To celebrate Zimbabwe’s fortieth Independence day anniversary, NAACP Image Awards nominated author Petina Gappah hosted a question and answers session on Twitter on her experience in writing and reading about the Southern African country.
“Zim turns 40! I am celebrating independence by hosting a Twitter Q and A about writing and reading Zimbabwe! If there’s a question you want to ask me about my writing and about my love of Zim literature more generally, do please ask me below and I will answer by Sunday,” she wrote.
As was evident from the bulk of questions she received, Zimbabwe and the world have long been waiting for a one-on-one moment with the peerless figure of fictional literary writing. Among some of the questions she was asked were on Dambudzo Marechera, self-publishing, literary criticism and radical feminism.
Here are the highlights of the engagement.
@SimondeSwardt: What is your writing routine? Do you have any rituals that help you write? Do you outline a novel before writing it or just jump right in? How much of your writing process is rewriting?
Petina Gappah: It is important to me to get a good, solid first draft. So I write the first draft as quickly as I can. After that I rewrite and perfect and sculpt. An outline helps me produce the first draft faster. But things inevitably change. To me writing is rewriting. That’s the pleasure
@BrezhMalaba: Who is your best Zimbabwean writer and why?
Easily Charles Mungoshi for his fluidity and fluency in two languages, and for his ability to cross genres: he wrote novels, short stories, plays, poems, AND he also translated. All equally well in two languages. He is my benchmark.
@GombiroPanashe: What advice would you give to aspiring young Zimbabwean writers?
Read read read. Read as much as you can, as widely as you can. Read everything and read from everywhere. You cannot be a writer if you are not a reader.
@Clive_Bates: What do you think of audiobooks? I loved The Book of Memory in audio because of the wonderful expressive voices. But is that a failure of my imagination or inability of a foreigner to ‘hear’ the voices in the writing? Or is it a valuable hybrid of literature and theatre?
I LOVE audiobooks and that one was a huge success as it was narrated beautifully by @chipochung. I always ask that the audio be narrated by Zimbabwean actors. I am privileged to have been voiced by Chipo and Lucian Msamati and most recently @Sibongile Mlambo and Nyasha Hatendi.
@Shelton_Mbuwa: It appears writing is in you naturally, did you go to some form of writing school b4 embarking on your 1st published writing, or you just got on to it and figured yourself out?
I became a writer because I read voraciously. I learned to write from reading others, and found my voice through trial and error. I have three law degrees, and not a single writing course outside doing English and Shona at A level.
@whatifItsQ: What do you take of Dambudzo Marechere’s discography and its impact on Zimbabwean Literature?
Marechera was a brilliant but ultimately undisciplined writer whose mental illness struggles have been fetishized to a degree that makes him outshine his work. I think his influence on Zim writing is reflected more in the idea of what a writer is, but not in what good writing is.
@wtmtutwa: Do you still think radical feminism as a literary theory should still be used in modern writing considering the numerous cases of women violence against men? Can we not think of a more democratic literary theory. What do you think?
I personally don’t write from a theoretical perspective though of course my work invites commentary rooted in theory. So no, I don’t use “radical feminism” as a theory in my writing though my work invites a feminist reading. I am much more interested in people than I am in theory.
@NgoniPatony: What’s your take on self-publishing or using established publishers? Also the attendant issue of rights to the book.
I could not self publish so I admire those who do. When you self publish you do everything, editing, proofreading, jacket design, layout, marketing, sales and distribution. I genuinely can’t do all that. Self-publishing also means missing out on translation which matters to me.
@JoelGuy_: The reading culture among blacks is almost non-existent compared to whites. Any hope of fostering it in this day of movies, series, and soapies?
My experience is that it is not racial at all. I grew up in a suburb where pretty much every black kid went to the Library. Abantu book festival in Soweto has also shown that it is about access not race. So the answer is access.
@lancelotwaison: How did your writing journey start? What advice (tips) can you give to an aspiring writer and those who just started? Putting emphasis on the lessons you learnt through experience. Thank you
It started by reading. I wanted to produce the kind of books I loved to read. So my lessons are: Read a lot, read everything. Try to write every day. Don’t give up, no matter how discouraged you are. There is only one you, don’t try to be what and who you are not.
