[Interview] Arthur Gwagwa
Arthur Ernest Gwagwa was born in Chivhu, Zimbabwe.
Currently, he lives in London where he works as a mental health and family solicitor.
In this interview, Arthur Gwagwa talks about his books, His Story & Her Story (The Lion Press, 2010) and Turning Point (The Lion Press, 2010):
How would you describe the two books have written so far?
His Story & Her Story (The Lion Press, 2010) is the product of combined semi-autobiographies which attempt to tell the stories of migration and related issues in a very imaginative, creative and interesting manner.
It goes on to discuss general critical social issues in black and ethnic minority communities of Britain, France and the USA as well as issues of ethnicity, race and culture in former colonies such as Zimbabwe, Jamaica and South Africa.
The book also conceptually analyses the stories of migration from a social science perspective and it shares some well-tested ideas and concepts that would help migrants, black people (especially black boys and ethnic minorities) in realizing their full potential under adversity.
Although His Story & Her Story contains hard truths which may hurt, telling a lie would have been worse.
On the other hand, Turning Point (The Lion Press, 2010) is a medley of 34 very short inspirational and multicultural family stories. The stories can be read in conjunction or individually and in no specific order. These stories reveal ways that have been shown to be helpful when interacting with children and young people. The stories can help children and young people learn about decision-making as well as help them learn how to appreciate and be proud of who they are and discover and realise their potential; maintain the right perspective in times of change; as well as work with others and deal with disappointments.
The strategies that are shared in this book can also help children, young people and families solve relationship problems, handle difficult situations and become more confident.
The central ideas behind the stories in Turning Point come from well-tested principles drawn from motivational psychology and they try to capture these five aspects of a person’s existence:
- Where they are coming from (Heritage),
- Why they were born (Purpose),
- What they can achieve (Potential),
- Who they are (Identity), and
- Where they are going (Destiny).
I worked on the two books simultaneously.
I began His Story & Her Story on 18 May 2010. Although I was done within two months, it took me another month of developmental editing before His Story & Her Story was published on 21 August 2010. At the same time, I had started gathering ideas for Turning Point together with my daughter. For its own part, Turning Point took me about a month to write although I continued editing it until 7 September 2010.
When you are choosing a publisher you follow your intuition.
It’s not so much about money although money is a crucial consideration. You want a publisher you can personally work with, who understands your work and you as a writer. You want a publisher who shares your values and world viewpoint.
The only disadvantage is that when your publisher becomes your friend also, you might lose focus in the process.
There is always a need for balance.
Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into His Story & Her Story?
I found writing about the Zimbabwean political situation in Chapter 1 very difficult.
I am aware that there are polarised views on what exactly happened in Zimbabwe and who to apportion blame to and I have friends on both sides of the political divide.
I also make conclusions about the existence of racism in the UK that are very uncomfortable. Most white people expect us to write about the dangers that our leaders present but, at the same time, they don’t want us to expose the racism that is here in the UK. You rarely find a book that contains the two because people who write books tend to belong to a particular ideological camp.
I feel that the first and foremost duty of a writer is to ensure that they don’t compromise the truth in order to be accepted. Once you do that, you lack credibility and your work lacks integrity.
My ethics as a lawyer helped me a lot in stating the truth without fear and prejudice but also, at the same time, allowed me to leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions.
And what challenges did Turning Point present?
With Turning Point I struggled to find how I could classify the book and what age group it would be relevant to.
Firstly, when I started the book, I thought I was writing a children book. Then, half way through, I found myself thinking that I was writing a book that adults who work with children could read as a ‘parenting guide’ of some sort. Ultimately, with my daughter's help, we finally agreed that this book could be read by both adults and children.
Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?
With His Story & Her Story, I enjoyed writing about ordinary people. For example, I write about a boy in Zimbabwe called Cliff who suffered from a hoarding syndrome. I also write about a boy in Leicester called Gerald and about a young asylum seeker called David from Ivory Coast.
