INTERVIEW by GARY GOLDMAN | PHOTOGRAPHY by ORLANDO LARA
What defines a great writer? Is it a boundless imagination, a mastering of prose, or just the ability to make us feel through words? While this age-old question is impossible to answer, one common thread among all authors has to do with the omnipresence of their roots within their body of work. Originally from Zimbabwe, NoViolet Bulawayo became this year’s literary discovery when she took home the coveted Caine Prize for “Hitting Budapest,” a short story depicting the lives of a starving gang of children from a shanty town. Shedding some light on some of the horrendous realities of Sub-Saharan Africa, such as malnutrition and corruption, her blunt honesty makes for a deeply emotional and often chill-inducing read.
Let me first ask you about your personal background. Where were you born and raised, and how early on did you know that writing was going to be, if anything, your passion?
I was born and raised in Zimbabwe and left for college in the U.S. where I was supposed to study law, but since there was no authority to tell me what to do and enforce it, I could afford to follow my passion when I got here, which is how I eventually ended up in the Cornell MFA program. I was into storytelling and writing as early as primary school, mostly because I was raised on orature. But I didn’t know then that I’d eventually live for writing, because growing up I never saw writers around me, and anyway, we were raised to pursue “traditional, sensible careers.” Writing wasn’t one of them, and for this reason I really didn’t expose my pursuits until the Caine, or should I say the Caine exposed me.
For our readers who might be unfamiliar with your work, can you briefly tell us what type of literary pieces you’re interested in writing, and what your award-winning story “Hitting Budapest” is about?
I’m interested in literature that engages with real social issues, and I love language for its beauty if done properly, as well as great storytelling for how it allows us to experience other worlds, so my pieces try to embody these things. “Hitting Budapest” is about a group of starving kids from a shanty who raid an affluent neighborhood for guavas because they are hungry, and while there, meet a clueless Westerner who fails to connect with them on a human level. The kids steal, eat, go back to the shanty to meet a dead woman dangling from a tree. Their hunger allows them to conquer their fear of death and they steal her shoes so they can sell them in order to buy bread. But the real story is in the class divide, in the loss of innocence, immigration, violence: things that remain under the surface but are very much part of these children’s realities.
Congratulations on winning the Caine Prize for African Writing! Tell us a bit about that experience — from the intimacy of writing a book to now having it out in the open for the world to read. How has your life changed in the past few months?
The Caine is one of Africa’s most prestigious prizes and it happened to me when I wasn’t trying to win any prestigious prizes; I mean, I was in school when I wrote the piece and like any other young writer, still working on sorting myself out. Having the whole world read the story has been both exciting and terrifying, but I’m not complaining, especially since Zimbabwe has only won the Caine Prize once, in 2004, so of course I’m glad to be representing my country. In terms of changes on a personal level I guess I now have a writing ticket that’s making my life easier. I’m also challenging myself more than ever before; I’m just getting started and I have places to go.
Our team was astounded by the power of “Hitting Budapest.” You deal with a lot of themes such as crime, poverty, injustice, and post-colonialism. Because of Zimbabwe’s dramatic predicament, do you think that your work will always involve socioeconomic themes — may it be in your stories or poems?
I suspect that my work will always have these political overtones even if things in Zimbabwe changed for the better; that’s just what concerns me as an artist. That, together with my imagination, has no borders; I’m starting to write about America now and those themes are following my work so I guess that’s who I am on the page. Let’s see what I’m doing two, three novels down the road.
It often feels like African writers are underrepresented and certainly “under-published” in the United States. Is this an accurate perception, and if so, why do you think that is?
It can always be better, but I think as the world is getting smaller people are becoming increasingly interested in reading about other places, so I feel like the time is right for the African writer, but of course books have to be written, and well-written, especially now, in order to find their way to any shelf. To that end it’d be great to see opportunities for African writing improve, especially at the preparation level; that’s what will make it possible for us to be more present on the world stage.
Therefore, do you feel a responsibility toward the citizens of Sub-Saharan Africa or South Africa? A need to accurately depict their lives, issues, and everyday struggles?
I write what I want, of course, what moves me, but because I engage in real issues, I end up depicting “real lives” and “real stories” even though that’s not always necessarily what I set out to do. One of the sobering moments for me after the Caine was to get emails from people who could identify with the story and my other stories in one way or the other, and while I was happy being reckless and doing my own thing before, I find myself inevitably thinking about the real person attached to my characters now. Still, I don’t want to surrender to accuracy; that would take the fun of creation away. My responsibility, then, would be to write well and be at my best. That’s all I can give.
What are some of your future projects? You have been published on a wide diversity of platforms. Are you planning to publish a novel?
I’m putting the final touches on a novel and working on an AIDS memoir based on my family’s experiences with the disease. I’m also fantasizing about traveling the world and just writing while I’m at it; for me that’s where the stories are and I think I’d do much more, but of course I’m allowed to have an imagination!
I have to ask: who are some of your literary heroes, and why? Are you influenced by any other cultural mediums?
There are too many, but the Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera is very important to me for being fierce and fearless; her work gave me some serious keys back when I needed to open some doors as an unsure young artist trying to find the courage to write. In terms of influence, I’d say I was raised on orature and so that’s how I came into story. Even today I write through speaking; I literally have to speak the story out while I write it, or before, and in a way I’m able to put myself in the listener’s shoes and decide if the story is worth telling to begin with. There are times when music will carry me through; I don’t write to it, but it can serve as a text that allows me to be in dialogue with it, and of course it can also help me tap into my characters’ spaces, or just serve as a medium when I need to be in a particular zone that I can’t otherwise access on my own.
What are you reading right now?
I’m just finishing Justin Torres’ short but fierce novel, We The Animals, where I was stunned on almost every page, and I’m reading Jon McGregor’s Even The Dogs, a deliciously challenging read.
What is the single most important message you try to convey to your students at Cornell about writing?
It’s your story: act like it and write it on your own terms.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
Please read “Hitting Budapest” here and support my novel when it comes out. And while you wait you can kill time by reading other African writers, thank you.