Interview: Mukuka Chipanta Interviewed by Dakarai Bonyongwe

Did you always what to be an author? 


 I get asked that question a lot; yes, I’ve always been an avid reader and I dabbled in writing a few essay and articles, but I’d never written a full-length manuscript before. One day I decided to put a few words together, maybe a couple of pages, or three, and I gave it to my wife to read. She’s also an avid reader and she thought it was really good; she gave me a few pointers and suggestions. I worked on those and wrote a bit more as things came to me and I was on the way. It really happened kind of [in] a slow process, I wouldn’t say that I always thought that I would write a full-length book, but it happened.


Your stories talk about themes like politics, power and betrayal. What inspires that kind of narrative?


I think I’m a person who’s well-travelled and fortunate enough to have met many interesting people. I also read a lot and not just technical work from my day job but a lot of fiction, political work, news articles and things like that. I try to keep in touch with current affairs and sometimes as I’m walking or going through my day, certain ideas come to my mind, so I marry the different parts of my experience and my life and it brings about those stories. 


You mentioned your experience, is there anything in your personal background, or maybe in that of someone’s you know, that had an impact on the narrative of either of your books?


I’d say yes. Strictly, I think the characters that I put on paper are really an amalgam of many people that I’ve met before. You can’t take one of those characters and say it’s person A or B, it’s really a collection of different aspects of different people. That’s kind of the way I put together those characters.


You mentioned that you read a lot. Are there any particular books or any authors that you looked to or liked in particular that inspired you in your writing journey?


Yes, there are many authors, maybe too numerous to mention. I do love to read African authors or books that have been written with some African flavour to them. Some of the work that has been influential in my own writing career are seminal works like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, for example, that really resonated with me. I read a lot of newer authors: Sarah Manyika for example, or Tendai Huchu to name a few. I’m reading a book right now called Yellow Bone which is really a fantastic book by one of my favourite authors, Ekow Duker. There’s also Zukiswa Wanner, there are lots of them. There are also a lot of authors outside of the borders of Africa, for example, Khaled Hosseini. I try to read a lot of different books by many people and really try to keep my reading broad. I tell a lot of young authors to do the same. I think you can’t separate a good author from an avid reader, the two go hand in hand.


With this book, Five nights Before the Summit, did you feel any pressure to match up to the reception that a Casualty of Power received?


Not really, I just had a story to write. A story came to me and the characters propelled themselves, so I really didn’t at any time think about anything I’d written before. I was just telling this story Five Nights Before the Summit and I hope that it will be received in a similar way but that was the story that was there to be written. I wrote it without any pressure.


Did you have any certain, not really expectations, but something that you wanted the audience to get out of your newest book upon reading it?


I think one of the things that I was going for in that book was that I wanted it to be engaging. I wanted it to be a book that once you picked it up [you’re a part of the] journey and you won’t put the book down until you’re done. That’s what I was going for. 


Is there a particular reason your stories are set in Zambia or is it just because that’s where you’re from?


There’s this old adage ‘you write what you know’, so that plays into it. Coming from Zambia I’m partial to the fact that Zambia is one country that hasn’t had a lot of fiction written about it. I’m conscious about that and I feel that having grown up in Zambia I know that you’ve got wonderful people there, you’ve got a lot of good stories to tell. A lot of things happen there that many people don’t know about or haven’t heard about and I’ve [always] felt I could do my part to try to tell our stories. That’s not to say I won’t write anything outside of the country, but I am obviously biased.


I’m interested in your planning process and how you think about some of the things that happen in your book. It seems that you’re a big fan of plot twists, thinking back to A Casualty and everything that happens with Mr Miti, and now in Five Nights with finding out who orchestrated the actual robbery. How do you come up with those ideas? Do you think of your stories after having had these ideas and work towards them or as you’re writing do you stumble upon these revelational moments.


That’s a really good question. It’s really interesting; I don’t know about other authors but in my own process I begin to write a story with a particular idea, but not a fully formed one. As the characters present themselves and their backstories, and as things start to get their momentum, it just happens. Some of those plotlines, some of those twists really just present themselves. It’s not that I orchestrated them right from the beginning, they kind of just happen there. It’s a good observation, I do like the plot twists because that’s something that I enjoy reading in books. [Moments] where something really kicks you out of your seat,so I hope that I’m able to do that with some of my writing.


Five Nights Before the Summit is set not long after Zambian Independence. It’s interesting to see the unmet and met expectations that the characters have had based on what has actually happened after independence. Why is Detective Max so cynical about the queen’s visit? He seems unable to not make a mental comment about the connotations of it and what it means for the Zambian man. 


Yes, so Detective Max Chanda is a complicated character. He’s a deep character, one who thinks a lot of things and thinks about the broader perspective of them. He’s one of those people whose lived in that unique period of time, at least from a Zambian perspective, where he was fully conscious of when Zambia became Zambia from Northern Rhodesia and knew all of those expectations that were there. He’s experienced what it was like to live in a colonial regime and now he’s come of age in this new era of self-rule, so he’s got this inherent distrust of the British and that comes through in everything he does. I enjoyed writing about Max, and I wanted him to be a multi-layered character.


