Sunday, March 28, 2010

Western Democracy Fails Africa

Western democracy fails Africa

Courtesy of the Zimbabwe Herald

Zimbabwean writers, especially the young and upcoming have found it very difficult to get published, with some publishers demanding a particular type of story. Our columnist EDMORE ZVINONZWA (EZ) spoke to publisher SARUDZAYI CHIFAMBA-BARNES (SCB) about this, her works and Zimbabwean writing in general.

EZ: Hello, Sarudzayi. It is good to talk to you after such a long time. In fact, this is the first time I am hearing of the name Sarudzayi. I have always thought you were Elizabeth since the days I used to meet you in the Special Collections section of the UZ library where, I recall, you were a regular visitor.

SCB: Hello, Eddie. First and foremost I would like to thank you for giving me this opportunity for an interview. You are right; many people do not know me or remember me with the name Sarudzayi. Elizabeth is more popular in Zimbabwe even with my own family. Sarudzayi is my beautiful African name, my officially registered first name. Chifamba is my father’s surname, whereas Barnes is my husband’s name. Sarudzayi gives me a sense of identity; otherwise I would become very foreign even to myself if I were to be called Elizabeth Barnes.

EZ: Would you like to tell readers briefly about yourself then?

SCB: I am an African woman, a Rastafarian, an author, a publisher, a wife and a mother. I was born in Zimbabwe, but currently live in the UK. I did my BA studies at the University of Zimbabwe (1992-1994) after which I worked at the National Archives of Zimbabwe as an archivist for four years before coming here. I am currently doing an MA in Social Work. It is my dream to one day set up community-based orphan-care centres in one rural area in Zimbabwe to give orphans a place where they can have meals everyday; where those who are on any medication can go and have their medication administered by trained people rather than relying on elderly grandmothers to do so.

EZ: When exactly would we say you started writing? Any inspiration or motivation? I am looking here at the fact that you were more of a potential history person at university and even worked for the National Archives of Zimbabwe at some point.

SCB: I can say I started writing in 1990 because that’s when I entered my first short story in a Curriculum Development Unit competition and won a prize. It wasn’t the main prize though. I was advised to develop my story further, but I never bothered. In 1995, I wrote a play I called Sarudzayi (not named after me), but it was about students’ expectations after graduating from UZ. The play was set on the UZ campus and I focused on some of the issues that affected students then, especially female students. The story was mainly influenced by the realisation that as UZ students, we lived in an ideal world far removed from reality. In the play, my main character dumped her childhood sweetheart simply because he did not pass A-Level with enough points/grades to get him a place at the university. Nonetheless, he went on to do an apprenticeship and ended up with a financially rewarding job compared to my protagonist (the girl who dumped him). She had left university with a degree, which was deemed theoretical and irrelevant to employers. However, my play was never published because no one was interested in it.

In 2002, I became very homesick and began to write folktales that I had heard from my elders when I was young. I was writing them for my daughter, but when I thought of publishing them, it was like looking for a needle in a pile of rubbish. The only publisher who gave me feedback felt the stories were violent and she did not hide her feeling that Africa was a violent and unstable continent because we told our children such violent stories, which always ended with the wrongdoer being punished. I said to myself; hold on, what about all those Western films which children in the Americas and Europe watch, the guns and the shooting? Aren’t they violent enough? I gave up writing. In 2007, touched by the plight of women who left their husbands and children for very long periods to come and work in the UK, I felt I needed to write something that highlighted the risk of HIV/Aids in absentee relationships, the risk of child abuse for those child-headed families where parents migrated to work elsewhere. I also wanted to highlight some Diaspora issues of how some educated people end up doing menial jobs they had never dreamt of in Zimbabwe, issues like Gatwick — maenzanise, you know. So I wrote The Endless Trail.

EZ: Again, you are about 40 years old now and should obviously have got some first-hand experiences with colonial Zimbabwe — the segregation, disenfranchisement, unequal opportunities in educational institutions, among a number of other injustices of the supremacist white minority regime.

