Petina Gappah and the Imposter Syndrome

It’s finally here. Petina Gappah has finally published her first novel The Book of Memory. I am so excited! So just imagine my disappointment when I tried to buy the Kindle edition of the book earlier today only to discover it will not be available in America until February 2nd, 2016. That’s a long time to wait, but I will wait. Because Gappah is always worth the wait and frankly, I can’t afford to buy the book from the UK at this moment in time.

Anyway, to make time go by faster as I wait, I’ve been trawling the internet for the various interviews that Gappah has done for the book. In all of them, she’s asked the same question. Why did it take six years for the book to come out? And her answer is imposter syndrome.

In an interview with Lauren Beukes at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, Gappah said “It’s a wonderful thing to win awards, but the prize was completely unexpected, and it feels like overnight you are a different person. People are looking at you with a slightly more critical eye, and despite the fact that the reviews were very positive I felt that I had conned everyone, and that they would soon find me out. There’s a phrase that’s funny but it’s horrible, one-hit wonder. I was terrified of being a one-hit wonder. All feels well, your book is selling, but privately you are going through a terrible time and you are doubting yourself.”

It’s quite heartening to know that someone this talented has doubts about their abilities to consistently create good stuff. It makes me feel better about my own doubts. Doubts seem to be a frequent companion to writers (and everybody else really) and maybe trying to get rid of them isn’t the easiest thing to do. Perhaps it would be better to accept their existence and still create despite the doubts.

And here is my absolute favorite quote from the Beukes interview.

“What I’ve given myself as a mission statement is to explore Zimbabwe in its complexity, and to explore the multiple factors and identities that make up Zimbabwe. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m not interested in presenting a cookie cutter version of what it is like to be an African writer. I’m interested in exploring the different ways of being a Zimbabwean.”

Can I just copy/paste this into my artist’s statement? This is exactly what I’m trying to do. And I love that she calls it a mission statement.

And here‘s a link to an interview with BBC Radio 4.

 

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Hey, It’s Good to Be Back Home Again

When I abruptly stopped blogging in the middle of my thirty-day blogging challenge, I never thought that it would be almost three months before I returned to the blog. I was swept up by the helter-skelter of moving and it is only now that my head is bobbing above water. I last blogged on the 18th of April from the coziness of my first apartment in dear Denton. Now, 3 months, 2 countries, 3 cities, one bus ride and 5 flights later, I’m back. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

“Sometimes goodbye, though it hurts in your heart, is the only way for destiny.” – S Club, ‘Say Goodbye’

May marked the end of a beautiful 5-year love affair with the city of Denton. Saying goodbye made me sad, yet I knew that I had learnt everything I could there. Denton had given me all she could, and it was time to move on to new things and new lessons. But I’m still going to miss Denton, especially The Candy Store on the Square.

“Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have.” – Louis E. Boone

I spent most of June in South Africa taking in the beautiful sights of Kwazulu Natal. There really is no place like Africa. It took me a little longer than usual to get back into the groove of African life. I kept telling my mother, in exasperated tones, that people in this place have no respect for personal space. Personal space – that is definitely a concept a picked up in America.

There really is nothing like returning to a place that hasn’t changed to see how much you have. The last time I was in South Africa, I went to the beach every day hoping the ocean would tell me what to do with my life. Obviously, it didn’t. The ocean has no answers. But now I returned to the ocean with none of the fear, anguish and confusion of two years ago. And with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I always knew what I wanted to do. I just didn’t have the courage to say it out loud. But now I can boldly declare I AM A WRITER! Instead of thinking of all the things that could go wrong, I try to think only of the things I can control. I can’t change the current book market. I can’t change the odds of getting published. But I can show up every day at my desk, ready to write, ready to revise, ready to work at making my dreams come true.

