'Gukurahundi is a festering sore'

BULAWAYO - Rising Bulawayo-born writer-cum-playwright Christopher Mlalazi (CM), who is currently a writer in residence in Germany, has gained respect in Zimbabwe’s competitive writing community largely because of his versatility.

The Daily News on Sunday’s Bulawayo reporter Jeffrey Muvundusi (JM) recently spoke to Mlalazi on his experiences in the arts industry.

Can you describe Christopher Mlalazi yourself in a few words?

Among several things that I do, I am a writer/playwright/screen writer/poet, and a coding student. I have four published novels, am published in numerous short story and poetry anthologies in Zimbabwe and internationally.

I have written and staged several plays, and I like reading the Daily News and have acquired a favourite expression from it -‘lickspittle,’ which one day I want to use as a title of a play.

What has made you rise to become of Bulawayo’s most successful writers?

The term success is subjective and can be interpreted several ways. If you mean having written four books that got published – they are actually five as I also self-published a children’s books, yes I have no complaints in that direction.

This has been a result of more than a decade of intensive labour on the creative writing front.

The secret has been simple for me, first you have to have passion for the journey, you have to discover the love of what you want to do deep inside you and connect with it, and once that connection is made, you have to fight to get time every day to dedicate it to honing the skill, maybe one or two hours a day, or several if you are that crazy like me.

You also have to learn to research widely – read as far as you can and on almost any subject, this broadens your scope to tackle even the most difficult themes.

With research you are backed with hard facts which you can then creatively weave into your fantasies as that is what fiction is primarily, being convincing in telling fantasy.

You have been a guest writer in Germany for over two years now, what exactly are you doing that side and have you acquired a permanent residency status?

I have been in Germany for two and a half years now. I was offered a three-year residency as a guest writer for the city of Hannover, and I am now at the tail end of it.

I was supposed to be back home in Zimbabwe at the end of this year, but I have been lucky and have been offered another creative writing scholarship when this one is over somewhere else in a country that I won’t mention right now just in case somebody decides to bewitch me and I lose the place. 

You know how we village people are, we love making people lose things that they are lucky in getting. Of course I am joking on the bewitching aspect, but you will hear about my next destination when I am in place there.

Are you currently working on something new?

Yes of course, the truly dedicated writer does not stop writing. Even if there is nothing to write, just finding something to write about, anything, even a theme called ‘how there is nothing to write.’

This keeps you in practice, so much so that the day when inspiration falls on you, you are already half way there.  The musician must always be singing even if he or she is not recording.

And so too a professional dancer, dance everyday even if there is nothing to dance for. Yes I am writing a new novel which sometimes I blog about on Facebook. It is what I would call historical fantasy, and set back in ancient Africa before the first white or Asian man set foot on the continent.

I like to refer to it as the African Game of Thrones. It is a story of Kings, Queens, beautiful princesses, of warriors and wars between Kingdoms, and all told in folklore tradition.

 I just love this concept, and I am halfway through the first draft. Maybe by the end of this year, 2015, I will be through with this first draft, and then the really hard work will begin of beating it into shape. 

I have also seen that there is a possibility for the book to go into a sequel, a part two, as I have too much material for it.  The provisional title of the project is Blade Maker as it is seen through the eyes of a blacksmith in our early African iron age.

I also plan to adapt it into a play, a musical and possibly write a feature film script based on it. This is one of my policies, whenever I write a book; I also write a play and a film script based on it and store them aside in case they will be needed later.

Have you collaborated with other writers?

Oh yes, I am doing a new play called Warrior with (Bulawayo-based) Umkhathi Theatre Company which is being directed by Matesu Dube. We plan to launch it around November.

How did you do it considering the distance factor?

I sent the script to Matesu by email and he is doing the rest, directing and producing. I also have another running in Zimbabwe right now titled ‘Water Games’ which opened at HIFA and was performed at YOCAF in Masvingo. It is also coming to Intwasa Festival.

In 2013, you wrote a book titled ‘Running With Mother,’ which is a child’s tale of the Gukurahundi atrocities. What really inspired you to come up with such a piece of literature considering how sensitive that subject is in Zimbabwe?

