Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Out of Africa Lifestyle Magazine: An Interview with Bryony Rheam

Bryony was born in Kadoma, Zimbabwe, in 1974. She spent most of her childhood in and around Bulawayo, leaving in 1993 to go to the UK. She returned to Zimbabwe in 2001 where she spent the next eight years working as an English teacher.
In 2008, Bryony moved firstly to Ndola in Zambia and then to Solwezi. Bryony has had a number of short stories published in various anthologies of Zimbabwean writing, and in 2009, her first novel, This September Sun, was published in Zimbabwe by amaBooks. This September Sun won the Zimbabwe Publishers Best First Book Award in 2010 and was published in the UK in March 2012 by Parthian. In May 2012, it reached number 1 on Amazon Kindle sales. She lives with her partner, John, and their two daughters.
OOA: Where do you currently live?
BR: I recently moved back to Bulawayo after living in Zambia for seven years. Despite the economic situation here in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo is still a great place to live in.
OOA: Which writer(s) have influenced you most and why?
BR: I love F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night). His writing is so beautiful and moving. Each word seems to shimmer as you read it. I also love Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway and The Waves) as she is able to transform every day moments into something wonderful. E.M. Forster wrote that ‘most of life is so dull that there is not much to say about it’, but Woolf proves him wrong! I am also a great Agatha Christie fan and love the puzzles in her books and how she presents them – the stories are very simple, yet it is almost impossible to work out whodunit and why.
OOA: Are the characters in your book inspired by real people?
BR: Someone said that a first book is almost always autobiographical and to a certain extent this is true of This September Sun. Both Ellie and Evelyn are very much like me in many ways – but not totally! One of the main characters is a man called Uncle Wally. My mum did have an Uncle Wally who was an architect and who lived for some years in Rhodesia in the 1950s. His wife was by all accounts a snob, which is where I got the idea from. However, the character and his actions are all fictional.
OOA: How has your childhood in Kadoma and Bulawayo influenced you?
BR: I was only born in Kadoma. My parents lived in Chakari at the time. We moved to Mhangura when I was about two or three. Bulawayo has had far more of an influence on me. It is a place I have both loved and hated which is perhaps why so much of my writing has centred on it. Its great failing is that it is such a cliquey place: not only do you need to have been born and raised there to be accepted, but at least three generations of ancestors need to have been as well! Life is often harsh, dominated by droughts and years of political isolation, but there is also a savage beauty to it. The history, too, is so interesting. Bulawayo is a mixture of the old and the new, whereas in Harare a lot of the old buildings have been pulled down. I like going to Harare for the occasional visit, but it lacks a heart – something is missing about it.
OOA: When did you first start writing?
BR: I remember writing when I was six years old. When I was eleven, my dad bought me a second-hand typewriter and I used to churn out stories and poems on it. My first published work was a children’s story in The Chronicle in 1988. I still have it.
OOA: Were you encouraged to write when you were young?
BR: My parents were always very supportive of me wanting to be a writer. Teachers also told me that I had a talent as did a lecturer when I was at university. Ironically, when I first began to think seriously about being a full time writer, that’s when I faced most opposition. How are you going to afford it? What are you going to live on? became common questions.
OOA: What schools did you attend in Kadoma and Bulawayo?
BR: The first school I went to in Bulawayo was Waterford. It was a government school and after a couple of terms, I moved to Whitestone which I did not enjoy as much. Everyone seemed to know each other and I felt very much on the outside of things. I then went to Girls’ College which I enjoyed.
OOA: What do you like to do when you are not writing, what are your hobbies?
BR: I enjoy gardening and reading, of course! I also enjoy looking for old furniture in second hand shops and at auctions.

OOA: You have successfully pursued a career in writing in Zimbabwe - how difficult has this been and what obstacles do Zimbabwean writers face?

BR: Zimbabwe has a very small reading population. Due to the price of locally produced books, many people cannot afford to buy them and borrow them instead. Therefore, sales are quite limited. One of the greatest challenges is being known outside of Zimbabwe and to get your work on the international market. Unfortunately, many people still expect a certain type of story from Zimbabwe – poverty, AIDS, farm invasions – and when you write something which does not include one of these themes, you are deemed to be dismissive of the problems facing the country, as though you are living in a bubble.

OOA: Where is your next novel set and what is the theme?

BR: My next novel, All Come to Dust, is a crime novel set in Bulawayo in the present day.

OOA: What words of advice can you give to aspiring (Zimbabwean) writers?

BR: Networking is very important. Get to know as many writers as possible and get yourself known. The days of being a recluse who does not go on the internet are over. You have to market yourself, which can be difficult if you are not that type of person. Saying that, you have to maintain a sense of perspective: just because you are popular in Zimbabwe, doesn’t mean you are the best in the world. Fame is also a short-lived experience. Don’t forget who you are and who your friends are. I have met a number of writers who are hesitant to help others or they forget their colleagues entirely. That’s not what it’s all about.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mad Dogs and Englishmen: The dangers and pitfalls of International Schools

Teaching is a great way of seeing the world and the proliferation of International schools in the last few years has served to offer a wide choice of exotic destinations in which to work.  There is certainly a considerable draw to a job in Phuket or Zanzibar and it is easy to imagine a relaxed working environment, well-behaved and friendly students and the opportunity to earn a decent salary – and save.  Many of these schools offer accommodation, medical cover, repatriation expenses and end of contract bonuses.  All this can sound very tempting when you are stuck doing supply work in East Dulwich, and these schools in turn are keen to employ young, dynamic teachers who are familiar with the British National curriculum.

                However, after a number of years of teaching in some of these institutions, my best advice is to exercise caution and research the place well before you sign any contract.  It’s best to stay well away from schools which advertise the same job vacancies every couple of months or those which offer vacancies in about twelve different subjects – because there’s a good chance their entire teaching staff has walked out en masse.  Most importantly perhaps, a job should never be too easy to get.  I applied once for a job in Uzbekistan and the next thing I knew was that I received an email, in broken English, asking me which flight I was arriving on and informing me that someone would be there to pick me up from the airport.  With my year’s worth of teaching behind me, they hoped that I would head their new English department and be able to train their local staff in my ‘spare time’.

