Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Leaving Fingerprints: An Interview with NoViolet Bulawayo


Hot Metal Bridge: “Hitting Budapest” from We Need New Names was first published as a short story but is actually the first chapter of the novel. You’ve returned to those characters in making that transition, and have also returned to them in the newer story, “Happy Birthday Africa President.” Could you say something about the porousness of the borders between short and long fiction and the demands they make of the reader and the writer?


Bulawayo: People saw the short story first, so it seems like the novel came from the short story. But it happened while I was already working on the novel, and it was very much informed by the space that I was working with. In terms of returning to my characters now… I kind of have a hard time accepting that my characters are done living just because I’ve finished a project, you know? I think of a writer like William Faulkner who goes back to his characters and settings in different projects. I’m hoping to do just that with these characters. And part of it is simply because I just find them delightful to work with.


HMB: If I’m not mistaken, you’re also beginning work on a memoir project. Could you say a bit about that?


Bulawayo: I’m actually working on a collection of stories. When it started, I thought I was going to do it in memoir—it’s an AIDS memoir based on my siblings’ experiences with the disease. But writing nonfiction is kind of taxing. It’s hard to write real experience, and I just decided that I would have an easier time doing it through fiction, which doesn’t necessarily mean that fiction does not speak the truth. It has a lot to do with my comfort level as a writer.


HMB: That’s true. Fiction speaks the truth differently.


Bulawayo: Yeah, and sometimes even better than nonfiction.


HMB: It can be clearer, maybe.


Bulawayo: Absolutely, absolutely.


HMB: Is nonfiction taxing because it is so personal, or is there another kind of demand that it makes of you?


Bulawayo: Well, it was the personal nature of it and realizing that I was dealing with things that I had not necessarily dealt with in life and needed to have dealt with to be in a position to write. So I kind of hit the wall in that regard. But I feel like it’s not as welcoming, perhaps because of the specificity of the experience and who you’re dealing with. I feel like fiction makes whoever picks up the book feel like it’s okay to get in and step in your character’s shoes.


HMB: That’s true. With nonfiction you’re always worried about whose story you’re telling, and whether it’s yours.


Bulawayo: Yeah, yeah, I mean, there are a lot of things to consider—ethical issues. Are you representing a person fairly, are you representing them with dignity, are you telling the story for the right reasons?


HMB: For whom do you write?


Bulawayo: I don’t have a specific audience in mind. I’ve said somewhere that reading, that literature, should be like an open country, where your readers should have a visa to come in. I feel like, just on the basis of our humanity, we should all be able to connect to a piece of writing simply because it’s dealing with human stories and we are human. That’s all you need, really. So I’m not interested in audiences. Though I’ve had people tell me that I’ve written for them. Which is fine. I just find it amusing.


HMB: How does it feel to have someone make that kind of claim to you?


Bulawayo: It’s—you know, it’s gratifying, especially with the first book. When I was writing it, I didn’t even think it would be read one day. I just thought I was writing my story. So to have somebody come in and assign value is one of those things that can be affirming. You feel like you’ve done something that is beyond yourself that means something to somebody else. But, at the same time, it can be burdensome because you realize that you have some weird kind of power that you didn’t necessarily sign up for.


HMB: Or even ask for.


Bulawayo: Or even ask for. So it’s an interesting space to be in.


HMB: In the novel, you switch between languages a bit, though you primarily write in English. And when we were corresponding, I also noticed your email signature, where you’ve got the quote from Chinua Achebe. [“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.”] What is the power and the possibility of writing in English, and what possibilities does it preclude?


Bulawayo: You know, I don’t know even if I write in English [laughs] because I feel like my sense of English is complicated by my native language. It always insists on being present; in whatever I do, it insists on leaving its fingerprints. So I write with the consciousness that I am juggling two different languages.


And that quote—I was very pleased to read it. It sort of gave me even further permission to do what I do with my languages. English in its pure form—or should I say, in its standard form—can be limiting sometimes because it’s a language of power. If you look at how it came to people like us, it came to us through problematic ways that sometimes destabilize our relationship to it. At home, I only encountered English in class. Outside of it, it wasn’t my language. So I felt like I really did not have the facility with the language, and I know people who put it in such a standard that they feel like they can’t claim it.


So in claiming it the way I’m doing, in bringing my language to it, sometimes switching to vernacular ways of expression—hopefully I’m saying it’s a language like any other and can also be owned and claimed.


HMB: I like that. There are number of immigrants in my family, and their kind of English—it’s a different sort of language


Bulawayo: It’s something else, it’s something else. And I feel like, you know, there are English speakers all over the world who are doing all sorts of interesting things to it. There’s nothing for me as delightful as seeing that reflected in our literature.


HMB: Especially because English being so present throughout the world is so complicated. It wasn’t just given.


Bulawayo: Absolutely, yeah.


HMB: Last night, during the Q&A, you mentioned that you came to writing through the oral tradition, through your grandmother’s stories. One of my professors here talks about ur-stories: the story that first made you realize what stories could do. For me, that’s Russian fairy tales. Do you recall any story like that, one that gave you a sense of that power?


Bulawayo: Oh, Jesus, there are too many, I can’t even recall my first! And I was brought up on them, of course. I am trying to remember—every story I heard through childhood is in my head right now.




Yeah, I can’t pinpoint one that I can say that, that story. It was always this rich sea, it felt like. It always felt like you were swimming in a sea of stories. I feel like sometimes we forget that narrative is actually how we live life. It’s the measure of our lives.


HMB: I noticed in the novel that when Darling mentions stories that she’s been told, she always mentions three or four. It’s never just one. They do make a kind of sea—that seems like a really lovely way to grow up.


Bulawayo: Yeah, they do. And it saddens me that I’m not around that anymore.


HMB: What advice would you give to a young writer?


Bulawayo: Take the time to work on your writing and to realize and appreciate that writing is a process. It just doesn’t happen overnight. Maybe it’s just an issue of youth; sometimes young writers are so excited to write and put it out there that they don’t put in the labor that is required. I feel like the labor of the writing is what makes you, especially for the long term. You should embrace that and give it its due attention.


HMB: It’s very tempting—you want to have written something and then to have published it.


Bulawayo: Yeah, I know, especially when you are discovering yourself. I remember when I thought I was ready. [laughs]


HMB: What advice would you have given yourself when you were younger, in terms of writing?


Bulawayo: To read widely. As much as I was surrounded by stories, I didn’t care about books that much. But part of that is that I wasn’t always surrounded by books. I only encountered them in school, in my high school education. I wish they’d been around me, and I wish I’d started reading earlier than I did.


HMB: Is there any particular author that you love at this moment?


Bulawayo: At this moment, I’m reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch. It’s a beautiful feast of language and imagination. He’s a crazy—a beautifully crazy writer.


HMB: That’s a good thing to aim for—to be beautiful and crazy.


Bulawayo: Yeah, yeah, it’s just amazing.


NoViolet Bulawayo has been busy lately. Her first novel, We Need New Names, was published in 2013 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize later that year. She is both the first African woman and the first Zimbabwean to receive that honor. The novel has gone on to win the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the Etisalat Prize for Literature, and its first chapter, when published as a short story in 2011, received the Caine Prize for African Writing. In 2013, no less an arbiter than Junot Díaz chose her for the National Book Award’s “5 Under 35,” and she has spent the last two years as Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Somehow, in the midst of all this, she found time not only to join us for the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series but to meet with me for a discussion of different Englishes, the value of patience, and the possibilities of return.