Thursday, January 15, 2015

Gardening and Writing

Ever since I was child, I have had a fascination for watching things grow.  When I was about ten, I kept glass jars on my windowsill in which I grew peas and watched, mesmerised, as their roots sprouted and spread.  I also kept onions in water, much to my mother’s consternation, and observed them sprouting.  My mum is a keen gardener and I loved going to nurseries with her as a child to buy flowers and shrubs.  I loved the organisational intricacies of gardening – leaving space for a shrub that might spread and a creeper that might climb and not planting this flower with that in case one dwarfed the other.  However, I was never really much of a gardener - as a student in the UK, I kept an African Violet called Shamwari, on my windowsill, but it never flowered and my attempts to grow things in pots also invariably met some form of disaster or another. 

                In my novel This September Sun (amaBooks, 2009), the grandmother, Evelyn, is a keen gardener.  When she eventually moves out of her little flat and into a house in Bulawayo’s Suburbs, she sets to work to restore the garden to some of its former glory:

                She had a beautiful garden, full in the summer months of flowers and shrubs and birds; even in the dry winter, of a large selection of the same.  The long green carpet of a lawn was bordered by beds overflowing with flowers: petunias, marigolds, hibiscus, roses, hydrangea, lavender, geranium, African Violets, sweet peas and poppies.  She grew vegetables in the back garden: butternut, gem squash, beans and carrots, spinach, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, lettuce and cucumber.  And then there were strawberries and cape gooseberries, mulberries and lemons, oranges and naartjies, and a large herb garden with everything from rosemary to coriander.  It was a paradise; a place where everything wanted to grow, even the sweat peas, which Mrs Benson said would never survive in the heat of Matabeleland.

Space for a flower bed
heavy rains wash away the newly planted grass
Perhaps it is true to say that Evelyn’s garden is a fictional wish fulfilment of my own desire for a beautiful garden.  Gardens have something of a sporadic nature in drought-riddled Matabeleland; a trip around Bulawayo’s residential suburbs will tell you at a glance who has a borehole and who hasn’t.  We moved to Zambia in 2008, but lived in a town house with a very small garden, which was easy to maintain but didn’t offer much scope for ‘real’ gardening. About a year and a half ago, we moved to Solwezi in North-western Zambia into a newly-built house with a garden, but with absolutely nothing in it, not even a blade of grass.  It was September and it was hot, dry and dusty and we were overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of getting the garden up and running. 

Solwezi is not a beautiful place by any stretch of the imagination: the roads are riddled with potholes (craters, actually!), goats mingle with pedestrians and minibuses and litter is strewn far and wide.  It is hard to find flowers to buy and what there is available tends to be hugely overpriced.  People rather take cuttings from each other’s gardens, a much cheaper, but also often more lengthy process.  My childhood dream of miniature roses winding their way up archways and flowerbeds full of hollyhocks and snap dragons is still very far away from reality!

one of the flower beds 18 months later
                A series of ineffectual gardeners did not help our cause, but at least we now have a beautiful green lawn, a vegetable garden p - producing wonderful butternuts, blue beans, spinach,onions tomatoes and lettuce – and a thriving herb garden.  To get this underway, we have had to rely mostly on cuttings and even brought some plants up from Bulawayo.  After what seems a very long time, we now have flower beds full of flowers.  It has been quite a pain-staking process: getting flowers when I could and seeing what grew and what withered and died.

                Solwezi has an average rainfall of two metres a year so there is no shortage of water whatsoever and everything seems to grow very well – including weeds!  However, I have discovered the joy of weeding and how it helps as a form of relaxation. Gardening has influenced my writing in many ways.  I have started one novel in which the chief protagonist is a gardener, but the novel I am currently concentrating on is a crime novel and one in which gardens form an important back drop to the mystery. My first short story published, The Queue, also involves a character who finds a type of comfort – and control – through tending her garden.  When I need a break I go out into the garden and weed for a while.  I find it gives me space to think and I often work through plots while I tug and pull! 

