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Interview with poet, playwright and author Christopher Mlalazi
December 18, 2006
Christopher Mlalazi has
written plays for Zimbawean performing arts groups that include
Amakhosi Theatre; Umkhathi Theatre; Sadalala Amajekete Theatre and
the Khayalethu Performing Arts Project.His poems and short stories
have been published in newspapers, magazine and websites that include
Crossing Borders Magazine; Poetry International Web; the Sunday
News and The Zimbabwean newspaper.
Others have been featured
in anthologies that include Short Writings From Bulawayo: Volumes
I, II and III (ama'books Publishers, 2003, 2004 and 2005);
Writing Now (Weaver Press, 2005); and The Obituary Tango: Selection
of Writing from the Caine Prize for African Writing 2005 (New Internationalist
Publications, 2006; Jacana Media ,2006).
Christopher Mlalazi spoke
about his writing.
of your most recent short stories, "Election Day", was
published in the Edinburgh Review. What is the story about? How
long did it take you to write it?
The story is about election
rigging in an unnamed African country. This story was inspired by
accusations of election rigging that always follow presidential
There is no given timeframe
in which to write a short story, one can even write it in an hour.
At the 2006 Caine Prize workshop in Kenya, we were required to write
a 3,000 word short story in ten days flat.
It took me almost a month
to write "Election Day" because I had about three versions
of it and was failing to decide which was the best. Then I did a
theatre adaptation of the same story, which helped further develop
it, and after that, I came back to the prose version and worked
on it until I came up with the draft which was happily and instantly
accepted by the Edinburgh Review.
The story is set in a
single room. Maintaining excitement through 3,000 words in such
kind of a situation is really demanding: one has to dig deep into
one's resources, always planting hooks to keep the reader
absorbed. At the end, when I looked back I loved what I had done.
I had really been concentrating
on the extra-personal but I later discovered that my story had both
inner and personal conflict. The protagonist in the story is a president
during the last day of presidential elections. The opposition is
clearly winning, and everyone belonging to the ruling party, even
the First Lady, has panicked and they want to flee the country before
it is too late, because they had been ruling unjustly. That is the
surface of the story, the extra-personal conflict. Now, this panic
has led to the president's compatriots to look at their relationship
with the him. That is the personal conflict. Going further down,
these people also look at their inner lives, and that is the inner
are your main concerns as a writer?
Seeing an ever declining
book reading culture, that's one — and in Zimbabwe,
the video or DVD is mainly responsible for that. It's becoming
rare to see someone carrying a novel on the streets these days —
it's always the DVD or video cassette.
My second concern is
seeing African writers (and I am one of the culprits) shunning writing
in their mother tongues and prefering Western languages. Are we
not, as artists, custodians of our own cultures? Most young writers
are shunning writing in the vernacular because they see it as a
sign of backwardness, which I think is being naïve —
they think writing in English is the in thing, that it's fashionable.
A program should be put
in place that supports writing in vernacular languages, a sort of
audience-building project as is being done with theatre, and it
must be supported by the government. Children should also be encouraged
to read books written in the vernacular, both at school and at home,
so that when they grow up they will value them.
does being a writer mean to you? And in what way are writers custodians
I have never really given
it much thought, what being a writer means to me.
I have always thought
that I must write something. I have always had this unexplainable
urge to produce something artistically — which led me to break-dance,
a little bit of vernacular rap, writing poetry, writing plays, stories
— just writing. I have even attempted to write an academic
paper that attempts to analyze story structure.
Writing has opened my
eyes to things I don't think I would have given much thought
to had I not been a writer, things like, "Is everything okay
around us? And if they are not, how can I address that through my
We are custodians of
culture in the sense that it is our duty to record our way of life
and transmit it to posterity. Ways of life evolve, we can't
remove that, but what can we save? Obviously not all, because there
are traditions which hinder progress, but the little that we save
must be given its due respect through celebration in an artistic
form, just like it used to be done in the past in the celebration
of the first harvest or in the rain dance, etc.
have your personal experiences influenced your writing?
Growing up in a Zimbabwe
in political turmoil has dramatically influenced my writing in the
sense that, as writing thrives on conflict, there is plenty of that
around to pick from — also the hunger and disease.
are the biggest challenges that you face?
Getting an audience nationally,
continentally and internationally. Africa has a wealth of stories
and the challenge for the African writer is to seduce the world
by the way we tell them. We have to overcome the corruption of power
that pulls us back and often shuts our mouths and breaks our pens.
I am still yet to publish
my first novel, but on the short story genre I can confidently say
I have been successful, with several national and international
short story anthology inclusions under my belt. I think my success
on the short story genre rests on my being able to write without
any reservations whatsoever. Also interacting with other writers
internationally through the internet assists, because one gets to
hear of a publishing deal here and there.
did you start writing?
At High School where
I dabbled in amateurish writing just for the love of seeing my words
providing aesthetic entertainment.
At that stage, I was
writing for my classmates — they always seemed amused by my
stories. I remember when I was in Form Four, I started writing a
novel and kept at it for three years. When it was finished, I submitted
it to the Literature Bureau, who rejected it. I put the manuscript
away and forgot all about it. Sometimes I come across scraps of
it around the house, and when I read them, I smile at myself. The
story was an investigation, inspired by the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew,
the Three Investigators, James Hardly Chase, James Bond —
books which I read voraciously at that time.
writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you
My late father, who was
a master folklore story teller.
I grew up in the township
of Pumula and it had no electricity before Independence. Food was
cooked on an open fire in a lean-to. Sometimes, on hot days, after
supper, we would sit by the fire and father always made it a point
to tell us tales and almost all of them came with beautiful songs.
Also, if relatives visited from the rural areas, he would ask them
to tell us tales, which I enjoyed listening to very much. On other
days father would ask us to recite the tales to him, correcting
us where we made errors, and through that way I too became a good
story teller. At school the teacher would sometimes require us to
Yes, I write everyday.
I spend about five hours on it per day
would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?
I am currently published
in nine short story anthologies, with two more already confirmed
for 2007. Another of my short stories has also been short listed
for a major short story writing award for African writers.
I was also invited to
the 2006 Caine Prize Workshop which was held at Cater Lake, a remote
and tranquil resort in Kenya. Basically, what we did there was to
write, then everyday after dinner there were readings of the stories
by the writers, which were followed by group criticism to assist
the writer develop his or her story.
There were ten writers
at the workshop and two mentors/animateurs. The writers were drawn
from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and two came from
the UK . All the stories that were written at the workshop have
been published in the 2006 Caine Prize Anthology titled The Obituary
Tango. My short story is titled "Dancing with Life,"
and it is a political and socio-economic satire.
In 2004, another of my
short stories, "The River of Life," was awarded the
Highly Recommended citation in the Sable Lit Short Story Competition.
The story is fantasy, a recreation of Genesis, postulating mankind
as coming from stars.
In 2005 I also attended
the Uganda Beyond Borders Literature Festival, which was a British
Council initiative. At this festival, I facilitated a creative writing
workshop for primary school students in Kampala, and also did a
public reading. I had a great time there, and rubbed shoulders with
some of Africa's writing giants — Shimmer Chinodya (Zimbabwe);
Helon Habila (Nigeria); Professor Taban Lo Liyong (Sudan); Veronique
Tadjo (Ivory Coast); Bernardine Evaristo (Nigeria, U.K.) to name
but a few.
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