The subject of ‘Running With Mother’ is a story that has always been on almost everyone’s tongue in Matabeleland from the word go, sometimes whispered, and sometimes talked about openly. The role of writer is to translate the both the unspoken and spoken into text, something that you can read and debate on.

With much respect to the victims of Gukurahundi, my inspiration behind ‘Running With Mother’ was to attempt to throw into open conversation this tragic period of our history as a new nation in the 80’s as I believe that open conversation has a more healing effect than cover ups. 

There is an important and urgent need for the nation to address Gukurahundi as

this is a festering sore. How it can be addressed is not my area of specialisation, but I believe we have experts on that who can rise to the task.

Early this year the same book was prescribed for students at Lupane University, how did you take it and what does that mean to you as an author?

I actually didn’t know that ‘Running With Mother’ had been made a prescribed text at Lupane University until a clever student there inboxed me on Facebook trying to find answers for an assignment on it.

But of course I told the student to sweat it out on his own as that was the purpose of the assignment.  Having a book being studied at a higher learning institution is victory for the writer as it somehow confirms that you are doing the right thing. It is some sort of certification that you have arrived, that you have passed those long years of training yourself at some skill.

Why have you focused on issues addressing the political situation in your home country?

Politics is part and parcel of everyday living. We sleep politics, eat politics and even fart politics. And the more our politics seems confused, the more it resides on people’s tongues, just as in the case of the question on Gukurahundi. Politicians must not be seen like Gods, people who cannot be questioned and provide answers. If they cannot provide answers, then we will lampoon them until they do so.

I like to follow politics closely, and if a politician makes a judgment oversight, that immediately becomes material for any story, play, or poetry.  Ruling political parties must always be held accountable for their actions, and we artists, writers, musicians and so forth, are the auditors.  I can’t specify exactly what in politics I have written about, this is where I would urge the reader to follow my work if you want to find out.

And as I always say, politics is also a broad term. There is politics in romance, in family affairs, relationships between friends, at the work place between boss and employees, and these too I weave into my stories to give the reader a political bad stomach after you have been through my work.

At one point writing books used to be lucrative, what’s your assessment of the current writing landscape in Zimbabwe?

I don’t know, but I don’t think writing has ever been lucrative in Zimbabwe.  I have never seen somebody getting rich from writing. We only get rich from praise and fame, and that’s it. Actually, if you want to make money, don’t be a writer, that’s the advice I can give to aspiring millionaires. Book buying is very low, and has always been low.

I remember as a youngster I was an omnivorous reader, but I never bought a single novel, everything I read was either from the library, or was borrowed. So I need not explain any further on this, but the simple truth is that book buying is just not a priority amongst us, even in good times. And you can imagine when an economy becomes bankrupt.

How do you think the advance in the digital way of doing things has affected the writing industry?

The digital age has been a boom to the exposure and circulation of books. In the western world it had also led to a boom in book buying through the e-book and e-readers for those with credit card facilities that allow them to purchase online. I am not so sure if people in Zimbabwe are able to buy e-books and how as I know that most don’t have credit card facilities.

Just as you can pick up a hard covered novel in the refuse dump and read it for free, it is the same in the digital world, there are lots of e-books that you can read for free in various websites and fora, some you can even download as free pdfs.

I am also not so sure what impact this has had on the writing industry, all these free e-books and so forth as I am not on the marketing side of book writing. My job is only to write and pass on material to publishers who do the selling and accounting.

To what extent do you think book pirates have affected local authors and publishers?

Book pirating has always been shit.  I hate it. Those people are thieves, reaping where they don’t sow. As it is, writer royalties are very low from publishers, and you can imagine when pirates come into the fray.  But on the other hand, there is good pirating, and this is when students photocopy books for study when they cannot afford to buy them. That I can bear with as there is no other alternative.

Give us your parting words

I would like to encourage young writers to be more involved in political debates through their stories as this teaches them to be more aware how the country is managed by those in office.

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