“Home is where the heart beats the loudest and proud.” Freshlyground, ‘I am an African’

And now in July, I can finally say I’m home. It is no accident that my return to blogging has coincided with my return to Zimbabwe. This country inspires me. I didn’t get any writing done in my first 2 years of college. I kept trying to write stories about my new environment and failing miserably. Only when I started to write about Zimbabwe did the proverbial dam break.

The pace of life in Zimbabwe lends itself to writing. People just aren’t in as much of a rush as people in America. And here, I have no responsibilities, no job, no classes to go to, no homework. All I have is time.

And with that folks, there’s really only one thing left to say. I’m back where I belong.

Happy Independence Day Zimbabwe

“Who is a patriot? He is a person who loves his country. He is not a person who says he loves his country. He is not even a person who shouts or swears or recites or sings his love of his country. He is one who cares deeply about the happiness and well-being of his country and all its people. Patriotism is an emotion of love directed by critical intelligence. A true patriot will always demand the highest standards of his country and accept nothing but the best for and from his people. He will be outspoken in condemnation of their short-comings without giving away to superiority, despair or cynicism. That is my idea of a patriot.” – Chinua Achebe, The Trouble with Nigeria

I love that so many Zimbabweans are talking about how proud they are to be Zimbabwean today, but I hope that y’all remember that being a patriot is more than just saying you love Zimbabwe, wearing a shirt that says “I Rep Zim” or having a Zimbabwe flag hanging on your wall. I hope that you’ll still feel this pride when you wake up tomorrow, and on any other day that’s not Independence day. And I hope that pride will lead to the courage to say “Things are not right with my country. Things have to change. What am I going to do to make it better?”

Happy Independence Day Zimbabwe

I Write to Learn

I’ve been busy all weekend starting to put together my applications for getting into MFA Creative Writing programs so I’ve been thinking a lot about writing. In my statements of purpose, I try to explain why I write, and so far the answer that rings truest for me is that I write to learn. Whether it’s about human nature, or about history, I write because there is something I don’t know or understand so I write a story to figure it out.

This is especially true when it comes to Zimbabwe and Shona culture. There is just so much I don’t know and even more that I do without understanding why. Sometimes I feel like I’m a bad Zimbo or Shona woman because I am sometimes so clueless about our culture. I can go through the motions but don’t ask me to explain the process. So I write stories about people trying to navigate their way through the culture and as they discover the answers I discover them too.

Judging by the traffic that finds its way to my blog, I’m not the only one looking for answers. The most popular Google search terms that lead people to Curious Chido are some variation of “Jacarandas Zimbabwe” and “Red Msasa Trees”, but the next 3 popular search terms are all about traditional beliefs, mitupo and whether Chishona and Shona culture are still relevant. There is a dearth of information about Zimbabwe on the internet and it bothers me. Zimbabweans pride themselves on how smart and educated we are. Why isn’t there more information easily available? When I go to the library to find books about Zimbabwe, the vast majority are written by people from England or America. Even when I search African journals, the articles about Zimbabwe are often written by somebody else. Yet the traffic to my blog suggests that Zimbabweans are looking for answers about themselves.

So I spent quite a few hours of my Sunday afternoon pondering the question of why there aren’t more Zimbabwean academics, or even just couch nerds who like to curate information about Zimbabwe. I even started working myself into enough of a state to write a rant about Zimbabweans just not being proud enough of their culture. “Why aren’t Zimbabweans writing about Zimbabwe?” I wanted to say.

Then I remembered that NoViolet Bulawayo’s first novel We Need New Names just got shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. And I remembered that a new Charles Mungoshi book has just been released. And I remembered that I’m going to get my MFA so I can keep writing stories to learn more about my country. Zimbabweans are writing still. I just wasn’t looking.

Happy Monday y’all.

