Friday, October 28, 2011

[Book Launch] Mad, Hopeless & Possible

On October 27, 2011, the Adult Education College in Leicester was the venue of the launch of Siobhan Logan's latest poetry chapbook, Mad, Hopeless & Possible: Shackleton's Endurance Expedition (original plus, 2011).

The title of the chapbook comes from Sir Ernest Shackleton himself who rated applicants for his legendary 1914 Antarctic Expedition as "Mad, Hopeless & Possible". The chapbook also weaves in the hidden shadow-story of the Ross Sea Party, his supply team, who were marooned in the white wilderness just as war consumed Europe.

Leicestershire author Mark Goodwin says, "Siobhan Logan's Mad, Hopeless & Possible lifts the reader out of their warm armchair to place them among the stubborn men of Shackleton's 1914 Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

"This history of polar exploration is at once effectively informative and dramatically powerful: smooth, economic prose offset against haunting poetic soliloquies. It's as if Logan has pulled desperate men's voices out of sub-zero winds."

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

[Interview] Octavia McBride-Ahebee

Octavia McBride-Ahebee lives in Philadelphia in the United States.

Her work has  been featured in journals and magazines that include  Damazine: A Literary Journal of the Muslim World; Fingernails Across The Chalkboard: Poetry And Prose on HIV/AIDS From the Black Diaspora; Under Our Skin: Literature of Breast Cancer; Sea Breeze: A Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writing; The Journal of the National Medical Association (Art in Medicine Section) and the Beloit Poetry Journal.

Her poetry collections include Assuming Voices (Lit Pot Press, 2003) and Where My Birthmark Dances (Finishing Line Press, 2011).

In this interview, Octavia McBride-Ahebee talks about her concerns as a writer:

How would you describe your latest book, Where My Birthmark Dances?

My newest collection of poetry, Where My Birthmark Dances was published this past summer - 2011 - by Finishing Line Press. In it I present various human relationships within the context of global inequality. Never are my subjects victims. They seek to be victorious despite great odds.

"Where My Birthmark Dances", the lead poem of this collection, exemplifies the tenor and intention of this project. Told through the voice of a Haitian child, whose mother has left him and Haiti to seek a some fortune in North America as a nanny, this poem invites the children the Haitian nanny is now caring for to consider her, to consider where she has come from, what she has left behind and what physical journey has brought her to them. "Where My Birthmark Dances" is the direct appeal of a small boy, a son, to the children now being cared for by his mother; it is an appeal to them to know who she is and to love her in his absence.
… my mother battled waves
as tall as a thousand ice-cream sundaes piled high
to be there with you
to push back the hair from your face
so your eyes - unobstructed - could dream big

wearing a pink dress, patterned with rainbows
smelling of moth balls, she left me
under the guard of a mosquito net
perfumed with insecticide and the salt of her own tears
in the month of May when the ocean felt young and full of itself

from the harbor named peace she boarded a boat
with the madness of the history of Haiti holding her hand
with its Boogie pushing her to you
with her fear eating the ocean’s confidence …
What is your next project?

I am working on a collection of love stories set in Cote d’Ivoire because I was so in love when I lived there and I was surrounded by so many stories of love.

Who influenced you the most as a writer?

A few days after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus wrote a letter of gratitude to his former elementary school teacher-Louis Germain. Camus essentially stated that it was Germain’s recognition of his humanity and the nurturing of his intellect that had left an indelible impression on Camus and paved the way for his literary successes.

I taught for nine years as a fourth grade teacher at the International Community School of Abidjan, in Cote d’Ivoire. As a gesture of thanks and in recognition of my influence on her daughter, at the close of a school year, a parent gave me a copy of Camus’ letter to his beloved Germain. To say I was touched would be an understatement. But, I, too, as a writer, know so intimately the profound influence a teacher can have on his or her student.

I share all of this as an oral libation to Rose Martin and as recognition to those first educators in our lives who ignited those passions that would come to guide our existence. Martin, now deceased, was a teacher at the Overbrook Elementary School, in Philadelphia. Each year she organized the Black Poetry Panorama, in which just about every student, from kindergarten to sixth grade, had to learn and recite several poems for this huge and anticipated event.

Imagine a community of about 400 households filled with African-American children learning poems by Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Nikki Giovanni, Claude McKay, Robert Hayden, James Weldon Jonson, Gwendolyn Brooks and Countee Cullen to name a few.

This was more than 40 years ago and even my mother, who now has Alzheimer’s, can still recall and recite Langston Hughes’ poem "The Negro Mother" because of the time she helped me to memorize this very long poem.

I came of age in a school setting and a neighborhood community that saw magic in words knew the power of a poem to inspire and respected the writer as one who could be part of a vanguard.

At this time I was also very much influenced by my father and his passion for learning about the African continent. As a boy, he had spent many summers with his aunt, who lived in Oxford, Pennsylvania, the home of Lincoln University, where many African students attended, like Nigeria’s first president Nnamdi Azikiwe; Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah and Namibia’s SWAPO Chairman Mose Penaani Tjitendero. There was a clear affirmation in my early life that the world was big and I could be a part a vital player in it.

All of this marked my literary awakening as a young student, but not yet as a writer. It was when I entered junior high school and attended a small, very progressive all-girls Catholic school that my political awakening was sudden and intense. My teachers were nuns, who did not wear habits, had spent years in Central and South American countries working with displaced, landless farmers and using the philosophy of liberation theology as their guide. They were radical women who introduced me to the art of Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Siqueiros as well as the writing of Ernesto Cardenal, Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz. These sisters with their wide view of the world fused my literary and political passions to make me want to write.

At age 18, in 1981, I visited China as part of the Williams College’s Winter Study Program and then that summer I went to Lesotho, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, which had just gained its independence . Later I would visit Kenya.

At this point, in addition to my beloved African-American poets and other writers from the Americas, I came to adore Audre Lorde, June Jordan and I was now taken with writers from Africa and its Diaspora. I read Maryse Conde, Eric Williams, V. S. Naipaul, Bernard Dadie, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Breyten Breytenbach, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Mariam Ba, and Ama Ata Aidoo.

When did you start writing?

I always wrote as a teen, but I consciously assumed the identity of a writer after my trip to China, in 1981, right when the Middle Kingdom was just reopening itself to the world. I was 18, African-American, female, traveling with an almost all-white American group and yet I had never consciously explored my perception of myself as an American.

Being the product of all-girl schools from 7-12 grade, I really had, unlike many African-American girls, a strong sense of allegiance to my female self, which would later be heavily reinforced by my reading This Bridge Called My Back (Kitchen Table Press, 1983), Where and When I Enter (Bantam Books, 1985), and the writing of Bell Hooks and Angela Davis.

