Saturday, April 09, 2011

Reflection on my 2010 Villa Aurora Residency in Los Angeles

It is very difficult to describe how I felt when I first read the email that announced the news that I had been selected to be the 2010 Feuchtwanger Fellow at the Villa Aurora artists’ residency in Los Angeles.

It was in January of 2010 when I read that email, and at that time I was attending the HIFA-DIRECT theatre workshops in Harare where I was preparing my political satire titled Election Day for its world premiere at the 2010 Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA).

It was also my first time to be involved with HIFA after an almost decade long struggle of attempting to breakthrough. It really is tough to make breakthroughs in life, and surprisingly when they come sometimes they come as an avalanche, true to the saying ‘sometimes it does not rain but it pours.’ In 2010 it was pouring for me.

As I am writing this article, it is January of 2011, and I am waiting to go to Sweden where I was selected at the end of 2010 to be the 2011 guest writer by the Nordic-Africa institute, a fellowship that will also allow me to finish off a novel project I started at Villa Aurora, and also give me the opportunity to do book tours of Nordic countries as well as see the countries and its peoples.

So there I was one morning in January of 2010 and I go into the theatre workshop at HIFA-DIRECT and coolly announce to the other participants that on my way to the workshop venue I had passed through an internet shop and there I had received the news that beginning of April to December of 2010 I had been invited to a residency in Los Angeles, and also unfortunately for my play, that I wouldn’t be there to see its premier in April at HIFA as I would be in the USA by then. Of course I can’t keep secrets, and that is one of my biggest weaknesses, and in Ndebele such a person like me is referred to as ‘somebody whose chest was kicked by a Zebra.’ You are always coughing out everything.

Soon I had sent this news to all me email contacts, I had posted it on my blog, and also on my Facebook page. How could I deny myself this glory? This was my moment.

And this also came at a time when I had never been out of Africa – of course I had been to several international writers’ forums in other African countries, in Kenya twice – The Caine Prize Workshop and Kwani Lit Fest, Uganda for Beyond Borders Literature Conference, and Ghana for the Pan African Literary Forum. I had also toured Zambia and Botswana for Power In The Voice, which was a spoken word festival for High School students from all countries of the SADC Region and also the UK.

But now Los Angeles…

I think anybody can agree with me that there is something magical about the name of Los Angeles, the city of angels, and especially if you are coming from a township somewhere in Africa…

The Villa Aurora was the home of Leon Feuchtwanger, the German-Jewish writer who fled persecution in Nazi Germany during World War 2 and temporarily lived in France, and had also to flee France before the Nazi advance, and finally settled in the USA, where he bought Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, which is now an artists residence and historic landmark. When Leon Feuchtwanger fled Germany, he took along with him some of the books from his library which had survived seizure and burnings by the Nazi’s, whilst other books were shipped out to him by sympathetic friends, and this vast collection of books is now housed at Villa Aurora and also at the University of Southern California.

Going to the USA was also a task in itself. First when I tried to apply for a visa, I was told that my case was being investigated by the USA embassy for fraud, and so I could not be issued the visa straight away, but I would be informed after a few weeks about the results of the application.

Fraud, me! Anybody can guess that the next coming two weeks were not the happiest in my life - I wanted to be gone, I wanted to get to Los Angeles and start writing, and also revel in being there, for who does not want to travel to the world film capital once in their lives?

I also wanted to get out of Zimbabwe and refresh my exhausted soul, because even though our economy was sort of stabilising because of the recently introduced Unity Government and the introduction of the multi currency system, life was not as easy as one would wish it to be in their lives, and also a bit distracting to the novel project I was involved in then, titled Autumn Leaves, and which thankfully I finished at Villa Aurora and am now looking for a publisher for it.

I will also not hide the fact that I have received several rejections of the manuscript from publishers so far, but I believe in the manuscript and will never lose hope – I know a publisher is waiting out there for such a kind of story as is written in the way I have written mine, and it is only a matter of us meeting; Rome was not built in one day, so the learned say…

I had thought the investigation of my visa application would take a few days, but we had to cancel the flight bookings and reschedule them again as the flight days got dangerously nearer and there was still no word about the visa from the USA embassy. The original flight dates passed by, and there was still silence from the USA embassy. Now I was beginning to get worried – silence is worrying, especially if one is waiting for something that you know has the power to bring change to your life – just like the Presidential election results of 2008 in Zimbabwe.

