Fiction | Zimbabwe

“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
No Violet Bulawayo looks past the camera to the left. She is wearing a pink and green patterned blouse.

NoViolet Bulawayo is a writer who has been awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing

Interview by Jess Smee

Mrs. Bulawayo, you signed off your email with a quote from 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. For me, writing English is also an act of marrying it to my first language Ndebele. And that's where the “doing unheard of things” comes in for me. I’m twisting and bending English to make it flexible enough to capture my cultural experience.

And how exactly does that manifest itself in your fiction?

Any reader of my work will notice that my writing is not always grammatically correct. I'm very comfortable with compromising grammar in favour of allowing myself to say what I mean. I also translate directly from Ndebele into English and in the process, standard rules get broken.

I use a lot of repetition, especially in my book “Glory”. Many readers didn't understand why I keep repeating myself! People familiar with orature or the african tradition of storytellingwill understand. In storytelling, repetition is vital to keep certain key ideas in the audience’s mind.

And did you grow up with storytelling?

When I was a child, my village 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 set around the fire with her grandmother.

We would listen to senior people telling us stories. Mostly they were animal stories to entertain us and also instruct us about our culture. They were cautionary tales, like how to be kind and not to be greedy. In my writing I have taken that tradition and tried to marry it with the written tradition.

“English has been in Zimbabwe for one hundred years and it has changed a lot from the language that it once was”

And is storytelling a typical Zimbabwean tradition?

Story telling was typical across Zimbabwean cultures, and one of my favorite Zimbabwean writers, Ivonne Vera, talked about “history living in the mouth”. Storytelling also binds the African continent together, especially given that all these countries were once one. That is before colonialists came and divided us up with their straight-line borders.

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 it has changed a lot from the language that it once was.

Coming back to Achebe’s quote about “doing unheard of things with it”, I think generations have been doing unheard of things with English. The violence of how that language came to us is no longer an active issue.

Did you speak English growing up?

Not particularly actively - we spoke it only when it was convenient to us. It was the language of schooling and we were aware of its bitterness when we were growing up. We didn't really enjoy it  - after all, you couldn't do much with it: not even tell a story. My father did not allow us to speak English at home. Today, when a paragraph is coming out stiffly, I think: Let’s bring Ndebele into it.

“English is 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”

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. And many writers worldwide have interesting relationship to English. In post-colonial literature we see many writers reframing the relationship to language.

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

We have now become part of the West. Many of us have left our homelands and moved to the west, and are altering the linguistic landscape of these places. All of us hypenated citizens, British-Jamacian, Zimbabwean-American and the rest,are enriching these countries’ language and culture.

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

I was fortunate when I was studying: There were already writers who modeled the relationship with langauge that I was aspiring to. They gave me permission. I was lucky to find caring, thoughtful teams of publishers and agents.

In 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. I spent my first year of college in silence. They couldn't get me to say anything in class. This was partly because I just couldn't understand the American accent. I remember the teacher would call my name to take attendancebut I wouldn't even recognize it.

I didn’t understand my teachers and they did not understand me. For my whole 18th year I retreated into myself. With hindsight, I think this adjustment would have been different had I grown around television. I know other kids my age or even younger who had no difficulty moving to America because they were familiar with the culture already.

But I grew up in a very closed place and it didn't prepare me for living abroad. As a result, I became an observer. I felt like I couldn't participate in this new culture, but I was good at listening and processing, which I think prepared me for the writing life. Darling's commentary comes from my own experience at that time.

“Distance cured me of sentimentality when it came to my own story and my own country” 

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 13 years but I stayed close to what was going on. I wasn’t there, but I was listening closely, talking to people, following events. Distance cured me of sentimentality when it came to my own story and my own country. It allowed me 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?

It came about because of my upbringing and in particular, my grandmother's storytelling. I don't think I would have written this book had I not grown up with tales about animals. It felt like the perfect way of handling a story that was unfolding as I was writing it. From a craft perspective, I needed a story that could allow me humour. This makes it easier to convey the upsetting and absurd Zimbabwean situation that is playing out right now.

What do you find particularly upsetting and absurd?

We’re dealing with a broken down system, leaders with no ethics whatsoever. Just look at powerful people blowing millions of dollars while our hospitals lack equipment and medicine and roads are full of potholes. There are political rallies where somebody stands up and pontificates but doesn’t doesn't do anything. For me, that's aburdity.

“Humour makes the unspeakable tolerable”

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

If anything, it makes me mad! These days I often go home and in 2018 I moved back to Zimbabwe for a while. 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. I remember the first time I stood in a queue to fill my car’s tank: I queued for four hours and got to the front of the queue just as the fuel ran out. I appreciate what people were putting up with and their typical grace and humour. In a society that's functioning, you take so much for granted.

And humour is a form of defense?

Humour makes the unspeakable tolerable.

“Humour pushes readers to look at hard things differently”

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

I think my humour lets me make things funny which are not funny. It pushes readers to look at hard things differently. Hopefully someone somewhere will say, this is tragic, but why am I laughing? I think that head-on criticism belongs to other genres.

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. That took me by surprise because, until then, I hadn’t quite understand the power of the book. She was an illegal immigrant, and she said she was moved to see a book that captured so much of the experience.

Was it new for her to see her story reflected in fiction in general?

We have a strong literary history in Zimbabwe but this changed when the country came undone, during a crisis that peaked in 2008. These problems affected the publishing industry and people’s access to books – this means it’s very possible that that woman hadn't seen herself reflected in books in a while.