Displacement and Divisions Along Colour Lines: A Dialogue with Beverley Ann Abrahams
Beverley Ann Abrahams is a Zimbabwean teacher of English and Art & Design, an educational administrator, writer and activist against gender-based violence. She sat on the board of the National Institute of Allied Arts of Zimbabwe (NIAA) and was festival director of the annual Literary Festival for 17 years. She has adjudicated its prose and poetry competition for 28 years.
She is a member of Daughters Destined for Purpose (DD4P), a UK based charity which deals with gender-based violence in Zimbabwe. She has been published in two anthologies of international poets: PS: It’s Poetry” (2020) and PS: It’s Still Poetry (2021).
She was published in a regional poetry anthology of SADC female human rights defenders in 2021, titled Mwala (The Rock). She was shortlisted for the Intwasa 2021 Short Story Competition, and is published in their second anthology of Zimbabwean short stories. Beverley is a single mother to four adult children and has two grandsons. She loves gardening, music and spending time with her family.
BY CHARITY NGABIRANO
This conversation took place between Uganda and Zimbabwe, via WhatsApp.
Charity: First, I would like to say congratulations on being shortlisted and emerging as the second runner-up in the Kendeka Prize for African Literature 2022. Congratulations, Beverley. How do you feel about this moment?
Beverley: Good day Charity, I am thrilled to have been selected. Being recognised as not only a Zimbabwean writer but an African writer has been a dream!
Charity: Your story, “Isithunzi”, has quite a unique title. I did not know what to expect. Why this title and not any other? What should come to our minds the moment we see this title?
Beverley: The title is homage to my great grandmother, who was Ndebele. I loved the sound of the word, and I wanted the title to reflect her tongue, but also to arouse the interest of the reader. The word means shadow, which is a metaphor I use for the consequences of Colonialism on black people like her.
Charity: I like the progression of the story. It develops in such a beautiful way. How you introduce and build on the characters one after the other, allowing the reader to fully capture why a character is relevant to the story’s plot. From Sivangane, to a “young Scottish man” through to her family and others. How were you able to wove this piece together?
Beverley: Thank you for your appreciation of my story, Charity. I fell in love with this story while I was writing it! The bones of the story are actually true, and I feel quite honoured to be the custodian of my family’s history. I have one aunt who remembers the story, from her father, the younger son of Mr Stoddart. Unfortunately, my mother is losing her memory, and I am driven to capture these stories before they are lost from my history. In many ways, this story unfolded in my mind like a movie, I could imagine each scene as I described it, and I tried to create the graphic detail that would allow the reader to see it too. The story is also fiction in that I could only imagine how this relationship between a black woman and a white man could have endured against the strictures of Colonialism. For me, it is a love story.
Charity: The sound of the word “isithunzi” is really interesting. That was a good pick, especially in relation to the message you intended to bring out. The consequences of Colonialism on black people run deep and we appreciate you for tackling this subject. Assessing these consequences on individuals and countries could take us a lifetime. Through your main character Sivangane, we are given a picture of some of these consequences. “Isithunzi” reminds me of ‘Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s novel, Weep Not Child, with themes like land ownership and power, division and conquest, based on a turbulent period in Kenyan history that saw the slow upheaval of British colonial rule. Your story also explores the relationship between Africans and White settlers in colonial Zimbabwe. What are the themes in “Isithunzi”?
Beverley: The main theme is love, across the divisions of a colour line that was carved in stone. Secondly, it is the displacement suffered by black people under Colonialism, and the displacement of those foreigners who came out to Africa; a displacement which I feel created questions of identity. For Sivangane, it changes her concept of everything she believed she was. I am truly honoured by your comparison, I love the works of Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ, I fell in love with African stories through their books!
Charity: You did well with the imagery. I should applaud you also for contributing to building the family history by publishing far and wide. This story is a beautiful and yet sensitive exploration of the plight and struggle of African people. Similar to this is Zenzele: A letter for my daughter by J.Nozipo Maraire, a take of Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence. It interweaves history and memories, disappointments and dreams. What are some of the works that have shaped your literary scene?