SCB: Yes, I am 40 years now, having been born during the days of Rhodesia. My birth certificate was issued at Charter District and my birthplace was entered as Mfushwa Kraal in Sabi North Tribal Trust Land. I remember clearly the war, the soldiers (Rhodesian Front Forces) bombing entire villages and beating parents in front of their children. The race relations were tough. There were very limited opportunities for black people. There was a bottleneck system of education. As black people, our rights and opportunities were limited. I was 11 years old when the war ended. I never thought that the thing called Rhodesia would come to an end one day. Chisingaperi chinoshura. I hear many people saying Rhodesia was better. Better, for whom?

I am working on a serial, Generations, in which, I write about colonialism as it affected one particular family from generation to generation. It’s a massive project, which requires a lot of research, but I am almost done with Book One. It’s a project I initially wanted to do as a supervised MA writing project with the University of Warwick two years ago, but I decided to withdraw from the course.

EZ: Any comment on contemporary Zimbabwean writing in general and Zimbabwean women’s writing in particular? You could also refer to earlier generations of Zimbabwean writers.

SCB: Zimbabwean writing is growing rapidly. Zimbabwean writers are claiming their rightful place in African literature which has been dominated by Nigerian and Kenyan writers. With Petina Gappah’s collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly winning the Guardian Fiction Prize, Ignatius Mabasa being appointed Writer-in-Residence and Storyteller at a university in Canada and Chris Mlalazi going to California for nine months as a Writer-in-Residence, I think Zimbabwean literature is doing very well.

Of course, there are earlier authors whose names deserve to be mentioned; who I also believe had a great influence on most of the contemporary authors. I was personally influenced by Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989) and The Book of Not. I also read a lot of Dambudzo Marechera’s work and at one time I was so obsessed with his writings that I spent a lot of time reading his unpublished works at the National Archives of Zimbabwe.

There are now many more women writers from Zimbabwe, which is a very good thing, because writing was usually perceived as a man’s field. Women were not comfortable with writing as they feared they would be judged because of what they wrote. If you write about commercial sex workers for example, it will be assumed that muzivi wenzira yeparuware ndiye mufambi wayo, which is not the case. There are now young writers like Sarudzai Mubvakure, whose book Amelia’s Inheritance I published in January. I like Sarudzai’s writing in particular because she ventures into those subjects that many people are not comfortable with; or which we are conveniently forgetting. Sarudzai writes about the injustices of race relations in Rhodesia.

Yvonne Vera was also a great writer. Joyce Jenje Makwenda (Gupuro/Divorce Token) and Valerie Tagwira (The Uncertainty of Hope) write about gender issues. They are very impressive. Petina Gappah’s book is a must-read. She is leading the way. Her success is also a success for Africans, Zimbabweans and women.

EZ: As a female writer, what challenges have you faced?

SCB: I don’t think I have faced any setbacks that can be attributed solely to my gender. I have faced challenges that affect most upcoming authors. You write your manuscript, you are unknown and no publisher is interested in you, you hide your manuscript in your wardrobe or in a suitcase somewhere. FULL STOP.

EZ: How would you characterise your style of writing and major concerns and what were the influences.

SCB: I just write ordinary simple English. There is no major style. As I have already said, I was greatly impressed and influenced by Tsitsi Dangarembga. However, my main influence came from writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jamaican authors like Kei Miller and Andrea Levy (British-born but with Jamaican parents). I only go for a specific type of literature.

EZ: How have your works been received and are they available in Zimbabwe?

SCB: There is a poor reading culture among Africans in general and Zimbabweans in particular. The Village Story-Teller: Zimbabwean Folktales does well with people from other cultures. The same applies to The Endless Trail. I have not made my books available locally in Zimbabwe. I am still in the process of registering Lion Press in Zimbabwe and once that is concluded, I will explore the Zimbabwean and Southern African market.

EZ: And now, how did you get into publishing?

SCB: After publishing The Endless Trail with a Vanity Press, which you pay handsomely to self-publish, I realised that the quality of the book wasn’t good. What Vanity Press does is to just "publish" what you send them and there is no quality control, no editing! You spend a lot of money "publishing" the book only to realise that you are the main customer of your book. That’s when I realised I had to do something if I was to have my writings published properly. I registered the Lion Press in July 2008. The motive was to help other Zimbabwean authors to have their writings published. I have published 15 books since 2008. Three of the books, Many Rivers, The Fading Sun and The Man, Shaggy Leopard and Jackal were shortlisted for the 2010 Nama awards. Two of them, The Man, Shaggy Leopard and Jackal by Ignatius Mabasa and The Fading Sun by David Mungoshi won the Nama 2010 awards. Many Rivers and The Fading Sun were in the same contest.