But one evening in Shanghai, when I had long grown tired of my traveling companions and I wandered the streets on my own, an old man called out to me saying, “Please stop, you, the American.”

I was transfixed and surprised by my own vulnerability that his identification of me as an American created.

I did stop and asked how did he know I was American.

For the most part, the people of color that one saw then in China were a few African students and Africans affiliated with the diplomatic corps. He - Mr. George Lee - said it was the way I moved, the way I carried by backpack, the way I held my head.

He invited me to his home, a very humble apartment that he shared with his wife, son and daughter-in-law. They served me a feast, probably using most of their rations for the month and they, especially the son, told me of their lost years, of what had happened to them during the Cultural Revolution. The son had been a promising violinist and had his musical education interrupted and was forced to abandon his studies, leave the city and work as farmhand.

There was a violin in the apartment and I asked him to play and he was so ashamed, because he thought his skill level was subpar.

Well, I had played the violin throughout my school years and I showed him what subpar was.

He laughed and he played and that was one of the most memorable evenings of my life and it inspired my first short story, "The American and Mr. Lee".

How would describe the writing you are doing now?

I am fascinated by different cultures and what happens when cultures converge as well as why and how people move throughout the world. My two books of poetry are very much influenced by these interests.

My poetry, for the most part, is narrative vignettes that are dense and emotionally difficult, but they are honest. Just a few lines from, "The Welcome", my narrative poem that conveys the fear, the loss and the desperation of a woman fleeing her homeland exemplifies this point.

The Haitian narrator states:
… I fled home with 42 bodies of hope
in a boat built with none
a boat unfamiliar with the magnitude of sustained desire
spooked by the weighty fears
of those riding in it
and the moon's promise of crazed retribution
if it failed to move to the cruel rhythm of the lunar beat.

We held on with our dread and our vomit
and the death grips they gave
when we thought of home
and heads of lovers
- faces full of lashes and hyssop-stained breath -
without bodies
that rolled
with no wind behind them
down hills that hollered even when the sun was hanging …
In "In Defense of Flowers", I juxtapose the beauty of nature with the brutal nature of human beings. A Liberian woman, a victim of a horrific civil war, flees her fellow countryman and finds protection and sustenance from a flowering bush:
... I run to hide in the voluminous fury of a jasmine shrub in
its pale butter blossoms shield me
from the bloodletting
bathing its roots
I snort, in silent gulps, which claim my dignity
the calming splendor of the jasmine’s bouquet
I am rescued
for an instance
from a hunter high
on the dizziness of his own deprivation
I am rescued
from my brother
by a perfumed bush.
I am emphatic about the narrative, especially concerning the African continent, not be a singular one; one of only doom and gloom. There are many narratives to be told.

My time spent in Cote d’Ivoire was rich and exhilarating and truly celebratory. My daughter - Sojourner - was 7 when we left Cote d’Ivoire. Fluent then in English, French and making great strides with her Baoule and a student at a school where more than 70 nationalities were represented, Sojourner came to know the world with many hearts. So when we left Cote d'Ivoire due to its civil strife and landed in Philadelphia, my hometown, Sojourner was decidedly unimpressed.

It was not my city that was as disappointing as it was the general value system held in esteem here, in the States. Kids laughed when they discovered she spoke other languages. They, as well as adults, cringed when she shared what foods of the world she loved. On dress down, when students could shed their uniforms for less formal wear, Sojourner insisted on wearing clothing made of material with intricate designs that told stories of its own. These were talking clothes that she had worn in her previous life to a wedding, a baptism, a funeral, a communion or to a relative’s dissertation defense. Her new compatriots, both young and old, were neither impressed by travel nor to listening to the way others move in the world.

Sojourner never doubted her place in world and never allowed others to shame her into smallness. She came home one day from school, not upset, but incredulous, that some classmates had laughed at the natural state of her hair and part of her response to me was, ”Mom, they don’t even have combs with names …”

Thus this poem was born - one of celebration - "Victory Threads":
Victory Threads
For Sojourner

I heard her friends laugh at her
that laugh which is square
that stops at points
never to wonder
only to breathe in
base expulsions of uncurious air

she had proclaimed
in a combined fit
of wistfulness and swaggering insolence
she had had combs in Abidjan
with names
- Akissi, Ahou, Abla, Ama , Adjoua -
who understood the temperament
of each day’s hair story
who could dress your head
while weaving choruses of victory threads in your brain
preparing you to meet the day
haughty and wholly armored.
What are you main concerns as a writer?

My writing is very much informed by the years I lived in various parts of Africa.

My poetry, for the most part, gives voice to women who historically have not been heard: African women, women in refugee camps, women who are victims of civil war, isolated, rural women who battle such health challenges as obstetric fistula and breast cancer as well as immigrant women trying to find their place in their newly adopted countries.

More increasingly, my poetry addresses the environmental devastation created by corporate entities in the name of development.

What advice would you give to other writers?

I will leave you with the generous and simple advice of poet Mary Oliver:
Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
Photo Credit: The Apiary Corp

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Monday, October 24, 2011

[Interview] Barbara Magara-Nkosana

Barbara Magara-Nkosana lives in Leeds in the United Kingdom.

She is the author of the Traditional Zimbabwean Cookbook (Lion Press, 2011).

In this interview, Barbara Magara-Nkosana talks about why she wrote the cookbook:

How would you describe the Traditional Zimbabwean Cookbook?

It is all about Zimbabwean cooking.

The book comprises of over 100 recipes of dishes that make Zimbabwe’s fascinating and diverse cuisine. The cookbook invites food lovers to taste the delicacies and flavours of Zimbabwean food.

How many books have you written so far?

This is the first cookbook that I have written, published by Lion Press.

My next book will talk all about contemporary Zimbabwean cooking, fusing the classic favourite Zimbabwean dishes with world cuisines.

I am hoping to invite food lovers to experiment with the fused tastes, hopefully bring Zimbabwean cuisine to the level that it deserves.

Why did you decide to write the Traditional Zimbabwean Cookbook?

I believe that knowledge is for sharing and that we cannot rely on oral tradition alone to preserve and maintain our culinary tradition.

I frequently got requests to share recipes for various dishes. In response to these requests, I made notes, e- mailed or gave cooking instructions over the telephone. With the advice of a friend, I started to compile recipes for the cookbook.

Was it difficult to write up the recipes?

Yes, definitely.

Generally, when cooking, I tend not to measure quantities of ingredients because I have cooked the dishes for so long, and know what quantities to use from the top of my head. However, to test and write up the recipes for this book, I had to measure and time everything. This process was very time-consuming and challenging.

What did you enjoy about the process?

I enjoyed every step of creating the Traditional Zimbabwean Cookbook. I met wonderful people who welcomed me into their kitchens and shared their culinary skills.

Lasting friendships and a lot of lessons have been learnt in the process.

Cooking has been part of my life and my passion since childhood. A lot of my culinary skills were passed to me by my parents and extended family. I am very proud of the many fabulous cooks in my family. They have encouraged me to bring pleasure and enjoyment into my cooking.

Why is home cooking so important?

It is a way of bringing families and communities together. Sharing food is at the heart of Zimbabwean social life, be it in festive celebrations or commemorations.

What are your favourite foods?

Freshly picked wholesome horticultural produce which, in Zimbabwe, is seasonal. I also enjoy cooking dishes with sun-dried preserved foods, they add a distinctive flavour to the dish.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

[Interview] P. J. Hawkinson

P. J. Hawkinson lives in Kansas in the United States.

She is the author of Half Bitten (Trafford Publishing, 2010).

Working with Karen Wodke and writing as Wodke Hawkinson, P. J Hawkinson is also the co-author of books that include Catch Her in the Rye: Selected Short Stories Vol. I (CreateSpace, 2011) and Blue: Selected Short Stories Vol. II (Smashwords, 2011).

In this interview, P. J. Hawkinson talks about her concerns as a writer:

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

Karen describes our writing as "a fictional smorgasbord." I agree with her and would like to add that readers can sample our variety of genres in both Catch Her in the Rye and Blue.

Who is your target audience?

Betrayed will be for mature audiences while our short story books and Tangerine would make good reading for readers from young adult to senior readers.

The audience we write for is the one we ourselves fit into. However, in the near future, we plan to write some short stories for older children and possibly even put out a most unusual novel.

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

I like to think that the influence comes from within; from personal experiences and observations. Then, of course, Karen and I take these and twist them beyond recognition. But, after reading too many authors to record here, I will admit that many ways of writing twine together to become my way.

No matter what a person reads, experiences, or sees, something stays behind to become a part of you. It may not be something you would ever believe, but everything we do and say was learned from someone or something.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

Actual events from my own life rarely enter my writing.

I did, however, take a house that Karen, I, and another friend of ours had the opportunity to explore as teenagers and slip it into Half-Bitten. It went through quite a metamorphosis but it began from my memory.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

We are working hard to build an audience, a following, but even if it never comes, I can’t imagine not writing.

Do you write everyday?

Rarely does a day go by that I don’t write something. When not actually writing, I am observing. I have a recorder that I make notes on so as not to forget ideas that might formulate themselves into a masterpiece.

My sessions can begin at any time and any place. I work on a laptop, usually at the dining room table, where I can gaze out the patio doors and watch the birds at my hand-painted bird houses, the rabbits frolicking in the yard or being chased by the big yellow cat from next door, and even an occasional hummingbird.

How the session proceeds really depends on what project needs attention. It never ends; things simply get put on hold until I can step back into the time and place I left earlier.

How many books have you written so far?

In Half Bitten (Trafford Publishing, 2010), teenager Trudy Purdy, a self-described 'plain Jane', is attacked by the boy she considers her boyfriend and three of his buddies. They leave her for dead on a deserted beach where she is found by a roving band of vampires. Trudy begins to feel a new power growing within and decides to use this power to exact revenge on Tray and his friends. She wields her newfound strength, gained by drinking the blood of others, to plot the 'accidental' deaths of the boys who had brutalized her. As she systematically destroys her attackers, she realizes she is changing and seeks answers to the unsettling questions surrounding her new powers and how it will transformation the rest of her life.

And, writing as Wodke Hawkinson, I co-authored Catch Her in the Rye, Selected Short Stories Vol. I (CreateSpace, 2011) and Blue: Selected Short Stories Vol. II (Smashwords, 2011).

When did you start writing?

I never really wrote anything, other than helping Karen with silly stories while in high-school, until I wrote Half Bitten in 2010.

After reading the True Blood and Twilight series, I had the idea to write a different type of vampire book and found writing easier than I would have imagined.

I contacted Trafford Publishing and they published Half Bitten for me.

What advantages or disadvantages did your choice of publishers present?

I received 40 soft covers and 40 hard covers along with a number of bookmarks, business cards, and postcards. I was provided no list as to who to send the postcards to and found the prices of their promotion packages to be beyond my means.

After beginning to write with Karen we tried to get traditional publishers but met rejection after rejection, usually due to the fact that we had no agent.

Karen discovered self-publishing options that met our needs and we went live with Catch Her in the Rye a few months ago.

Promotion remains a problem, but Karen is the perfect co-author and plugs our book in as many places as possible and as often as possible. Working full time, I can’t contribute as much time as I’d wish, but I try to do my share.

We decided to initially publish with CreateSpace and first released Catch Her in the Rye as both a soft cover and a Kindle version. Karen next discovered SmashWords which will format e-books for many e-readers and we released Blue on SmashWords and then also on CreateSpace for the soft cover version.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

[Short Story] Ophelia

By Ambrose Musiyiwa*

I am my Beloved’s but my Beloved is not mine.

We were sitting on the edge of the road when she asked me: “What do you think about my Beloved?”

I didn’t want to think about her Beloved.

“Well?” she probed — big, bright, brown eyes looking up at me as if I were a genii about to grant a wish.

“Well, what?” I asked, looking away.

“Well, what do you think about my Beloved?” she insisted.

“You might not want to hear what I have to say,” I said.

“I want to hear it,” she insisted.

“I don’t think I am the right person to ask,” I said. “I can’t be objective.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I want to here what you have to say.”

“You want the truth?” I asked.

She nodded.

“I don’t like Simba,” I said. “I think he is childish and mean and I think he is using you.”

My Beloved’s face darkened the way earth darkens when rain clouds gather around over it and a glint appeared in her big, bright, brown eyes.

“How can you say that about him?” she asked.

“You asked for the truth and I gave it to you,” I said.

My Beloved loved Simba. I could see it when the two of them were together. She had a special look she reserved for him. She looked at him the way a child looks at a favourite, loved, trusted uncle. She looked at him the way she looked at me when she asked: “What do you think of my Beloved?”

She got up and went indoors and I got up and went home and read William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.

The hollowness remained.

I put Blake back in his place on the bookshelf.

Ophelia had a hold on me and nothing Blake could say could loosen the grip. I hungered for her with a hunger that fed upon itself. Nothing I could do, nothing Ophelia could do could dispel the hunger. And when we argued and fought, the hunger grew until it became an ulcer eating away at my insides.

I read the Song of Songs and the hunger became a wound which bled.

And for the next seven days Ophelia would not speak to me.

What had I been trying to prove?

For all I knew, Simba might love Ophelia as much as she loved him, as much as I loved her. I really had no right to say anything about him. And what Ophelia did with her body was her own business, not mine.

And I missed her. Even though I saw her everyday, I missed her.

She would not speak to me.

I filled my days with things to do and waited for her to call. A week passed and she did not call.

