Back to Index
Brian Chikwava – 2004 Caine prize winner
Bartlett, African Review of Books
July 22, 2004
Brian Chikwava is
talking to a representative from the Zimbabwe High Commission, attending
the award ceremony of the Caine Prize, in the hope that a fellow Zimbabwean
will win this prestigious prize for African writing. The award ceremony
has yet to begin, the guests are sipping champagne in the rector’s garden
of Exeter College in Oxford, before the African literati head off to the
Bodleian library to hear which of the five short-listed writers is to
walk off with the $15,000 prize.
It has been a long day for the five finalists, two Ugandans, a Nigerian
and a Kenyan in addition to Brian, but now the end is nigh and they are
being feted in the heart of the academic establishment. There is a long
build-up by chairman of the judges, Alvaro Ribeiro and after the announcement
of ‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ as the winner the orderly dinner turns into
a congratulatory mingling networking friendly queuing with Ben Okri and
Baroness Nicholson as much in demand as the dreadlocked Zimbabwean.
The next morning Chikwava has let his dreadlocks down and ensnared them
in a cap. The suit has been replaced by a red t-shirt as the soft-spoken
32-year old admits it has been a long night, but one of elation. The red
shirt might not have gone down too well the night before, but this has
nothing to do with etiquette in the halls of academe – wearing red is
virtually outlawed in Zimbabwe, Chikwava says, because it is the colour
of the MDC, the opposition party.
Chikwava has been living in London for a year since leaving Harare to
explore opportunities in music and writing. "Somehow in Zimbabwe the opportunities
are not that great to experiment," he says. While he has been catapulted
into the limelight with the award of the Caine prize, he is intent on
furthering his music career in the short term and will be using his winnings
to take a break from his part-time career as a quantity surveyor and finish
Jacaranda Skits, a music album of his ‘whole-wheat’ sound which
blends township jazz, ska and blues.
He is working on a novella Bubble Wrapping Artificial Shit and
he expects Jacaranda Skits to be completed by August 2004. He is
also planning live performances in London. These performances are unlikely
to include readings of his award-winning story. "I don’t like readings.
Performing music is different. At a reading there is no room for improvisation.
Music is not like a text where you have to read each and every word. You
have a bit of space to do your own thing. If you make an error you can
disguise it nicely."
Chikwava grew up in Zimbabwe’ second city, Bulawayo, and after completing
his schooling went to university in Harare. "At university I tried out
a lot of things. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do – tried a bit
of electrical engineering, dropped out of that and then tried electronic
engineering and dropped out of that and then thought let me just do quantity
surveying and I didn’t drop out of that one.
"After I completed my quantity surveying degree I thought, well I’ve done
this and it’s okay, it’s something to fall back on but I don’t really
Chikwava then joined the Zimbabwe Association of Art Critics and started
writing arts reviews. "After a while I thought, why not try my hand at
‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ was one of his first stories to be published
in book form, as one of the 23 stories in Writing Still, an anthology
of Zimbabwean short stories published by Weaver
Press (Read a review here). "The story
is trying to explore how the state operates sometimes, how it turns really
corrupt instead of serving the people, which is its purpose. The state
ends up really making peoples’ lives difficult," says Chikwava.
‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ is the story of a prostitute in Harare who is
trying to establish her identity. Not in any idealistic or existential
sense, but in a purely bureaucratic sense. Without an identity she cannot
get a passport, and she cannot establish her identity without succumbing
to the greedier side of the bureaucracy. But there is irony in the tale.
To charge her for creating such a disturbance in trying to acquire an
identity they must first establish her identity. But much more than just
a story of the circular machinations of bureaucracy in the hands of petty
minded officials, the story is also about a woman surviving on the streets
of Harare, on the intersection of Seventh Street and Samora Machel Avenue.
Chikwava’s music and literary career was fostered by the Book Café,
a venue in Harare where he regularly took part in poet evenings, public
discussions and music performances. It is here that he started experimenting
with different genres of art by collaborating with other young writers
and musicians in an attempt to create new ways of presenting the African
However, Chikwava believes literature from Africa must not sacrifice a
compelling story for a political agenda "because at the end of the day
as a writer you are writing from your own perspective. To co-opt it into
political agenda it tends to distort it in a way, and you just write a
story and if it is compelling, then so be it."
Apart from Zimbabwe’s great writers, such as Charles Mungoshi and Dambudzo
Marechera, Chikwava counts among his influences the Russian writer Mikhail
Lermontov, "an unusual and interesting writer". Lermontov was a prolific
poet and novelist who died at the age of 27 in 1841. "I think the Russian
stories relate a lot to Africa. There was a common ground. Rural citizens
in Russia just trying to survive is something we can relate to in Zimbabwe."
Once well-stocked Zimbabwean libraries offered wide access to such books
While he is homesick for Zimbabwe, he says the things he wants to go back
to no longer exist. "Like the Book Café evenings. There is new
legislation which says there may be no gathering of more than 12 people
unless it has been cleared by the police. Poetry meetings are on the edge,
but the literary/political discussions which were very vibrant – those
have just died. The police want to check your agenda and see what you
are talking about."
At the same time Chikwava longs for the creative stimulation that England
lacks. "As difficult as it might be, if you are there trying to do something
creative there seems to be this world of creative material that you can
use for writing, which is the positive aspect of it. That’s really a bit
ironic because it’s out of the difficulties the country is going through.
"Just being there, you sometimes get a sense of being overwhelmed by watching
things just go badly and its very hard to balance observing things going
badly and your own personal feelings, and even a bit anger at seeing things
Chikwava laments not even being able to wear a t-shirt he made himself
– a print of his own open hand on a white shirt. This simple design is
now a political statement violently opposed by the Mugabe government because
the open hand is a symbol of the MDC. "Suddenly it became dangerous to
wear my t-shirt. The restrictions become so personal, you can’t do things,"
"It is not the best atmosphere to be creative in, but at the same time
there is a lot of material to use. There seems to be this world of creative
material that you can use for writing, which is the positive aspect of
But London is oppressive in an entirely different sense. "I find it is
easier for me to write there than it is in London. There’s so much space
there to think and organise your thoughts," he says.
Chikwava is the first to admit that being in London can be very stressful.
"You just get into a different frame of mind. If I am in Harare I can
walk across the city for two hours and still feel okay, without feeling
tired, but if I walk from Oxford Circus to Bond Street my energy just
vanishes into thin air. I don’t know what it is. Probably having to be
a bit aggressive. Your mood changes. By the time you get to the other
end it feels as if you’ve been playing rugby."
Despite London being a tiring place it is one filled with opportunity
for Chikwava and his music ambitions. He will also find time to write
he hopes. As for Zimbabwe, the future is not bright, but as with the title
of the anthology in which is story appeared; Zimbabweans are writing still.
Please credit www.kubatana.net if you make use of material from this website.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.