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.



Of Cats, Bathrooms and Fears

I am afraid of a lot of things. I’m scared of most animals, especially puppies. For some reason, baby animals seem to scare me more than their full-grown selves. I have several stories about the silly things I did as a child to avoid dogs. I stopped visiting one of my favorite aunts because I was terrified of her huge brown dog. He was just so big and he loved jumping up on people. I always felt like he would jump up at me, knock me down and maul me. Then there were my grandmother’s cats. It felt like she had a million. I was very young at the time, so my memories of these cats are slightly sketchy, and I probably exaggerate, but there must have been at least 20 of them, all different renderings of black and white, from the one with a black body, but a white stomach, and white feet, to the completely black one.

I remember walking into the bathroom once and finding one of the cats sitting on the edge of the bath. I froze in the doorway, unsure what to do. I couldn’t turn back. Mother had told me to go bath! But I couldn’t move any closer to the creature. It looked up at me, down at the tub and then back at me, and I knew it was thinking, “This silly child wants to take a bath, but I don’t want to move.” So it continued eyeing me as if to say, “I dare you to try and move me. Ndiedze!”

I could have spent an eternity standing in that doorway, paralyzed between two fears: fear of what my mother might do to me if I returned without taking a bath, and fear of this cat that I was sure would scratch my eyes out if I got any closer. But then my mother came up to me and told me to stop blocking the door. I got out of her way, and she walked up to the tub with the bucket of hot water. She hardly gave the cat a second look as she nudged it away. I quickly got as far away from the door as I could as the cat slunk out of the bathroom.

I spent most of my first semester of grad school feeling like that six year old girl, terrified by what was in front of me but knowing I couldn’t turn back because I have to make this MFA thing work. And I spent my time hanging back on the edges waiting for someone to tell me I was in the right place. I can’t tell you how many times I said to myself “What am I doing here?” What is this crazy, awkward, weird girl from Harare who can’t write about anything except Zimbabwe doing in freaking Wyoming? The answer is I’m trying to become a better writer and waiting for someone to tell me I’m worthy isn’t going to make that happen.

So much of grad school is standing up and saying I want it. I want that research grant. I want that award. I want to present at that conference. I want to do that major research project that terrifies me. None of these things are going to fall in my lap. No one will seek me out for these things. I have to pursue them despite worrying that I’m not qualified for such things.

I’ve been staring warily at all these opportunities, eyeing them like they are that black cat waiting to scratch my eyes out because I’m not good enough. But who am I to decide that I’m not good enough? Who am I to decide that someone else is more deserving? Who am I to count myself out?

So my motto this year is “It’s not my job to count myself out” or as Mindy Kaling puts it, “Why the fuck not me?”

Life is too short to spend any moment of it being held hostage by fears, especially by the fear that you might fail. Life is hard enough without having to cotend with you being the roadblock in your own way. Leave the job of deciding you’re not good enough to someone else. Your job is to try.

We Rise Again

I had a terrible week last week. I got a bad cold that should have kept me in bed, but I had so much going on that I just had to push through. I had a mini panic episode because the reality of what exactly it means to take 6 classes (including an honors thesis) in one semester started to hit me. I really could turn this blog post into a long moan about all the things I have to do, but I’m not going to. I may have been down last week, but this week I rise again.

Lovely Lira! I love this lady so much. When you watch her perform, you can tell that this woman just loves her job to absolute bits. I want that. I want to be that in love with what I do. Lira was actually an accountant for a little while before she decided to ditch the safe route and follow her passion. And she made it because of hard work and perseverance. She made it because even when life knocked her down, she rose again.

Today, I’m choosing to take heart in Lira’s story. She’s an intelligent woman and I have a feeling that just like me, people always told her that smart people get jobs as doctors, lawyers and accountants, not singers or writers. Can you imagine the day she sent in her resignation letter? They must have all thought she was crazy. I bet those neighbors were whispering that she would be back begging for her job in 6 months. But she never looked back and she never would have become a successful singer if she had not taken a chance.

If I have learnt anything this year it’s that there will always be people who think your dreams are crazy and unrealistic. Very often the voice telling you it can’t be done is your very own. But at some point you have to let go of those voices and do what you really want to do. Every one of us is going to have regrets at the end of our lives. I’m choosing to minimize those regrets. Following my dreams may turn out to be the wrong decision, but even if I fail, I will rise again.

Fear is a trap

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.”~J.K. Rowling

As I embark on my journey as a Super Senior, I thought it my duty to impart some wisdom to the incoming freshmen. So I spent the better part of an hour coming up with a long list of things they should and shouldn’t do. Then I realized it was pointless. Whilst there are many ways to do college wrong, I don’t think there is only one way to do college right. We each have to figure out our own way. In the end, the only advice I have to give is don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

This week I head back to school for my last semester as an undergraduate. I’m not as excited as I usually am about the start of the school year. I keep thinking about me this time last year, when I was sitting at my desk writing in my journal about where I would be in August 2013. I had no idea where that would be, but I knew the one place I wouldn’t be was at that desk. Yet here I am, still an undergrad, still an English major and still not sure of what happens next.

In a way, it’s a disappointment, but I’d rather see it as an important lesson learnt. Fear is a trap. If you let it, it will keep you trapped in cage, unable to grow, surrounded by shadows that only you can see. It was fear of the unknown that led me to postpone graduation. But no longer! Come December I will proudly walk across that stage ready to take on the world because this semester I’m going to be brave enough to let myself make some mistakes. It hurts when you fail, but you learn. That’s what’s important – you learn.

