She talks to Irenosen Okojie about being a writer in diaspora, her writer’s process and the importance of the Caine Prize.
Your novel is a powerful depiction of the fractured lives of children living in a shanty in Zimbabwe. How important was it to tell their story?
The book was written during Zimbabwe’s lost decade. If you follow Zimbabwean politics, that’s when the country really came undone for the first time since Zimbabwean independence.
For me that was really shocking because I had a beautiful childhood, so to see what was happening was devastating. My family’s still back home. We’ve heard those stories of there being no food in the stores, violence because of government elections, activists disappearing, some of them turning up dead. It just became important, especially to parallel the media narrative. I was living in the west and seeing things through the internet. I felt someone needed to tell an intimate story that showed what was happening on the ground and captured the full essence of characters. Having kids really allowed me to do that, they’re kids but disconnected from what’s going on. They still lived, laughed and played despite what was happening. It became a big, necessary project for me.
Ten year old Darling as a narrator rings authentic and true. We’re reading about these children having to cope with horrible circumstances yet because it’s told through a child’s eyes there’s an other worldliness about it. How hard was it to get her voice right?
It wasn’t hard, probably because I emerged writing through craft and the child narrator. As a creator, it’s something that I’d worked on since I started writing. When it came to Darling, I was a bit more seasoned. You have to play on your strengths and that’s what I did. I come from a culture where we just have character. Put a bunch of kids together and they shine, they survive. I had to go back to my own childhood and my childhood friends for that voice. It’s honest and that’s important. You don’t want somebody to read it and think that doesn’t sound right.
There’s bleakness in their circumstances but it’s also very funny. How did you strike that balance and was it deliberate?
I come from a place of laughter, absence of humour is not normal. Whatever we were doing, laughter was a constant dynamic in our lives no matter the circumstances. I was talking to my cousin about a recent funeral back home. And she said people were funny, even at a funeral. It doesn’t have to be depressing. I needed to make that conscious decision to remember to bring in humour. Although it was partly deliberate and partly not, that’s how I am in my everyday life. I’m not a serious person. My personality also comes through my writing, I have to be pleased. Also, I was aware that I was working from a politically charged space, very dense material. I needed to find a way to make it tolerable to read, that was important. Not just with this book. For me it’s important that whoever starts reading my work doesn’t put it down. Laughter carries you through and I have to connect to the reader. Humour allows me to do that.
The second half of the novel is set in America where Darling finds herself facing a different set of challenges. Did you draw on your own experiences?
I think all fiction is drawn from real experiences, people will tell you it’s fiction but it’s real. It’s either your own reality or somebody else’s. My moving to America is even more recent than my ten year old self. It had to be convincing, some of my personality needed to appear on the page but also stealing from others, family, friends, people I knew. It’s interesting, when my family members read the book; I get phone calls saying so I saw such and such in the book! It’s one of those things; if it comes into my writing I don’t resist it.
What do you think the reaction to the novel will be like in Zimbabwe and what sort of dialogue do you hope it sparks?
In Zim, I have no idea. I can’t really say one way or the other but I know Zimbabweans have been reading my work. I blog, on Facebook they read bits of it. Mostly they’ve been supportive and there’s nothing like being supported by your own people. Especially now, sometimes you think they’re not reading but some of them are. In terms of reaction, what matters is that they read. I’ve written and they’ll read. Whether good or bad, as long as the work is read. My only prayer is that the work is available for people. I just went home, first time in thirteen years. I was surprised they were selling just stationery in what used to be the biggest bookstore, no books. If they’re no novels available, people aren’t accessing books and that’s dangerous. The genealogy of our literature has always been engagement. It means there’s a disconnect somewhere. I’m hopeful, people on the ground are asking me for the book and on Facebook. I’ll be releasing it in Zim so there are ways they can access it. I hope we can work something out to make the book affordable and available in libraries.
How has being a writer in diaspora shaped your writing and how do you think it’s affected your sense of identity?
