Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Reflections on my Nordic-Africa Institute 2011 Guest Writer residency

Towards the end of my Villa Aurora creative writing residency in Los Angeles last year, I was already thinking where I could get the next residence where I could try to finish the novel project I had started there. 
I must also comment that it is very challenging for me to write from my home country of  Zimbabwe currently because of the incessant power cuts that we have been experiencing for the past decade or so ever since our politics tottered - my writing relies heavily on the computer and online research and if there is no electricity that becomes a very huge challenge. 
Of course when I started writing seriously all those years back, a solid sixteen of them now, I was using the old fashioned clickety-clack typewriter, but I cannot deny myself the advantages of the advances of modern technology simple because our politicians are failing to get their act right can I?
And so here I was pondering on how and where I could find another residency when I got an email from the Nordic Africa Institute saying they would like to have me over as their 2011 Guest writer for the months of April to June 2011. 
Wow! When I got the email it was around November 2010.  I some way this was an excellent development because I had just started working on the new manuscript and I was writing slowly, but when I got the invitation I was like a cat whose tail has caught fire.  I was galvanised.
I set a target.  I wanted to have the first draft finished in Los Angeles in three months from October to December, and then take a break from the manuscript from January to March 2011, and then go to Sweden in April and immediately start writing from April to June (Another three months) and then get back home, sit down another three months from July to September, and then hopefully work on the manuscript for the last time for another three months – October to December. 
So far everything is on a brilliant schedule, it is mid September right now as I am writing this document and I am just waiting for October to come so that I can get to work on this exciting manuscript again.  Yes the manuscript has got me excited and I can barely hold myself from touching it…
The Nordic Africa Institute is based in the charming university town of Uppsala in Sweden, where everybody seems to ride a bicycle. Almost all the streets of the city are paved, and so clean that the city seemed to me almost surreal.  Of course my city of Bulawayo, which is the second largest one after Harare in Zimbabwe, once held a continental record of cleanliness, and so somehow I was almost at home in Uppsala, almost....
I arrived in Sweden in spring, just as the snow was thawing from what the locals commented had been a very frigid winter.  I do not like the cold and so one can imagine how happy I was at this news as I had just escaped from another winter at home. 
Of course when I arrived I saw the last dregs of snow on the countryside on the way from Stockholm airport, and I think this was good as later I was to see a magical change of the landscapes as the land suddenly blossomed into full spring. 
In Zimbabwe we do not have snow, and so I guess our winters do not have the devastation on the land that snow countries have, and the experience of seeing a seemingly totally vegetation dead landscape suddenly come to green life was so touching.
I had an office at the Institute, but I preferred writing from my hotel room, a habit I have developed over a long time as even in my home country I write from home in the mornings, and then go to my studio at the National Gallery In Bulawayo in the afternoons to do administration – write emails, discuss writing with other writers, and also creativity with visual artists.
I guess there is something about writing in a room that smells of home that is totally different from the scents of an office – at home you feel laid back, and  for me that is the correct stimulant for a good dose of creative output.
Some writers might wonder about what a writing residency really is. 
I remember before I went to one. I always thought it would be all stiff and scholarly - well there is a bit of scholarliness, which from my experience in the USA and Sweden, is about ten percent of residence time, just like a book royalty  - for the rest you are left alone, and literally so – but are given the resources to make your writing time fruitfull – free internet, maybe a stipend (depending on the residence), and lots and lots of private space if you are the lone dog or yoga type.
What you have to do is just make sure that you leave the residency with your writing batteries re-fired.
There are also rigorous application processes to get into a residency, and these are based on your writing record.
As part of the guest writer grant at the Nordic Africa Institute, I was also given the opportunity to attend the Literature Festival in Lillehammer in Norway, another magical city with awe inspiring landscapes, and also World Village in Helsinki (Finland), a two day festival which had about 40 000 people passing through it in on the first day.  Another wow!
In Lillehammer I had a poetry reading, where I met one of my favourite female singers from Zimbabwe I had almost forgotten still existed because of this Diaspora thing.
This was Busi Ncube of the ‘I want True Love’ fame, and she was still singing as brilliantly as I last saw her in Zimbabwe, and if not more.  Watching her sing and dance I had a pang of sadness – will we ever see all these brilliant artists who have fled the country coming back home even if things normalise?  But I was happy for her too, that here she was doing what she knew best, and making people dance and be happy.
At World Vilage in Helsinki I had two talks. And during this time I also visited Berlin where I gave a talk at the Literature House to a packed house which was facilitated by my 2010 hosts in Los Angeles, Villa Aurora, whose office are in Berlin.
So, in summary, I am back home, back in the incessant power cuts and a political climate that is at stalemate, but I am happy to say that my two plays which I wrote during the Nordic Africa Institute residency have both been taken by two different organisations, Savanna Trust and the world renowned  Inkululeko Yabatsha School Of Arts (IYASA). The one for Savana Trust is titled Fes’bhuku, which is a commentary on the impact of Facebook on semi rural life, and the other one for IYASA, a musical, is titled WE CAN ALL DANCE (Dancing For Peace And Reconciliation), and it is the story of a young female dancer who wants to unite the people of her township across all divides through dance and music.
Both plays will be opened before the end of this year, 2011.
Of course there is also the novel, but I am still working on that, the title and names of characters and set have performed so many chameleonic changes, and one never knows when such a project can see the light of day, but all I can say is that I am still excited by the project, and am working hard on it.
Thank you.