Finally, after some weeks, I received a telephone call from the USA embassy – my visa was ready.

I live in Bulawayo city, a six hours travel by road to the capital, and when I got to the embassy, it was discovered that my passport had been printed with a visa with an error and it had to be cancelled for another one, and this new one had to be requested from Washington again too, and would be issued the following day.

I spent another night in Harare, and the following day the new visa was issued, and I think my sigh of relief was even heard in Los Angeles.

Then the volcano in Norway exploded, and the ash cloud closed all flights over Europe.

I travelled as far as Johannesburg from Bulawayo where I spent an anxious two nights at the airport there sleeping in the transit lounge because my connecting flight to Frankfurt had been cancelled, and finally decided to abandon the trip, and flew back to Bulawayo again with a heavy heart, for I felt that life seemed to be against me.

If I had been a superstitious man, I think I would have gone to a bone thrower to ask for luck, but I didn’t. I spent another week waiting for the dust cloud to clear, and finally flew off again, and safely and finally got to Los Angeles.

Villa Aurora in a majestic two-storey house in an isolated part of the Pacific Palisades in the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles. Of Spanish architecture with magnificent balconies, it overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and one can imagine such a place, of waking up every morning high up on a mountain to the sound of birds, and with the sea spread far down below you.

One would argue that such a sight is too grand, and it can distract one from work because all you would want to do is just to sit in the garden or balcony and enjoy the view, and I would agree to a certain extent, but after a few days or weeks depending on one, the beautiful sight sort of recedes into the distance, and the beauty of your work in progress once again comes to the forefront, and once you combine these two, the idyllic scenery and your work, then you can now start working beautifully.

For me, the best way to enjoy the scenery and my work was to put both two on a schedule – have time for the view and also time to work.

In the morning, like a patient taking their morning dose, I would give myself time to sit or stand in the garden and absorb the sight, just also like a person praying and finding a balance with one’s soul, then after some time I would go into my room which also had a window overlooking the ocean, and I would start writing or reading. Sometimes I would put a chair in the garden or balcony and work from there.

Villa Aurora also houses artists from Germany for a period of three months in three cycles annually who come in groups of four; a visual artist, a music composer, a writer and a film maker. The Feuchtwanger Fellow is the only artist who stays at the villa for nine months, and also is not from Germany.

There is also a wonderful support staff for the artists at Villa Aurora, led by Imogen, and I am forever grateful for their warmth and homeliness – Claudia, Daniel, Mechtchild (based in the office in Germany), and all the internees. And also the wonderful Gould family in the house across the street, Howard and Trish.

The residency also offered me the valuable chance for cross cultural interaction with my fellow German artists, twelve of them in total during my entire period there, and also with American people, of which I found beneficial as it opened my world view, and in some way I know that in the long run this will feed into my writing as, also, engagement with these foreign cultures also put my own African culture into clear perspective.

I also took part in panel discussion during festivals at the Universities of California (UCLA) and Southern California (USC), and did readings in Los Angeles at Eso Wan Book Shop, and in Sacramento at the Sacramento Poetry centre to wonderful audiences.

Of course I did not forget to go on long rambling walks in Santa Monica, the nearest town, and especially the 3rd Street Promenade where the performing artists display their art on the streets.

Nine months later, like I mentioned before, I am back in Zimbabwe and I am the proud owner of a finished novel manuscript and I am also now trying to finish another one. I will not mention the contents of the novels I am working on before I find publishers for them as I do not want to compromise my work.

I am also refreshed and attacking my writing with a new vigour. I find I am also more confident, I am more aggressive, and lastly but also importantly, I am also even more inquisitive.


Fungai Machirori said...

This is great Chris!!! Thanks for sharing. It inspires the rest of us who are still struggling in many ways to find our feet in the literary world. What a testimony. All the best with everything you are doing and keep that pen dripping with inspiration!

Christopher Mlalazi said...

I am humbled Fungai, many thanks, I am also a number one fan to your writing - Jah bless