On the Eve of Zimbabwe’s Elections

Tomorrow, Zimbabwe heads to the polls to choose a president. I’m feeling robbed. I wish I could be there and have the chance to have my say, but it’s not to be. The last time we voted was in 2008 and I missed out then because elections were a couple of months before my 18th birthday. Now I can’t vote because I’m in America. But in many ways, the reason I am in America is that I can’t vote, or rather it feels like my vote wouldn’t matter. Zimbabweans have been voting for change for over a decade now, but their efforts are always thwarted by election fraud, stuffing of ballot boxes and the thousands of dead people on the voters roll who somehow manage to vote on the day.

This isn’t what democracy should feel like. My feelings when i think of elections shouldn’t be fear and trepidation. Yet that’s what I always feel because elections in Zimbabwe are always accompanied by violence and intimidation. Remember 2008? Those elections were terrible. We heard all sorts of scary stories of people who disappeared only to reappear dead months later. It took almost a month to get the results of the election. How ridiculous is that? For a month we were held hostage, denied of the knowledge of what our future held. In the end, we got the government of national unity, but that wasn’t what we voted for was it?

And here we are now 5 years later, ready to choose our next president. Will our votes count this time? Will we finally have free and fair elections? I don’t know, but if I was in Zimbabwe, nothing would stop me from being in those voting booths tomorrow.

So my dear Zimbabweans, if you are registered to vote, go vote. If nothing changes then you can complain all day about it, but there is no way anything will change if you don’t vote.

Mitupo and Myths

It is said that a long time ago in Masvingo, there was a terrible drought. People, livestock, crops were all dying from thirst. Every day, the women would go to the dry riverbed and dig deep trying to hit the water table and every day, they returned with nothing. There was no water left in the region. So the Rozwi king challenged his male subjects to find water for the people. The reward would be his beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage. As you can imagine, every man was eager. It would be an honor to be the King’s son-in-law. So they all set out and searched for days and days with no luck at all. Then legendary Ngara ancestor shot the face of rock. Those around him must have thought the heat was getting to him, but he shot the rock two more times, but nothing happened. He released a fourth arrow, and again nothing. But as he pulled back his bow to let loose a fifth arrow, water gushed out of the rock and the village was saved.

And now, when the men in my family are thanked, they are recognized as the descendants of the great Ngara Ancestor.

Maita Chirasha, maita Nungu

Hekanhi Chikandamina

Weshanu uri pauta

Zvaonekwa mukwasha wamambo

Wamambo as in mukwasha wamambo, the king’s son-in-law.

Chikandamina, the one who shot four arrows at solid rock to get water.

Chirasha as in chirashamihwa, like the porcupine, that loses some of its quills when attacked.

Ever since my sister-in-law told me she was pregnant, I’ve been trying to turn this story into a fairytale for my niece. She’s almost 3 now and I’m still not done. I think a part of me doesn’t want to finish the story because it pains me that all this story will ever be to her is a fairytale, a story told by her grandpa back in Africa. But that’s my precious sweet, American niece. What of the Zimbabwean niece? Is this story going to be anything other than a story to her? Will she take pride in knowing the roots of her family, take pride in being called Maposa?

I’m not sure. I think like me, she’ll doubt the veracity of the story of Wamambo. Who could believe that a man could really hit a rock with arrows and water would gush out? But it is a myth and that’s why it’s important. Great empires have been built on myths. When you read epic poems like the Aeneid, the Iliad, or Beowulf, they all have an aspect of the supernatural, the extraordinary. Rome was founded by the twins Romulus and Remus who were supposedly suckled by a wolf as babies. Virgil extended that myth by connecting Rome to the Ancient city of Troy in the Aeneid. He validated the Roman Empire through a myth.

At the heart of every great empire is a myth, a story the people rally around that spurs them on to greater things. At the heart of my family is the myth of Wamambo. I know it because my father is a storyteller and because I was that curious child who always asked why. “Why are you sometimes called Wamambo?” But how many Zimbabwean youths nowadays know where their totem came from? How many of their parents know? It’s a part of our culture that we seem to take for granted. I find for a lot of people my age, it’s just something their parents say is theirs, but they don’t truly own. I can imagine in a couple of generations this tradition disappearing because it no longer seems relevant.

