NoViolet Bulawayo: The Interview. WORD Christchurch

Chatting with NoViolet at WORD

Straight after NoViolet Bulawayo‘s presentation on her book We Need New Names at WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival, I cornered her for a chat. We settled at a table with a view at Rydges Hotel, one that overlooked Latimer Square and the Transitional Cathedral. Perfect. I set up the recorder, the coffee arrived and we were on our way:

You’ve just spent an hour, centre stage, talking about your book to a very large audience. How do you feel about speaking in public like this, is it similar to the story-telling of your childhood?:

I have had to get used to it, but what makes me more comfortable is if I am talking to people who are interested, who have read the book and who have actually paid to hear me! So that makes me feel OK. As for the story-telling, I can say Yes and No. It does feel like oral story-telling in some ways, only now I am having to do it in English and I can feel the language being a barrier all the time, in ways that I don’t feel when I am talking in my home language where it just flows better for me.

How do you fit writing into your day?

For the most part I write in my apartment though I also feel comfortable writing at my school library because I spend quite a bit of time on campus. I write wherever I am, I don’t have any really serious requirements. The actual writing is just part of my everyday life, but I do prefer working early in the morning. I go to bed early, like 9:30 at night, then I wake up early and work. I write better at that time of day, but  sometimes a story just comes to me and wants to be written. Then I won’t wait till morning!

Tell us a bit about teaching writing:

I was teaching at Cornell, then I took a two year break to do my writing Fellowship but I am going back to teaching now. It is a fun and rewarding experience. I base most of my teaching on my own writing experience as opposed to my reading experience because it helps me to speak from the bone. I do read widely, and I bring that to my teaching as well, and I also learn from my students – all the time!

You must be seen as a role model for young writers, what advice would you give any aspiring young writer?

Be comfortable in your own voice. Young people are at a time in life when they are not so sure if they are enough. They may not have seen themselves in books yet. I start by giving them the licence to be who they are. I also encourage them to read, a lot. They have all sorts of distractions nowadays, what with Internet, but if they want to write, they have to read.

Was reading important in your home when you were growing up?

Unfortunately not. I was brought up by people who had not been to school. So it is hard for them to pick up a book and read. But after mum died (NoViolet’s mother died when she was 18 months old), I lived with my aunt. When my sister, who is two years older than I am, went to school, I had a hard time staying at home, so they let me go to school and see how I would fit in. And I was intelligent enough and I just carried on from there. I was always two years younger than everyone in my class, right through to matriculating from high school.

Let’s get the Zimbabwe connection clear, do you still have family back in Zim, and are they proud of you?

Oh yes, most of them still live there, and they are learning to understand what I have achieved, as I don’t come from a literary heritage. It was hard for me even to explain to them what the Booker Prize was! Once I had the physical book in my hands though, that changed. My father came to both my book launches and I think that is when he realised what I had done. Even though he won’t talk to me about the book, he expresses his pride to other people. We did not grow up with compliments. It is a cultural thing, not a success thing. Still I love my country and I am hoping, in the future, to spend my time between the US and Zim and maybe give something back to my country.

How about books and libraries?

Oh, I must laugh here, because I used to steal library books. Well, not steal-steal, but my friend borrowed the book and never gave it back. I will never forget that book, it was called The Growing Summer. So for all my primary school years I could not use the school library. I was just heartbroken. When I got to high school, it was such a relief for me to be able to use the library again! I could just inhale a book in a day or two. My father would read the books too. It was one of the ways we started to bond. Now, because I am such a sucker for languages, I read all the time, I am reading  Jhumpa Lahiri right now. I don’t read graphic novels, but many of my students do.

Last week  Doris Lessing‘s estate bequeathed 3000 books from her personal library to Harare Library. What do you think of that gesture?

It is an extremely generous gesture. It shows a connection with Zimbabwe that means a lot. Our libraries are really hard pressed for books. Even our bookshops are empty now. She did a great thing there. It helps us to start to think in terms of giving back.

Then it was time to take the photo, get NoViolet to sign my copy of her book, and say good-bye. I hope we will meet up again sometime soon.

WORD Christchurch:

We need new names: WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival

We need new namesZimbabwe came as close as it is ever likely to get, in having one of its daughters win the Man Booker Prize, when in 2013, NoViolet Bulawayo was shortlisted for her first novel We Need New Names.

I loved this book long before I read it, I concede maybe for all the wrong reasons.

I loved the author’s name – even if you do nothing else, say the word Bulawayo several times. Let it roll off your tongue, a slight stress on the “way” syllable, feel its roundness roll out like the Matopos Boulders that, as a tourist in Zimbabwe, you would most certainly visit. Beautiful.

I loved the title. It is a book in which names are very important.The names of characters, like Prophet Revelation Bitchington Mborro; Paradise, the squatter camp; DestroyedMichigan for Detroit; Bastard and Godknows who are Darling‘s friends. In politically volatile Africa, even the names of streets and buildings can change almost overnight. To this day, my Durban taxi trips require some verbal fancy footwork: If I say “Can you take me to Aliwal Street”, the driver will answer : “Do you mean Samora Machel?” If I ask for Samora Machel Avenue, he will always reply: “Oh, Aliwal Street”. But we get there in the end.

I also loved the book cover, so funky, so bright, so youthful. Because, NoViolet Bulawayo, born in Zimbabwe, is young and this is her first novel and it is quite brilliant.

And then I read it.

It is a book of two halves, the first part set in the euphemistically named Paradise, a squatter camp in Zimbabwe. The second half is set in America where Darling, the main character, has been taken  by her Aunt – with the promise of a better life.

NoViolet Bulawayo

As with all fiction, there is what is happens and there is how what happens is described. Many awful things happen. Do you want to read about a botched attempted abortion with a wire coat hanger on a young girl impregnated by her grandfather? No you do not. Do you want to read about the words Blak Power smeared in faeces on the bathroom mirror of a house that has been broken into? No you do not. Do you want to read about a lonely father, estranged from his daughter, dying of AIDS in a shack in Paradise? Probably not. But read it you will, because it is beautifully written and finely observed and has nuggets of joy and laughter and empathy the likes of which you may not have beheld for a very long time.

For me it is mainly a book about leaving a place where you were born, your homeland, and making a life in a new place and all the excitement and yearning that  accompanies this migration. The fullness of lack is contrasted with the emptiness of abundance. For make no mistake, people left and are leaving Zimbabwe:

Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost. Look at them leaving in droves.

And then there is the writing. Interspersed with staccato juvenile backchat,  there are long repeated sentences whose Biblical cadence make you feel those passages could be sung. Her writing has few conjunctions and she favours repeated words for emphasis. She has killer similes and metaphors and for all the sadness of the subject matter, you will laugh. She is doing something different with English and you should read it to see what you think. As the Nigerian author Things Fall ApartChinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) is quoted as saying:

Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.

It is a book with a forcefield all of its own. When I went to place it on my shelves, first I put it between The Lord of the Flies and Things Fall Apart. No, not there. Then I tried it between The Lower River and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs To-night. No not there either. Finally I placed it between The Grass is Singing and Cry the Beloved Country. Two classics. And that is where it belongs.

But I have saved the best till last. NoViolet Bulawayo is appearing at the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival  in Christchurch this weekend. Sure you can read the reviews, of course I recommend you read the book, but you could actually meet her and hear her speak.

Writing comets like this do not often traverse our skies.