EZ: You are in the Diaspora and you publish mostly Zimbabwean and other black writers. How is this and how are you managing?

SCB: I realised that there were many more upcoming writers among the Zimbabwean community in the Diaspora who were probably going through difficult times to have their writings published like myself. You realise you live in Britain, you are now a British citizen and yet your writing cannot penetrate the English market and publishers. Because you live in Britain, you cannot access the publishers in Africa. You realise you are in limbo. That is why I set up and registered the Lion Press mainly to work with Zimbabweans in the Diaspora. However, I work with authors from the Caribbean and other African countries. I am publishing Desise Hall (Jamaican British), I am publishing Paul Henry (a.k.a. Ras Ichy who is a Jamaican-born poet), and I am also publishing Cherry Williams who has written poems in tribute to Bob Marley. Cherry is also Jamaican. I have also published Moses Osekyere’s book and Bernard Antwi. They are both Ghanaians.

EZ: Any challenges associated with publishing that you would want to highlight?

SCB: Publishing is not a very easy thing. To begin with, the readership is very small. Books are costly to produce. You need at least £800 to come up with a good book and this fee does not include printing. Because I am a small publisher, I do all the administration and typesetting myself. I also do all the marketing on my own because I cannot afford to pay someone to do the marketing. I sub-contract editors and proofreaders to help with quality control. It’s not easy. I also use my own resources in most cases. I don’t get any funding. I tried to apply for the Arts Council grants here in England, but gave up because it’s too bureaucratic. Some of my authors fund their publishing projects, which is really good. But their books go through editing and proofreading and I also guide them on storyline development if there is any need for that. I get a lot of help from Wonder Guchu and David Mungoshi in that respect.

EZ: ZIBF is one of the biggest book fairs in the world, are you attending this year?

SCB: I am not planning to exhibit at the ZIBF this year because I will be exhibiting at the Goteborg Book Fair in Sweden. This year’s theme for the Goteborg Book Fair is Focus on Africa. I don’t want to miss that opportunity. Maybe next year, I will attend the ZIBF.

EZ: As a publisher, there have been complaints from readers who feel that most books by Zimbabwean writers, including those published in Zimbabwe, are priced way beyond the reach of many potential readers. Any comments on that?

SCB: I certainly agree with that. A paperback should cost in the region of £6 and a hardback usually costs £12. However, I think the problem is with the printing costs. There is not much competition for printers so they charge very high fees. My intention is to make Lion Press books affordable in Zimbabwe. I don’t pay much for printing in the UK. There are too many printers so there are always bargains.

EZ: What is your opinion of the future of Zimbabwean writing especially that we have a number of literary works from fairly younger writers like Memory Chirere, Ignatius Mabasa, Ruby Magosvongwe, Petina Gappah, among others.

SCB: I think it is quite promising. I have just published Memory Chirere’s book, Toriro and his Goats. It’s a great book.

EZ: What advice would you like to share with upcoming Zimbabwean writers?

SCB: Keep writing. Write what you like. Don’t allow a publisher to dictate what you should write. It’s not about the publisher’s interests. It’s about you. Write something you can defend 50 years from the day you write it, assuming we live long enough. If publishers refuse your work because they think it’s not marketable, try self-publishing although you will need a good editor, but that way you will stay in control of your books. I have one question to upcoming authors. Why are we abandoning our African languages?

EZ: Is there anything you find pertinent, like your pan Africanist stance, the current political and economic potential that our country has, given the inclusive dispensation?

SCB: Zimbabwe is a very beautiful country blessed with natural resources. We have a wonderful culture too. We need to be united and work together to improve our country and, above all, we need to give the inclusive Government a chance. There are some people who are good at criticising others. I think the European Union, the United States and other Western countries should support the inclusive Government. It’s the best thing to happen to Zimbabwe after a decade of political tension.

I beg to differ when it comes to Western democracy. Western democracy failed millions of Africans who were taken into slavery. It also failed our ancestors who died fighting to free our countries, our brothers and sisters too who died in the struggle for independence, at Nyadzonia and Soweto, among a host of other places. However, we need to forgive and move on, and not to kill each other because those who arm us want us to fight while they plunder our resources.


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