I went to her.

We took the beer I had brought with me, as a peace-offering, into the living room and Ophelia took two mugs from the kitchen and we sat on the cold, polished floor of the living room and leaned against the wall of the unfurnished room and the hunger was like a presence crowding in on us. And Ophelia felt she had to speak to shake off the presence and she said: “I am pregnant.”

I had a feeling all this had happened before.

Last year Ophelia had gone to Goromonzi where Simba was teaching. She had stayed with him for a week. A month later she found she was pregnant and did not want to have the baby.

Rudo. We had agreed to call the baby Rudo.

I had tried to dissuade her from aborting.

“But Simba no longer wants to see me,” she had said.

“He will come back to you,” I had said. “He always comes back. And even if he doesn’t, I don’t see what the problem is.”

“The baby will need a father,” she had said.

“I am here,” I had said.

But her mind was made up. She wanted an abortion.

Simba and Ophelia raised the money and I found the doctor who was willing to perform the abortion.

It had been for the best.

I suppose.

If she had agreed to my madcap idea, what were we going to give the baby? What was she going to wear? What was she going to eat? When she got ill, where were we going to get the money to send her to a doctor? I wasn’t working. Ophelia wasn’t working. Our chances of getting jobs were slim. And my parents had all but disowned me. If her parents had found out that she was pregnant, they would have chased her away from home.

“How long have you known?” I asked.

“A week.”

“Whose is it?”

“It’s Simba’s. Who else’s can it be?”

She drank the last dregs of beer that were in her mug and refilled it.

“What are you going to do?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Does Simba know?”

“Yes. I told him yesterday,” she said.

“How did he take it?”

“He wanted me to have another abortion. I told him I am keeping this one.”

It was past midnight. The station Ophelia’s portable radio was tuned to had closed and we hadn’t noticed.

We finished the remaining beer in silence and I got up to leave and she took me as far as the gate and we stopped and she asked: “Does he love me?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”

Ophelia and Simba are now living together.

They have been living together for the past three years.

She hasn’t written.

Or maybe she has written and the letter is still in the post.

*Ambrose Musiyiwa has worked as a freelance journalist and a teacher. His short stories have been featured in anthologies that include Writing Now (Weaver Press, 2005) and Writing Free (Weaver Press, 2011). Currently he is working on another story.

Friday, October 21, 2011

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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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

[Interview] Debra Duneier

Debra Duneier is an accredited LEED® Green Associate, a certified Eco-Designer and a Feng Shui master practitioner.

She is also creator of EcoChi® and author of EcoChi: Designing The Human Experience (New Voices Press, 2011).

In this interview, Debra Duneier talks about her concerns as a writer:

Do you write every day?

I write five or six days a week.

I have three blogs. I have two columns that I write weekly. I am a guest writer for a variety of websites and, of course, there is always ... the next book.

My favorite place to write is in my outdoor office on the North Fork of Long Island. Surrounded by organic farms, vineyards and the Long Island sound with my feet firmly planted in nature, my creative juices flow! This is where my first book, EcoChi: Designing the Human Experience was written.

What would you say led you to create the EcoChi design system?

It is exhilarating and not really surprising that all the hard work and the years of accumulating knowledge in a variety of disciplines led me to the creation of the new design system I call EcoChi®.

EcoChi is built on a solid foundation of three basic, tried and true ingredients: classical feng shui, green and sustainable living, and environmental psychology.

As I studied and undertook new projects, my findings exhilarated me. I could clearly see how environmental psychology could be integrated with feng shui and green and sustainable practices to enhance and deepen the human experience in our indoor spaces and in our world. This is how EcoChi was born.

What made you decide to write EcoChi: Designing the Human Experience?

I knew the EcoChi system of design would make positive changes in peoples’ lives, projects and businesses but I had no idea how powerful and transformative EcoChi would be - not until my clients called me and shared their stories. Once the mind-blowing potential of EcoChi revealed itself to me, I decided that I wanted to reach as many people as possible and the best way to do that was to write a book. Since this is my first book I hired an editor and I was on my way ...

The book was published by New Voices Press and has been available for purchase since September 17, 2011.  The book creates awareness that life is lived the way it is designed and offers readers the tools to create indoor spaces that support their goals both personally and professionally and at the same time propagate environmental integrity.

How long did it take you to write the book?

It took me two years to complete  EcoChi: Designing the Human Experience although I feel it is the culmination of my life experiences that has brought me to this place and time.

I have been asked many times, “What kind of book did you write and who is your audience?”

I should have my elevator speech down by now but I don’t. I will affectionately say that the book is a little 'schizophrenic.' It talks about my journey leading up to the creation of EcoChi, basics about the core disciplines that make up the system and, mostly, it is about the transforming experiences of my clients.

As people shared their stories with me I knew I had to write about their revelations.

The target audience for EcoChi: Designing the Human Experience is anyone interested in the design of indoor spaces and how it influences the inhabitants of those spaces. It is also inspirational, educational, and has easy to implement tips so I guess it can be considered a self-help book as well.

How did you choose a publisher for the book? 

New Voices Press is a small publisher in New York. I selected a small publisher because I was told by other authors that a large publisher would add another two years to the process. This is the moment in time when people are ready for the concept covered in my book. I knew that the world would be receptive to EcoChi today. That created an urgency to find the fastest route to market.

The biggest challenge with a small publisher is that they offer little or no publicity - so it is up to me to get the word out about the book.

I hired a PR company for publicity and a marketing and business development professional to help me get the word out about the book.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into the book?

Sitting down to write the first chapter of my book was the most difficult moment of the process. This was because I had a preconceived idea about what the book should be, but the words flowing onto the page did not resemble my outline. The only way out of this difficult time was to keep writing and to allow the book to take on a life of its own - and it did.

I see myself as a story teller - so, the moments that I enjoyed writing most were when I told the tales of the people who experienced EcoChi first hand. Describing their faces, challenges, goals and outcomes, for me, was like creating a sculpture and having the opportunity to share it.

What sets EcoChi: Designing the Human Experience apart from other things you've written?

Most of the articles and columns that I write are focused on subject matter, tips and products.

EcoChi: Designing the Human Experience is a book is about people. It is micro because it is about specific people and their lives and about particular projects and interior spaces. It is macro because we can see ourselves, our loved ones, our friends and our neighbors through the lives of others. It speaks to residences, offices and public spaces and the planet as well.

The ribbon that runs through all of my writing to date is helping others to have a better life and, as a result, a better world.

EcoChi: Designing the Human Experience is my most significant achievement as a writer to date. As people read the book, I am told, even the most unlikely candidates are moved to action. The fact that my book has already been a positive influence in people’s personal and work lives is something I am very proud of. I am humbled by the power of EcoChi.

What will your next book be about?

