“English is still not a language of intimacy”

Author NoViolet Bulawayo writes about Zimbabwe using the rhythms of her mother tongue Ndebele – even though she has long lived in the USA. A conversation about modern African storytelling and living between languages

Interview with NoViolet Bulawayo


Juni 2023

Mrs. Bulawayo, you signed off your email with a quote from Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, “let no one be fooled by the fact we might write in English and tend to do unheard of things with it”. Could you explain how this speaks to you?

I live between multiple languages and my relationship to English is obviously not the same as that of a native English-speaking person. The “doing unheard of things” comes from twisting and bending English to make it flexible enough to make space for my own mother tongue and cultural experience.

And how exactly does that manifest itself in your fiction?

I'm very comfortable with setting aside rules in favour of allowing myself to say what I mean, for example, in a sentence I can be less concerned with being grammatically correct and more with striking the ear in an interesting way. I sometimes translate directly from Ndebele into English, and in the process, standard rules obviously get broken. In “Glory,” I use repetition quite a bit – a feature of the African tradition of orature that powers the novel – interestingly, some readers seemed infuriated by the device, but I admit I love that they were.

And did you grow up with storytelling?

When I was a child, my village, where I spent my summers, had no television - and we didn't have electricity anyway. All the generations of the family would sit around the fire every night, in the same way that my father, who was born in 1938, sat around the fire with his own grandmother and in the same way that his own grandmother had sat around the fire with her own grandmother. We would listen to senior people telling us stories.

Mostly they were animal stories to entertain us and also instruct us in the ways of being – whatever the case, they were rendered in a powered language that animated strange worlds and made them feel real. And of course in my daily life I was always surrounded by languages that felt raw, alive, and had so much color. These would become influences in my own storytelling, though of course in a different medium – writing.

“English has been in Zimbabwe for at least one hundred years and our relationship to it has obviously changed”

And is storytelling a typical Zimbabwean tradition?

Yes, storytelling was typical across Zimbabwean cultures, and a common practice in different contexts when I was growing up, and I think we share this with the rest of the African continent, where in some cases we’d have the same versions of certain stories across borders, which I think speaks to how the colonial border could divide the geographic space but not always the culture.

That said, changing times, including technology, have understandably changed the tradition so that young Zimbabweans today and in the future will experience storytelling differently, my family no longer gathers around a senior figure to listen to stories for instance, we gather around a gadget, with access to stories from all over the world, and obviously not in our mother-tongue.

How does it feel to write in a language that hails from a colonial power?

You can resolve that conflict by owning the language, by making it yours. English has been in Zimbabwe for at least one hundred years and our relationship to it has obviously changed. Coming back to Achebe's quote, that we are now in a position of “doing unheard of things with it,” means we can now challenge it, decenter it, even while working with it. I’m also aware that not every Zimbabwean speaks my mother-tongue, and that that mother-tongue doesn’t have much speakers outside of my country, and that my much beloved country called Literature would be a different place if I didn’t read all these wonderful writers, from all over the world, which English has allowed me to do.

Did you speak English growing up?

Not particularly actively – I spoke it only when it was necessary or convenient. It was the language of instruction in school so that was one place we had to use it, but that we spoke it with varying degrees of proficiency means it wasn’t a favored language, at the first chance we got we switched to our own languages. My father did not allow us to speak English at home and that was fine by me. Today, when a paragraph is coming out stiffly, I think: let’s bring Ndebele into it.

“Sometimes I use English to talk about topics that may be difficult in my own language”

After living in America for two decades, do you feel more “at home” with the English language?

It’s still not a language of intimacy for me but I sometimes use it to talk about topics that may be difficult in my own language. In such moments, it doesn’t feel exactly like “home” but it feels comfortable.

I must also say my America is also not uniquely English, but rather full of “Englishes” from all over the world, all of us pulling, pushing, jostling where this language is concerned, because there’s no one way of being in it, and its big and flexible enough for us all.

And is the narrative in the West changing as a result?

Many of us have left our homelands and moved to the west, and have altered the cultural landscapes of these places. But then this has always been happening, human beings have always been on the move, and it’s important while we’re here to acknowledge that movement happens from west to south as well.

It’s good to see people telling their stories wherever they are, and perhaps more productive to think of it as the world narrative changing.

Have the attitudes towards post-colonial literature in the literary scene changed since the beginning of your career?

