A Conversation with Farai Mudzingwa

Farai Mudzingwa

No social network has influenced my writing more than Twitter. I am constantly thinking and publishing my writing on Twitter. To my benefit, I have had my opinions challenged and my world view expanded, but mostly, I use Twitter to connect with Zimbabweans in various parts of the world.

Very few people on Twitter have been as influential on my writing as Farai Mudzingwa. Farai Mudzingwa is a Zimbabwean writer based in Harare. I was first drawn to his satirical tweets, the kind of tweets that will make you say, "you can't make this shit up." I have also come to know him through his work as the author of several short stories and non-fiction articles. I recently sat (virtually) with Farai Mudzingwa to talk about his writing and the state of literature in Zimbabwe.

S: What was your path to becoming a writer?

F: Boring really – commenting on blogs, starting my own blog – posting on facebook – short stories and articles

S: Why do you write?

F: An overindulged interest in documenting stories. Telling stories from my perspective.

S: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer, or did you have an aha moment?

F: Not at all, I only wrote my first story when I was 34

S: You have given me great reading recommendations in the past. What are your top five

favourite books and why?

F: Spud – it got me interested in writing fiction. I identified with the teenage boarding school stories. It also plugged some interesting books

Catch 22 – the brilliant dark humour and the social/political commentary as satire

Wretched of the Earth – The Knowledge

Moby Dick – The layers of prose and allegory and metaphor all following a simple premise

S: You’ve published some short stories and several articles on politics and sports. What’s your favourite thing to write about?

F: I really have no preference. I just select the best medium to tell a story. Sometimes I do both and then decide which works better. For instance, my last article on New Frame, on Richard Tsimba. I researched on it about four years ago then wrote it as historical fiction but decided it wasn’t working and shelved it. When I was asked to pitch a non-fiction story last year, I pitched it and then worked on telling it as longform journalism with interviews.

S: Who is your favourite author and why?

F: I am not really into favourites but one whose books were most consistently brilliant and whose life resembled his work – Frantz Fanon. I think each book should stand for itself rather than ride on the hype of its author and/or on previous work. Someone can write something brilliant but as we find out, that is no guarantee that any future work will be any good. And some authors are lovely and interesting people who don’t write interesting or good work.

S: I did not read any Zimbabwean or African (English) literature before I went to university, I knew of Chinua Achebe but by the time I went to high school, it was all Shakespeare and Gerald Durrell, I am curious if you had a similar experience? You have such a clear and distinct voice and I am curious where that comes from, as someone who is still trying to find their voice.

F: So, I did Shona and English Literature up to O’Level. English texts were similar to the ones you mentioned – I hated them all – but I also had Shimmer Chinodya’s “Harvest of Thorns” which I, for a long time rated as my favourite novel. In Shona I read Mordecai Hamutyinei, TK Tsodzo, Aaron Chiundura Moyo, Archbishop Patrick Chakaipa etc. and these stories I found quite interesting. The rest of the canon – Chenejerai Hove, Dambudzo Marechera, Yvonne Vera, Ngugi Wa’Thiongo, Chinuna Achebee and them, I only read way after school, mostly in my 30s. And I’ve played around with voice a lot. My short stories reflect different influences. For instance, “Charara” has a distinct up tempo first person “Catcher in the Rye” sound because that was part of my early reading at the time I started writing. “The Colour of Black Buttons” has a similar dark theme but much less and darker humour – and that reflected my absorption into life in Harare and a more “documentarian” approach to my expression. “South of Samora” is almost a reconciliation of the two approaches. I’m actually struggling with the humour in my writing. I want it there, but I just can’t find it. I’m aiming for Catch 22 but I’m falling short. I think what I’m getting at is that voice, my voice, is what comes out while I’m processing my observations and aiming for something. It’s like a by-product of my mind working.

S: What was the inspiration behind the short story “South of Samora”?

F: I lived in Budiriro for about 6 months, 2017 into 2018. The coup happened during that period. And so that story has very little fiction in it. It’s one of those stories I could walk you through the setting and point out the houses and rail tracks and roads and you would see the guys in the story pushing their carts down the street. I remember when we were editing it, and Helen Moffett I think, questioned the time I had written for the sunrise and the time of the year, and I replied that I could vouch for it because I had actually woken up and stood outside the house at that time and in that month and watched the sunrise.

I was going through a bad patch in my life. On so many levels – financially, mentally (I actually realized that I was in a bad place, possibly depressive), physically - and that story was my way of taking all the darkness out of my mind. I needed to put my situation outside of myself because I was beginning to internalize it, which is something I had never done before.

