Interview: Chikwava Brian

Writing Still: New Stories from Zimbabwe

edited by Irene Staunton
2003: (pp: 272) 204 x 138 mm
ISBN: 0779220189

Interview: Brian Chikwava – 2004 Caine Prize Winner

Brian Chikwava is talking to a representative from the Zimbabwe High Commission, attending the award ceremony of the Caine Prize, in the hope that a fellow Zimbabwean will win this prestigious prize for African writing. The award ceremony has yet to begin, the guests are sipping champagne in the Rector’s garden of Exeter College in Oxford before the African literati head off to the Bodleian Library to hear which of the five short-listed writers is to walk off with the $15,000 prize.

It has been a long day for the five finalists, two Ugandans, a Nigerian and a Kenyan in addition to Brian, but now the end is nigh and they are being feted in the heart of the academic establishment. There is a long build-up by chairman of the judges, Alvaro Ribeiro, and after the announcement of ‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ as the winner, the orderly dinner turns into a congratulatory mingling, networking, friendly queuing with Ben Okri and Baroness Nicholson as much in demand as the dreadlocked Zimbabwean.

The next morning Chikwava has let his dreadlocks down and ensnared them in a cap. The suit has been replaced by a red t-shirt as the soft-spoken 32-year old admits it has been a long night, but one of elation. The red t-shirt might not have gone down too well the night before, but this has nothing to do with etiquette in the halls of academe – wearing red is virtually outlawed in Zimbabwe, Chikwava says, because it is the colour of the MDC, the opposition party.

Chikwava has been living in London for a year since leaving Harare to explore opportunities in music and writing. 'Somehow in Zimbabwe the opportunities are not that great to experiment,' he says. While he has been catapulted into the limelight with the award of the Caine Prize, he is intent on furthering his music career in the short term and will be using his winnings to take a break from his part-time career as a quantity surveyor and finish Jacaranda Skits, a music album of his ‘whole-wheat’ sound which blends township jazz, ska and blues.

He is working on a novella called Bubble Wrapping Artificial Shit and he expects Jacaranda Skits to be completed by August 2004. He is also planning live performances in London. These performances are unlikely to include readings of his award-winning story. 'I don’t like readings. Performing music is different. At a reading there is no room for improvisation. Music is not like a text where you have to read each and every word. You have a bit of space to do your own thing. If you make an error you can disguise it nicely.'

Chikwava grew up in Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, and after completing his schooling went to university in Harare. 'At university I tried out a lot of things. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do – tried a bit of electrical engineering, dropped out of that and then tried electronic engineering and dropped out of that and then thought let me just do quantity surveying and I didn’t drop out of that one.

'After I completed my quantity surveying degree I thought, well I’ve done this and it’s okay, it’s something to fall back on but I don’t really enjoy it.'

Chikwava then joined the Zimbabwe Association of Art Critics and started writing arts reviews. 'After a while I thought, why not try my hand at fiction.'

‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ was one of his first stories to be published in book form, as one of the 23 stories in Writing Still, an anthology of Zimbabwean short stories published by Weaver Press. 'The story is trying to explore how the state operates sometimes, how it turns really corrupt instead of serving the people, which is its purpose. The state ends up really making peoples’ lives difficult,' says Chikwava.

‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ is the story of a prostitute in Harare who is trying to establish her identity. Not in any idealistic or existential sense, but in a purely bureaucratic sense. Without an identity she cannot get a passport, and she cannot establish her identity without succumbing to the greedier side of the bureaucracy. But there is irony in the tale. To charge her for creating such a disturbance in trying to acquire an identity they must first establish her identity. But much more than just a story of the circular machinations of bureaucracy in the hands of petty minded officials, the story is also about a woman surviving on the streets of Harare, on the intersection of Seventh Street and Samora Machel Avenue.

Chikwava’s music and literary career was fostered by the Book Café, a venue in Harare where he regularly took part in poetry evenings, public discussions and music performances. It was here that he started experimenting with different genres of art by collaborating with other young writers and musicians in an attempt to create new ways of presenting the African experience.

However, Chikwava believes literature from Africa must not sacrifice a compelling story for a political agenda, 'because at the end of the day as a writer you are writing from your own perspective. To co-opt it into political agenda it tends to distort it in a way, and you just write a story and if it is compelling, then so be it.'

Apart from Zimbabwe’s great writers such as Charles Mungoshi and Dambudzo Marechera, Chikwava counts among his influences the Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov, 'an unusual and interesting writer'. Lermontov was a prolific poet and novelist who died at the age of 27 in 1841. 'I think the Russian stories relate a lot to Africa. There was a common ground. Rural citizens in Russia just trying to survive is something we can relate to in Zimbabwe.' Once well-stocked Zimbabwean libraries offered wide access to such books for Chikwava.

While he is homesick for Zimbabwe, he says the things he wants to go back to no longer exist. 'Like the Book Café evenings. There is new legislation which says there may be no gathering of more than 12 people unless it has been cleared by the police. Poetry meetings are on the edge, but the literary/political discussions which were very vibrant – those have just died. The police want to check your agenda and see what you are talking about.'

At the same time, Chikwava longs for the creative stimulation that England lacks. 'As difficult as it might be, if you are there trying to do something creative there seems to be this world of creative material that you can use for writing, which is the positive aspect of it. That’s really a bit ironic because it’s out of the difficulties the country is going through.

'Just being there, you sometimes get a sense of being overwhelmed by watching things just go badly and its very hard to balance observing things going badly and your own personal feelings, and even a bit anger at seeing things fall apart.'

Chikwava laments not even being able to wear a t-shirt he made himself – a print of his own open hand on a white shirt. This simple design is now a political statement violently opposed by the Mugabe government because the open hand is a symbol of the MDC. 'Suddenly it became dangerous to wear my t-shirt. The restrictions become so personal, you can’t do things,' he says.

'It is not the best atmosphere to be creative in, but at the same time there is a lot of material to use. There seems to be this world of creative material that you can use for writing, which is the positive aspect of it.'

But London is oppressive in an entirely different sense. 'I find it is easier for me to write there than it is in London. There’s so much space there to think and organise your thoughts,' he says.

Chikwava is the first to admit that being in London can be very stressful. 'You just get into a different frame of mind. If I am in Harare I can walk across the city for two hours and still feel okay, without feeling tired, but if I walk from Oxford Circus to Bond Street my energy just vanishes into thin air. I don’t know what it is. Probably having to be a bit aggressive. Your mood changes. By the time you get to the other end it feels as if you’ve been playing rugby.'

Despite London being a tiring place it is one filled with opportunity for Chikwava and his music ambitions. He will also find time to write he hopes. As for Zimbabwe, the future is not bright, but as with the title of the anthology in which is story appeared; Zimbabweans are writing still.

© The author/publisher