Tuesday, January 31, 2012

This September Sun, My Grandmother and I



I’ve always believed I was born in the wrong age. I should have been born in the twenties or thirties and lived in a big manor house in the English countryside. There would have been a nanny, a cook, at least two maids, a gardener and perhaps even a butler thrown in for good measure. Daddy would go to London on the train every morning and mother would run the Women’s Institute, organizing raffles and tea parties, all held at the local Vicarage, of course. I’d go to boarding school and, in the holidays, I’d explore the nearby woods and find fairies and pixies and elves and we’d all have such splendid fun.  Considering the reading matter I was exposed to as a child, this idea of myself is not surprising.Yes, Enid Blyton has a lot to answer for, and more so in the colonies where this idea of between-the-Wars-England lived a far longer life than it did in England itself.But she wasn’t alone.
My maternal grandmother was a vociferous reader. She’d sit with a pile of books next to her and eat her way through them in a matter of days. She had a passion for crime novels and would send me off to the library every Friday afternoon to get in her week’s supply. I suppose I should be thankful she wasn’t sending me out for crack cocaine, but her choice of reading matter set a precedent that is hard to break and has sometimes been more of a curse than a blessing. My gran loved Agatha Christie. I don’t know if she ever managed to read all of Christie’s novels, but some of themshe read more than twice and would sit there saying, ‘Oh yes, I remember now, it’s the vicar who did it. He murdered his first wife and is being blackmailed by Miss Dimbleby who knew him many years before in Ceylon . . .’ We watched all the films, too, although I don’t know if I should have been allowed in to see Evil Under the Sun or Murder on the Orient Express. Surely I was underage, even if it was the 2:15 show? I was absolutely petrified at times, although Agatha Christie has nothing on modern day thrillers. Hers were the gentle, old-fashioned, well-mannered sort of murders: a letter opener in the back or poison in one’s cocoa. Her murderers had the decency not to create a lot of fuss and bother with lots of blood and guts spilled, even if one did have several maids to clean it all up.
What did I love about it then if it scared me so? Partly, I think, it was the feeling of something shared between my grandmother, my mother, my sister and myself. Perhaps, too, if I got her the right books, I could make her happy, keep her talking and so forget the pain of her broken heart. She had lost her son when he was twenty-one and reading was one of her less harmful forms of escape. I had never been to England, yet I loved everything I thought I knew about it: the tiny villages, cricket on the green, beautiful summer days, white Christmases, the trains that always ran on time.It was a world that spun a magical web around me, that drew me in and which finally seemed more real than the world I really did live in.
What was that world? I grew up in small mining towns in post-Independence Zimbabwe. I have vague memories of the Rhodesian bush war, mainly those of practising to be dead with my sister and working out where we would hide if the ‘terrorists’ came. I have stronger memories of Matabeleland during Gukurahundiin the early 1980s and being afraid of ‘dissidents’, especially after the Fifth Brigade paid the mine we were living at a visit, spreading fear amongst us all. All this was very real, of course, but at the same time it wasn’t the world to which I felt I rightfully belonged. Somewhere, in a parallel universe perhaps, there was another one of me eating scones with raspberry jam and sipping tea with the vicar with the gentle thwack of leather on willow in the background.
At the age of about eleven, I sent off a collection of stories I had written to Longman Zimbabwe. Despite my ardent belief that I would soon be able to give up school and become a full time writer, I was turned down. The reason they gave, although I am sure there were others, was that the stories would have little appeal to an African audience. They were, of course, stories about fairies and pixies and goblins, and, although the majority of children growing up in Africa who have access to books, read European-centred literature, it’s quite another thing to actually publish it in Africa.
Like Ellie in my novel, This September Sun, I never felt that I fitted into white Zimbabwean life. I despaired of the lack of culture and the small-mindedness; the propensity of the men to wear veldskoens and for the women to grow hard and weather-beaten by the age of thirty. Those who did espouse any sort of knowledge of books and music were usually the elderly schoolteacher type who were stuck in their ways and ran the Eisteddfods and music festivals they organized with military precision, but no imagination.
Many people seem to think that This September Sun is a true story, which I suppose is a compliment. There are reverberations of my grandmother and her love of Agatha Christie and the loss in her life in the character of Evelyn, the grandmother in the book, and of myself in the granddaughter Ellie. I do draw on personal experience, but I can honestly say that no event is absolutely true in the novel and no character is a true copy of someone I have met in real life.