Beverley: Perhaps not so easily defined, is the issue of language and our need to verbalise through the words that we know, in Sivangane and Mr Stoddart, we see the need for a different kind of dialogue that can not be found in their respective languages. There are so many works, across many genres. I love the works of writers who can craft a story that holds a reader spellbound. For me, some of these storytellers are Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Doris Lessing, Isabel Allende, Paulo Coello, Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver. There are so many!!
Charity: As a teacher of English and a writer, what genre are you drawn to most? I see you have been published almost equally in both prose and poetry. Do you have a favourite or is it a case of ‘let’s roll with what’s rolling’?
“The main theme is love, across the divisions of a colour line that was carved in stone. Secondly, it is the displacement suffered by black people under Colonialism, and the displacement of those foreigners who came out to Africa; a displacement which I feel created questions of identity.”
Beverley: I considered myself a poet as I have been writing poetry for ten years, and I’ve completed my collection, which is still unpublished. The short story genre is relatively new for me, about eighteen months, but I am absolutely loving it. I think I have found my niche.
Charity: Oftentimes, writers—emerging writers to be precise—are confused on what genre they work with best. And this point of self-realisation is what we all need. What was the most difficult part of creating this work and what lessons did you draw from this experience?
Beverley: I think a part of me feared the reaction to my story, that it would not be seen as significant to stand alone. I am not the most confident of persons, and so I began to doubt myself and my story, to begin with. But, as the story grew through the editing process I realised that in many ways I was telling my own stories of loss through my characters. I mentioned in the beginning that I felt a connection to Sivangane, and that in unravelling who she was, I would begin to ravel myself, and this was a dramatic revelation for me. She became the face and voice of my story of loss.
Charity: The emotions we feel most definitely connect us with the story. Storytelling gives us the power to evoke strong emotions. Good stories capture emotions. Storytelling invokes an emotion, inflames the heart, fuels the imagination. Do you think someone could be a writer if they do not experience strong emotions? Why are emotions important in storytelling?
Beverley: I think it is because emotions are what a reader relates to, and that’s the connection that ties writer to audience
Charity: On the question of identity, your story “Isithunzi” has Peter Stoddart being welcomed into “the warm colony of privileged white folk…” He was made comfortable and very soon was able to live and conquer on his own. Black people have been attacked severally for not sticking together out there and neglecting each other in situations when they should be holding out olive branches for each other. Even if some people still think Africa is one big country, I feel we have not yet reached this strong level of togetherness where we look out for each other in foreign lands and make sure the newbies have settled in perfectly well. What exactly is lacking?
Beverley: I agree wholeheartedly, Charity. In my opinion, it’s the aftermath of Colonialism. I know a lot of people think it is the distant past, but it affected people psychologically in ways that we do not always appreciate. It shattered the certainties of self, and these fractured selves have not assimilated a wholeness through time. This is why the questions of identity fascinate me. Here I am; I too am trying to come to terms with my own issues of identity. We have allowed tribalism and cultural and colour issues to splinter us, and Colonialism set out to do the same. The irony!
Charity: You mention that you’ve been writing poetry for ten years. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be? And also, after all these years, I am strongly convinced that you have been successful in that area. Or maybe you could tell us; What does literary success look like to you?
Beverley: It would be to trust the instinct to speak one’s truth, to trust that you are entitled to be true to your narrative. To me, literary success feels like the now I’m in, Charity! I have not been more excited about my writing than I am right now.
Charity: And in this effort of sticking to one’s truth, as writers we are often faced with differences in opinions. How are you able to deal with such incidences?
Beverley: I think as a writer you must have the courage to stand up for your opinion. We live in a world of such diversity so we should not expect that what we write will be universally accepted.
Charity: This is certainly very true. If we do not believe in our work and are very confident of our opinions then it becomes hard to sell them to others, to pitch our ideas and influence change. In your writing, what is your main focus; to be original vs to deliver to readers what they want?
Beverley: To be authentic and true to myself
Charity: Your story has characters named Sivangane, Lobengula, Peter Soddart, how do you select the names of your characters?
Beverley: The names are historically true, Sivangane and Peter Stoddart are the names of my ancestors
Charity: I have spoken to people who started writing at a very early age but they did not consider their work worth it at that point. When did you first call yourself a writer? At what point should one update their bio?
