Vitabubooks Interview | NoViolet Bulawayo

Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story entitled ‘Hitting Budapest.’ It was published in The Boston Review, Vol 35, no. 6 - Nov/Dec 2010.

The Caine Prize is described as Africa’s leading literary award.

Hisham Matar, Caine Prize chair of judges, announced Bulawayo as the winner of the £10,000 prize at a dinner held Monday, July 11, 2011 at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. Matar said:
"The language of ‘Hitting Budapest’ crackles. Here we encounter Darling, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Stina and Sbho, a gang reminiscent of Clockwork Orange. But these are children, poor and violated and hungry. This is a story with moral power and weight, it has the artistry to refrain from moral commentary. NoViolet Bulawayo is a writer who takes delight in language."

Another of her stories, ‘Snapshots’, was shortlisted for the 2009 SA PEN/Studzinski Literary Award. More recently, she completed a master's degree in fine arts at Cornell University where she is a Truman Capote Fellow and lecturer of English. The award-winning author gave Vitabubooks an e-mail interview this week.


Vitabu: In Alison Flood's Guardian article, its reported you have just completed a novel, We Need New Names. She also says you're working on a memoir but have yet to find either a literary agent or a publisher. Things must have changed now that you've won such a prestigious prize.

NoViolet Bulawayo: I’ve been blessed to see my options open up, which is perhaps one of the rewards of winning a prestigious prize but I’m taking it a step at a time. I’m not trying to rush into the arms of an agent or publisher at this very moment. What’s more important is to deal with all this because it’s a little overwhelming. Once things settle then I’ll see what’s what.

Vitabu: Your pen name is Elizabeth Tshele but the world knows you better as NoViolet Bulawayo, the Zimbabwean author who won the Caine Prize for African Writing. Hitting Budapest is a story about a gang of street children in a Zimbabwean shantytown. In Flood's article, you reportedly said that you're "interested in what happens when two different worlds meet in a problematic way... in honesty and in violence." How do you describe violence in a story that may appeal to a diverse audience?

NoViolet Bulawayo: Here I’m interested in normalized violencethat which we choose to call something else for the sake of convenience. It’s violence that these children are living the way they do, it’s violence that one of them has been sexually abused; the hanging corpse speaks to its own form of violence. It's violence that the western woman sees the children as camera subjects but fails to read their hunger, to mention but a few. As the story may appeal to a diverse audience, so can the violence apply to that diverse audience. I am from Zimbabwe, yes, but this is not necessarily a Zimbabwean story; it can happen to children anywhere.

Vitabubooks: You've lived in the United States since 1999, yet America "does not feel like home" Why?

NoViolet Bulawayo: It’s a beautiful country and it has given me so, so much. And hence I have grown to love it, but it doesn’t quite speak to me as does the country of my birth. I am a perpetual outsider. I can’t walk like I own the earth here, because my forefathers were not kings here. I can’t stand on the street and ask a question in my language here, I can’t buy roasted maize at a corner here, I can’t whoop a kid who deserves to be whooped without being arrested here, I can’t do water behind a tree here. Perhaps this has more to do with the person I am versus the place. Nothing totally replaces home for me so that the way I process life here is through what’s missing from it. Living, in a way, becomes a form of mourning and Christ, that can be hard!

Vitabu: You sign off your emails with a provocative Yvonne Vera quote, "A woman writer must have an imagination that is plain stubborn, that can invent new gods and banish ineffectual ones." How/why does she inspire you?

NoViolet Bulawayo: I can’t count the ways Vera inspires me, but when you have someone like that in the picture you just know what greatness is. That in turn makes you want to write on the sky.

Vitabu: On your blog, you quote Tupac Shakur: “Before I write I let my mind go blind and let the Lord do his thing." The themes of most of Tupac's songs are the violence and hardship in inner cities, social problems and personal conflicts he had with other rappers. How does your world and Tupac's meet?

NoViolet Bulawayo: I’m inspired by [Tupac's] hunger, passion, and talent (the things that are necessary to an artist) as well as his consciousness and activism, within his context of course. And he was a great storyteller while he was at it because his songs are also stories/texts. This may sound lame, but I didn’t get into writing through books so I don’t feel restricted to authors and their texts in terms of inspiration—that’s just too limiting.

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