I started writing the book over ten years ago. I was in London having a conversation with two friends. One of them happened to mention that at Independence, the British flag was burned  at Brady Barracks outside Bulawayo. Thus, the first line was born!  Soon after that I went to Singapore where I joined a writing group. It was great having a weeklydeadline to meet. I am not very disciplined on my own though and, after I left Singapore I became lazy and wouldn't write as often.It was only when my first daughter was born that I began to write again - every time she went to sleep! I did a lot then and then I had a couple of weeks when I was by myself and I used to sit for hours and write. I was determined to finish it.The parts of the novel that are set in the 1940s and 50s were the hardest to write as I had to get all the historical details correct. I did a lot of research to get them right.I actually enjoyed the research the most as I really loved hearing allthe interesting stories people had to tell. I learnt a lot - like the fact that you could buy wonderful ice cream in Abyssinia during the Second World War!
I returned to Zimbabwe in 2001 to teach after studying and working in the United Kingdom and Singapore. It wasn’t the best time to be in Zimbabwe, but a school environment, I was to discover, was a buffer against many of the country’s social and political ills. Times had changed and Enid Blyton had fallen somewhat in the reading ranks, replaced by the likes of J.K.Rowling. The modern child is exposed to far more violence and death, not only in movies and on television, but in books, too. Nancy Drew now solves murder cases and the Hardy Boys wrestle with drug dealers and terrorists. No doubt, the Famous Five grew up and work as forensic scientists, CSI-style, such is the world we live in.
I found myself marking stories about car chases in downtown Miami and rivalries in cheerleading teams. America, not England, now had its grip on the adolescent psyche. Time and time again, I would tell my pupils to write about what they knew in order to make their writing more real, but they, like me, had had their imaginations set elsewhere. What was there to write about Zimbabwe anyway, they all asked me? AIDS, political unrest, shortages – why would they want to write about any of those things?
I think it’s also true that people who live with power cuts, a lack of water, a high cost of living and the daily spectre of poverty and AIDS, oddly enough do not always want to read about it! With the majority of the Zimbabwean population struggling to survive, and with a very high rate of unemployment, books are far from being important in the average person’s life.If one were to study the choice of reading matter of the very small percentage of those who do buy books, one would probably find that Zimbabwean novels don’t feature too highly. The short stories I have written do tend to deal more directly with the political situation in Zimbabwe, but with This September Sun, my priority was to write a good story, so that readers could lose themselves in the book, to be transported elsewhere and to close it with a feeling of satisfaction.
 With This September Sun, a mystery/romance, I wanted to write a novel that focuses on the relationships between people. It chronicles the lives of two women of different generations and the challenges they face in their lives. Itbegins on the day Zimbabwe gets its Independence fromBritain and it charts the changes, both good and bad in Zimbabweover the next 25 or so years.Set against this backdrop of political and social change, the book is testimony to the fact that, just as you cannot ignore the personal and familial circumstances that have created you, nor can you escape the impact your country’s history has on you.This is something with which the main character, Ellie, struggles to come to terms.She grows up reading Enid Blyton and, as she gets older, she ventures into various Western classics such as The ClockworkOrange. Believing that her real roots are in the UK, she longs to leave small-town Bulawayo and a life of which she is almost scornful.However, her expectations are never met and she finds life in England as empty and lonely. She returns to Zimbabwe from the UK whenher grandmother is murdered and is forced to face some hard truthsabout her family history.
The theme of identity and belonging is a common one in many postcolonial novels, although the subject of those novels is not often a white Zimbabwean.In fact, much contemporary white writing from Zimbabwe tends to be of the autobiographical type of Peter Godwin and Alexandra Fuller, who both live in the US.It almost seemsto be a prerequisite that white writers are allowed to write about Zimbabwe as long as they do so from a distance.Ultimately, Ellie returns to Zimbabwe.And it’s a troubled Zimbabwe.Yet, somehow she knows this is where she belongs.As her grandmother once told her, ‘Find your own space, your own way of doing things.’But is the world ready for that?For a white writer to do things their way and to feel at home in Africa?I think that Western publishers feel that white writers cannot possiblygive an 'authentic' view of Africa. The West tends to see famine,wars and AIDS as 'Africa' and feel uncomfortable about publishingstories of middle class people who are not struggling to survive.
Stories abound in Africa and they don’t all have to be about starvation, tyrannical leaders and disease.Nor, for that matter, do they have to be of the swash-buckling Wilbur Smith type.If my love of Agatha Christie taught me anything, it’s that everyone has a secret and everyone has a story, and often it’s the stories that people don’t mean to tell you that are the most interesting. Countries change, wars end and dictators do eventually pass into insignificance.A good story stays forever.