@kudzie_sharara: Is Out of Darkness Shining Light fiction or events that actually took place?
It is based on the actual journey undertaken by the more than 70 African companions of the Scottish explorer David Livingstone between May 1873 and February 1874 but filtered through the imaginative lens of fiction.
@AllenDubeZW: Pettina will you consider being a biographer of any of the prominent and eminent Zimbabwean politicians/public figures?
Oh yes. I was in talks at one time to do a biography of Edson Zvobgo. I am still interested because he was a writer and a lawyer. I was in talks with his family but they did their own. I may come back to this. I would also love to do a biography of Oliver and [Biggie Tembo] of the Bhundu Boys.
@GombiroPanashe: What do you do before you write?
I procrastinate (emoji face with tears of joy) Seriously, if things are not going well I will find any excuse to avoid my desk, but if things are going well I can write in 3 to 4 hour stretches without stopping. But I need to know where I am going before I write. So I think or plot out the whole thing first.
@danfanZim: Dambudzo Marechera or Ignatius Mabasa?
Ignatius Mabasa any day! This is not a popular opinion but Marechera was vastly overrated. He was a brilliant but ultimately undisciplined writer whose struggles with mental illness have been romanticized to a degree that makes his personality outshine his work.
@chrisnyamandi: Why is the quality of writing in Zim getting worse and worse? Very few good books are coming out…
I think the quality remains high, but the collapse of the publishing industry means that Zimbabweans are being published first outside the country. So it is skewed a little. The publishing in Shona and Ndebele is still high quality though limited.
@marlenechiedza: I really love your writing style. In Rotten Row you wrote in a relatable style, I kinda felt de ja vu esp the Kombi and salon gossip scenes. Did you write these from experience? It has taught me to also be aware of my surroundings at any given time.
Most of my Zim stories are based on something true that happened to me, or people I know or that I read. I write realist fiction, so realism is important to me. I actually timed the kombi story as it takes place in 20 or so minutes, I took several kombis to get the timing right.
@29_kehinde: How many books can one read to become a good writer?
I have a personal library of more than 6000 books and have certainly read more than that! There is no definable “quantity”, just read as much as you can, as widely as possible.
@PhillChigiya: Which 7 books by Zim authors would you say every Zimbabwean should read?
The Grass is Singing, Doris Lessing
Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga
Waiting for the Rain, Charles Mungoshi
The Last Resort, Douglas Rogers
The Uncertainty of Hope, Valerie Tagwira
Harare North, Brian Chikwava
Nehanda, Yvonne Vera
@dameeunice: Hello, I’m from Nigeria, I’d like to say I love what you do, can you refer me to any books about Zimbabwe’s art or culture/history.
Hi Eunice! Thanks so much! The best book on Zim history is an anthology of essays called “Becoming Zimbabwe”. The National Gallery also has many beautiful anthologies on Zimbabwean art but I am not sure if they are available outside Zimbabwe.
@protunlimited: Mugabe was a teacher. He promised not to tax books. He never saw through this. Is there a book industry to protect in Zimbabwe?
There is a small struggling book industry. But taxing books to protect industry is absurd because books don’t have the competitive relationships that beer or other consumable products do. Dickens does not compete with Mungoshi. Shakespeare does not compete with a Shona novel.
@nhlanhladube: What is your view on literary critics, particularly those in the academy regarding their interface with Zimbabwean literature in general and your oeuvre in particular? Are philologists doing creative outputs justice?
I used to feel embarrassed to be the subject of critical work because I felt what I did was not worthy the attention. Four books later, I am more comfortable and value it as it allows me to re-examine my own work critically, even where I don’t agree with certain interpretations.
@snemadire: You mentioned Oliver and Biggie Tembo. do you think literature is less powerful than music to advance social commentary in Zim? if yes what could be the problem, why are the literate zimbos not reading books, in your opinion?
I believe literature and music both contribute to social discourse but music is easier to access. It has a wider social reach as a shared experience, you can hear it on the radio, you can go to a show etc. So the mechanics of sharing it are different from how people access books.
Note: Some of the questions were edited to enhance readability.