                It may have been an easy thing to do, and not once did they ask for my credentials, but chances are I would have found myself stranded in Tashkent with no return ticket and 150kgs of luggage on its way, the school a washout, or maybe even non-existent.  It happened to a friend of mine who applied successfully for a job in Kampala, Uganda, and arrived to find that the school was yet to be built. The Head, however, was keen that he stay, but after a couple of weeks in a respectable hotel, he was then transferred to some flea-ridden place in the middle of the red light district.    Two days later he left.

                It’s not only teachers who find themselves on the receiving end of some rather dodgy job offers.  At a school  I worked at in Zambia, we had a teacher who claimed to have gone to Oxford, although no one had ever seen his certificates.  Insisting on the title ‘Dr’, he constantly name dropped and made  the odd comment in Latin – an obvious mark of an Oxford man, he thought – but really all he had behind him was the gift of the gab.  An incorrigible alcoholic, he was kept on because of the mistaken belief that he was really some sort of genius, despite spending more than half the term either at home drunk or in hospital drying out. At another school in a neighbouring town, the arrival of a new head teacher caused great excitement as he was apparently a Harvard man.  Numerous bad decisions that cost the school an absolute fortune, like employing teachers from Thailand, caused the Board to make some investigations into his background and it was soon discovered that the certificates were fake.
In Africa at least, and I am sure the same is true of South America and Asia, there is often an assumption that the best teachers are British. To be taught by a true Englishman (men are still valued more than women) means that you will be taught well and taught properly.  The number of schools around the world offering Cambridge qualifications and following the British National Curriculum is testimony to the faith in British education (despite the unhappiness with the system in Britain itself). I have been privileged to work with some really great teachers in my life and I do admire much about the British system of education, although I have reservations about others. 
However, some of the 'international' teaching staff I have worked with in Africa, and they haven't all been British, have been questionable.  Africa is still a place where one can run and hide from the world, perhaps even inventing a new self along the way.  When someone tells you they have travelled to over 100 countries and worked in 12, you don't necessarily doubt them. When someone tells you they went to a good school or they worked at a good school or they were headhunted for the head's position, we think that it is admirable.  We often believe what other people tell us about themselves - at least initially. The flaws in their stories are discovered later, in the way they behave, the comments they may make. Unfortunately, what happens then is that they usually move onto another place.  They either disappear in the middle of the night, like the school chaplin who took photos of boys in the shower for 'artistic' reasons did at one school I was at, or the board, embarrassed and hoping to get rid of them as soon as possible, pays them a considerable amount of money to leave - which they do - and they go onto another school with a glowing reference. 

                Unfortunately, many of the recent developments in technology, which should make it easier to check up on someone’s background, can also be used to disguise it.  It is very easy, for instance, for either an individual or a school to launch a website or blog in which they lay claim to various attributes.  Upload a few photographs – perhaps pupils working studiously away in a chemistry lab or battling it out on the hockey field – insert a few graphics and a motto in Latin, and you’re away.  The first school I worked at in Zambia claimed to have a sixth form college on their website and the profile of the alcoholic teacher states he rowed for Oxford and enjoys playing golf in the afternoons, nothing short of a downright lie.  The website of the second school I worked at in Zambia, shows boys in a scrum on a rugby field that in reality was non-existent. They also claimed to have the most recent technological devices in all the classrooms, yet the most the majority of teachers had access to was a whiteboard. 
                My first teaching job was in Singapore where I worked at a college which offered tuition for the University of London’s External Degree Programme.  I had been sent a glossy brochure and been told that I could initially stay in the halls of residence which were so comfortable and well-equipped that I probably wouldn’t want to leave.  ‘Most of our expat staff live there,’ I was told during my interview, so it was rather a shock to arrive at 9pm at a huge deserted building in a country I didn’t know and be told that I was the first ever occupant!  It was just the security guard and me in the great, big, echoing building.

                Secondly, I was given the nigh-impossible task of lecturing on every area of English Literature from Homer to Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf to Chinua Achebe.  It was only when I suffered a near nervous breakdown due to my incredible work load that I discovered why the previous lecturer had left.  He also had found the scope of the course far too dense for an individual to realistically cope with – and he had a PhD!  One day he didn’t come into work and investigations found that he had done a runner – leaving everything behind and with not a word to anyone.

                ‘International’ is a word which is bandied around a little too often these days without many people knowing really what it means.  It suggests a multi-cultural pool of students and the offering of internationally recognised qualifications.    However, in Africa at least, it’s almost on a par with adding ‘deluxe’ or ‘luxurious’ onto an advert for accommodation – and it’s usually as disappointing.  Hotels which really are deluxe don’t have to say so – and the same holds true of many ‘international schools’.  The advent of skype often means you don’t get to have a face to face interview for many jobs and you could find yourself whisked away to somewhere which is disappointingly unlike it promises.  Read the small print.  Supply teaching in East Dulwich might not be very interesting, but it’s sometimes far more safe.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

'Moments of Stillness': A Review of This September Sun

'Long after I read it, there are moments of stillness when I begin to think about the book and how much of myself I see in it.'
Bryony Rheam

The day I finally finished reading Bryony Rheam's This September Sun, sometime in September, it was the one book I wondered about how I got to the end, why it ended, and why wasn’t I a little slower as I read it.

This September Sun is the most profound book I’ve read this year and for an author’s first book, I can only begin to think how this work can claim to be fiction. Long after I read it, there are moments of stillness when I begin to think about the book and how much of myself I see in it. Its ability to linger this long is an experience I’m learning to come to terms with.

I’ve read books: Enid Blyton’s Malory Tower series ensured I went to boarding school in a bid to relive the stories. I read another Enid Blyton book about a girl who was a gypsy, who lived in a caravan and was part of a travelling circus. I’m not even going to begin to state how, at one point, I thought my parents should sell the house we lived in, buy a caravan so we could travel and possibly join a circus too. Then there was Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow, from whose pages I got the name Binaebi and gave the name to my son when he was birthed. Some books leave a lasting impression. Some books will never be forgotten. This September Sun falls into that category.