I remember when I was nine, sitting in my maternal grandmother’s smoky kitchen as she thanked my uncles. We sat on the floor, clapping our cupped hands rhythmically as she recited her thanks. It was pure poetry, a heartfelt thanksgiving. But you could tell that most of the people in the room felt it was an unnecessary ceremony and they only tolerated it because it made my grandmother happy. It was pretty but it didn’t seem necessary.

I get why kudetembwa kwemutupo is receding into the background. It’s clunky and tedious and doesn’t really apply to the modern man. Thanking my brother with his professional job by comparing him to a porcupine doesn’t quite seem right. I get why people find it so easy to let go of this tradition. The trouble with just throwing out a tradition wholesale is you lose the lesson, and in this case, you lose the art. We made such a ceremony of saying thank you to emphasise the importance of showing gratitude. After all the saying goes “Kusatenda huroyi.” To fail to be thankful is akin to witchcraft.

We’ve found new ways of thanking but the old ways need to be preserved somehow. These are our stories and we need to take ownership of them and take pride in them. We cannot let these myths disappear into the past as our grandparents pass on. Myths spur us on. They remind us that we are building on a rich history. Culture is changing so fast in Zimbabwe that traditions do not always have time to evolve, so they get left behind. I worry that the values will get left behind as well until Shona culture no longer looks like itself, but rather a hotchpotch of things we’ve adopted from other places. It bothers me that my niece will never feel the same pride I feel when someone calls me Maposa, the comfort in knowing I come from a long line of strong Maposas who refuse to back down. As a writer, it really bothers me that we’re allowing our stories to quietly pass away.

Snowy Days and Mondays Always Get Me Down

These days, when I am feeling homesick, I always think of Harare in spring, when the city is a sea of color. All the tall Msasa trees bear leaves in all shades of red, yellow, orange and purple. Slowly the colors lighten to a bright green that darkens to the forest green that announces the arrival of summer. Soon after, the jacarandas and flamboyant trees start to bloom. I can almost see it before me now, almost hear the bees buzzing. The avenues are lined with the delicate, fragrant violet blooms of the Jacaranda tree and the deep red flowers of the aptly-named flamboyant trees. The fallen petals form a rainbow carpet on the avenues of the bustling city.

I’m feeling homesick today. It’s been a cold miserable day. I woke up this morning to a white Denton. I was quite surprised. The weatherman hadn’t said anything about snow! There’s something about snow that seems to bring out the inner child in everyone. People just seem more playful, and I overheard quite a few conversations about what people used to do when it snowed when they were kids.

Since I grew up in Zimbabwe, I obviously have no fond memories of childhood snow days, but the cold weather had me dreaming of home, of warmth, of summer rain and of days of dreaming about getting on a plane and going to America. Well I made it to America, but when I was a child, I never realized how homesick I would get. The start of the semester always leaves me with mixed emotions. There is the excitement of new classes, new projects and getting closer to achieving my dreams. But I also feel sadness because it feels like the more I commit myself to my dreams, the harder getting home becomes. I love being an English major. I’m excited about applying for Grad School and I really want to be a writer, but there are no jobs for English professors in Zimbabwe. Living off your writing isn’t really a possibility in Zimbabwe (not that it’s all that easy in America).

There’s a Drake track called “Closer”. On it, he samples Goapele’s song “Closer”. There’s a line I misheard all the time. She sings, “Sometimes it feels like I’ll never move on”. For over a year, I thought she was saying, “sometimes it feels like I’ll never go home.” I think it’s because when I’m thinking about my dreams, I can’t help but think that I may never go home permanently.

I’m getting higher, closer to my dreams,

But sometimes it feels like I’ll never go home.

Sometimes it feels like I’ll never go home.