"What challenges do writers face in Zimbabwe? What benefits can they bring?
A few years ago I taught a short course to promising young writers in Bulawayo. Some of the difficulties they told me about were very much connected with the mechanics of writing. No power for their computers, or light to write by. A shortage of books to read for influence and inspiration. And then there were issues of censorship too - experienced more by playwrights than novelists or poets, as far as I could tell. In some of the short story writers I met the response to this sometimes manifested itself in pieces of stunning surrealism or post-realist fiction. One playwright recently told me that what most concerned him at the moment was that although there was work for playwrights, so much of it was writing pieces for NGOs and educational theatre, that he felt the very quality of Zimbabwean theatrical writing was suffering as a result – that ‘issue’ theatre was killing a genuine dramatic tradition.
On a broader canvas, I think one of the challenges that Zimbabwean writers face is finding a wider international audience prepared to look beyond the ‘known’ stories of Zimbabwe. I’ve been very struck that over the last 10 to 15 years most of the books about Zimbabwe (mine included) were written by white Zimbabweans or European visitors. There are plenty of writers in Zimbabwe, and plenty of good ones too, but it seemed as though it was still the white writers who had access to the international publishing scene. Thankfully that is starting to change, with writers such as Petina Gappah finding wider audiences, as with some remarkable home-grown Zimbabwean publishers such as amaBooks still publishing vibrantly, determined that more Zimbabwean voices from inside Zimbabwe are heard on the world stage.
As for benefits? Who knows. I do believe that a well written piece of imaginative prose or poetry has the potential to penetrate further, and stay with a reader longer, than hundreds of factual articles. That by engaging readers’ hearts, heads and ears simultaneously, writers can bring Zimbabwe today springing off the page. I also think that it’s important for Zimbabwe to see herself reflected in fiction and poetry. When that reflection starts to fade is when a country and a people can start to seem invisible. I think Arthur Cripps understood this, changing the views of western readers by being the first to write pastoral poetry about the daily life of Shona farmers, treating them as equals in literature so that one day they might be given that status in their real lives too."
The photograph is of Owen at the launch of Bryony Rheam's This September Sun in Bulawayo.
Owen's article about his visit, The Road Trip, is online at http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/Road-Trip