The story revolves around two characters Ellie and her grandmother Evelyn. Ellie, an only child, is a loner who has more adult influences than shared experiences with children her age. Her grandmother Evelyn in this day and age, would be called a feminist. An independent woman who seeks to live her life according to her dictates. Amongst the profound things for me about this book are Ellie’s words as she tells her story. Here’s a passage from Chapter Two:

“Where do you start to put life together? The pieces don’t always fit. Many are missing, or borrowed. From other people’s lives, other people’s memories. Their own puzzles. Where is the beginning when you have only the end to start with? How many lies are told over the course of one lifetime?

What of all that is not said, merely hinted at, subsiding beneath the surface of action and words? All that is yearned for and never had?”

Even now, these lines leave me with a need of wanting to dig deep into life and uncover things I should know and do not know.

There were times when, as I read, I had the feeling the author had perhaps started a plot she did not conclude and had no intention of concluding and this was disappointing for me. Page 76, when Ellie found her grandmother naked in bed with Miles her lover. The next few pages made no mention of the incident and life continued and left me thinking what tha . . . a young girl sees her grandma naked in bed with her lover and the next thing pretends that nothing happened. Tsk, tsk. There I was a reader poking into nonexistent holes because pages into the middle, it pops up again, is mentioned and is laid to rest. That’s the sort of books TSS is, it’s unpredictable and while it doesn’t elicit a rush of adrenaline, it’s calm, it’s pulsing and holds you in a grip.

I’m a little of Evelyn, a little of Ellie, I’m in the book and I’m swept along in their struggles and as they come to terms with themselves. I love TSS. I will read it again. This time with a highlighter. I will mangle its pages, but not to uglify it but to bring out the beauty of its words so I can always take a look at them and sigh, and think.

I’ve never known a book to linger like this one
To hear echoes of its words long after I wistfully said goodbye.

To read a book as though the writer knew you and turned you outside in.
To read words and behold a mirror of your mind.

To reread it in your mind page for page.
To replay the scenes that wrenched your guts and made your eyes drip.

To think and maul.
To chew and not be able to swallow.

To wonder at how words were stringed.
To want to know what could have been going through this author’s mind.

To be afraid. Afraid. Not the sort that fear elicits, but the sort that goosebumps produce because you feel a book became a mirror and you could see a lot of yourself in it.

This September Sun began in August. Proceeded with a feverish grip in September. In its wake left thoughts and silence.

Not all fiction is truly fiction.

By irinajo.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

In Search of Agatha Part 2: My trip to Greenway

About a month ago, I found myself trawling the narrow streets of Covent Garden in search of vintage clothing shops. The object of my search was an evening dress to wear to a dinner, but not just any dinner: I was one of the winners of a competition to write a chapter of an Agatha Christie novel.  The prize was dinner with Agatha Christie’s grandson at her home, Greenway, in Devon.  I was also planning to stay on another night for the vintage-themed opening cocktail party for the Agatha Christie Festival.

                Being in London was a slightly surreal experience for me as I had arrived from Zimbabwe the previous day.  The trip was the highlight of my year and one I had been looking forward to for months. It is perhaps a commonly held idea of someone from the third world that London is an abundant source of everything and nothing is particularly difficult to find. It was certainly a surprise to find that many shops didn’t open until eleven on a Sunday and that the shop I wanted to visit in particular, Blackout II, wasn’t open at all.

                The shop assistants I dealt with were in the main very friendly and keen to help me find a 1920s dress – not a real one of course, but one in the style of the age – but I was less than enamoured with the suggestions made, mostly because they did not look anything like an evening dress.  One man suggested a tweed skirt and jacket and long sleeve blouse and it was on the tip of my tongue to say that I was going to the dinner as myself, not in the guise of Miss Marple.

                It did not take me long to realise that ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’ really refer to 1970s and 80s clothing rather than anything much older and are often labels assigned pieces of clothing that in other shops would cost half the price.   I began to feel, too, that nothing was genuinely itself, rather a reproduction, and tried too hard to be something it wasn’t.

                I found the experience true also of ‘vintage’ teashops, of which the Internet has a plethora of suggestions.  Somehow the silver teapots, the cake stands and the rather kitsch décor all suggests wannabe aspirations.  The insistence that you enter and enjoy a ‘genuine vintage experience’ recalls substandard hotels in Africa optimistically named The Ritz or The Savoy with their promises of ‘deluxe’ or ‘executive’ accommodation. The bottom line is that if you have to say what you are, then you aren’t it.

                I suppose I sound rather down on the whole business, but I’m not.  I found the dress I was looking for at Mad Elizabeth at the Cornmarket building in Leeds.  It was a relief to say the least as, although I could’ve found more of a bargain on the Internet, as I was travelling around a bit, it would’ve been difficult to have had something delivered on time.  My next stop was the haberdasher’s to find a pair of long black gloves.  As I watched them being gently lifted out of their tissue wrapping, I couldn’t help feeling a thrill of excitement.  There was something so special about the experience, as though I had been allowed to a world only a select few have any knowledge of.  A pair of silk stockings completed the purchase and then I was able to focus on finding a string of black beads and a sequined headband with obligatory feather. 

                I arrived in Torquay at 3.15 on the day of the dinner – I half considered arriving on the 4.50 from Paddington – but I had little time to prepare as it was.  Feeling rather glamorous, I made my way opposite the station to the Grand Hotel where I checked into my room.  At a quarter past five, the prize winners congregated in the hotel lobby and introductions were made before the taxis arrived to take us to Greenway.

                 I often think there is a part of me that hasn’t quite grown up, a part that hasn’t stopped believing in magic.  As a child growing up in Africa, I lived in an Enid Blyton world.  I had an idea of England that was years out of date and, despite the eight years I spent living in the UK, I never quite despaired that one day I might find it. Arriving at Greenway is probably the closest I got to doing so.  As soon as the taxi left the main road and followed the narrow winding lane up to the house, I knew I was going somewhere special.