I also enjoyed writing about personal experiences.
With Turning Point, I mainly like the experimental writing that I was doing. For example, I was combining cultures. I was writing about things such as a Masai herdsman who is also a baseball player. And, in the book, there is also a dog that uses an ipad and a donkey wearing iPods that dances to Usher’s "OMG".
I also liked the underlying political satire in some of the stories in Turning Point.
What sets Turning Point and His Story & Her Story apart from other things you've written?
In the past, I have been writing mainly for Zimbabwean online newspapers as well as in academic circles. His Story & Her Story is a culmination of all the work that I have done so far. I think it signifies a maturation and combines both the factual and the conceptual.
On the other hand, the stories in Turning Point might have a multicultural, global appeal. I was also experimenting and having fun with native languages and at the same time trying to put the message out there. So, you might find a few Chinese, Ndebele, Shona, Yoruba and Zulu phrases in some of the stories.
Although the two books are different, they are similar in that all my works portray the enduring values of audacious hope, tenacious faith and abiding love. I am motivated by love in everything that I do and this shows in all my works. Although I write about many things, my themes also tend to gravitate towards hope and the vision of my work tends to gravitate towards the creation of a Zimbabwe which is akin to a theme park, fun within and secure without, which would enable us to raise confident and secure children.
What will your next book be about?
I am working on a Shona novel called Togarasei which tries to contain the essence of the social strife our country went through in the past decade, where we went wrong and the lessons we can learn to create the Zimbabwe our children will be proud to call home and in which they can confidently come of age.
I am also plotting a TV drama series based on my love for the musicals. This will take time to produce as it is a complicated project.
I have attempted to write for theatre before but got discouraged when my first script came back with several recommendations from Royal Court Theatre. I would also like to give writing for theatre another go.
In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?
I was mainly influenced by Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian-born Jamaican, in my writing style. I was equally influenced by Barack Obama. These two authors have the ability to seamlessly weave the factual and the conceptual without losing the plot.
I was equally influenced by Myles Munroe who is a personal friend and mentor.
My descriptive writing on Zimbabwe in the fifth chapter where I write passionately about my native village in Chivhu was influenced by my early readings of Charles Mungoshi and Shimmer Chinodya.
My journalistic approach in the final chapters was influenced by several British journalists.
How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?
I am a migrant.
In my introduction, in His Story & Her Story, I state that "When those who don’t have personal migration experiences try to write [our] stories, their versions may lack a personal touch and the raw emotions associated with migration. My credentials as a migrant who grew up very poor, my struggles to fit both in Zimbabwe and in Britain mainly pushed me. In Zimbabwe I often felt I didn’t belong because of the ‘cast system’ which tends to favour particular tribes, academics and others who are considered to have made it in one way or the other. In Britain, as an immigrant, I feel I have to prove myself every day."
What are the biggest challenges that you face?
I can be a little insecure especially if people who are close to me try to belittle or invalidate my ambitions. But I am developing the emotional intelligence to deal with this.
I am very creative but can also be highly emotional and this doesn’t help. Unfortunately, if you take away the emotions from a writer, you have killed that writer, so I suppose most writers and artists struggle to maintain a balance.
My second biggest challenge is in the marketing of my work. I am naturally not a marketer but since I believe that what I write can help to change other people’s lives, I am not ashamed to sell my books.
Do you write every day?
For the past four months I have been writing every day. I have done two books and am working on a Shona novel now. However, the bulk of the time is spent in editing and proof reading.
The main writing itself is not a big problem but making it all perfect is a big problem since English is not my first language.
I only write when I am inspired. I usually go to the park, speak with my daughter or watch children's programmes of TV and I get some ideas and jot them down in a small notebook which I keep all the time.
Possibly related article:
Tendai Huchu [Interview], Conversations with Writers, October 25, 2010