Brian Chikwava is softly spoken and a little embarrassed about being interviewed. He is not used to this kind of attention, he says.
However, this Zimbabwean author, who now lives in Brixton, London, is actually no stranger to the spotlight. In Denmark in connection with the Centre for Africa Studies 25th Anniversary celebration, his short story, Seventh Street Alchemy, won the 2004 Caine Prize for African writing. Subsequently, he was made Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia, UK.
A novel, Harare North, was published in 2009.
The anonymous protagonist of Harare North (a name given to London because so many refugees from Zimbabwe make the city their home) arrives in London having served as a ‘Green Bomber’ in the ranks of Mugabe’s militia.
As a militia soldier he meted out 'forgiveness' to so-called 'traitors' of the regime.
Now in London, he desperately needs to claw together USD 5,000, and so is forced to seek low paid work.
The writer Chikwava writes in the patois and slang, and to the University Post uses comedy to mete out sharp observations on Zimbabwe’s ruined economy:
»Me I only have ZD 1,000,000, which even if I exchange will come to something like GBP 4«.
Student hardship ‘a barometer’
It recently emerged that due to the poor economic situation, students in Zimbabwe were forced to barter with goods to pay for university fees.
»In Harare, at the University of Zimbabwe, it is almost a barometer for what is going on in the country,« he says.
»If you see students at the university beginning to have hardship, then it means that really a lot of other people are suffering very badly. In the 80’s and the 90’s, students in Zimbabwe tended to be really comfortable because the state used to give them comfortable grants, so the others looked at them as people who have got a comfortable life,« he continues.
»Now, you hear these strange stories of how it has changed. The students have to do other things to survive. Sometimes they are dabbling in prostitution or other things to keep themselves going. A lot of people look at that and say, ‘OK now things are really kind of going down the toilet’.«
So it’s a good indicator for how the country is doing?
»Yes it is. It is a reliable indicator, I think.«
Not an autobiography
Chikwava has often been asked whether the novel Harare North is autobiographical.
»People ask, ‘Does this come from your own life?’«. He laughs, and adds with a smile: »I wish I had such an interesting story«.
»Actually when I kept on getting this question, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I really missed out on a trick here.’ I should have just said this was my biography,« he says, cackling with laughter.
Why do you think people assume your work is autobiographical?
»I suppose if people don’t really know a lot about the other, then the other’s past is always a blank. Nobody really knows where he is coming from, what his history is.«
Politically incorrect inspiration
Where did you get the inspiration for the protagonist of Harare North, who lives on the periphery of London society?
»It’s one of those strange stories. In London, I had in my mind that I would write about people moving from Zimbabwe to England because there’s been a lot of that over these past years, and so while I was trying to work with that idea, I met a guy who was Ugandan,« explains Brian Chikwava.
»He had been with the Lord’s Resistance Army (a sectarian Christian militant group based in northern Uganda, engaged in an armed rebellion against the Ugandan government, ed.). He told me his story, about how he had been in London for five years, and how he missed that whole life in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA),« he says.
»So he was carrying this AK47 (rifle ed.) around and he was with the leader of the LRA, Joseph Kony, and at first I didn’t believe him, I thought he was pulling my leg. It was all so politically incorrect. But he didn’t blink. Then I realised he was actually serious.«
»From then on, I thought, because Zimbabweans have this history of the Green Bombers (graduates of the ‘National Youth Service’, a Zimbabwean government programme for Zimbabweans of ages 10 to 30, ed.) who have a notorious past, that I could make something out of this. I could write about a Green Bomber coming to London. That’s how I started,« he explains.
We all have an origin
How do you feel about being called an African writer?
»Well this is one of those questions that a lot of people are uncomfortable with. Personally, I have no problem with it because the discomfort around that term is historical. It comes from a time when African literature was not taken seriously,« he explains.
»To be an African writer meant that you were not exactly a writer who is worth looking at. So I think it goes back a long way. I would just find it very strange to say that I am not an African!« he says, and continues:
»That would be even stranger. Some want to be considered a 'universal artist'. But universal artists still have to come from somewhere. You don’t just leap out and become. We all have to have an origin.«