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Polygamy, Owning English and Ben Okri: NoViolet Bulawayo and Sue Nyathi Talk African Writing at 2015 Time of the Writer

NoViolet Bulawayo and Sue Nyathi

NoViolet Bulawayo and Sue Nyathi took part in a lively discussion at the 2015 Time of the Writer Festival in Durban last night, with the conversation touching on topics such as writing about polygamy from the wives’ perspective, Ben Okri’s controversial criticism of African authors, and the complications that arise from writing in English.

The event, entitled “Letters from Zimbabwe”, was held at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and facilitated by Menzi Maseko.

Menzi Maseko (facilitator), NoViolet Bulawayo and Sue NyathiWe Need New NamesBulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names, won the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature for debut fiction and the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction. It was also shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award.

Responding to a question from the audience about Ben Okri’s highly controversial recent essay “A mental tyranny is keeping black writers from greatness”, which criticised black and African writers for focusing too much on “heavy subjects” and sensationalism, Bulawayo said: “I bought some books that I will try and mail to Ben Okri. Because I don’t think he’s reading widely.”

She continued: “I’m really sick of these Western-based writers who make these problematic statements without engaging with Africa from the continent fully. And I think if people were to broaden their horizons, starting with coming to festivals and meeting writers here, and reading the range … I think it’s amazing.”

Nyathi concurred, saying that writing an entertaining narrative does not preclude a serious message.NoViolet Bulawayo and Sue NyathiThe Polygamist

“I think when you write, you also need to entertain,” Nyathi said. “No one wants to be bored. You can still tackle those heavy subjects, but in an entertaining way. My book has heavy themes in it, but you will laugh in some places. It’s not an overload. You don’t want to be depressed when you’re reading a text. But there are a lot of themes in there that you should think about after you’re shut the book. So it’s how you tell the story, but also imparting a message, even if it’s a heavy message.”

The same audience member wanted to know why the two authors chose to write in English, and again Bulawayo had a thoughtful and assured response.

“I don’t write in English. I write in english – with a small ‘e’. And then, of course, I have written one short story in Ndebele, and I see myself writing more, and I hope to write an Ndebele novel at some point.

“The whole question of writing in English, I feel like it’s about what you do with the language, starting from owning it. And of course we have to be reminded of the fact that if We Need New Names was in Ndebele, the majority of Zimbabweans, who are Shona speaking, were not going to read it.

“Obviously we are dealing with this language that is not ours. A language that came to us through violence. But the reality is that it’s with us, and we have to work with it. But I’m hoping that writing in our indigenous languages is something that we care about and try and push. We have literary prizes in our native languages as well, and we have festivals like this where we have sessions in native languages.”

“The language issue can be dealt with in translations,” Nyathi said. “The reason why I write in English is I can express myself better in English. I don’t know if I could have written The Polygamist in isiZulu in the same way and done justice to it. So for me I don’t think of it in terms of a hindrance.”

However, Nyathi also emphasised the importance of nurturing indigenous languages.

“You find that certain people don’t want their children to grow up learning indigenous languages, like Shona or Ndebele, and I have a problem with that, because you are essentially robbing your child of an identity.

“I remember having a heated argument with this woman, who said: ‘My kids have no use for Shona. Let them read English.’ And I think that’s a flaw in people. We need to learn to embrace our culture, our languages. People say ‘kids get confused if you teach them two languages’. What bullshit is that? I speak my own indigenous languages, but I can speak English as well. Where’s the confusion?”

Nyathi’s debut novel is the story of a polygamous relationship, told from the perspective of the four wives.

“That was deliberate,” Nyathi said. “Because I always think men will justify anything. So for me, I really wasn’t interested in hearing why Jonasi wanted to have four wives. It’s irrelevant. Because a man will come up with excuses and reasons; they’ve been said and we all know them. So I really wasn’t interested in the men.

“Some people say maybe that’s a flaw in the book. But I wanted to tell the story of the women. Why are women in polygamous unions? It was about the women. That’s the story for me. There’s so much about men out there. Where are the women? Let’s hear the voices of the women. So that’s what my book is all about.”

Watch Nyathi reading an excerpt from The Polygamist, in which a woman attacks her husband’s lover, with Bulawayo acting out some of the blows:

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After the reading, Maseko said: “Interestingly, this is the thing that comes back all the time; the wrong woman attacking the wrong woman. Why is Jonasi never smacked?”

“Typically women are like that,” Nyathi said. “We fight each other, we never fight the man. And women pull each other down, we don’t uplift each other. We are competitive. It’s a sad thing, but that’s how most women are.”

Bulawayo added: “I think there’s some truth to that but I also think it speaks to a certain powerlessness that you know you cannot attack, and I don’t really mean literally, the man. So you would go for what is the threat, so you can remove the threat. With a man like that, who is obviously the provider, sometimes you cannot do without, so you will put up with whatever is dished out, which is unfortunate.”

Watch Bulawayo reading an excerpt from We Need New Names, in which Darling suffers an awkward encounter with an exasperating American woman in a bathroom:

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Keep an eye on Books LIVE for more Time of the Writer coverage as the festival continues

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Pictures from the event:


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Books LIVE’s Jennifer Malec tweeted from the event:


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