My next book will be EcoChi: Recipes for a Better Life. These recipes will include step by step EcoChi instructions for interior design, creativity, work life, celebrations, loss, wellness, life crisis and turning points.

When did you start writing?

At age nine, I wrote my first poem, which I called “A Room with Four Walls.” At that age writing was a personal outlet for me. I had a difficult childhood and there was no one to talk to. A blank page was the safest place for me to express my fears and pain - it couldn’t lash out at me. I was out of harm’s way when I was in school and also the public library. Books became my first love. The novels that I read acted like a magic carpet ride creating possibilities of a better life ahead, in my mind and in my soul.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

The biggest challenge that I face as a writer is insecurity.

This is my first book and as I said earlier, I hired an editor to guide me through the process. At first, I took whatever she said as truth - after all she was so much more experienced than me. Things like, "This belongs in your autobiography not this book", or, "Save this for your novel!"

I called my son Jamie in LA who is a writer for NBC’s Parenthood and explained to him my creative process. When I sat down to write, the words were flowing through me like a natural spring. There were stories to tell and they were at my fingertips. But I was concerned because the professional advice I was getting was that EcoChi was not the book where I should tell those stories.

Jamie listened patiently and then said, "Mom, remember to stay honest and true to your own voice."

Even today those words help to navigate me through the most challenging days of writing.

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

[Interview] Ellah Kandi

Zimbabwean writer, Ellah Kandi is a chef, a wedding and events planner, and a basic worship sign language and performing arts teacher.

She is also secretary and choir coordinator of the Emmanu’-El Apostolic Gospel Academy aka De Montfort University Gospel Choir which is based in Leicester in the United Kingdom.

She is the author of El-Ellah Multi-Cultural Cuisines: Heavenly Recipes (Xlibris, 2011) and is currently working on a children’s book.

In this interview, Ellah Kandi talks about her concerns as a writer:

When did you start writing?

I started writing and producing short reports when l was still in high school in Zimbabwe. I remember using exercise books and arranging my work to make it look like a magazine and saying, “One day l will publish a church magazine or a book”.

When l moved to Leicester, there was a project called “As Is” that encouraged us to write. I remember a Mr Higgins asking me to translate Shona writings into English and to write what l did during the day.

Little did I know that Mr Higgins was re-structuring what I was writing and turning it into poems. It never crossed my mind that any of what I was writing would ever be published.

It was only after the project was finished that someone gave me copies of the small published book. I was amazed at seeing my work in the book and l remember saying to myself that if l had known the work was going to be published, l would have used a different approach.

How would you describe the writing you are now doing?

So far, I have compiled a cookbook and I am now working on a children’s biblical story book.

For the cookbook, my target audience doesn’t have any boundaries. The book is for all people, from all walks of life. It has recipes on meals from the four corners of the globe hence the title, Multi-Cultural Cuisine.

When I compiled the cookbook, I wanted to provide a book that gave my audience the opportunity to experience cooking from around the world and I wanted them to also enjoy food that is prepared in a circumspect manner.

The target audience for children's story book are children, schools, Sunday schools and various Christian communities. I was motivated to write this book because I believe there is a lack of books for children that contain messages that can have a life-long, real and positive impact on their lives. This story book is based on biblical events. It also explores some events in the Bible that have never been written with a young audience in mind.

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

The Bible is my greatest influence. My experience of reading and enjoying the Bible fuels my desire for the children to have the same, if not more, enjoyment as I do. I thought the best way to achieve this would be to include illustrations in the story book. The illustrations will benefit English-speaking children as well as children of different nationalities and languages.

How have your own personal experiences influenced your writing?

I remember, a number of years back, we were praying and eating particular dishes and many heavenly recipes which God had revealed to me. I wanted to share many of them. l would jot them down when l received them.

I mentioned to a number of people that l was going to publish a recipe book someday and one particular brother would always ask when l was going to get the recipes published because he wanted a copy. Although he never stopped asking, it was only at the age of 29 that l decided to get the recipe book published as my birthday gift to myself.

El-Ellah Multi-Cultural Cuisines: Heavenly Recipes is based on my own cooking experience. It also contains testimony on how I was influenced by the bishop of my church who is an expert chef.

I teach children in the Gospel Academy where I am co-ordinator. This experience led me to decide to write a book for children because I noticed that with children’s biblical story books, some of the stories are not always told as accurately as they occur in the Bible. My book intends to address this and bridge this gap.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concerns are accuracy and that my readers will enjoy and be impacted by what I write.

One of my biggest challenges is time and being able, on a daily basis, to coordinate the many projects I am involved with and meeting various deadlines. I deal with these challenges by delegating some of my workload to my colleagues and peers who possess the relevant skills.

Do you write everyday?

Although I do not write everyday, I write most of the days of the week. Having a busy life means it is complex but when you get going you forget you are tired.

I start by writing new pieces and then l proof read and l always end with illustrations.

So far, I have written two books, El-Ellah Multi-Cultural Cuisines: Heavenly Recipes (Xlibris Publishing, 2011) and the children’s Bible storybook, which is still in production and should be published this month (October) by Xlibris Publishers.

I believe that El-Ellah Multi-Cultural Cuisines covers important cooking topics and themes. It includes recipes for appetizers, soups, fish and seafood, meat, rice and pastas, vegetables and salads, pies, puddings, and so much more.

Pastor Samuel Gapara, who is the Pentecostal and International Chaplin for the De Montfort University, assisted me in looking for publishers and Xlibris was one of the publishers we found.

Finding a publisher was a bit tough. I settled for Xlibris because it was one of the two publishing companies whose consultancies I had a chance to speak to.

I have had a very difficult time with the publishers. As a first timer, l would have appreciated more assistance from Xlibris, which l really expected to get.

l did not receive the assistance I expected and I was not pleased. I thought about give up many times when the publisher was not helping but God was and is on my side so l got through it. When advertising their services, Xlibris sounded so different. They made me believe l would receive the help l need but that help was not forthcoming.

At the moment I am looking for a different publisher for any of my future works.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into your books?

At times, I’ve found it difficult to add that perfecting touch to my illustrations using modern gadgets. Being new to the gadget world, it was a completely different experience compared to drawing with a traditional pencil.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

Not using precise measurements in the recipes. A different method of cooking to what we are accustomed to.

What sets the books you have written apart from each other?

Having to draw the illustrations has been a new experience and this, I believe, sets the children's book apart from the cooking book.

The children's book is very different from my first book and I am enjoying the challenge. The writing is different. The cooking book was a more technical book and involved detailing ingredients and cooking techniques whilst the children’s book calls for innovation, creativity and simplicity.

There are similarities between the two books in that both books are written based on biblical principles and are driven by moral and ethical values.

What will your next book be about?