It’s quite interesting that I had to leave home to discover myself as a writer. I come from a culture where I never saw writers growing up. I read books and most of the books were by western writers. But beyond that, writing was never a career option to me. You had to be a nurse, doctor, a lawyer, which I went to the US to study or an engineer. I know that being in the diaspora for me meant I was given the golden opportunity to come into myself, to study creative writing which I wouldn’t have done in Zimbabwe. I would have studied a Masters in Finance. With the cost of leaving home came the benefit of discovery. For me it was when I embraced my Zimbabweaness more. At home, it wasn’t necessary; you’re surrounded by Zimbabweans so it was never an issue. Your race is never an issue because you’re living in a space where everyone looks like you. Then going out, you realise, I’m not from here. I’m this other thing. This other thing is not always at home in a space that can be both welcoming and marginalising. Which is why I’m obsessed with my homeland in my writing. It’s certainly made me fall in love with my roots even more. I can’t find that grounding sense of identity where I am which is why when it comes to identifying myself as a Zimbabwean writer, I feel I am. I don’t just want to be called a writer. For me that identity is important, it meant survival and grounding. We’re living in a time where technology’s so prevalent. This book wouldn’t have been written without that. I was getting on Facebook, seeing people and teachers updating about what was happening back home and that fed into the whole process.
You won the Caine Prize for Hitting Budapest. How did that help as a launch pad for your career?
When the Caine Prize is mentioned, I remember I’ve spent all the money. On a serious note, it gave me confidence especially because it happened at a time when I was just starting out. In as much as I love writing and know it’s what I’m supposed to be doing but when you’re young you really think about things. You know you’re expected to be doing something that’s more secure. You live in a practical world of bills, of supporting family especially those of us in the diaspora. You have to be sensible but it showed me that I could make it.
How important do you think the Caine Prize is for profiling African writers?
It’s the biggest prize in Africa, it’s very necessary. There aren’t so many things happening on the continent itself. It’s a western prize in a sense but that doesn’t undermine it. It’s still important, whether you’re looking at people who’ve been short listed or won, they’ve gone on to do amazing things. I’d like it to be more engaged on the continent. I know there was aworkshop run which is cool. It gives people the opportunity to workshop when we don’t have a strong workshop culture. But I’d like to see a Caine Prize winner do a residency in Africa. Send that person to a school to work with kids. Young people are very impressionable and I think that would make a difference.
From Hitting Budapest, the story then evolved into a novel. Tell us about the trajectory.
It’s the first chapter in the novel so people think that it actually came first. The thing is, it actually came while I was working on the novel. It was in a different form then. When I got to Hitting Budapest, the story found its pulse. Then I had to rework the book and I reworked it a million times. Moving it forward and shaping it around these kids.
What’s your writer’s process?
I don’t have a fancy, high sounding process myself. I try and envision a story in my head. Write as much as I can inside my head. Maybe that’s because I was brought up on hearing stories. I think of a story first versus it written down. Then I’ll write it in my notebook, edit as much as I can to get the language right. Then I bring it to the gadgets. I’m laid back and I don’t write every day. Writing isn’t always writing in terms of doing the physical act, I’m processing things in my head all the time. I’m an observer of life. I think about things and my characters. So I’m always in one way or another, involved in the process. I try not to stress, I’m not a serious person. I don’t take things seriously. There are times when I look at my work and think, that’s interesting or that could have been better! I think it’s necessary to be objective but the main thing is to enjoy what I’m doing. I enjoy it more if I don’t over think it. I just work from instincts. It’s interesting to hear intelligent people or critics discuss things I may not necessarily have worried about. You know things that just happened.
What sort of stories are you interested in telling?
I’m interested in stories that say something about who we are and engage with social issues. My art has to have meaning; it has to have people talking about things that matter. Like We Need New Names, there’s so much about that that I wanted to say. That’s what drives me for now, you never know what will come in future but to have a dialogue going and people talking about things.
Who are some of your literary influences?
The storytellers in my life, our literature is oral. There was a time when I read nothing but literature in my native language which was still for me a form of engagement. I learned so much about storytelling from those and about language itself. Then there were people like Yvonne Vera, Toni Morrison, Edward P Jones, the usual suspects. Young writers now are just creating brilliant work. Writers like Justin Torres and then you have people online who may not necessarily be published. I’m creating at a very vibrant time. It’s a good time to be a writer and of course I’m connected to young writers, Africans and otherwise. We’re having interesting conversations.
Which book do you wish you’d written and why?
I wish I’d written the bible! Seriously, everybody reads the bible. I approach the bible as a storybook. I don’t come from a seriously Christian background. As kids you didn’t have the whole picture and we were told these bible stories and they were just stories to us. I would have made it NoViolet’s bible. I may write a novel in that kind of style. Look me up in five or six years and see!
What are you working on next?
I’m working on recovering from writing and promoting We Need New Names. I’m working on a collection of stories. I’m not trying to force it, sometimes there’s this pressure to go straight onto the next book. In as much as I want something to come along, it will come along when it does.