                I’m not an expert by any means and I hate garden know-alls who think that knowing the Latin name of all the plants makes them the fount of all knowledge.  I haven’t even got a pair of gardening gloves, the sign of a ‘real’ gardener.  For me, there is nothing nicer than taking a walk round the garden and seeing it develop.  I like doing this as though I am a character in a Jane Austen novel so I always put my wide-brimmed hat on, which is probably more Little Women than Pride and Prejudice, but it does the trick!  My girls also love planting seeds and there is great excitement when they see the little seedlings pushing through the soil.  We also go on excursions into a nearby game park and collect manure; this is a family favourite of ours!  And, finally, at the end of the day, we often sit on the veranda and watch the sun go down.  From here I can also view the flower beds and dream of that day the miniature roses are finally established, entwined around the pillars of the veranda.

                Solwezi isn’t the most salubrious of places, but perhaps there is also something quite futile about trying to find paradise.  It is within our own capacity to create it and to make it ours.  For me, my garden is a chunk of peace and quiet far from the madding crowd and one which provides both solace and joy.

                As Evelyn says in This September Sun: “ ‘You’ve no idea how much the garden means to me . . . It’s got me through so much.’”


©Bryony Rheam 2015 



Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"Stories are far more important than facts": Bryony Rheam on researching and writing This September Sun

Looking back on my debut novel, This September Sun, I am conscious of how ambitious a project it was. It is a long book and it took a long time to write, but it also needed a fair amount of research. 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. There are not many books either written about or set in the time. Those that are, tend to be political history which, although relevant to a certain degree, are often rather tedious to read. Film coverage is not that easy – actually it is fairly impossible – to come by and I had to rely on newspapers in the archives and interviews with some now quite elderly people.
The former are fascinating. I could lose myself all day in old newspapers. They speak of fundraising balls, teas and fetes. They advertise luxury accommodation at hotels with porters and cars meeting each train, film reels at the cinema, a list of who’s in town and who’s staying where and groceries, goods and clothes that were impossible to get in ration-strapped Britain. There is also news about the war and the small ads include the inevitable death notices of young men lost in battle.  
As a child, I loved listening to both my grandmothers talk about their lives and the places they had been to. Most people like to talk about themselves and I found a lot of elderly people very amenable to talking about their lives. Many related hardship and loss, but there were also stories of parties, lovers, New Year celebrations and life in general during the War.
What emerged was a picture of a fairly hedonistic time. On the surface of it, colonial society was fairly bland and conservative. Yet the undercurrents of change and insecurity are evident. The War, however far off it was on the other side of the world, gave life that unsteady edge. Moral values were challenged by the War: the absence of those who went off to fight and the added presence of soldiers from afar. The RAF base in Salisbury brought in an influx of men who no doubt appeared more exciting and worldly wise in comparison to the average Rhodesian. Salisbury was still a small place then and it was generally quite safe to walk around at night. With parties going on on a regular basis, it was quite common for young servicemen to walk into a party off the street and ask if they could join in.  
One lady told me how common it was for young wives to have affairs. With their husbands gone for two, sometimes three years, it was inevitable that they may find comfort in the arms of another. There were many soldiers who came home to find they had children who couldn’t possibly be theirs but, as I was told, they were often accepted without much questioning. Perhaps the war also allowed for a reciprocal forgiveness, for who knows what those soldiers themselves got up to abroad. 
From these anecdotes and pieces of information, I was able to get a number of ideas for Evelyn’s story. Sometimes, just a little snippet such as a description of the boarding houses that many young, single women lived in, was enough for me to develop into something more. I was very conscious of not getting any of the historical details wrong, but I was also aware that a lot of the information was subjective and that memory can be inconsistent with fact.
There are those, I am sure, who will shake their heads and declare the times were never like that at all and that’s why I am glad I can turn to them and quote my sources. It is also interesting to see what people remember. One of the questions I asked the people I interviewed was whether they could remember a scandal or a murder or anything particularly exciting that happened and every time I got a ‘no’, but what would then subsequently emerge are the very stories I was looking for.
In This September Sun, one of the characters tells a story about a family who lost four of their sons during the war and how, because of this, the fifth son was not sent into active combat, but kept as a trainer in the Air Force. Tragedy struck when he was killed in an aircraft accident and his parents lost their sixth son. This story is actually a true one told to me by one of the people I interviewed. I didn’t use all the information I was given. Some I thought fit for something else further down the line. Ultimately, I learnt more from my ‘real-life’ sources than I could have from any book. People have a way of bringing the past to life in an interesting and inimitable way. Stories are far more important than facts.
First published on the Parthian Blog 17 November 2014

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Ake Festival 2014: Meeting Friends and Making Contacts

Africa is a big place.  Really big.  When you fly over it, you get a sense of its immenseness; everything from cities to mile upon mile of open ground.  In turn, it is easy to feel very small and insignificant, a mere dot on the landscape.