Recipe/Cookery Book no.2

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

Being able to reach nations, touching lives. For example, someone in Ghana said that my being a woman has encouraged a number of school students who were ready to give up on a hospitality course because of lack of resources. The person said that hearing my pre-testimony in the cookbook encouraged the students to stay on the course.

One organisation in Ghana has said that when they open their catering department they would like me to honour them by naming it. This has definitely been a significant achievement, being a role model to people l have never met.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

[Interview_4] Alice Lenkiewicz

Alice Lenkiewicz is an artist and a writer. She lives in Liverpool in the United Kingdom.

Her books include the novella, Maxine (bluechrome Publishing, 2005) and the collection of poems, Men Hate Blondes (original plus, 2009).

She also publishes and edits Neon Highway, a poetry magazine that supports emerging and established poets.

In this interview, Alice Lenkiewicz talks about her concerns as a writer:

Do you write everyday?

I go through phases of writing and then not writing.

At the moment I am trying to write a little each day. I like to research.

My session usually begins with brainstorming, so I jot ideas down quite quickly. I have an idea about what I would like to write and then I set about deciding which technique I will use. What kind of format will suit the work I am writing? This usually develops after working with free verse for a while and then once I get the feel of what I am going to do I decide how structured I am going to be. It could develop in many ways.

I have just started writing a book of poems about my father and my memories of him, combining personal memories of my own and that of others. so it is kind of a memoir and poems combined.

At present there are just fleeting thoughts. You are welcome to look at my blog.

As I start to write, after a while I will begin to research certain poetry techniques and look at ways of editing my work to make it more significant. I usually continue on until I feel the piece is finished. I usually don’t plan how I will end until I have a lot more work. It’s quite a long process and takes me a while before I am satisfied with the final result.

How many books have you written so far?

I’ve had poems published in magazines and two books published.

My first book, Maxine, is a postmodern novella about a woman who slips in and out of the present and the past. Her encounters with artists and poets helps her to assess her own life and her failing marriage. The book is illustrated by myself.

My first collection of poems, Men Hate Blondes was published recently by Sam Smith from Original Plus. The book is a collection of prose and poems that revolve around memories and influences from my past.

I’ve written and illustrated a book of short fairytales, Shadows and Furore which I am now in the process of editing. I will be seeking a publisher for these stories.

I have also written and illustrated a children’s story called The Moon Angel.

I am currently developing and writing a series of poems based on a short story, "Journey of the Bride", a story exhibition that I will be exhibiting in September here in Liverpool. I will also be organising a poetry reading for the event. You can find the ongoing poems on the blog above and the images on YouTube.

I have written two complete plays: St Catherine, a play about the life of St Catherine of Alexandria and, Wrappers, a play about a middleclass couple who end up losing all their money and then are living on a council estate.

How long did it take you to write Men Hate Blondes?

It took me about a year to write Men Hate Blondes and another two years to finally get round to publishing.

The book was published in 2009 by Sam Smith from Original Plus.

Why I chose Sam Smith was based around what I had explored in terms of publishers of poetry. I had a list of publishers that I had written to in the past and who said they would look at my work at some point and this was what happened with Sam. I finally sent him my work and he said he liked it and would publish it.

It’s not easy to choose a publisher for poetry. I would possibly have looked further afield but I think if you have someone who is bothered to take time to read and discuss your entire collection then that should never be undermined. It is not easy to turn this kind of offer down especially if you are not paying a penny.

The disadvantages are that many small presses are not doing well on the financial front and mass distribution is not on the cards, more likely books are printed when ordered to avoid publishers being lumbered with a large bill due to lack of large sales. For instance, my first novella, Maxine, is now out of print due to financial problems of the publisher. This can be very time consuming and also it is not what you need but you have to accept that these things happen.

Another disadvantage is that you sometimes don’t get a commission on each book you sell. The publisher sells directly from them and gets the buying price from the customer. So, basically to get any profit off it yourself you would need to buy your books at a discount price from the publisher and then sell them as signed copies to customers for the standard price in order to receive your commission. I just have no time to do this although you do have to remember that there is very little money involved with poetry publishing anyway.

The advantages are that you are working with familiar territory, one poet to another poet/publisher and also someone you may have heard read in the past and someone who has read your work and knows of you, someone who you trust. This helps with communication and makes the ride a lot less stressful.

Another advantage is that when you read the contract you may want to consider how easily you can pull out. If this is a simple process that also takes a big burden away.

Just remember, if you are not paying any money then you are not being ripped off. Don’t ever mistake small press publishing for vanity publishing. It is not the same thing in any way at all and you should never pay to have your work published. If they want you to pay to be published then they basically don’t appreciate your work.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into Men Hate Blondes?

You have to take care and make sure you edit well although some poets see editing as destroying their work. It is all what you are trying to achieve. You have to remember that once it is in print, it is difficult to go back and correct those mistakes, so, a lot of thought and consideration should go into your final piece.

The main thing, I feel, is to find the incentive to let go of your work and seek a publisher. I personally can’t see the point in keeping your poetry hidden away but some do disagree.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

Sound and imagery are very important for me in my work as well as overall composition, so, I spent much time working on my sound combinations in certain poems. If I was to perform these how would they sound?

I read my poems out loud to get an idea on how they come across and if this is not the way I want it then it has to change. Sometimes a poem will be more visual so it is important that it looks right on the page. It is such fun to combine a variety of sounds together.

Here is an example of a sound poem from Men Hate Blondes. This is a poem that is designed to be read out loud. It is called "Blacestonia" and is a chant where I play and experiment as well as create my own language..

A Chant For the Abused Woman
(Text in bold to be read by two people at the same time)

Glances reserved sequined wings span centuries
Orion’s tilted belt
Soft grey light Infirm of purpose
Swift lute

Demalian interdem
Kalera demeto kachina ingletterra
Glamus Autocumulus

Mask of cloud and chaser
Droplets descending
Oration gathered to city levellers
Spiritualised desire acts

Demalian interdem
Kalera demeto kachina ingletterra
Glamus Autocumulus
An earth ressurrection

Does it come from the centre
State of shock

Shooting live subjects in pictures
They intersect in chaos
Lest our old robes turned wild
To those who appear the born

Demalian interdem
Kalera demeto kachina ingletterra
Glamus Autocumulus
Children of darkness

She weeps, she bleeds and each new day
A gash is added to her wounds
For this wild rage and furious cruelty

Demalian interdem
Kalera demeto kachina ingletterra
Glamus Autocumulus
You lack the season of all natures sleep

Plercution whatever the subject
Tidal sister
An indecisive flutter
When moon began to flow
I dream half a dream
Ragling nightling cloudling

Demalian interdem
Kalera demeto kachina ingletterra
Glamus Autocumulus
Saveel blacestonia

Absorbing shapes of rain and shine
Between here and the blue folder
Sometimes I like to write very simple poems based around incidents that have hidden meanings as in this poem about a vampire.
maybe it’s true

a child wanted to know
why it kept him away so
we tied some together
hung it over the door…
but nothing happened.

i saw nothing but she did
she said it was him so i clutched
her to me tightly and we both
stared out the window
at the invisible bat.
What sets Men Hate Blondes apart from other things you've written?

