A Conversation with Bryony Rheam

from www.panorama.co.zw

After a heated discussion about Bryony Rheam’s This September Sun at the Spanish Embassy book club in Harare, Panorama Magazine decided to extend the conversation by talking to the author.
This September Sun has been published in Wales (Parthian Books) and Zimbabwe (amaBooks) to critical acclaim. It is currently chosen by the Zimbabwe Examination Council (ZIMSEC) as one of the “A” Level English Literature set texts. Bryony Rheam currently lives in Zambia with her family.
Firstly, what is This September Sun all about?
It is about a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe and her relationship with her grandmother.  The relationship changes over time, but Ellie only moves towards a fuller understanding of Evelyn after the latter’s death.

What amount of research went into the writing of this novel? For instance, I am curious to know what new things you learnt in the process that you were not aware of before you embarked on this project.

I did a fair amount of research into the era of the 1940s.  More than anything, I had to find out what the social norms were – what was acceptable and what was not.  What did people do for entertainment, that sort of thing.  One thing that always amazes me about the past is how efficient some aspects of life seemingly were. 
Now we think we are clever because we can email and send text messages, yet there was a system of doing things then that was in some ways far more efficient – probably because it didn’t depend on electricity or computers!  The post, for example, was highly efficient, sometimes delivering twice a day and many shops would deliver – you could order over the telephone.  Nowadays, with all our technology, we are more than often told “Sorry, I didn’t get your message”.

Your book reads more like a memoir than a work of narrative led fiction. In other words, first novels are often seen as thinly veiled autobiography. How much do your personal experiences come into your fiction?

This is quite a difficult question to answer.  None of the events in the novel are “true” in the sense that they did actually happen exactly as they do in the storyline.  However, there is a lot of myself in the book, in many of the feelings and emotions. 
There are black readers who feel hard done by the fact that black characters in your book are marginal types – maids and gardeners, etc. Are those who read racial connotations in these skewed relations wrong?

I’ll begin to address this question by posing a similar question to those readers:  Would the same be asked of a black writer who either didn’t include white characters or kept them as marginal characters – white farmers, district commissioners and the like?  If a non-white writer set a novel in the UK or the US and didn’t make mention of white characters, would this be seen as racist, or would we say something like: “Oh, well, this novel obviously concerns the main character, who is black and their immediate family who live in an area of the UK with a high non-white population.”

This September Sun does not have a huge cast of characters and the main story revolves around the relationship between a young girl and her grandmother.  It’s not a story about black and white.  Yes, there is the political backdrop of a Zimbabwe going through much change, but at the heart of the story is a very personal relationship.  Why should I need to include x amount of black characters?  That would be political correctness gone mad!

Another point to consider is that at the time that Evelyn is a young woman, she wouldn’t have had much contact with black people except as servants.  It amazes me that no one has picked up on the significance of Samson.  Yes, he may be a cook, but he is an important character in the novel.  Evelyn identifies with him on a personal level.
Mr Patel is another character whom she identifies with.  I think it would have been totally unrealistic of me to have created a friendship between Evelyn and a black character that did not take into account the time she was living in.

I strongly believe Zimbabwean literature is a literature of two halves: black and white. I find that there is a serious disconnect. Black writers write mainly about the black experience. White writers write mainly about the white experience. Can it ever be one or the lines are just blurred and as readers we cannot just see it?

I think that you naturally write about things that are of interest to you and to which you can relate.  I don’t think there should be any pressure for any writer to write to meet some need; writing should be a natural process.  I also think that the strength of a story should be in its ability to appeal to a reader regardless of “the experience” that created it. 
Many people love Charles Dickens although they have never been to England or lived in the Victorian age.  I’ve read about people from all walks of life who absolutely love Enid Blyton and yet one of the criticisms leveled at her is that her work is too parochial: 1930s white middle class.  Do children pick up on this?  No, probably not. 
Surely as readers we identify with a character, whatever their colour or background, otherwise our reading scope would be incredibly limited?
There is now a large output of “white-writing” from Zimbabwe. Could comment on how you situate yourself within it?  I’m thinking of Peter Godwin, Alexandra Fuller and others. 

I really don’t like this term “white writer”.  Why can’t I just be a writer?  I wrote a book and that book is quite different from Peter Godwin’s work as he is a journalist; Alexandra Fuller is too.  I don’t see my work as trying to fit in or be different.  

The question of who belongs to the Zimbabwean nation has been extremely politicised in the last decade or more.  Do you ever feel disqualified or are you made to feel disqualified from writing and representing the Zimbabwean nation because of your ethnic origins (that is the fact that you are white, not black)?

I think the fact that I am asked this question in just about every interview I do shows that the colour of my skin is still an issue – but probably only to academics and interviewers!  I think the average reader probably doesn’t give a toss as long as they have enjoyed what they have read.  I’m sure the colour of my skin does count against me sometimes and I tempted to write something under a pseudonym to see if I get the same questions asked to me if people thought I was black!

Is there any significance to the opening of the book – April 18 is a day that carries a lot of emotional history for most Zimbabweans. What change does it signal?

I suppose this is an example of the influence of the political and private on our lives.  April 18 may have been the day that Zimbabwe got its independence from Britain, but it is also Ellie’s birthday.  As a six-year-old, that is her main concern, yet she is aware of these other changes going on around her, although she does not fully understand their significance.

Your book has since been adopted as an “A” Level text in the Zimbabwean education system. What do you hope these young readers will learn from This September Sun?
I don’t necessarily want anyone to learn anything.  I’d like them to enjoy it.

Do you keep abreast with other Zimbabwean writing and what do you have in common with other Zimbabwean writers?

Ironically, it isn’t always that easy to get hold of African novels in Africa!  I read what comes my way, and I think there is a move to write about things other than war, famine, AIDS, etc. 

- By Tinashe Mushakavanhu.  © Panorama Magazine 2013.


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