 He’s also the more moral figure in the book, especially when contrasted with characters like Amos who, being the son of a judge, you’d think would be the more moral of them all. Yet, Amos is the most corrupt out of all the characters. In this case, just to understand the dynamic there between Max and Amos and get your opinion on this, how do you think families are responsible for shaping characters?


I think from my humble experience growing up, it’s seemingly the people who have everything: a stable home, they don’t want for money, everything is unveiled to them; sometimes it’s those children who end up going astray for whatever reason. That was what was in my mind when I was writing about Amos who’s certainly from a very different background from Max who’s from a mining town and who worked himself up to be an important detective— a civil servant. Still, even though he’s achieved that rank he’s no rich man. He’s a humble man, in contrast to Amos who’s had everything given to him, born with the proverbial ‘silver spoon’ in his mouth. He’s a restless character who can’t keep himself on the straight and narrow so to speak. That’s the difference between the two and I wanted to make sure we had that contrast.


This brings us to characters like Paul Mutamina. What are we supposed to make of him?


Paul is a collection of people I’ve met or seen before.  At the core of Paul, he’s a vulnerable character who’s very gullible and easily influenced. There’s a thin veneer of bravado that he wears outside, and you can’t help but feel sorry for him because you know, in many cases, he makes the wrong choices because he falls to the whims of people who are stronger than him from a mental fortitude standpoint.


What about the other characters? What exactly are their weak points?


I’d say with Max he’s this complicated, cerebral character. I think his main flaw is that he bottles everything up inside of him. He’s had things that have happened in his life and he’s tried to push them deep down from the surface, but they keep coming up. He can’t escape them. I know men like that who are strong, but they feel they can carry everything on their shoulders but it’s impossible to put the weight of the world on your shoulders and still survive. You see this come through in his relationship with his wife and the troubles he’s having. I’d say that’s his biggest weakness, that he’s unable to share his innermost feelings.


 In the case of Amos, he’s a flawed character and maybe at the heart of it, there’s something that’s missing. Maybe he wasn’t loved enough, or he didn’t feel loved enough when he was younger. Whatever it is, there’s definitely this gaping hole in him and he’s trying to fill that with all his nefarious activities. Those are the basic flaws in those characters.


In thinking about your writing, I was drawn to how you write about power. You paint it for what it is and focus on how people react to it. What do you think makes power so attractive?


I have to think about that. Maybe it’s some perversion in the constitution of human beings. I don’t care who you are, or how good you are, power will change you and you’ve got to wrap your head around that. Accept it and try to use it for the good. Definitely, power is very attractive; in the wrong hands, it can do a lot of harm. Likewise, in the right hands, it can do a lot of good but good or bad, power will change you. I think it’s just the nature of things.


Would you say that themes like power, betrayal and greed go hand in hand?


I’m not cynical about the world, I’m actually quite positive but I do think power, greed betrayal all too frequently are sisters. Again, you could also have power married with generosity, and goodwill. It’s all about how power changes an individual and what it brings out in them. I think in some of the stories I’ve written you get to see the other side where power brings out the uglier sides, but you still see the other side of the coin where you get a lot of positives with the power.


The Hinckley’s are presented as national heroes due to their support of Zambian Independence, but you do get the critical view which comes out through some of the characters, concerning white superiority or a white saviour mentality. What is your view on that idea of white superiority and how do you discuss that in your writing?


In this particular story, you have here major white characters: the Hinckley couple and their good friend Fritz. One thing I try to show with that set of characters is how varied opinions or mindsets can be. With Fritz, you see from his background and his experiences that he has a certain view about black people. It’s no secret he views them as less than, and I know we're all too familiar with stories of people like that. Now with Laura and Henry, I think their views are more nuanced. On the one hand, they’re sympathetic to the plight of black people and the drive for independence. I think they wholeheartedly subscribe to the view or the ideal of an independent nation where everybody is equal and there are equal opportunities regardless of race. They intellectually align with that however with some of their actions I think it’s more complicated and Laura begins to question herself about these things. There’s a point in the book where she’s really candid with herself and she asks why or how is it that all of the black people work for white people despite it being a black man’s country, and why their lives are a lot worse than ‘ours’. I think that’s a good thing. She’s got this conscious and she questions herself, but it shows you how difficult it is, it’s not a binary kind of issue.


 The ending is bittersweet and there’s a sense of retribution but is justice truly served for all the characters in the book?


You know I get that a lot from close people who read a lot of my work in its formative stages. I think that the nature of life is that we don’t always get the justice that we think we should get, or that other people should get. Things don’t always line up in neat rows as we would like them to. So, was justice served? In a sense, but it’s difficult to say and I wanted the story to be realistic. I didn’t want to force the story one way or another, I wanted it to unfold as it would.