A Discovery of African Literature: Background information when reading We Need New Names

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We Need New Names

A Novel

by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo X
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
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  • First Published:
    May 2013, 304 pages
    May 2014, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Naomi Benaron

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
A Discovery of African Literature

Print Review

How Emmanuel Sigauke Found African Literature and Founded a Magazine

A conversation between Naomi Benaron and Emmanuel Sigauke

Emmanuel SigaukeEmmanuel Sigauke is a Zimbabwean writer. He is an English professor at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento California and is the editor of the on-line Munyori Literary Journal which has published the work of both NoViolet Bulawayo, author of We Need New Names and Naomi Benaron.

Naomi Benaron: For my first question, I would like to know something of your own history as a writer in Zimbabwe. How did you come to writing? How did politics and writing intersect for you? Who were some of your early influences?

Chinua AchebeEmmanuel Sigauke: I started writing at thirteen in Mototi, a village in Southern Zimbabwe. Since then, I have always thought of myself as a writer, and I have written in different genres. When I began, I didn't even think of publishing, because I had an immediate readership of friends and schoolmates who demanded more work. The work was talking about a land they knew, portraying lives they were familiar with. Initially, my writing didn't consciously focus on the political, but later, through writers like Chinua Achebe and Ngugi waThiongo, I would learn that even when you are not being political, the work, in a place like Zimbabwe, cannot help but be political. I often center on family matters, but those matters are heavily impacted by the political. Some of my early influences are Gore Vidal (since I didn't have children's books in the village, Vidal's Burr was one of the books I had early contact with), Aaron Chiundura Moyo, a Zimbabwean writer who writes in Shona, Charles Mungoshi, Dambudzo Marechera, DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy (I remember reading Far From the Madding Crowd by the fireside), William Faulkner and many others.

NB: It's interesting what you say about political writing and how it is unavoidable in a place like Zimbabwe. This strikes me as quite similar to what NoViolet Bulawayo said in her Poets & Writers First Fiction conversation: "What was heartbreaking was the pre- and post-election violence in 2008, and the extent of it drove me to write, and to do so in despair and anger." To that I would add that if a writer is aware of what is going on the world, he or she cannot avoid being political to a greater or lesser degree.

Your eclectic mix of influences interests me, and you mentioned two of my favorite writers besides Faulkner: Chinua Achebe (of course) and Ngugi waThiongo. I absolutely adored The Wizard of the Crow and found it quite instrumental in shaping Running the Rift. Decolonizing the Mind got a cameo appearance in RTR.

Were works by African writers readily available to you in Zimbabwe? Did you study African literature in school? WaThiongo, for example, seems a rather incendiary writer to be included in the canon.

ES: Availability of books was an issue in the rural areas. Our schools didn't have libraries, so we only had access to those books that were strictly on the syllabus, which we shared as students. But somehow books like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe just appeared in the village, either brought to the village by people returning home from the cities, or students who attended distant boarding schools. So Things Fall Apart was one of the first African books written in English that I read. There was higher availability though, of novels written in Shona, some of which were read on the national radio. Rural people were more familiar with works of literature written in Shona (and sometimes Ndebele) than those written in English.

But here is where things got a bit complex: In the rural areas you were likely to be more aware of the British writers than the local ones who wrote in English. So I knew of Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens before I knew about Amos Tutuola, Njabulo Ndebele, Ngugi, Achebe... Later, when I started visiting the cities and discovered libraries, I continued to expand my reading of the foreign works written in English, while ignoring the sections containing African writers. Here is the hierarchy of the literatures I was reading: British, followed by some American, followed by Russian, followed by African writers from distant countries like Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, with a few Zimbabwean writers at the bottom (Marechera, Mungoshi, Chenjerai Hove).

But this is in regards to literature in English. As for Shona, I continued to read as many novels and plays as I could, yet it never occurred to me, and to others, that they were part of "literature". We were reading them for entertainment.

The real discovery of African literature (in English) happened when I reached the university and was influenced by my enthusiastic instructors to embrace Afrocentrism. For the first time I could go through a semester without reading a work by Shakespeare. I finally discovered and really read all the big names, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi, a lot of Achebe (finding out there was more beyond Things Fall Apart). I was finally able to look at African literature in English as equal to other literatures, but continued to enjoy the works written in Shona as separate from the literature written in English. There was this stigma against embracing works written in indigenous language, which we got over deep into our university careers. To this day, I think works written in local African languages are ignored, unless they are by Ngugi, who has translated his to English.

NB: Were you restricted in what you wrote in Zimbabwe?

ES: I didn't get the sense that I was restricted in what I wrote. I actually believe that early on, my teachers let me get away with a lot, since no one censored what I wrote. I remember shocking an audience of teachers and students at Gwavachemai Secondary school with what I now think was a very erotic story, but I was one of the best students in English, so the teachers seemed grateful to have someone who could write well than worry much about the content of the writing. I have never felt that sense of danger that some say may come with writing of the political kind, although I have been censored more by the cultural more than the political. I remember at the University of Zimbabwe we performed some really political poems, and although there were rumors that government agents attended such events, it was never a concern. And especially since perhaps we were not as famous as Chenjerai Hove, who would later escape the country. We felt the dangerous people were too busy to read our works, or that if the work was that dangerous, it would just not get published. And there was a time when I didn't care about publishing more than I cared about expression and enjoyment of the art.

NB: And now it seems you care about it all: expression, the enjoyment of the art and publishing. I want to acknowledge the role of Munyori Journal in both NoViolet Bulawayo's and my own writing careers. In my case, you were the first editor to recognize my writing on Rwanda, and I want to thank you for that. You gave me hope and courage to continue.

Emmanuel Sigauke: Thank you, Naomi. You put Munyori on the map.

NB: I believe it was the other way around. Munyori put me on the map. I thank you for that, and I thank you so much for this interview, Emmanuel!

Naomi Benaron is a fiction writer, a poet, and a social activist - all entwined. She has worked extensively with the African refugee population in her community, has been involved with aiding Rwandan genocide survivors and is committed to working to end genocide on a global scale. Her short story collection, Love Letters from a Fat Man, won the 2006 Sharat Chandra Prize for Fiction. Her novel, Running the Rift, tells the story of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a gifted Rwandan boy, from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life, a ten-year span in which his country is undone by the Hutu-Tutsi tensions. It won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize. Her short story The Weight of Grace can be found in the September 2013 issue of the Munyori Literary Journal and her short story The Geology of Ghosts was also featured in Munyori which, as Naomi puts it, was the first recognition she got for her work about Rwanda.

First photograph of Emmanuel Sigauke by Ivor W. Hartmann
Second photograph of Chinua Achebe from Pen.org

Article by Naomi Benaron

This article was originally published in September 2013, and has been updated for the May 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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