                The house is beautiful – much larger than the average person would live in today, but homely too.  On our tour round the house, I didn’t feel I was viewing a museum piece. Rather, there was sense that any minute a car would draw up, and Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan would step out, home after a long trip to Turkey or Syria.

                The dinner, of course, was the highlight of the trip.  It is not often that one sits next to Mathew Prichard, Agatha Christie’s grandson, and gets to ask him questions about his famous grandmother and her work!  We also got the opportunity to meet Agatha Christie’s publishers at HarperCollins.

                The next day, I walked the Agatha Christie Mile with my sister who had accompanied me on the trip and we sat on the terrace of The Imperial Hotel and drank Pimms. Walking through Torquay I had tried to imagine what life was like here a hundred years ago: the train station teeming with men going off to war; lovers walking arm in arm along the promenade. Now looking around the hotel which features in at least three of her novels, I caught a glimpse of Agatha’s world and the people who inhabited it.  I half expected an ageing actress to enter in a whirlwind of furs and pearls and order martinis while an overloaded bellboy struggled in behind her with a trolley of cases and trunks or a dandy in white flannels coming in from the tennis courts.

The previous evening, I had taken the opportunity to tell Mathew Pritchard  that I didn’t think the Miss Marple TV adaptations were very good in my opinion because they deviate from the plot quite a bit. His response was that a balance had to be maintained between being true to the story and attracting a younger audience. Although I agree to a certain extent, I also often wonder if the younger generation aren’t underestimated. At 41, I was one of the oldest of the competition winners; it was more than obvious to me that Agatha Christie is loved by all generations. We live in a world which has run out of ideas, one that reproduces fashions and tastes and tries to pass them off as new.  If young people search for anything it’s authenticity and perhaps that is why Agatha Christie maintains such a hold over our imaginations: we look for a world of which we only catch glimpses.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Authors of the Month: Tendai Huchu and Bryony Rheam

This month we’re celebrating our two Zimbabwean authors: Tendai Huchu and Bryony Rheam. Both will be appearing this month at Africa Utopia at the Southbank Centre in London with their respective books: The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician and This September Sun.
The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician
Three very different men struggle with thoughts of belonging, loss, identity and love as they attempt to find a place for themselves in Britain. The Magistrate tries to create new memories and roots, fusing a wandering exploration of Edinburgh with music. The Maestro, a depressed, quixotic character, sinks out of the real world into the fantastic world of literature. The Mathematician, full of youth, follows a carefree, hedonistic lifestyle, until their three universes collide. In this carefully crafted, multi- layered novel, Tendai Huchu, with his inimitable humour, reveals much about the Zimbabwe story as he draws the reader deep into the lives of the three main characters.
‘An unusually astute and unflinching writer’ -- The Guardian
‘Tendai Huchu illustrates universal notions well’ --The Examiner
‘Tendai Huchu seems to the be the great-grandchild of Jonathan Swift with many voices in his head’ --Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung
‘I could not let this book rest...The lead characters of The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician are made “accessible” through the craftsmanship of Tendai Huchu’ --Dr Rosetta Codling
About Tendai
In 2013 Tendai was the recipient of a Hawthornden Fellowship and a Sacatar Fellowship.
He was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize.
Tendai Huchu’s first novel, The Hairdresser of Harare, was released in 2010 to critical acclaim, and has been translated into German, French, and Italian. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Manchester Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Gutter, Interzone, AfroSF, Wasafiri, Warscapes, The Africa Report, Kwani?, and numerous other publications.
The New York Times reviewed Tendai’s The Hairdresser of Harare ahead of his appearance at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.
'...American publishing has embraced a vibrant chorus of voices from the African continent — Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo and Chigozie Obioma among others. To which we can now add one more, Tendai Huchu, whose debut novel, “The Hairdresser of Harare,” [...] provides a fresh and moving account of contemporary Zimbabwe. [...] “The Hairdresser of Harare” ultimately wins us over with the vividness of its setting and characters, and with its reminder of the multitude of rich stories to be found in their daily lives.'
Africa Utopia, Sat 12 September
Saturday's talks look at the how the arts across the continent are affecting social change.
Who is shaping African design? What varies between different regions? How are the arts challenging stereotypes and existing narratives about the continent?
Hear from leading African and diaspora designers, writers, performers and creators, including Tendai Huchu.
£15 (£7.50) Saturday Pass | Purchase here
Tendai tweets at @TendaiHuchu
Purchase The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician here

This September Sun
Winner of the Best First Book Award at Zimbabwe International Book Fair 2010
Ellie is a shy girl growing up in post-Independence Zimbabwe, longing for escape from the confines of small-town life. When she eventually moves to Britain, her wish seems to have come true. But life there is not all she imagined. And when her grandmother Evelyn is brutally murdered, a set of diaries are uncovered – spilling out family secrets and recounting a young Evelyn's passionate and dangerous affair with a powerful married man.
In the light of new discoveries, Ellie begins to re-evaluate her relationship with her grandmother, and must face up to some truths about herself in the process. Set against the backdrop of a country
in change, Ellie – burdened by the memories and the misunderstandings of the past – must also find a way to move forward in her own romantic endeavours.
'Brilliantly evokes the ennui of the pre-Independence settler community who measure out their lives in cups of tea, sundowners, and illicit affairs.' --John Eppel
'As she uncovers Evelyn's secrets in the diaries, Ellie is forced to reconsider her relationship with her family and also to reexamine how she lives her own's the personal moments and conflicts that drive this narrative of family secrets and forgiveness'. --Publishers Weekly
Bryony Rheam was born in Kadoma and lived in Bulawayo from the age of eight until she left school. She studied for a BA and an MA in English Literature in the United Kingdom and then taught in Singapore for a year before returning to teach in Zimbabwe in 2001.
She was part of the British Council sponsored Crossing Borders creative writing project and has had short stories published in several anthologies, including all three volumes in the Short Writings from Bulawayo series and in Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe. Bryony won the Intwasa Arts Festival koBulawayo Short Story Competition in 2006.
Online Zimbabwean blogger, Bookshy, listed Bryony’s debut novel This September Sun as one of the top 50 books by African Women.
She also won the Write Your Own Christie competition in 2014. According to the panel 'it was a confident chapter with a terrific ending'.
African Pulp/Genre, Sun 13 September
Romance, sci-fi, horror, crime, erotica, utopia, historical fiction: we delve into the very best of African pulp and genre fiction to look at how it’s changing the narrative of African fiction.
Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall
2 - 3pm
£15 (£7.50) Sunday Pass | Purchase here
Buy This September Sun here

Zimbabwean Writers feature in a Celebration of Africa

Zimbabwean Writers feature in a Celebration of Africa

Tendai Huchu and Bryony Rheam are set to take part in debates at Africa Utopia. Back for a third year Africa Utopia celebrates the arts and culture of the African continent.

