get published. If you do self-publishing, marketing is another big hurdle to cross. Unless you are well known and well connected, you can easily become frustrated. People generally look at your book, if it is published by a very big company. To make matters worse, it is difficult to get a wider African readership. They would rather read Danielle Steel than look at a fellow African writer, and it’s worse if they know you. They judge you by your appearance. I am not really bothered about making money through writing books, because I have realised that one can’t make a living from writing alone unless you become big like J. K. Rowling, so I will continue to write, work hard and self-publish, give a few free copies away and sell a few. One day my turn will come. Someone out there will realise my talent and who knows? Besides, when I write, it’s a legacy for my children.

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

I write about things I see and hear. That influences my writing. I studied history, and I write social history through fiction.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenge is writing something which is appealing to my readers. I overcome this by circulating my manuscripts to a few people of different backgrounds to get their opinion. In The Village Story-Teller: Zimbabwean Folktales I asked a few children to read my stories and asked them to jot down comments. So I got five children between seven years and 13 years to review my book, all from different backgrounds.

How many books have you written so far?
  • How Mugabe Mugged Zimbabwe (and Made Mugs of the Rest of the World) by Sarudzayi Chifamba-Barnes and Collin Zhuawu (Paperback - 10 Dec 2003).
  • The Endless Trail (Author House U.K., March 2008).
  • The Village Story-Teller: Zimbabwean Folktales, The Lion Press Ltd, U.K. September 2008 by Sarudzayi Chifamba-Barnes, Lynne Sykes, and Jeffery Milanzi.

Do you write everyday?

I don’t write everyday. I might go for weeks without writing. I write when I feel the urge to write, like a mother giving birth when she feels the urge to push. If I plan to write something, I sit by my computer and only end up playing Mahjong Solatire online. I end when I feel that my head is empty. I don’t stop until I empty my ideas on paper. I can go for the whole day or night, or just for an hour or less. It depends.

How did you chose a publisher for your latest book?

My latest book is The Village Story-Teller. I self-published it under my own publishing company, The Lion Press Ltd because I don’t want to go about looking for a publisher again. I want to control my sells, my profits or my losses. I like it. The disadvantage is with marketing. I am not good at marketing. I am good at telling stories.

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

Everything was cool with me. I work with a team of illustrators and I use the same editor. Raising money for production costs is the only difficult thing, but I have a steady job even though I don’t like it.

I enjoyed writing the stories, because I am a natural story-teller.

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

I wrote it for children, especially African kids in the Diaspora because I realised that with the amount of work we do here, it’s a ‘shift’ all the time and parents don’t have time to tell their children those kind of stories we were told under the moonlight in an African village. So I have kind of assumed the role of the village story-teller.

What will your next book be about?

I am writing a sequel to The Endless Trail, which focuses on the daily challenges faced by people in Zimbabwe, health issues, political issues and social issues.

I am writing about the challenges faced by the HIV-positive main character, Jenny, in her day-to-day life in Zimbabwe, the challenge of caring for two HIV-positive daughters, one who was raped by Tito, the gardener and infected with HIV when Jenny is in the U.K. where she is working as an illegal immigrant, and the other daughter who acquired HIV through mother-to-child-transmission. Through Jenny, I want the world to understand the plight of Zimbabweans who struggle to survive for each day, that’s why my book is called Just Another Day.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

To get Lord Chris Smith (former Culture Secretary under Tony Blair’s government) to write a review for my book. I felt highly honoured. And also to get Professor Terence Ranger, who is a Professor at Oxford University, to write a review for The Village Story-Teller: Zimbabwean Folktales. I feel highly honoured. It’s not easy to get such big names to sit down and write a review for a book. It is encouraging. Also to see people reading my books. It’s a great achievement. And just to see and touch the book itself and tell myself, this is me, this is my work! It’s a great achievement.

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Jonathan Masere said…
When it comes to writing and publishing, Sarudzayi is a trail blazer and her travails have paved a broad path for those of us who are following in her footsteps. I knew she had written a book, The Endless Trail for which she got a pittance but little did I know that she had previously written another one and saw not a single quid for her effort. It is from her experience that I quickly realized that the book business is a jungle in which the operative rule is eat-or-you-will-be-eaten or, as we would say it in Shona: kakara kununa hudya kamwe.

Unfortunately the publisher is always the gorged predator and the poor writer the helpless prey. Publishing is a very tough business. There is no room for sentimentalities. It is deeply disturbing that famous writers are living like paupers as publishers get rich. Once in a while, a writer strikes a rich seam of gold and does very well. Think of J. K. Rowling or Zimbabwe-born Alex McCall Smith. How many J. K. Rowlings are there in the world? I can safely say that Zimbabwe has a whole slough of writers like Alex. However, unlike said Ms Rowling and Smith, many will not get the recognition and the subsequent financial windfall befitting their effort.

Saru could have opted for the easy road of hawking her works to famous publishers but, I suspect, she decided to do it the hard way. With sheer will, she could have struck her own literary Comstoke Lode. Some of us are thankful she opted to take the tough road of starting her own publishing company, The Lions Press Limited. It was a tough gamble but for a tough and resolute Zimbabwean, she has fearlessly grabbed that bull by the horns. The responses have been very encouraging.

It is the story of the underdog boldly taking on the behemoth and doing well. Crooked publishers have been put on notice by Sarudzayi. It is comeuppance time and some of us will be on the side of the underdog. This one small step for this Daughter of the Soil of Zimbabwe is turning into one giant stride for the down-trodden writer.

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