Beverley: When I made the decision to publicly share my words, and when I was published, that was the point at which I felt I could give myself the label! My first publication was a single poem in an international anthology. I was part of a group of 40,000 poets in the group. 400 of us, 1% of the group, were featured in the anthology. It was a defining moment for me.
Charity: As most prizes’ custom, there is the editing process. There is criticism, corrections, learning and unlearning. How do you handle feedback? How was this particular opportunity with the Kendeka Prize for African Literature instrumental in your literary journey?
Beverley: Fortunately, I have had good feedback, but I have also paid attention to advice and edited in line with expert opinion. Kendeka Prize has put me on the African stage and that has been a monumental step forward.
Charity: If you could meet your characters, what would you say to them?
Beverley: I would thank them for their journeys which lead me to this moment in time.
Charity: So your Bio shows that you are a teacher of English and Art and Design, a writer and activist…how are you able to juggle all these areas of your life, plus being a mom. At what time of the day do you do most of your writing?
Beverley: They keep me very busy, it is not always easy to manage everything. I love teaching English and Art, and working with children so it gives great pleasure. My charity work fills my soul; it fulfils an important need to give back to the community. My four children are all adults, and they are my biggest supporters which is quite amazing! Unfortunately, my writing sometimes takes a backseat as I need to be in a good headspace to write well. So I have learnt to make the most of those times. Whilst I see myself as a survivor of some traumatic experiences in my life, I count myself blessed abundantly by the favour of God. I can write at any time, when I’m feeling inspired I can write all day!
Charity: Does writing energise or exhaust you? Or both?
Beverley: It definitely energises me.
Charity: Isithunzi and Peter Soddart’s love story was well manufactured. You did a good job with Peter as a Character, presenting to us a powerful white man who conquered Isithunzi’s village and took away her “birthright”. What is the trickiest thing about writing characters of the opposite gender?
Beverley: I tend to base characterisation on familiar persona, so that whether male or female, I think I can create a fully rounded character, but my feminism of course leans towards creating strong female characters. Sivangane is a character who is growing through my stories!
Charity: One definitely needs all the right energies to be able to feel up to the writing mood. How do you handle writer’s block?
Beverley: I need to be in the right frame of mind to write, so I work when I am inspired to do so. Unfortunately, I am not able to be a full-time writer, so I sometimes go a few months without writing. But when the inspiration is there, I can get a lot done.
Charity: What are you currently reading?
Beverley: I’m currently reading Some Kinds of Wounds by Charles Mungoshi. It is a compilation of short stories. I feel there is much for me to learn to improve my own style of writing.
Charity: Apart from the support you get from your children, what authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer? Do you have support groups? Writing groups? Or even just individual ‘bookish’ friendships, who do more than borrowing our books and never returning them.
Beverley: I am part of an amazing group of Zimbabwean writers, the group was created by “Intwasa” who are a Bulawayo/Ndebele based organisation who support the arts in all aspects. Having the emotional and psychological support of like-minded individuals has been hugely inspiring. I also have relationships with other Zimbabwean writers, Batsirai Chigama and Philani Nyoni, who are very successful, and they too have inspired me to persevere.
Charity: When you’re not writing, and not at work, where can we find you?
Beverley: I am blessed to have a wonderful library of books at home, I fell in love with books before I fell in love with people! I love gardening, and it is my happy place! I love birds and trees; I often laughingly tell people that I am a tree-hugger! I care greatly about my environment, and the state of the world we live in, so also research topical issues. I consider myself an eco-poet. I am a volunteer member of a charity called DD4P, Daughters Destined for Purpose, and I help run an annual poetry competition which raises awareness of gender-based violence in Zimbabwe. This takes up about six months of the year. I was on the board of the NIAA, the National Institute of Allied Arts, an organisation which has been in Zimbabwe for over one hundred years, and I was the director of its annual Literary festival. I am a volunteer member, and once again, it is a cause I find time for outside of a full-time teacher job and writing. I am also an artist, and like to draw when I find the time; and I am learning how to make my own jewellery. I have three loving dogs who are an important part of my life! I am a die-hard Manchester United fan, and love Formula 1 racing!
Charity: Sending you hugs about last night’s Manchester United game (laughs). Quite an interesting personality right there! It is great to be able to do the things we love during our lifetime. What is it like, writing in Zimbabwe? Are you free to write about anything? Is freedom of expression respected? In Uganda for instance, political writing could be dangerous if the people in power deem it as such. Tell me, how is it in Zimbabwe?