Bryony Sept 2The festival looks at how Africa can lead the way in thinking about culture, community, business and technology and includes topics ranging from fashion, gender and power in politics, sustainability and activism. The 2015 edition of the festival features some of Africa’s greatest artists across music, dance, literature and the arts, including Baaba Maal, Spoek Mathambo, Tosin Coker, Irenosen Okojie, Tony Allen, Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté, Orchestra Baobab, Kassé Mady Diabaté, Chineke! and Chi-chi Nwanoku.
The festival will be held between Friday 11 September to Sunday 13 September at the Southbank Centre in London. Tendai Huchu is due to take part in a panel on 12 September about ‘African Male Identity’, exploring the truths and myths of African masculinities, identities, sexualities, fatherhood and friendship. His second novel The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician has recently been published by amaBooks in Zimbabwe and by Parthian Books in the United Kingdom, and will soon be published in Nigeria, North America and Germany.
Joining Tendai at the festival will be Bulawayo-based writer, Bryony Rheam, who is a panellist the following day – Sunday September 13. The panel of which she is a member, will be looking at how genre fiction is changing the narrative of African fiction. Pulp and genre fiction include: sci’fi, horror, crime, erotica, utopia and historical fiction. Following on her first novel, This September Sun, Bryony has just finished writing her second novel, which is a murder mystery set in Bulawayo. This panel is chaired by Zimbabwean editor and literary critic, Ellah Allfrey.
During her visit to the UK Bryony will spend several days in Torquay, where she will receive her prize for being a winner of the Write Your Own Christie writing competition, which celebrates the work of one of the world’s best-selling novelists, Agatha Christie.
The competition involved writers from around the world writing a collaborative novel, starting with the opening of Christie’s A Murder is Announced. Each month, writers were asked to submit the next chapter of the story. The judges then selected the winner for that particular month, and the competition, and the novel, then evolved over a nine month period. Bryony was runner-up for chapter seven, and winner for chapter eight, the judges commenting about her winning entry: ‘It was a confident chapter with a terrific ending, as well as a carefully plotted solution.’
Bryony’s prize is one night’s accommodation at the Grand Hotel in Torquay, where Agatha Christie spent her honeymoon with her first husband. That evening, there will be a dinner at Christie’s house, Greenway, now a National Trust property, also attended by the other prize-winners. Before the dinner, there will be a tour of the house, which is now a National Trust property. At the dinner will also be Christie’s grandson, Matthew Pritchard, and her British and American publishers at HarperCollins.  Agatha Christie was born in 1890, so this year is the 125th anniversary of her birth and there is a special celebration in Torquay where the annual Agatha Christie Festival is held.
As a great fan of Christie’s, Bryony is thrilled to be among the prize-winners. References to Agatha Christie can be found in This September Sun. The character of the grandmother in the novel is also passionate about Christie’s work and her intricate plots.

Local Author Scoops UK Award

TOP local writer Bryony Rheam will this week collect her prize in the United Kingdom after recently winning the “Write Your Own Christie” competition when her contribution to a collaborative book project was selected by the judges.
The competition involved writers from around the world writing a collaborative novel, starting with the opening of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced.
Director of ’amabooks Publishers Brian Jones said each month, writers were asked to submit the next chapter of the story.
“The judges then selected the winner for that particular month, and the competition, and the novel, and then evolved over a nine-month period. Bryony was runner-up for Chapter 7 and winner for Chapter 8,” he said.
Jones said the judges noted that Rheam’s winning entry was “a confident chapter with a terrific ending”.
Bryony Rheam
Rheam’s prize is one night’s accommodation at the Grand Hotel in Torquay in Southern England, where Agatha Christie spent her honeymoon with her first husband, Archibald Christie.
“That evening, there will be a dinner at her house, Greenway, near Torquay, also attended by the other prize-winners. Before the dinner, there will be a tour of the house, which is now a National Trust property,” said Jones.
“At the dinner will also be Christie’s grandson Matthew Pritchard and her British and American publishers at Harper Collins.”
Agatha Christie was born in 1890 and this year is the 125th anniversary of her birth and there is a special celebration in Torquay where the annual Agatha Christie Festival is held. She is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the best-selling novelist of all time, and is claimed to come third in the rankings of the world’s most widely published books, behind only Shakespeare and the Bible.
Rheam said going to the awards dinner was a great honour for her.
“Going to the dinner is a great honour for me, not just as a writer, but as a fan of Agatha Christie. I have always loved her books and admire her great intelligence and ability to outwit the reader every time,” she said.
Several references to Agatha Christie occur in Rheam’s award-winning novel This September Sun.
Rheam has just finished her second novel All Come to Dust, which is a murder mystery, and inspired by the work of Agatha Christie.
Meanwhile, Rheam will attend the Africa Utopia Festival at London’s Southbank Centre to help celebrate the arts and culture of Africa alongside fellow artistes Baaba Maal, Spoek Mathambo, Tony Allen, Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté, Orchestra Baobab and Kassé Diabaté.
On September 13, Rheam will participate in a discussion about how pulp and genre fiction – romance, sci-fi, horror, crime, erotica, utopia and historical – is changing the narrative of African fiction.
Fellow Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu – whose second novel The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician – has recently been published by ’amaBooks and Parthian Books in the United Kingdom, will take part in a discussion session about African male identity.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

This Kadoma, Zimbabwe-born novelist, mom of two, teaches us the value of networking each time she crosses intra-African borders

No one ever expects to actually know a writer. Well, not a good writer anyway. Writers are faraway people who sit in some distant land penning novels surrounded by the mists of secrecy. A writer is not your next door neighbour, nor your colleague at work or your customer buying a litre of milk and a loaf of bread.