Figuring Out What To Do With Your Life: Paralyzed By Choice

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

When I was little, probably around 6 or 7, I told my aunt that I wanted to have a different job for every day of the week. That’s right; I wanted to have seven different jobs. I can’t remember all the jobs now, but I think I wanted to be a judge on one day and a teacher the next. I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help people and I distinctly remember wanting to be an air hostess who worked a long-haul flight on Thursday nights. Don’t ask me why Thursdays. And on Sundays, I was going to be a lay-preacher. I also planned on having 30 children! I remember my aunt’s surprise at that particular idea. “Asi Chido, nguva yacho unoyiwanepi?” When are you going to have the time to do all this? She doubted me, but I was certain that I could do anything that I put my mind to.

Two things strike me most about this memory. First of all, I’ve never been really good at narrowing down my career choices to just one thing. There is still that six year old in me that wants to be everything. I want to an English teacher so that every student who passes through my class will know how to construct a proper sentence. I want to run a literacy program that provides books to children all around Zimbabwe. Sometimes I imagine myself as a lawyer because you have to be a lawyer first before you get to be judge. Then there’s the idea of being a sports journalist who stalks the Proteas. I think about getting a PhD in Sociology because I love studying people. And at the end of the day, in all of my daydreams, I go home and write stories because that’s just what I am, a storyteller.

So here I am, months away from graduation still looking longingly at all the fruit on the fig tree, terrified to pick one, which brings me to the other striking thing about that six year old me. I used to believe that I could do anything I set my mind to. There was no room for doubt because there were so many things that needed to get done. But then I grew older, I made mistakes and I realized that sometimes you can try your hardest and still fall flat on your face. I cannot do everything. I will never be a doctor because biology and chemistry bore me to tears. And the air hostess ship has probably sailed. The fruit on the tree have started to rot and it’s because I’m not making a decision. I’m so scared that I’m going to make the wrong decision that I’m just sitting here waiting for some aha moment when everything will suddenly be clear.

The problem is “You can’t stay in the fork of the road forever. If you don’t decide, life will decide for you.” The reason I picked the famous excerpt from the Bell Jar as the lead-in to this post is because the narrator was paralyzed by the need to choose. She had all these opportunities in front of her, but they amounted to nothing because she could not choose. She could have been any of those she wanted, but none of those dreams came true because she was too scared to make the decision. Sometimes I say choice is overrated, but those are the words of a spoilt brat and my mother didn’t raise any of those. She raised me to be brave and that’s what I need, just enough bravery to say that this is what I am going to do and the commitment to work hard to see it through.

What do you think? How did you decide what you were going to do with your life?

Starting my Honors Thesis

I graduate in just over 6 months and at the start of this semester I decided that my big project for my final year of college would be an Honors Thesis. I’m a creative writing major, so of course I picked a creative project for my thesis. Initially I decided I would write three stories with the same protagonist, but I really liked the character and felt like he deserved more space to express himself. So I decided I would write a novella. One month and three hundred words later, I’m throwing in the towel on the novella. If it was the only thing I had to do, I would continue, but with all my other classes, work and the hours I spend worrying about what I am going to do about the future, there is just no time to do it. And writing a novella is proving to be a lot harder than I ever imagines. So now I’m back to the three short stories except each one has a different protagonist.

So why am I writing all this? I’m procrastinating. I’ve become quite an expert at this the last couple of months. I am great at convincing myself that I am getting things done when I’m actually not doing anything productive at all. I spend hours trawling the internet on opportunities for after graduation, but really what I’m doing is postponing making a decision. I spend hours reading short stories by various Zimbabwean writers and journal articles in the name of research but I’m actually just running away from the blank page that I have to fill with a story.

Indecisiveness has become my crutch. But no longer. Tonight I am making the decision to start. I can’t keep hiding from my project forever. Time is not on my side. So here goes. Wish me luck!

It’s okay to be nervous

Nerves and butterflies are fine – they’re a physical sign that you’re mentally ready and eager.  You have to get the butterflies to fly in formation, that’s the trick.  ~Steve Bull

I first heard this quote from my father when I was fourteen. It was the morning of my first practical exam for piano. I was very nervous. I was convinced that I was a phony, and that I would fall apart in the exam and my piano teacher would tell me that she could no longer teach me as I was talentless. I was shaking by the time I got into the car to go to school. My dad noticed and that’s when he told me that butterflies are okay as long as they are flying in formation. He had heard the quote from Jonty Rhodes, so I went into that exam still a little nervous but with visions of me doing extraordinary things the way Jonty Rhodes had become superman when he ran out Inzamam-ul-Haq in a World Cup match  in 1992. I passed that exam with distinction.

I feel nervous today. Tomorrow is my first day as a Senior SI Leader and I have to give a presentation. Once again, I’m feeling like a phony, like I am going to get up there and flounder through my presentation until my supervisor comes up and says there’s been a mistake – it wasn’t me they wanted to hire. I’m okay with feeling nervous. It means I care. It also means that I’m doing something I’ve never done before and that can only be room for growth. So when I get up to give up my presentation tomorrow, I’ll be thinking of Jonty Rhodes and getting my butterflies in fighting formation. I am going to give a great presentation because I know the material and I have practiced. But I’ll also be thinking about my dad. The older I get, the more I realise just how lucky I am to have him as a father. He’s always been there to remind me of my ability when I’ve doubted it. Anyway, doubts are traitors.