Beverley: Definitely need the hugs (laughs). I am aware of the transience of this life, Charity. I have lost too many people from my life, and so I am determined to live my life to its fullest! There is no real freedom of expression, so I am mindful of the political issues in my country.
Charity: On this bit, are there therapeutic benefits to modelling a character after someone you know. In your shortlisted story for example, one of the characters is closely connected to your great grandmother. How did you feel when creating this story?
Beverley: It’s ironic that in creating the character I started to understand her better! And you are right, it is therapeutic! When the character gets to a point where they are walking you through the story, it is so uplifting, you feel that you are learning something new.
Charity: Perfectly stated! This is where I get to ask Fiction or Nonfiction? As a writer I am so reluctant on venturing into writing non fiction because I am not sure how the characters would react! Although I enjoy reading non fiction, writing under a pseudonym would be my option if I really had to.
Beverley: Definitely fiction, but taking inspiration from truth and reality.
Charity: What are those works of fiction you have read that you feel are under celebrated?
Beverley: Let me think about this one, there are many who I find are not appreciated. Unfortunately, books are hardly affordable to an average working person in Zimbabwe, and as a teacher I’m constantly surprised at how unaware of books and writers so many people are. So whilst many writers may be celebrated internationally, I feel that here in Zimbabwe, reading culture is more conservative. Two absolutely amazing books that I’ve reread many times are “The Bone People” by Keri Hulme, who is a native New Zealand writer; and “Animal Dreams” by Barbara Kingsolver, who is an American writer. Outstanding fiction!
Charity: How did you get started as a writer? Do you come from a literary background? For example Juliane Okot Bitek, the daughter of a renowned literary giant, Okot p’Bitek has followed in the footsteps of her father and emerged strong on the literary scene. In 2017 she was named the winner of the African Poetry Book Fund Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry for 100 Days.
Beverley: I loved books from an early age. I was very shy, and coming from a troubled childhood, my escape from my reality was burying myself in the books I read. From primary school, I enjoyed writing. I married an abusive man, and so for decades my creativity died as I struggled to assert myself. As I regained my freedom and spiritual health, I knew I could write! And so a journey began!
Charity: Reading is very comforting and an escape route for many of us. What kind of books did you read, growing up?
Beverley: I read everything! Historical fiction, Western, classics, African writers came a bit later.
Charity: The Internet and social media have taken over our lives and influence our decisions in one way or the other. Do you think the Internet and social media contribute to the well being of the stories we write?
Beverley: I think it can go both ways. The public can be brutal in deciding what they find acceptable and censoring what they do not want. I think a writer has to be courageous in the face of social media, and has to be willing to defend their truth and stand up to it, irrespective of the outcome.
Charity: What was the process like for you as you wrote your shortlisted story? Was it the plot first and then the characters, or vice versa?
Beverley: It was definitely the characters who came first, and then the plot to showcase them.
Charity: What to you, are the most important elements of good writing?
Beverley: Writing from the heart, that is, embodying your story with emotions that a reader can relate to, understanding the truth you are communicating, and using language as a tool to paint the story from your imagination into that of your reader.
Charity: Fast food, snacks? Or a good home cooked meal? What is your mouth-watering mover? Tell me about a good plate of food in Zimbabwe.
Beverley: I love good food! My Indian heritage has definitely come out in my passion for spicy curries and Indian delicacies. In my family, our best moments are around a table of good food! I come from a family of very good home cooks! Fast food occasionally is fine; I enjoy a good pizza! But I do love local Zimbabwean dishes like cooked green vegetables with peanut butter, chicken stew and, of course, our staple, sadza.
Charity: Thank you so much, Beverley. I enjoyed every bit of this conversation.
Beverley: It was a great pleasure talking to you, Charity.
Charity Ngabirano is a Ugandan lawyer and short story writer. She worked with the Centre for African Cultural Excellence as the project coordinator for Writivism in its inaugural year, 2013. Her work has appeared in The Kampala Sun, Afreecan Read Magazine and is forthcoming in Sahifa magazine. She lives in Kampala with her husband and their two beautiful daughters as a full-time mother.