[Interview] Poet, Playwright and Storyteller Christopher Mlalazi
Christopher Mlalazi has written plays for Zimbabwean performing arts groups that include Amakhosi Theatre; Umkhathi Theatre; Sadalala Amajekete Theatre and the Khayalethu Performing Arts Project.His poems and short stories have been published in newspapers, magazine and websites that include Crossing Borders Magazine; Poetry International Web; the Sunday News and The Zimbabwean newspaper.
Others have been featured in anthologies that include Short Writings From Bulawayo: Volumes I, II and III (ama’books Publishers, 2003, 2004 and 2005); Writing Now (Weaver Press, 2005); and The Obituary Tango: Selection of Writing from the Caine Prize for African Writing 2005 (New Internationalist Publications, 2006; Jacana Media ,2006).
Christopher Mlalazi spoke about his writing.
One of your most recent short stories, “Election Day”, was published in the Edinburgh Review. What is the story about? How long did it take you to write it?
The story is about election rigging in an unnamed African country. This story was inspired by accusations of election rigging that always follow presidential elections.
There is no given time-frame in which to write a short story, one can even write it in an hour. At the 2006 Caine Prize workshop in Kenya, we were required to write a 3,000 word short story in ten days flat.
It took me almost a month to write “Election Day” because I had about three versions of it and was failing to decide which was the best. Then I did a theater adaptation of the same story, which helped further develop it, and after that, I came back to the prose version and worked on it until I came up with the draft which was happily and instantly accepted by the Edinburgh Review.
The story is set in a single room. Maintaining excitement through 3,000 words in such kind of a situation is really demanding: one has to dig deep into one’s resources, always planting hooks to keep the reader absorbed. At the end, when I looked back I loved what I had done.
I had really been concentrating on the extra-personal but I later discovered that my story had both inner and personal conflict. The protagonist in the story is a president during the last day of presidential elections. The opposition is clearly winning, and everyone belonging to the ruling party, even the First Lady, has panicked and they want to flee the country before it is too late, because they had been ruling unjustly. That is the surface of the story, the extra-personal conflict. Now, this panic has led to the president’s compatriots to look at their relationship with the him. That is the personal conflict. Going further down, these people also look at their inner lives, and that is the inner conflict.
What are your main concerns as a writer?
Seeing an ever declining book reading culture, that’s one — and in Zimbabwe, the video or DVD is mainly responsible for that. It’s becoming rare to see someone carrying a novel on the streets these days — it’s always the DVD or video cassette.
My second concern is seeing African writers (and I am one of the culprits) shunning writing in their mother tongues and preferring Western languages. Are we not, as artists, custodians of our own cultures? Most young writers are shunning writing in the vernacular because they see it as a sign of backwardness, which I think is being naïve — they think writing in English is the in thing, that it’s fashionable.
A program should be put in place that supports writing in vernacular languages, a sort of audience-building project as is being done with theater, and it must be supported by the government. Children should also be encouraged to read books written in the vernacular, both at school and at home, so that when they grow up they will value them.
What does being a writer mean to you? And in what way are writers custodians of cultures?
I have never really given it much thought, what being a writer means to me.
I have always thought that I must write something. I have always had this unexplainable urge to produce something artistically — which led me to break-dance, a little bit of vernacular rap, writing poetry, writing plays, stories — just writing. I have even attempted to write an academic paper that attempts to analyze story structure.
Writing has opened my eyes to things I don’t think I would have given much thought to had I not been a writer, things like, “Is everything O.K. around us? And if they are not, how can I address that through my writing?”
We are custodians of culture in the sense that it is our duty to record our way of life and transmit it to posterity. Ways of life evolve, we can’t remove that, but what can we save? Obviously not all, because there are traditions which hinder progress, but the little that we save must be given its due respect through celebration in an artistic form, just like it used to be done in the past in the celebration of the first harvest or in the rain dance, etc.
How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?
Growing up in a Zimbabwe in political turmoil has dramatically influenced my writing in the sense that, as writing thrives on conflict, there is plenty of that around to pick from — also the hunger and disease.
What are the biggest challenges that you face?
Getting an audience nationally, continentally and internationally. Africa has a wealth of stories and the challenge for the African writer is to seduce the world by the way we tell them. We have to overcome the corruption of power that pulls us back and often shuts our mouths and breaks our pens.
I am still yet to publish my first novel, but on the short story genre I can confidently say I have been successful, with several national and international short story anthology inclusions under my belt. I think my success on the short story genre rests on my being able to write without any reservations whatsoever. Also interacting with other writers internationally through the internet assists, because one gets to hear of a publishing deal here and there.
When did you start writing?
At High School where I dabbled in amateurish writing just for the love of seeing my words providing aesthetic entertainment.
At that stage, I was writing for my classmates — they always seemed amused by my stories. I remember when I was in Form Four, I started writing a novel and kept at it for three years. When it was finished, I submitted it to the Literature Bureau, who rejected it. I put the manuscript away and forgot all about it. Sometimes I come across scraps of it around the house, and when I read them, I smile at myself. The story was an investigation, inspired by the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Three Investigators, James Hardly Chase, James Bond — books which I read voraciously at that time.
In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you the most?
My late father, who was a master folklore story teller.
I grew up in the township of Pumula and it had no electricity before Independence. Food was cooked on an open fire in a lean-to. Sometimes, on hot days, after supper, we would sit by the fire and father always made it a point to tell us tales and almost all of them came with beautiful songs. Also, if relatives visited from the rural areas, he would ask them to tell us tales, which I enjoyed listening to very much. On other days father would ask us to recite the tales to him, correcting us where we made errors, and through that way I too became a good story teller. At school the teacher would sometimes require us to tell stories.
Do you write everyday?
Yes, I write everyday. I spend about five hours on it per day
What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?
I am currently published in nine short story anthologies, with two more already confirmed for 2007. Another of my short stories has also been short listed for a major short story writing award for African writers.
I was also invited to the 2006 Caine Prize Workshop which was held at Cater Lake, a remote and tranquil resort in Kenya. Basically, what we did there was to write, then everyday after dinner there were readings of the stories by the writers, which were followed by group criticism to assist the writer develop his or her story.
There were ten writers at the workshop and two mentors/animateurs. The writers were drawn from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and two came from the UK . All the stories that were written at the workshop have been published in the 2006 Caine Prize Anthology titled The Obituary Tango. My short story is titled “Dancing with Life,” and it is a political and socio-economic satire.
In 2004, another of my short stories, “The River of Life,” was awarded the Highly Recommended citation in the Sable Lit Short Story Competition. The story is fantasy, a recreation of Genesis, postulating mankind as coming from stars.
In 2005 I also attended the Uganda Beyond Borders Literature Festival, which was a British Council initiative. At this festival, I facilitated a creative writing workshop for primary school students in Kampala, and also did a public reading. I had a great time there, and rubbed shoulders with some of Africa’s writing giants — Shimmer Chinodya (Zimbabwe); Helon Habila (Nigeria); Professor Taban Lo Liyong (Sudan); Veronique Tadjo (Ivory Coast); Bernardine Evaristo (Nigeria, U.K.) to name but a few.
This article was first published by OhmyNews International.
“Literature in Zimbabwe“; The State of the Arts in Zimbabwe, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala.