10 Questions for Brian Chikwava
- By Edward Clifford
I had to take off, because I did not trust myself not to change my mind. I was fat and out of shape. Even at the best of times I had never been one for running, because I considered it an undignifying exercise. But this was not the time for preserving dignity.
The squatter camp—like the rest of the squalid rebirth of Zimbabwe in the roar of history at the turn of the century—was a disorderly site forever sprawling downhill. It seemed impossible to escape. With each stride the township that I was trying to reach seemed to float farther away.
—from “Heroes of Our Time,” Volume 61, Issue 1 (Spring 2020)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
My pieces were art reviews for magazines and weekend papers when I still lived in Harare, Zimbabwe. It is from these that I got the confidence to try my hand at fiction. My first short story was a hugely self-indulgent psychogeographic exploration of Harare. No one wanted to publish it, of course. So I told myself that the problem was the provincial Harare publishing scene, which was intent on thwarting a genius. Then a close friend, who had been supportive all along, read the piece and nearly fell off his chair laughing. Not a soul ever clapped their eyes on the piece after that.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
From the beginning I think there are two writers that affected me: Yvonne Vera and Dambudzo Marechera. The former had a positive effect on my craft’s development and the latter had an unhelpful effect, as he usually does, on young writers who are vulnerable to the romance of the self-destructive element. Later, I fell in love with Russian writers such as Isaac Babel and Mikhail Lermontov, from whose novel I borrowed the title of the short story that you see in MR's latest issue.
What other professions have you worked in?
I have dabbled in music in the past. Then I had an epiphany and discovered I preferred solitude to trying to herd musicians, wildcats that they tend to be. I’ve also worked on the factory floor in a dairy plant, had jobs in construction and media-monitoring. A lot of things I’ve done can accurately be described not as profession, but employment, vocation, or just civic duty, of which the most interesting has been working as a canvasser in the run up to elections—you get paid dust for the doorstep interactions, but usually come out of it with greater, if not surprising, insights about the people in your neighborhood. That would be why whenever I move to a new neighborhood in London, where I now live, I always hustle for a canvassing job.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I don’t think I had a clear idea of what I wanted to be maybe because my passions pulled in every direction. When I was at primary school I recall mailing to Raleigh a bicycle design that, as it turns out, prefigured the mountain bike with front and rear shock springs. Raleigh never responded. I also recall that after watching Bigfoot & Wildboy, I tried to write a screenplay for a story I had in mind. To say I was woefully unprepared for the task is an understatement. I had no idea how to write a script let alone have the tools for it. Unsurprisingly, I ended up like the hapless drowning person who tries to save himself by swallowing all the water in the pool.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I come from a country where over the past twenty years the ordinary people have been put through horrendous experiences for the sake of the political careers and egos of the leadership, where the nation has been wilfully polarized between patriots and traitors, and the economy broken on the alter of sovereignty and other delusions that nationalists like to use to justify withdrawal from the larger world they dislike. My piece was, to an extent, a product of my unhappiness about the socioeconomic chaos and destruction to which Zimbabwe has been subjected by its own government. The result of the past years, the Zimbabwean government and ruling party’s willingness to let things fall apart in order to make a political point, has also turned us into a country where a small number of people have become filthy rich and everyone else is shunted into a destitute and undignified existence. To observe that the people who have brought about the collapse in question are also the beneficiaries of it, or to see a Bugatti rolling through the centre of Harare, full of beggars and the homeless as it is now, is to witness a perversion of the way a country ought to conduct its affairs.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
There are some places that do not influence my writing per se but enable me to hear myself with clarity and attention. Two such places that come to mind are the Outer Hebrides in Scotland and the Vumba mountains in Zimbabwe. I think it has something to do with the sense of space at those locations; it inspires more of the Ruth Stone moments whereby one hears an idea coming at them from over the landscape and has to run back to the desk before the idea thunders overhead and disappears over the horizon.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I tend not listen to music while writing because it can get in the way. It’s a different matter though when it comes to the editing process, during which I at least decompress and begin to enjoy the process. For that, I have a playlist into which I dump all manner of music. Albums on that playlist include Anouar Brahem’s Blue Maqams, African Virtuoses’ The Classic Guinean Guitar Group, Isildurs Bane’s Mind Vol.1, and Takahiro Kido’s in my Time.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Walking. A walk around or through the park is usually a good start for me because it tends to be both meditative and cognitively stimulating. When things are not flowing the way I would like, a desperate, deranged run around the park sometimes unblocks things. And then caffeine, of course. Bracing black coffee and a tangerine. I have heard that a punch bag also works wonders, but have not yet been able to work that into my routine.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I think I would be very happy as a milliner. I would love to see my creation transform someone. And of course, I would also love to make magnificent hats for myself, especially as it is usually the case that the hats that I like would ruin my finances.
What are you reading right now?
I used to be able to read books as soon as they were published. Now I seem unable to remain on top of my ever growing reading list and am falling more and more behind every year. That is why I’m only now reading Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift. It has to be one of the most underrated novels of recent years.
BRIAN CHIKWAVA is a London-based Zimbabwean writer. He's associate editor of Wasafiri magazine and a fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Studies.