Ivor W. Hartmann is the author of Mr. Goop (Vivlia, 2010). He was nominated for the UMA Award (2009), and awarded The Golden Baobab Prize (2009), an African literary award whose goal is “to inspire the creation of African stories that children and young adults the world over will love.” His story, “A Mouse Amongst Men,” will be read by Rick Cook on June 24th.
Each time I have read your story “A Mouse among Men”, I have been touched by its lyricism and the depth of its issues. Can you tell the world what inspired this story?
In a word, exile, both experiencing it myself and being attuned to its effects in my fellow Zimbabweans. However, even though I have wanted to write this story for a long time, it took me even longer to be able to even approach this story, as it was just too painful to contemplate with any measure of objectivity that I needed to write about it. So while the inspiration was there all along, I just couldn’t face it personally. That said, when I finally could, not only was it very cathartic, but I felt it would help to begin to tell a story for many Zimbabweans in South Africa; who have suffered the ignominy of exile from their homeland and have not always landed on their feet, nor been able to fully adjust.
What is the function of fiction in depicting the condition of the Zimbabwean at home and abroad? What can both readers and writers learn from the Zimbabwean story?
There are many functions to telling our Zimbabwean stories, from achieving a global awareness of our situation, to being an added push for political change, and everything in between. But what I focused on with AMaM was the personal psychological effects of leaving your country of birth unwillingly and how these effects are far reaching, in how you deal with the world at large, and how it deals with you.
There is certainly much to learn from our Zimbabwean stories, and what we do know is that true freedom is an illusion, for no one (not anyone in any country in the world) really knows what it is and how to attain it. But it is something we must continually strive for until we do know what it is, and how to live it and keep it. One thing is sure though, we have learnt and are still learning what freedom is not, and true freedom must start with the rights of all individuals regardless of nationality, gender, race, creed, sexual orientation, etc. So this is what we may learn from our own Zimbabwean tragedies, we learn what freedom is not, and these are lessons that are highly valuable not only for us Zimbabweans, but for our whole world that strives to attain the meaning and practice of true freedom.
As the founder and editor of StoryTime, what have you learned about the state of contemporary African writing?
I don’t think any one person may comment about a whole continent’s writing and be even vaguely accurate in doing so. That said, from my own experiences with StoryTime and the African writing community at large, those that I am in touch with, I believe we are entering a whole new phase in African writing. One where African writers are beginning to write what they like, not what they think they ought to be writing, and that is the great step forward towards writing our own stories, without pandering to anyone’s influences but our own.
What do you think is the value of international reading series like Sacramento’s Stories on Stage to contemporary African writing?
I think SOS is a great initiative, and I wish there were many more like it worldwide and at home. It is very important to create events and platforms like SOS that give exposure to African writers and their writings to the world at large. If you ask the average American, to name just ten African writers, they will be very hard pressed to do so (I have tested this), and this is because so very few of us make it to the kind of international platforms that gives us that kind of exposure. This despite the fact we are a continent of over one billion people, and we do have so many great writers with amazing stories to tell. So yes these kinds of platforms are incredibly valuable and essential to African writers and I hope to see and participate in many more in the future.
On the question of genre, where do you stand? How comfortable are you in navigating through the genres?
As I said previously, I am proponent of writers writing whatever they want to write. To give an example: twenty years ago crime fiction from Africa was basically unheard of, yet today this genre is one of our biggest sellers. Why? Because this is what those writers wanted to write and they did not let anything stop them from doing so. By doing this they built a local and then international fan base for African crime fiction that forced publishers to start publishing it, whereas previous to this they did not even consider it publishable. So what it comes down to is writers who create new markets by writing what they want to write, not publishers, and thus it is our duty as writers to pursue whatever genre(s) we would like to and break new ground if we have to.
I don’t even think about the genre, or genres, of what I’m writing in until after the work is complete. It is the initial concept and resulting story unfolding that drives me onwards regardless of what genre it might be classified as after the fact. So I’d say I’m very comfortable in whatever genre(s) the story may end up in, because it is of absolutely no concern to me during the writing process, the adherence to the telling of the story is what is paramount.
You have won fiction awards. What do you think is the role of literary awards, such as the Caine, to the development of African literature?