My career feels like it started just a short while ago, at least if you’re looking at the sheer amount of work and activity that’s been happening in post-colonial literature, thanks to the writers and scholars and thinkers who did the work before me.

Still, in the short time I’ve been active, so many exciting things have happened, we have more eclectic writers and creators writing on anything and everything to celebrate.

“Satire felt like the perfect way of handling a story that was so true, and fresh, and often unfolding as I was writing it; I could forge a kind of needed distance”

In your novel “We Need New Names”, the main character Darling, is a naive and exacting social commentator. She describes migrating to America and being unnerved by the smiling women who call everything “beautiful”. How much of this character reflects your early days in the US? How was it for you to experience English in such a different cultural social context?

It was difficult, perhaps because I wasn’t well prepared for it. I spent my first year of college in silence for example – overwhelmed by the new cultural experience of a new country, a new classroom, new social settings. It didn’t help that I didn’t at the time understand the American accent and speech patterns.

I did what I’ve seen many new immigrants do, which was to retreat into myself and become an observer as I felt like I couldn’t participate in this new culture. But I was good at listening, processing and observing, which I think prepared me for the writing life. Darling’s commentary comes from my own experience at that time.

And has viewing Zimbabwe from the US affected how you write about the country?

It made me a keen follower of the Zimbabwean narrative. I wasn't able to go back for my first 13 years away, but I obsessively stayed close to what was going on. I was listening closely, talking to people, reading the news and blogs from the ground.

At the same distance gave me clarity, as well as cured me of sentimentality when it came to writing; I was able to look at things for what they were.

And in your book Glory you have created a lively satire of Zimbabwean politics, featuring animals. What sparked this choice?

George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was an obvious influence, along with, and perhaps even more urgently, my grandmother's storytelling. I don't think I would have written this book had I not grown up with her tales.

Still, satire felt like the perfect way of handling a story that was so true, and fresh, and often unfolding as I was writing it; I could forge a kind of needed distance. It also made it easier to convey the upsetting and absurd Zimbabwean situation that was, and is playing out right now.

“Going back to Zimbabwe made me understand what people there have to put up with on a daily basis”

What do you find particularly upsetting and absurd?

We’re dealing with a broken down system, leaders who have no idea how to govern, no sense of duty, no ethics whatsoever, no justification for being in power except for self-enrichment. As the country comes undone in the predictable ways – increased state violence, a failing economy, inflation, government corruption, shrinking democratic space, general misery for the citizenry, you have a disconnected, callous, flourishing ruling elite that’s getting richer by the day and are not even moved by decay around them, perhaps because they are the architects, while at the same wanting us to behave as if everything is fine.

Is it hard to follow news of these difficult realities from afar?

If anything, it makes me mad because it doesn’t have to be like that, with good governance the country can both work and be the success that it can be. I am able to go home quite often now, and I moved back in 2018 for a while to write “Glory.” Living there meant I had to relearn the rhythms and see the country up close. It was a big adjustment.

In what way?

It made me understand what people had to put up with on a daily basis. It is hard to live a normal life there because, in many ways, there’s no normalcy. I remember the first time I stood in a queue to fill my car’s tank back in 2018: I queued for about four hours and got to the front of the queue just as the fuel ran out. In banks in the city, people were in endless queues to withdraw cash – some of them having had to spend the night in line, holding their spots. In a society that's functioning, you take so much for granted, one has to appreciate what people were and are putting up with, and their typical grace and humour as they do so.

And humour is a form of defense?

Sometimes humour makes the unspeakable tolerable.

“Hopefully someone somewhere will say, this is tragic, but why am I laughing?”

Your writing also has a strong comical element– is that where it hails from?

My humour lets me make things funny which are not funny, and so pushes readers to look at hard things differently. Hopefully someone somewhere will say, this is tragic, but why am I laughing?

And how do people react to these difficult themes?

With We Need New Names I went to South Africa for a launch. Many people there have also migrated illegally. One woman literally cried about the story, a reaction that took me by surprise because, until then, I hadn’t quite understood the power of the book. She was an illegal immigrant, and she said she was moved to finally see a book that captured so much of her experience.




NoViolet Bulawayo is an author and winner of the Caine prize for African writing. Her last novel “Glory” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022 and was published by Penguin Random House

Interview by Jess Smee