As part of our African Literature as Creative Enterprise series, Brian Jones and Jane Morris of amaBooks talk to Bryony Rheam whose short stories they have published quite a few.

Last year Kadoma, Zimbabwe-born Bryony travelled north-west to Abeokuta, Nigeria to talk about her This September Sun [Get your copy] at the Ake Festival, one of Africa’s largest literary events. Two and a half years before that, back in May 2012, this novel by a well-travelled Zimbabwean — currently residing close to the border with DRC in Solwezi, Zambia — topped the Amazon Kindle sales and is now an A level set book for schools in Zimbabwe.
Here is how Bryony Rheam describes her experience of work on the novel, Zimbabwe being gripped by a complete economic and political chaos at the time:
Researching the past, even if it is only the 1940s is not as easy in Zimbabwe as it may be in a place like Britain.
..and marketing it at a literary event almost a decade afterwards:
What I found was that many people bought my book after hearing me discuss it.
Cover of the Zimbabwe edition of This September Sun
Cover of the Zimbabwe edition of This September Sun

Your debut novel This September Sun has done well, being chosen as a set book for 'A' level study in Zimbabwe and selling well as an ebook in the United Kingdom. But you are still working as a teacher. Do you think it is possible for a Zimbabwean novel writer to make a living from writing while being based in Africa, or is moving to the United Kingdom or the US to promote your work the only option?
From what I gather, it is also difficult to be a full-time writer in a country such as the UK. I don’t think it is necessary to actually move countries; it’s really a question of getting my work on the market. In some ways, that may be easier from Africa where there is less competition. However, I have discovered that connections are very important in the writing world and these may be easier to find in more cosmopolitan places such as London.
What is the biggest barrier to your writing?
Having to have another job is definitely a barrier because it is so time-consuming.
We have noticed that a number of African writers are diversifying into genres such as sci-fi and romance. What is you view on this?
I think it is great. The African venture into different genres is long overdue. Many people feel that African literature is a little boring or stuck on the same old themes. They don’t see themselves reflected in the writing so I feel more people in Africa would read African novels if the themes were diversified.
Bryony Rheam's panel at Ake Festival in Nigeria
Bryony Rheam’s panel at Ake Festival in Nigeria

In the past year, you have been a participant in the Caine Prize workshop in Zimbabwe and in the Ake Festival in Nigeria. Has either of these raised your profile as a writer? Are there ways in which such events could be improved to help raise your profile, and help sell your writing?
Yes, I think being invited to both these events has helped raise my profile as a writer. They are good ways to network and meet other writers. If your name comes up a couple of times, people remember it and it might make them reach for your book the next time they see it on sale, thinking ‘Oh, I’ve heard about her.’ I think being invited to these events has also made people in my more immediate environment sit up and take notice of me. The students I teach were quite impressed, although some of them thought I was going to Nigeria to star in a Nollywood movie!
There are a number of new writing prizes being introduced on the African continent. Do you see this as a positive development?
Yes, I think the prize money helps authors to be self-sufficient and dedicate themselves to their writing. It also elevates the art of writing above the norm. I suppose there is a danger that these prizes will become too commonplace, but I think we are a long way from that at the moment!
Do you think that collaborations between writers from different regions of Africa help to promote an awareness of common interests and experiences?
Definitely. It’s great to meet writers from all over Africa and exchange stories and experiences. I think many writers face the same challenges within the publishing industry. For example, many writers feel the West expects a type of story from Africa. For black writers it may be one of poverty and hunger; white writers are usually confined to memoir and nostalgia. [See report citing similar stereotyping in Darwin, Australia’s northernmost city]
Bryony Rheam at her book signing with Albert Nyathi, a Zimbabwean poet
Bryony Rheam at her book signing with Albert Nyathi, a Zimbabwean poet

What writers would you consider have influenced your writing?
I love Virginia Woolf and F Scott Fitzgerald for their flowery, descriptive prose. It’s so beautiful and engrossing and I’d love to be able to write like that. I also love Agatha Christie, who is completely different in her style of writing. She concentrates much more on plot. I like the puzzles that she creates and trying to outwit her. An author can be very manipulative, which I like. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a good example of that.
What is the last book you read?
I recently finished The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which I was given for my birthday last year. It is Agatha Christie’s first novel and quite different to her later ones. At this stage I think she still belonged to the late Victorian age – the novel has echoes of Conan Doyle. Christie was a prolific writer who ushered in the modern crime novel as we know it today.
Who is your favourite fictional character and why?
It’s definitely Nick, the narrator in The Great Gatsby. I was in love with him by the end of the novel! Why? He is perceptive and sensitive and he sticks by Gatsby when everyone else deserts him. While there are many Daisys and Toms, and even Gatsbys, there aren’t many Nicks in this world!
Bryony at her desk in Zambia
Bryony at her desk in Zambia

What are working on at the moment?
I am currently working on a crime novel which is set in Bulawayo at the present time. An affluent white woman is murdered in her home and various characters are drawn into the investigation for different reasons. I’d like to think of it as a philosophical detective story. Each character has some problem that they have to come to terms with or work through. It’s been great writing it and I have learnt a lot about the process of writing a crime novel.
This September Sun can be bought from:
African Books Collective, USA
amaBooks, Bulawayo
Amazon, UK
Amazon, USA
Baroda, Harare
Best Books, Bulawayo
Best Books, Harare
Blackstone Books, Harare
Book Cafe, Harare
Clarkes, Cape Town
Indaba Book Cafe, Bulawayo
Independent Publishers Group, USA
Induna, Bulawayo
Innov8, Harare
National Gallery, Bulawayo
National Gallery, Harare
Parthian Books, UK
Renaissance Wellbeing Clinic, Ndola, Zambia
Tambira, Harare
Tendele, Bulawayo
The Figtree Cafe in Kabwe, Zambia, the birthplace of the South African best-selling novelist Wilbur Smith
Thurbas, Victoria Falls
Vignes, Bulawayo
W H Smith, UK
Waterstones, UK
Xarra, Johannesburg
Z&N, Bulawayo

