'My stories are not typical African stories'

HARARE - Rising author Miriam Shumba is slowly making a name for herself on the strength of her novels and short stories based on the self-esteem theme.

The United States of America –based writer, who wrote for Zimbabwean magazines like Parade and Mahogany before relocating to USA where she wrote for Jive magazine, published her first novel titled ‘Show Me The Sun’ in 2010. In the same year she released her second novel, ‘That Which Has Horns.’

The 2011 Emma Awards nominee has just published new novel titled ‘Chasing’ which is already receiving rave reviews. the Daily News on Sunday recently interviewed the rising author on her writing career.

Below are excerpts of the interview:

How did you become a writer?

My very active imagination can be traced way back in Glen View (Harare) where we lived for 3 years creating stories with my brother Michael Denenga.  We would use stones as people and create elaborate characters and stories being acted out by the stones. 

Hours and hours of playing without thinking of food or drink playing in the sun. Then of course, our grandmothers tell such amazing stories, Ngano that we just ate up with our porridge. We didn’t always have TV and back then stories were not watched, but told and I think that all played a part in developing my writing desire.

The desire to create and tell stories. Of course, in school I loved what the teachers called “Creative Writing”. I just felt good even writing a Shona story for my ZJC Shona exam. 

I thank God for my father and my mom for just nurturing my writing dream .My dad gave me diaries and my mother bought me a book about writing novels. I didn’t go to school to learn to write stories but my parents certainly gave me the tools.

In high school at Peterhouse, I wrote stories for my close friends only.  Then finally in college I took it public and wrote a short story for Drum Magazine. I was tiptoeing into the world of publishing and it was exciting to me.

A strange new world that I was just discovering. I had to learn by discovery. Nobody took me by the hand and said, “Here is the way to go”. I just took off. I am based in the USA which is where all my novels have been published.

Other than Chasing do you have another book? What is the book about and what motivated you to write it?

I wrote two other books that were published in the USA, “Show Me The Sum” and “That Which Has Horns.” One day I just started writing a novel. I just typed chapter one on the computer and kept going for 12 years! Yes it took that long. I wasn’t serious; writing erratically for over a decade.  That novel became “That Which Has Horns-” Rinemanyanga Hariputirwe. 

It didn’t get published in the USA for a while. Most of the publishers didn’t really know what to do with stories from Africa that I had written.

My stories are not the typical African stories as you will discover as you read them. They are not what traditional publishers want to hear about Africans.

My stories present a more modern narrative of Africa contrary to mainstream publications.

Yes, we have hunger and poverty similar to many other places in the world but we also fall in love, we also laugh and dance and though we can be victims of political ideologies, we also are victors in many areas.

In the midst of that we strive, we run businesses, we create fashion, we dream for a different life and we are silly, passionate, romantic, all those things. We are more than what the media portrays.

We have hearts, we hurt, we cry and laugh we are not just fighting and killing each other.

So anyway that was my first novel and it was a family drama. So after being rejected from South Africa to the USA I still loved writing so much that I decided to write a story about African American characters.

Hey I am a writer I can write about anyone or anything. And that book, “Show Me The Sun” was accepted by the first publisher I sent to and the same house decided to publish “That Which Has Horns”.

‘Chasing’ is my third novel and it came five years after the first two. It’s really a story that asks the question “Can a man ever truly change.” You know if you think about people you knew in primary school or high school.

Do they become more of what they were as youngsters?

If they were always making people laugh, do they grow up to be even bigger clowns? If they were players, do they continue to play around and not take life seriously?

If they worked hard do they work even harder as adults? At any rate, you hope that we all have the power within us to change but then why is it so hard for people to do so?

That would be the main theme though it’s more than that. It’s about Chenai who leaves Zimbabwe to follow her dreams to be a doctor studying in the USA but then nothing goes as planned she ends up being a nanny for a man who is obsessed with his business in Michigan.

There is the culture clash, the family dynamics and in the end, will Blake change or will he continue on a path that will lead to his own destruction and how will Chenai ever follow her dream again?

What has been the response to the book?

I have received all positive feedback so far. People are buying from the USA, UK, to the South Africa and loving the story. I really enjoy getting both positive and negative feedback because I want to grow as a writer.