It is a visionary and diverse collection of works that I feel probably sums up my best writing to date, not discounting St Catherine, which I enjoyed writing.

Men Hate Blondes is a poetry collection while Maxine is a novella and a story with a plot. I am pleased with Maxine as it was my final MA Creative Writing thesis that I managed to get published as a book in its own right. I put two years of hard work into that book, much study and learning. If I could edit it again, I would probably make a few more changes but overall I am proud of that book.

The only similarities between the two books are that each book contains my illustrations and artwork.

This next book is quite straight forward and could possibly develop into a children’s book.

I am writing a short book of poems, ‘Journey of the Bride’ based on a woman who runs away on her wedding day, travels abroad and has an adventure. She bumps into a fairy prince who takes her to his kingdom of peace and beauty. She eventually returns home and reunites with her jilted bridegroom and they do get married only she wakes up to discover it was all just a dream. The story developed from a series of twenty drawings. The drawings have now been accepted to be exhibited in Liverpool in September so I am now thinking of writing poems to go with the drawings and organising a poetry reading about journeys for the private view.

After that I will work on the poems about my father that I feel I need to complete.

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

At the end of the day I am happy about Neon Highway and offering poets a chance for publication.

I am happy that I have had my work published, that I curate events and that I have produced my first full poetry collection. This was always an ambition of mine and it has now been achieved. I just keep going.

The mystery of it all keeps me inspired.

This article is based on an email interview with Alice Lenkiewicz which took place in January 2010

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

[Interview] Murenga Joseph Chikowero

Zimbabwean writer, Murenga Joseph Chikowero is a doctoral student in African Literature and Film at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In 2010, he collaborated with Annie Holmes and Peter Orner on an oral history project which gave birth to the highly-regarded book, Hope Deferred (McSweeney’s Publishing, 2010).

His short stories have featured in the anthology, Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe (amaBooks, 2011) as well as on the PanAfrican writers’ blog, StoryTime.

In this interview, Murenga Chikowero talks about his concerns as a writer:

When did you start writing?

Back in primary school, probably in 6th grade.

That year, I moved to a different part of the country, near Guruve in the north, and there a friend told me a story, one of those fantastic tales. When I went back to my old school a year later, our teacher asked everyone to write a story, any fictional story. I wrote down this story about a mythical, one-eyed giant but ... when our books were returned ... mine wasn’t there! Our teacher had misplaced it. When she eventually found it, she asked everybody to stop whatever they were doing to listen to my story.

That, for me, was when writing stories down began although storytelling itself was nothing new in my family and, indeed, other families in the villages.

How would you describe your writing?

I write mainly short stories though I have a novel on the way.

I am fascinated by the 1980s, the time when so many people felt they could dream ... independence was finally here and, for that reason, young men walked with a pronounced swagger, shirts unbuttoned down to the navel and hats worn at fancy angles. Young women wore their over-ironed pleated costumes, stretched out their graceful necks and went about their business. My writing traces the radical and more subtle changes from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe and what ‘Zimbabwe’ meant to different generations and groups. The clamor of the post-2000 politics masks the amazing beauty – and. yes, largely untold trauma – of the 80s and I try to recapture that in my fiction.

Outside fictional writing, I recently collaborated with two writers, Annie Holmes and Peter Orner on an oral history project that gave birth to a book called Hope Deferred. That project basically attempts to bring voices of ordinary Zimbabweans – at home and abroad – to bear on the narrative of Zimbabwean crisis of the last decade. I traveled to Zimbabwe and interviewed some of these witnesses and victims of torture and political persecution.

Hope Deferred is a collection of some of the most remarkable personal stories of ordinary people’s experiences of state-sponsored terrorism, their struggles for a better society and, ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

My short fiction generally targets a mature audience but my novel-in-progress courts younger Zimbabweans although all English speakers will find something to enjoy there too. A lot of our young people today have no clue what the 80s and 90s meant – or promised – to those who lived through them. The beauty and ugliness of that period is unlike anything we have seen since.

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

Because my school didn’t have a library, I read whatever I found.

The adolescent detective genre was quite an obsession early on, especially the American variety: the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. Nothing was better than lying on my back before the yellow light of a paraffin lamp after supper and join Frank and Joe Hardy and their friends – and sometimes their father Fenton – as they put together the puzzle pieces of some big crime in their town.

Then, after reading No Longer at Ease, I considered myself a firm disciple of Chinua Achebe. No book made me happier even with its subtle, controlled prose. Achebe’s fiction, though written in English, read like my native Shona and I liked that instant recognition.

I bumped onto a battered copy of House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera in between reading the then ubiquitous Pacesetter series that we exchanged in middle school and I was instantly hooked. The problem, though, was that the copy was so battered it had no cover so there was no way of knowing its title or author.

But the Pacesetters series! My very first Pacesetter was called Evbu My Love by a Nigerian writer named Helen Obviagele. It was a somewhat sad story but there was something about love brewed in the African pot that nibbled gently at your heart and made you read the story once, then twice.

The Pacesetter Series was impressive for its vivid language and fast-paced action by African heroes and, occasionally, heroines. Secret service heroes like Benny Kamba in Equatorial Assignment. Some of the heroes had English names such as Jack Ebony in Mark of the Cobra but that didn’t bother us and we were right there with him as he delivered deadly karate kicks to venomous snakes hidden in his wardrobe by enemies of the state.

I also read some South African fiction, most of which I didn’t particularly like at the time, perhaps because the first ever South African novel I read was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. The Pacesetters had introduced me to African heroes who could punch their way out of trouble so I found Cry, the Beloved Country particularly depressing.

Luckily, Dambudzo Marechera saved me around this time. A friend let me borrow his House of Hunger though we didn’t find out what the title was until much later. Unlike anything I had read before, Marechera seized me by the scruff of my neck and thrust me into a violent yet fascinating world of the ghetto slum. I had not stayed in any urban ghetto so the world of House of Hunger shocked me. Another happy problem was the language; I didn’t understand a lot of the more flowery prose but it excited and shocked me in equal measure. A less happy problem was that Marechera, of course, didn’t see anything wrong with describing graphic sexual acts, sometimes even in our native language and so I got a bigger book, a schoolbook actually, planted House of Hunger right in the middle and read and re-read the numbing details of ghetto life while my teachers marveled at my keen academic interest!