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Interview in Courrier Des Afriques

INTERVIEW – BRYONY RHEAM : « Africa is far, far behind in terms of care of the environment »
Bryony Rheam was born in Kadoma, Zimbabwe. Her first novel, This September Sun, was published by amaBooks in 2009. And she is currently living in Ndola, Zambia.
Bryony Rheam.
Bryony Rheam.
Ake Review: Does African literature exist?
Yes, I think there is a type of literature that would fall under this category, but some books are not always easy to categorise!  Perhaps it’s any novel where the perspective is an African one – the novel may be set in New York or Harare.  Unfortunately, categories tend to be quite limiting at times.  Labels suggest expectations.  For instance, I don’t like science fiction so I may not read a book found in this section of a book shop.  I am making a judgement based on my expectations of that genre.  However, my expectations are affected by what is probably a limited experince of this type of writing.  If I had seen the book in another section, I might have decided to read it.
Name one privilege of being a creative person?
I think you are able to see the world in a slightly quirky mode.  It can often lend you a humorous outlook on life.
Do you engage in any rituals to stimulate creativity?
Washing up, tidying up and any kind of cleaning in general.  I don’t know why I find this works, but I do feel more able to sit down and carry on with my writing afterwards.  Chaos doesn’t help me!
If there is reoccurring theme in your creative work, what is it and why is it important to you? 
Loneliness, probably, especially as one gets older.  I think the world can be a very lonely place for the elderly and it tends to be forgotten that they were young once and that they also have a story to tell. Getting old is one of the most cruel aspects of life, not least because you become invisible.
You’ve been invited to join a handful of other African authors on a special literary performance on the moon. What say you?
I’m not sure about the moon, although I am certain it would be incredibly pretty.  Maybe, as we watch the Earth spinning so far away beneath us, we will realise how ridiculous all these categories that humans divide themselves into really are!
If Africa was a fruit, which one would it be and why?
Probably something like a pomegranate, which doesn’t look too enticing from the outside, but which is rich and red and juicy inside.  I’ve lived in Africa most of my life, but I know of other people who have found it hard to adjust to life here first of all and then don’t ever want to leave!
Name two books you think every African should read and why?
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, because I think he looks at the advent of colonialism in a very interesting way, showing how insidious colonisation was; The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, because it is just such a moving book which highlights the tension between black and white people at that time in history.
What invention do you think would change the lives of Africans?
Litter bins!  I just don’t understand how people can live with litter all around them and not do anything about it !  Africa is far, far behind in terms of care of the environment.
So, you’re not reading or writing, what are you doing?
Gardening or spending time with my children. I love the 1920s, 30s and 40s so I watch any film set in those ages.
What’s your Africa?
Warm, friendly people, long journeys on dusty roads, beautiful flowers that explode out of nowhere, heat and rain and the crickets at night.
Ake Review (Nigeria)

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Death of Learning

When I first began teaching fifteen years ago, the school where I worked was not particularly interested in special needs teaching or differentiating between students in a class.  I had a small group of boys that I would take for remedial lessons every week and that was the extent of the help given to them.  Some of these pupils had an educational psychologist's report and were deemed dyslexic, but not much notice was taken by the school - which is not to say that their conditions were ignored, they just weren't given much emphasis and no one was excused from doing anything because of their difficulty.

Some educationalists take umbrage at this way of doing things.  The last twenty or so years have seen a considerable change in the way in which learning difficulties are viewed.  Students taking the University of Cambridge's examinations can apply to have a reader (someone who reads the questions out aloud) or a scribe (someone who writes the answers down on instruction from the student).  This is all well and good, and I think everyone agrees that a pupil's individual needs should be taken into consideration when doing something as important as examinations.

However, it is questionable as to how many pupils have genuine learning difficulties.  An educational psychologist's report is required, of course, but often no particular condition as such is given; rather the pupil is deemed to have 'slow cognitive skills' or 'weak processing skills' or 'poor auditory skills'. Some believe that the number of pupils with special educational needs is on the increase and there is no doubt that the number of children seeking help has quadrupled in the past thirty years, but is this a surprise considering the range of difficulties has also widened?

However, my own personal belief is that, whether a pupil has slow auditory or cognitive skills or not, is not the real problem.  The real problem is a low level of literacy.  There are a number of factors which contribute to this, the most important one being the exposure to books.  Time and time again when a parent asks me to give their child extra lessons or is worried about their child's level of English, the first question I ask is does their child read.  Nine times out of ten, they don't.  There is a very strong link between reading and learning and the children at the top of the class are readers.

To announce that the average child does read nearly as much as their counterparts thirty years ago is hardly an earth-shattering fact.  We all know that television has replaced the book in many different ways.    Children don't read because their parents don't read to them.  Bedtime stories are a thing of the past, with many children having to wait until they themselves can read in order to hear a story, by which time the process is strongly linked with school reading books, which are very limited and often dull, and the whole school system which places children into categories of very good, good, and not so good.  Reading becomes a chore and very much a school subject. The enjoyment of listening to a story for the story's sake is lost.