                As a writer in Africa, it is also easy to feel a sense of that aloneness.  I live in a small mining town called Solwezi in north-western Zambia.  If there are any other writers here, I certainly have not met them and I am not sure how I would.  There are no writers’ groups advertised, no literary events take place - and no one seems to be particularly perturbed. After all, why should they be?  Writing is a solitary job, isn’t it?  It’s just you and your notepad or your laptop.  What else do you need?

                I am sure there are many writers who do write in isolation, either through circumstances or choice. The stereotypical writer is something of a recluse who refrains from talking about their work or giving interviews and generally detests the limelight.  In many ways, I fit this category.  I am naturally shy, I feel embarrassed talking about myself in anything but a self-effacing manner and I tend to introduce myself as a teacher rather than as an author.  However, more and more these days it is incumbent upon the author to organise their own publicity.  It is necessary to have a blog and a Facebook page and Twitter account and to use these for publicising one’s work. 

                Again, sitting in small town Solwezi, it is difficult to know who reads this information besides friends and family and maybe a one-time school mate who has wondered what happened to you in the last twenty years and googled your name just for fun.  A lack of bookshops means that is difficult to read the works of other authors; ironically, it is often more difficult to find books by African writers than it is by Western writers.

                I was therefore quite excited to be asked to the Aké Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria, which was held in November of last year.  An all-expenses paid trip was offered in return for me participating on two discussion panels. My only reservation was that I was so out of touch with contemporary African writing that I would not be able to say very much.  I must also admit I feared that every discussion would degenerate into the rather worn ‘What is African Literature?’ question that seems to occupy so much time and debate.

                However, I was pleasantly surprised.  The discussions were interesting and were an excellent way of promoting my work.  Aké offers a bookshop with a fairly comprehensive range of books on offer, yet for someone browsing for an interesting book, what is going to make one stand out more than the other?  What makes a book look more interesting than the rest?  What I found was that many people bought my book after hearing me discuss it.  I was also quite surprised at how many people approached me after the discussions to talk about issues that I had raised, especially after the second panel I was on, entitled Celebrating Otherness in Modern Africa.

                It was great meeting other writers as well – talking about different writing strategies or experiences with having books published.  The best thing was not being something of an oddity.  I always feel a little self-conscious telling people that I am a writer.  Writers, for some reason, are not supposed to be known, they are not supposed to be real people.  It was wonderful to be able to talk to like-minded people without having to explain myself.  What was even better was that I didn’t feel so isolated anymore! 

                However, let’s be honest, many of these festivals – and quite a number have sprouted in Africa in the last few years – are really about networking.  The literary discussions are all very interesting and they give the four days a focus, but what we are really there to do is meet each other.  This is not meant as a criticism at all.  Networking is as important as keeping a regular blog and posting pictures of your book on Facebook.

Some of the writers I met seemed to have spent the year travelling from one literary festival to another.  There were arrangements made to meet up in Kampala or Cape Town and I was asked a couple of times whether I had ‘done the Zanzibar one’ or if I was going to be in Harare the following week. Unfortunately, the fact that I am not a full time writer means that I cannot take a lot of time off work to travel the continent.  I am not sure, anyway, if I would like to.  Perhaps the novelty would wear thin?

                What came home to me most at the Festival is that African Literature is changing and, more than anything, expanding.  We have crime writers, we have science fiction writers, children’s writers and romance writers.  It’s really quite exciting.  When I look at a lot of contemporary Western fiction, it seems to focus on disillusioned middle class people who have lost faith in modern life.  That becomes quite mundane after a while.   On the first panel I was on – Representations of Africa in New Fiction - one of the writers commented that modern Africa is too bourgeois for a revolution.  There isn’t a Marechera equivalent today because no one wants to go without their cell phone or sleep on a park bench and not wash for days all in the pursuit of some glorious ideal.  I agree – but I also think it’s time for other things and that’s what makes the present an exciting time.