Around the same time, we discovered James Hadley-Chase, Louis L’Amour and the British classics – usually the abridged versions.

My older brothers also read anything under the sun and kept personal libraries of sorts. I was allowed to read these books – as long as I was behaving myself. I liked history books the most because they were packed with biographies of larger than life characters, characters who rose from nobodies and turned the world upside down. I liked all of those legendary figures. Our government was then heavy on what is called Gutsaruzhinji or Socialism and there were all these history books detailing the Chinese Revolution of 1947. I would look at a certain picture of a youthful Mao Zedong – then called Mao Tse Tung – and envy his army cap.

My brothers also had collections of Shona language novels, some of which were course setbooks at school. I detested the moralistic variety churned by the sackful by our Literature Bureau but absolutely loved the detective thrillers like James Kawara’s Sajeni Chimedza and Edward Kaugare‘s Kukurukura Hunge Wapotswa. Though targeted at older readers, these novels were not too different from the Pacesetter Series. Above all, I loved the Shona language liberation war novels, the best of which was Kuda Muhondo by a writer whose name I forget. The more overtly partisan ones like Zvairwadza Vasara, I didn’t particularly like.

These books and experiences shaped my early writing and made me feel I could try my hand too.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Each time I sit down to write down a story, I am always struck by James Baldwin’s assertion that the job of the writer is to look for the question that the answer tries to hide. And yet we often think of the answer itself as a solution to a query.

The ease with which myth passes off as truth in Zimbabwe motivates me to write fiction. My major concern is the place of historical memory in contemporary Zimbabwe. A lot has happened and we have a state that considers it a moral obligation to control this narrative, especially since the year 2000, thanks to a severely – and perhaps deliberately – stunted media landscape. I use different generational voices to interrogate these changes that have happened.

For example, one of the biggest myths in our country is that all Zimbabweans lived happy, comfortable lives before the Mugabe-led farm takeovers which began in earnest around 2000. Few people are honest enough to remember that the ruling elites, led by Mugabe himself, actually colluded with the rich white farmers and industrialists to lord it over an impoverished population.

Who remembers now that the farm takeovers were actually planned and spearheaded by ordinary villagers? Who remembers that these villagers were actually arrested for their efforts before political expediency made it necessary for our politicians to turn round and celebrate these villagers as heroes of the Third Chimurenga? I try to write beautiful stories that bring a more nuanced understanding to these issues.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenge facing most Zimbabwean writers today is the shrinking publishing industry. This, of course is true throughout Africa with South Africa as a possible exception.

The few, mostly independent publishing houses left in Zimbabwe are forced to put their few resources behind book projects by trusted names so as to recoup their investments. Yes, ours is still a society that views fictional writing as something of an indulgence, a hobby for the educated class. Of course, there is that basic question: Who is going to buy a book when all the money they have can hardly buy a loaf of bread?

You will notice that, contrary to the 20 years leading up to 2000, there are fewer fresh writers whose works are published individually. The tendency has been to produce these anthologies from which some talented voices occasionally emerge, for example, both Brian Chikwava and Petinah Gappah published short stories as part of this short story anthology tradition before launching individual careers as celebrated writers. To date, I have also pursued a somewhat similar path although some of my stories have been published in the form of e-books in South Africa.

Do you write everyday?

Because I balance an academic career with writing fiction, I cannot write everyday. It is also not my style to write everyday. I generally let a story or a chapter ferment in my imagination for days, rather like chikokiyana, our traditional brew, before writing it down. But when I start writing, the story demands that I finish it in one sitting, much like a gourd of frothy chikokiyana. Then I pass it on to my partner to read. She is by far my harshest critic so I usually listen to her opinion before editing my stories.

Ever since I discovered Dambudzo Marechera, Toni Morrison, Njabulo Ndebele, V. S. Naipaul, Charles Mungoshi, Joseph Heller and Ernest Hemingway, I have never liked a story whose conclusion is overwritten, especially if it’s a short story.

My short stories in particular use plenty of silences which estimate real-life African dialogue as I have experienced it.

I have a special dislike for stories that end in formulaic ways ... for example, a relationship that ends with a wedding or a rogue who is caught and jailed. I like my rogues out there, maybe some of them reform or they are chased out of town but I like them better out there and not in jail. Instead of a wedding, I am usually satisfied with lovers looking into each other’s eyes or even doing seemingly small things for each other.

My most recently published short stories include “The Hero”, which was featured in an anthology called Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe by amaBooks, a Bulawayo-based publisher. I have also published two stories, “When the King of Sungura Died” and “Uncle Jeffrey” on the PanAfrican writers' blog, StoryTime, which is managed and edited by Zimbabwean-born writer, Ivor Hartmann.

How would you describe "The Hero"?

“The Hero” is about an accidental hero who starts off as a rather banal political party thug who falls into a large beer container at a party rally and dies. His party declares him a hero and on the day of burial, he even dislodges the president from the news headlines. "The Hero" is based on a true story that happened in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe, around 2003.

I wrote it in one sitting, as I usually do with my short stories, and it was published in Where to Now? by Bulawayo-based amaBooks in 2011. My story speaks to other stories in that anthology, all by fellow Zimbabweans. In my story, for example, the ill-fated character is essentially a victim of an economy gone haywire; he takes to partisan politics like one possessed. In NoViolet Bulawayo’s award-winning story in the same volume, “Hitting Budapest”, you find a similar theme of ghetto kids craving for very basic necessities of life which their parents cannot provide, thanks to a crashed economy.

The ghetto setting is something I am very familiar with. I think a story’s power also draws from its ability to evoke a setting that readers recognize.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

Creating the ghetto scene and the atmosphere of a Zimbabwean political rally are the two things that I enjoyed most. Political rallies in Zimbabwe have a whole life of their own.

I also especially liked working with Jane Morris, the editor of Where to Now?.

What sets "The Hero" apart from other things you’ve written?

The satire ... Some of the so-called heroes and heroines buried at our publicly-funded heroes’ burial sites – heroes’ acres as we call them, including the National Heroes Acre, are no heroes at all ... But because of media censorship, there is little public debate about these kinds of issues outside the columns of the few privately-owned newspapers ... Thankfully, developments in Information Communication Technology have seen a steady rise in online newspapers, blogs and online social forums where a culture of robust debate is slowly taking root.

What “The Hero” shares with my other stories is the fascination with Zimbabwe’s public memory, particularly how it has been edited, suppressed and manipulated at various times to suit the goals of the political class.

Related articles:

[1] Where to Now? Short stories from Zimbabwe [Book Review], by Cynthia R Matonhodze, NewsDay, October 11, 2011
[2] Omen Muza [Interview], Conversations with Writers, September 29, 2011
[3] Publishing in a Zimbabwe under strain, by Jane Morris and Brian Jones, amaBooks, July 20, 2009