Stories, even children's stories, often operate on many levels. Just by listening to a story, a child becomes aware of what is inferred rather than stated and in this way learns to appreciate the bigger story.  Inference is an important part of comprehension and what we are seeing today is an increasing amount of pupils who cannot pick up on subtle clues in the text.  Unless they are told that the man in the story is unhappy, they cannot deduce this from the way he slouches in his chair and doesn't smile.  I have taught many sixteen year olds who cannot grasp the idea of a deeper meaning in a literary text. Literature is now viewed as a very difficult subject that only the most intelligent can attempt.  This is ridiculous.
What we have also seen in our education system is a gradual dumbing down of knowledge.  Today's A Level students would struggle if presented with an A Level paper from thirty years ago.  Yet, the funny thing is that we are constantly being told how things are getting harder.  Compare one of Beatrix Potter's children's stories to one written in the last ten years and the differences in vocabulary are striking.  Children born in the late nineteenth century grew up with writers such as Jules Verne and Frances Hodgson Burnett - how many children today would attempt their novels without finding them a challenge?
Another barrier to learning is severe emotional distress.  Many of the children I have worked with who have learning difficulties have suffered trauma of some sort in their lives.  Divorce and disharmony in the home are two of the greatest sources of emotional trauma for children.  Children who come from a happy, stable home and who feel loved and valued do tend to be more settled and attentive in class.  The child with the short memory span often learns this as a defence or coping mechanism at home.
It may sound like obvious advice, but parents need to spend time with their children every day.  They need to sit down for at least one meal together in that day and ask each other what they have done.  In far too many families, the television takes precedence over conversation and meals are eaten by individuals at varying times.
Every one of us, even the geniuses amongst us, could be tested by an educational psychologist and found to be lacking in some area.  Many of us know our failings and have developed coping mechanisms.  The danger of labelling people as having 'problems' is that these are often viewed as irreparable.  The inclination is often to opt out of doing something rather than overcoming it.  It is also often easier to live with a condition than put in place the mechanisms for addressing it as this may mean changing our lifestyles and forfeiting what we enjoy doing.  Simple solutions are not what we want.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Death of Teaching

One of the worst moments in your life is when you come to realise that you are not happy in your job anymore.  There can be varying reasons for this and it may be a passing phase in which case the feeling itself  passes and you are able to continue your job as you have done in the past. It's something else when you realise the job itself and what it demands of you is changing and it's no longer what you want.

I think of myself as an 'accidental' teacher.  I didn't have any plans to go into teaching, it's more of something I fell into after leaving university.  I had a Master's degree in English Literature, but I had no particular training in anything.  A couple of years' of teaching would look better on my CV than a career in waitressing, I thought.  How little was I to know that I would spend the next fifteen years in the job.

Teaching is a profession that grew on me. I didn't always enjoy it at the beginning, but I came to enjoy it immensely.  When I thought of changing career before, it was usually due to monetary reasons, but I realised the flexibility that teaching gave me (like the ability to bring my children to school while I did afternoon activities) and the fact that I wouldn't have to work when my children were on holiday, could not be found in another job.

It has become something of a cliché to say that teaching is not a particularly well paid job, but the great moments are when you are thanked or when a struggling student makes a sudden breakthrough.  I don't disagree.  I have never been particularly well paid and there is certainly a misguided sense that teaching should be a vocation and done for the love of it.  So should being a doctor.  I have also had numerous moments when a student has thanked me for getting them through exams or a past student has written to say they are glad I was their teacher.  These are great moments and most sincerely treasured ones.

The problem is that they are becoming fewer.  Perhaps I have lost my zing?  Yes, I'll agree with this to a certain extent.  When you teach full time, you really do work all the time: evenings and weekends are taken up in marking and planning and then there are activities and duties to attend to.  This is hard to maintain when you have a family to look after as well and I have often noted how teachers' children are some of the most neglected in schools.

However, the reason that thank yous are becoming so few and far between goes beyond my own limitations.  The fact of the matter is that schools have become businesses and businesses provide a service and nobody ever says thank you for a service.

More and more, schools, even in Africa, are becoming result-driven.  We are a good school: we can offer your child the best education.  The proof of this is in the results.  If you don't get the results, it's not because your child is incapable or slow or suffering from mental trauma, it's because the teacher wasn't good enough.

Thus there is now a continuous push to get through The Syllabus.  All lesson planning must take cognisance of The Syllabus.  If you didn't get through point D today , then why not?  The fact that you got through points A, B and C is irrelevant. It's also irrelevant that you answered a student's question about something not absolutely related to the topic and this led on to a discussion about why so many poets and writers suffer from depression or how the representation of women in film has changed over the last seventy years. 

Many interesting discussions on marriage have ensued from the reading of Jane Austen's novels; and many more discussions on the presence or absence of God have followed on from reading Wilfred Owen's poetry.  Perhaps English is a subject in which it is harder not to digress than other subjects.  However, is that not what makes a lesson exciting?  It is obviously important to get through the syllabus, but it is probably what a student learns along the way that sticks with them for the rest of their lives.

In an interview  for a teaching job that I went for about fifteen years ago, the Head told me how he wanted a Robin Williams type teacher.  'You know,' he said, 'Dead Poets' Society.  Captain, my Captain.  Carpe Diem!'  I was a little taken aback at the thought.  Robin Williams in a couple of scenes in which students stand on the desks and feel the power of poetry shooting through them, is a little different to teaching the same class for two years - standing on the desks may become something of a chore after the fifteenth time.  The irony nowadays is that not the many heads would be looking for a Robin Williams type.  In fact, he is unlikely to get his foot in the door.  Schools don't want teachers who break the rules or who don't follow a written plan.  'Carpe Diem' would have to come attached with aims and objectives; there would need to be 'peer discussion', followed by a plenary.  Homework would have to demonstrate the pupils had a clear knowledge of what was required of them.  As for standing on desks?  Health and safety would take care of that one.

Gone is the eccentric, the teacher who quotes from his or her vast knowledge of poetry - because he or she  actually reads it and loves it beyond the requirements of The Syllabus.  Gone is the Character - the teacher remembered years later by his or her teachers for their interesting way of teaching or dressing or thinking.  Teachers are no longer there to make you think, but to pass exams.  Ironically, this may mean that teachers demand higher pay because the sense of the vocational has been lost.

It is one of life's peculiarities that in a world that encourages freedom of speech and expression, we are all becoming very much the same, little clones setting off into the world to make more clones.
If teaching is the profession that creates all others, the future is a scary prospect.