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A Touch of Genius: Interview with 2013 Sunday Times Fiction Prize Shortlistee Chris Wadman

The Unlikely Genius of Dr Cuthbert KambazumaBy Liesl Jobson for the Sunday Times

Sunday Times Fiction Prize finalist Chris Wadman blends humour, trauma and questions of faith.

Chris Wadman was born in Harare, attended school at Michaelhouse, KwaZulu-Natal, and read law at UCT. He has taught English in Buenos Aires, and worked as a dishwasher in Cambridge. Now living in Joburg, his first novel, The Unlikely Genius of Dr Cuthbert Kambazuma, was written in part in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria, Angola, New Zealand and South Africa.

The voice of your white-male narrator, Thomas Threscothic, is on a continuum between Peter Godwin’s journalistic memoir and John Eppel’s satirical poetry. What is from Chris Wadman?

Some elements are autobiographical: the school bullying, the interaction and fascination with birds, the sense of living in no-man’s land. My father, who was hearing-impaired as a result of World War 2 injuries, passed away when I was 19. Five years later, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately, she recovered through a programme of radiotherapy. It was a difficult time for both of us. I wanted to write about loss, in a sense to come to terms with the fears I had harboured back then.

“His birth coincided with the birth of the new country – its first arrival perhaps, its first new citizen, spared the prejudices of the preceding generation.” Does this extract reflect your desire to write about Zimbabwe?

The character Thomas was purposely born on Zimbabwe’s Independence Day, his origins largely mysterious, hence he was spared the indoctrination of segregation. This was my projection of what I wanted in my own life. When I conceived the story, I wanted to write from within the Shona community. I was raised by, schooled with, and spent most of my adult life working with Shona people. I feel comfortable in that community. I was born in 1973 into a country at war in a racially polarised society. Growing up, and particularly coming to high school in SA, I realised I did not want to be part of that.

How do you make sense of faith and evil?

There are a number of divergent themes in the story, but perhaps the most prevalent is the exploration of belief systems, be they Christianity, mysticism, traditional African belief structures, or even the modern self-help culture. I chose not to compare them directly and to conclude one might be better than the other, but rather to make the point that belief is precisely that, something which someone believes – taking a fundamental role in the lives people choose to lead.

What are other themes in the book?

I included the themes of homosexuality, HIV/AIDS and disability to avoid portraying Zimbabwe through a limited paternalistic Western lens. There are more complex issues at play than politics and poverty.

Explain your characters’ curious diction.

There are many amazingly intelligent, articulate people in Zimbabwe and most of these are black people. Mugabe’s legacy of developing education is the reason for this. I chose not to write a story about a group of Uncle Toms, because I don’t think that is accurate. As a lawyer, I’ve spent time in court in a number of African countries and have been amazed at the diction and humour of the local advocates. Definitely more British than the British, almost Dickensian! Quite delightful, actually.

Has there been any official response from Zimbabwean authorities?

None at all. I sense a greater degree of freedom of expression in Zimbabwe these days. Alternately, those who might not like the book don’t actually read books! In any event, I’ve had a copy of Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like beside my bed since I was at university. As a writer, I believe you have to. I travel often to Zimbabwe without fear but if someone were to take issue with the book, I’d address that openly. The historical accuracy cannot be denied.

Each character is recognisable. What are your anxieties or delights when representing a voice not your own?

It’s difficult sketching characters that come from a different cultural aspect to one’s own but it works to focus on the characteristics one understands best. I do not think there is a huge cultural gap these days anyway among the urban middle class in Zimbabwe, and I wanted to confirm this, moving away from a paternalistic “us and them” setting.

Operation Murambatsvina and farm invasions make an unlikely interface for humour and trauma. What opened that channel in your psyche?

Since the political upheavals began in earnest in 1998 in Zimbabwe, I found most of the media and books covering this to be understandably depressing. I stopped reading them as I knew the story already. I wanted to draw people deeper into the human aspects of that period through humour, eccentricity and the unexpected.

To some extent, I’d seen this in the first book in Louis de Bernières’ South American trilogy, The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, which portrays the brutality of the South American dictatorships in an almost jocular kind of style. The general reader would probably not want to read about this disturbing subject if the depiction was purely factual and grim.

The elements of magical realism are influences of Gabriel García Márquez. I have wanted to explore this in African fiction since reading Ben Okri’s The Famished Road back in 1995.

  • The Unlikely Genius of Dr Cuthbert Kambazuma is published by Jonathan Ball

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