I grow when I am criticised and continue to improve my craft. There is a buzz about it. The cover has a white man but it’s written by a black woman. I remember someone asking me, ‘How did you get into his mind?’

The answer is that I imagined and I watch people a lot. It can be dangerous to be around me because I am constantly working on writing in my mind.

Who are your role models?

I look up to so many people and they change from decade to decade. I truly look up to my parents. 

My dad is the hardest working person I know who raised nine children and many other relatives too. He is so giving, so loving and I look up to him.

My mother is also very hard working and loving and forgiving. She has this peace and grace no matter what life throws at her.

She is determined and taught me not to take no for an answer. I know my parents so well so in their faults and gifts they are my perfect role models, but I admire other people’s public personas too, and the work they are doing for literature and others’ lives even if I don’t know them through and through.

Good role models for me are people who work work hard, love and take care of their families and then also reach out to help those in their communities.

I admire people like Joyce Meyer who is doing everything for God in her imperfections.

My role models are women who are there for their children, fathers who are there for their kids and families that stick together.

My role models are people with genuine kind hearts who try and live a righteous life, no matter how much money they make. Hard workers also inspire me because my grandmother always said “nobody ever dies from working”.

Are you in touch with the Zimbabwean writing scene?

I speak to several authors and have befriended a few on social media. I am very engaged in Zimbabwe’s publishing scene.

I have written for magazines in Zimbabwe and another journal, writemag. I enjoy being part of the writers from Zimbabwe but also from all around the world.

Who is your favourite Zimbabwean author and why?

From Zimbabwe I love Na'ima B Robert whose book ‘Far from Home’ paints an interesting picture of colonialism in Zimbabwe.

I admire Wilson Katiyo’s ‘Son of the soil’ and admire his courage to write the truth at a time when we didn’t have our own stories written.

I found another gem by Nozipo Maraire whose book ‘Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter’ was the first contemporary story from Zimbabwe I had read. Though they are stories of colonialism I was so inspired and so excited to read stories about people just like me.

Their writing is superb; I only hope to be half as good as they are. 

Now that you have me started I have to mention Irene Sabatini. I found her book one day and had not heard of her but she really thrilled me with “The Boy Next Door” a different kind of story based in Bulawayo. Let me stop now because there are many whose work I love and inspires me.
What challenges have you faced as a writer?

Writing is challenging. It’s not pretty, it’s a headache but it’s compulsive. 

I can’t resist it and I love it.  It’s hard, you are working with every single one of your senses and you have so many characters and events to keep straight in your head, but you can’t stop; you have to keep working until you birth the story.

I always breathe a huge sigh of relief when a book is finally done because finishing is key. My biggest challenge is to complete a project. I always keep working on it until I have read each sentence about 500 times!

And then after all those years of hard work, you send your manuscript out and you get rejection after rejection.

Then after you finally land a publisher you are told you have to market your work too. You have no idea what that is all about because all you really do is write, but you learn.

After all that your book is now out and then someone writes you a very negative review and you feel like you are the worst writer in the world, but then you start getting the positive glowing words from fans around the world and all is well again.

So it’s such an unpredictable job. You have to know yourself and not take rejection or criticism to heart and be yourself.

What are your future plans?

I will always write novels as long as I am breathing, but I have also begun writing screen plays. I feel strongly that we have great stories in Africa and I want to see them in movies too.

That’s my ultimate goal and my plan is that one day soon I will be speaking about a movie, or you will watch a movie and somewhere read the words, “Based on a novel by Miriam Shumba”.

Do you make a living out of writing? Is it lucrative for you?

No it is not that lucrative so far. It can't replace my income as a teacher yet. Honestly when I started writing it wasn't even for money.

I enjoyed getting small cheques for my short stories from various magazines and even got trinkets for the home with it and then later I was happy with the signing bonus for my first two novels from publishers but money was never the motive for me. It was just following my passion and even if I don't make a red cent, I don't' think I will stop writing. It's part of me and it makes my life fuller, exciting and I feel it is my calling.

Are your books available in Zimbabwe?

Yes. Chasing is at stores like Innov 8 and Isignia carry my books.

Other Book stores have to order it through distributors so they can have it. I hope they do that. My other two novels are available as an ebook in Zimbabwe so it can be ordered through that. In South Africa you can order through Kalahari and Exclusive Books.

What is your marital status?

I am married and have one son.

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