Well, I have won only one so far, The Golden Baobab Prize in 2009. But, I can say that it was of great encouragement to me, especially as it came only two years into my writing career. So I’d say that while it’s great if you win them, they are not the be all and end all, and should not be the prime focus of a writer, that should of course be the act of writing itself. That said, if you do win a major lit prize like the Caine, Guardian, etc. it can have huge benefits to one’s career in terms of exposure, so write not for them only but do enter them, as you certainly have better odds, than say winning the lotto, as it will be up to your skill as a writer.
What I’d like to see, though, is more big money, big exposure, awards that are actually based and judged in Africa by Africans. We still do not have a continental award that fits these criteria, which is fairly absurd when you really start to think about it.
So there are indeed many issues when it comes to what writing from Africa makes it onto the international scene through awards and otherwise. After all, while we may have problems so does any other continent in equal amounts, but that is not all that you read from them. We have many great stories to tell that should be given equal opportunity and recognition.
Awards can be, and are, of great influence too and for writers and with that comes an inherent responsibility that should not be taken lightly and given great thought as to their long term impact.
What are some of the challenges facing the African writer today?
There are so many, so where to start? A fellow African writer was asked recently, was it easy to make a living as a fiction writer in Africa, and her response was, sure, if you define easy as nearly impossible. And that’s the truth of it really, it is nearly impossible to do so. Of course, there are the regular problems all writers face worldwide, but added to that are the very few publishers we have, even less who are interested in publishing fiction, and fewer still willing to publish non-contemporary fiction. To make my point clear, there is currently a grand total of exactly one lit magazine in the whole of Africa that focuses on SF/H exclusively.
So really before you even lay down that first word ever, the odds are stacked against you no matter how good a writer you may turn out to be, and that is not very encouraging at all. Yet despite this, we do have very many good and great writers (and more every day). Writers who against all odds still do pursue a writing career, even though almost none will ever make it a big way, enough to live off their writing. But this does not stop us from trying, and slowly but surely we do pave a way for the writers who will come after us, as ours has been by those who came before us.
In your story featured at Stories on Stage, you allude to Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger? What do you think is the extent of Marechera’s influence on contemporary African writing?
Ah DM, he seems to pop up sometimes in my writing at a very subconscious level that I only see afterwards. So as you can see he has certainly had a huge impact on me personally — though I do not strive to be exactly like him, nor write like him — and I am not alone in this as an African writer. I think one of the reasons his writing endures and still has such a large influence is that he was one of the first African writers to truly write whatever he liked, and so he personifies that entirely necessary independence of the artist; an independence of mind and thought, which carefully analyses and judges whatever ideologies are being pushed by whomever for whatever reasons, to see a truth behind the propaganda of the times and be unafraid to reveal it. And this is one of the functions of an artist in any society, to see the truth and reveal it so that it can be properly understood by many and so cause change for the better.
What can you tell readers seeking to branch into African literature?
I’d say if you haven’t done so already, there is a vast and unique richness awaiting you, one that you’ll never regret having plunged into. I could recommend many African authors, but what one reads and enjoys is a very personal thing, so it would end up being a list of my favourite African authors. So why not try a taste of as many African authors as you can? We all have something to offer, and you are sure to find African authors that deeply resonate with you personally.
What projects are you currently working on?
Probably too many, but the main ones are: The literary ‘StoryTime’ weekly online magazine (since 2007), and its annual anthology (since 2010) ‘African Roar 2011’ due out in the coming months. I’m also working on another anthology called ‘Remembering Marechera’ that will be published for his 60th Birthday next year in June (open to all for submissions, see: http://rememberingmarecheraanthology.submishmash.com/Submit). And of course my own writing projects, consisting of short stories (with a collection in mind at some point), as well as a few novels, which I hope to finish and see about getting published. So generally, I’m always very busy with many projects at various stages, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Emmanuel Sigauke grew up in Zimbabwe where he studied English and Linguistics at the University of Zimbabwe. He is based in Sacramento, and he teaches college composition, literature and creative writing at Cosumnes River College. He is a co-editor of the annual short fiction series called African Roar. He has published short stories and poetry in various literary journals and anthologies. He is also a board member of the Sacramento Poetry Center, where he hosts poetry readings every second Monday. He will guest host SoS’s June 24th evening of African writing.