S: Who are you writing for?

F: The widest audience I can reach. I know it’s romantic to say “for myself” but no, I write for people to read. When I’m writing it begins with me, from me, and I have to feel it, it has to be authentic to me, but I then edit it so whatever I’m writing is communicated to others. When I’m writing I’m telling a story, it’s communication, and communication is pointless if it’s not geared to be understood by the recipient.

S: I know from following you on twitter that you think a lot about the classism and class mobility in Zimbabwe. How have your personal experiences helped you navigate writing about the class divide in a balanced way?

F: Classism is a total mess in Zim. Our version of it, that mix of cultural class distinctions and what comes out of it when it has colonial factors thrown at it, it’s a mess. I’ve lived through various instruments of class, suburbs, townships, government schools, private schools, I’ve lived through privilege and access and I’ve lived through deprivation etc. But importantly, I’ve developed a way of drawing from these experiences, to connect with people and circumstances, and simultaneously stepping outside of myself, to observe and write “objectively”. Because there’s no true objectivity. Also, I’m critical of just about everything; I’m critical of both sides of the class divide and also how they relate to each other.

S: I watched the documentary, House of Hunger, on Dambudzo Merechera, and there is a scene that sticks out to me. Fellow Zimbabwean writers, Wilson Katiyo and Musa Zimunya “tried to explain the political context in which they worked as writers” to newly arrived Dambudzo Marechera. How would you describe the context in which you are working as a writer in today’s Zimbabwe?

F: Yeah that scene stuck out for me. It reminds me almost of a reversed replay of that same scene. Must have been around 2014 when Stanley Nyamfukudza was back in the country and on a panel at The Book Café, and Shimmer Chinodya was interrogating him on leaving the country and how that virtually ended his writing. In both cases, Marechera and Chinodya were not interested in empathizing with the other writers. Zimunya and Katiyo were trying to communicate the state restrictions to their writing and Marechera could not understand how they were not willing to sacrifice it all on the romantic notion of the persecuted writer. I’m all on Zimunya and Katiyo’s side. As much as I want to tell stories and write I also do not want to be abducted and tortured by the CIO or military intelligence. I have no romantic notions. I’m not a martyr. So, I write what I want but I’m also aware that I live in a military state. And largely I get away with it because literature is not seen as a threat. I do not have the reach or popularity to attract state attention. Which is of course a bit of a conundrum, if I want a wide audience/readership then at some point I shall pop up in the sights of the state – if that work happens to be “subversive”. So, it’s a tentative game I’m playing, but I’m by no means some brave contrarian willing to be martyred. I get by mostly because the state apparatus is rudimentary and not tuned into the subtleties of literature. (Bearing in mind though that they went after Chenjerai Hove).

S: What do you think is the future of reading and writing in Zimbabwe?

F: We need to evolve. Literary production and consumption have changed around the world and Zim writing/publishing/reading is stuck in the 1980s. Our industry still imagines Zimbabwe as it was in the then – the economy, society, demographics, culture have all shifted – Zanu PF has made sure of that – and it still acts as if we are in that era. The present and the future is digital and multimedia and innovation. This applies to the whole literary chain. Of course, having a vibrant literary culture in a broken cowntry like Zimbabwe is also quite hopeful.

S: Do you see yourself expanding into screenwriting and playwriting?

F: That’s mostly what I’ve been doing the last few months. Film series scripts, talk shows and other multi-media. At some point I shall get around to writing my one play – a musical. There is great potential for theatre in Zim.

S: What are you working on at the moment?

F: Tv series scripts. Short film scripts. Novels. Short stories. Graphic novels. Longform articles. Everything. I have a long list of shit in various stages of production.

S: What is your favourite quote from any piece of literature?

F: None. Fun fact: I have such shitty memory I don’t recall quotes and all that from what I read. I even forget what books I’ve read.

S: What would literary success look like to you?

F: Enough passive income to finance my expensive habits. Royalties from book sales, film adaptations, translations, payment for speaking gigs. All that good shit. I want my bank balance to be reflection of my literary success.

S: Best piece of advice to a young writer?

F: I didn’t write in my youth, I lived. My youth was ambition, folly and hedonism. I don’t know what I would have written had I started writing when I was young – because I don’t believe I had lived enough to write anything worth reading. So, my advice is to live, fully. Do everything so that when you write you have experience and material to draw from. And when you decide you want to write, first read, but read wisely and critically – quality over quantity. And be intentional.

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