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My job is to write: Phiri
Beaven Tapureta, The Herald (Zimbabwe)
September 15, 2008

"I feel that by writing what I write, I bring attention to certain issues which we don't want to talk about. My job is to write and I will carry on writing," remarked Virginia Phiri, one of Zimbabwe's established female novelists.

While in some African countries women have made little contribution in literature, Zimbabwe has produced a class of women writers -- the likes of the late Yvonne Vera, Tsitsi Dangarembga, the poet Freedom TV Nyamubaya, Virginia Phiri, Barbara (nee Makhalisa) Nkala and others.

Zimbabwe Women Writers, an organisation that imparts writing skills to aspiring female authors in both urban and rural communities, has so far produced more than 10 anthologies in Shona and English languages, some of them research based and award-winning.

And it is the same organisation that has nurtured young promising women of letters such as Ethel Kabwato, the bubbly performing poet Batsirai Esther Chigama and Elsworth Benhura.

And at one time Virginia Phiri served in ZWW as Board member before retiring this year.

Having been widely featured in ZWW's anthologies Virginia decided to self-publish and produced her first solo novel titled Desperate in April 2002. Desperate defies the cultural conservatism of Zimbabwean society in matters related to causes of prostitution.

Hardly do people talk about prostitution either because one of the family members is a prostitute or culture just gloss over this social vice and affix it as part of women's nature.

When Desperate came out in 2002 Virginia's friends, especially those in the writing fraternity, and relatives, were worried about what people would say.

"Don't you think you are encouraging prostitution?" and "Were you once a prostitute?" were the kind of questions posed to Virginia at a certain conference in South Africa days after Desperate came out.

But Virginia, unperturbed, had this to say, "It's not like one is supposed to be a prostitute to write a book like Desperate, but it's a situation where I am highlighting the ills in our community where we see these things and ignore them, even in our families where we turn a blind eye when someone is suffering. As a writer, whether you write good or bad things people will always talk about you and if you are really serious, there is no point in fighting, you just write."

Despite the public's concern on the value of the book to society, Desperate was prescribed at the University of Zimbabwe in the English Department in 2004 and at Hillside Teachers College in 2006 and also at universities abroad.

Destiny, Virginia's second novel was published in November 2006 and is about those born as hermaphrodites. The book was launched in July 2007 by the German Ambassador at the Zimbabwe-German Society and two months later it was also launched in Bulawayo at Intwasa Arts Festival.

Veronique Tadjo, a Cote d'Ivoire writer was also present at the launch.

"I was so thrilled to launch the book in my hometown. It was absolutely incredible," said Virginia.

However, Destiny faced the same problems as its predecessor Desperate.

People weren't willing to come out in the open about the plight of hermaphrodites in Zimbabwe.

Even when Virginia was trying to get the statistics of this information in her researches she couldn't get it easily because nobody would give it for various reasons.

"But I am happy that people are beginning to open up for my researches because now they know me and have read my books. They now understand that I am doing something helpful in our community," said Virginia Phiri.

Born in Mzilikazi in Bulawayo in 1954, Virginia Phiri's passion for the arts started when she was at primary school where she was involved in both drama and music, and later she became one of the founder members of Zimbabwe Women Writers which she has helped to be what it is today. She is also an accountant by profession, semi-retired in 2000 to concentrate on her writing and do part-time accounting to survive.

Virginia is also an African Orchids expert who has contributed a lot in the area of research and writing about African Orchids.

She was awarded a life membership by the Die Orchidie, a German Orchid Society at an orchid congress in Neu Ulm, Germany in 2004 for her work related to African Orchids.

As for Virginia, being a woman has never been a problem because she grew up being taught that men and women are equal.

As a little girl, she was treated by her parents in the same manner in which boys were treated.

She did exactly what her cousins [boys] whom she grew up with in Bulawayo did; they were just equal.

"We grew up together; we went snaring birds together, making catapults and other crafts.

"The funny thing was when I ran short of dresses or when my dresses went too dirty to wear, I just would put on my cousin's khaki shorts and tighten them with elastic or bark and we went into the bushes climbing trees together. It had nothing to do with girl or boy or fashion," said Virginia.

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