Click to buy Print Edition Home Page African Writing Online Home Page  
HomeAbout UsNewsinterviewsMemoirsFictionPoetryThe Call to ActionArtReviews

  Adaobi Nwaubani
  Amatoritsero Ede
  Ando Yeva
  Ayesha H. Attah
  Bobby Gawthrop
  Brian Chikwava
  Chuma Nwokolo
  Crispin Oduobuk
  Fela Kuti
  Fiona Jamieson

  Florence Nenakwe
  Funsho Ogundipe
  Genna Gardini
  George E. Clarke
  Grace Kim
  Isabella Morris
  Isobel Dixon
  Ivor W. Hartmann
  Jane Bryce
  Kobus Moolman
  Meshack Owino
  Mwila A. Zaza
  Patrice Nganang
  Petina Gappah
  Rudolf Okonkwo
  Samed Aydin
  Tanure Ojaide
  Tola Ositelu
  Uche Peter Umez
  Unoma Azuah
  Uzor M. Uzoatu
  Wole Soyinka

Submission Guidelines

African Writing Archives


Brian Chikwava


Brian Chikwava

Chikwava is a London-based Zimbabwean writer. His short story, Seventh Street Alchemy, won the 2004 Caine Prize for African writing. Subsequently, he served as a Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia, UK. He currently lives in London. His Harare North was published on April 2, 2009.


Photo: Christiane Kopp


 Writing Pains

Congratulations on your Immigration Novel, Harare North.
How difficult was it to write? In particular, will friends and acquaintances be skimming your pages in search of reflections of themselves?

Brian Chikwava: Thanks, and yes, it was difficult - in fact painful. At one stage, the whole project seemed like the most foolish decision I've ever taken. And regarding reflections of myself, I suppose the narrator's madness is a reflection of how writing the book was driving me up the wall.

Your narrator is unnamed. Do you have a high octane reason for not naming him? Or were you simply unable to decide between two potential names?

BC: The narrator is unnamed because he is a dissociated voice.

And yet, he is the most finely drawn character in your book.
When he goes off the rail I was profoundly affected. Your book draws attention to the statistics that Black men are over-represented, relative to their overall population, in British jails and mental asylums. Did you find similar stories when you were researching Harare North? Are these two destinations (the jailhouse and the madhouse) real dangers for potential immigrants of a certain race heading for the West?

BC: Often one gets knocked off centre and then has to struggle to bring oneself back into kilter. I would like to think that is the price of being an acceptable member of any society. It's hard enough in a familiar cultural environment, doubly so in an alien environment. This maybe, explains the disproportionate number of Africans and Afro-Caribbeans in mental institutions. And yes, while working on the book, I did reflect at length on the high numbers of people of that heritage being sectioned. I am no expert in this but I believe that with the number of Africans and Afro-Caribbeans a different set of factors may be playing a role. In conclusion I'd say yes, mental health issues and jail are a potential danger for anyone who has been uprooted into exile, irrespective of race. As they say, exile mimics depression and vice versa.

Do you think that the fact that your narrator is unnamed makes it that much easier for many of your readers in 'Harare North' to see themselves in his shoes, locked in his quandaries?

BC: I can only hope it does, I couldn't honestly say. I never thought much about the reader until I had finished the book. That's because I was going through a steep learning curve and the whole process required so much of me I could not hope to think about the expectations or demands of potential readers without losing the plot altogether. What I can say though, in retrospect, is that with the first person narrative it is easier to lock the reader into a character's mind. Can be horrible sometimes!

In Harare North, our unnamed narrator arrives at his cousin's house in London to meet a man far more hostile than his letters home suggested, whose wife was lacking in all the usual Zimbabwean hospitalities... In real life, is this a fair reflection of the impact of the immigrant experience on cultural generosities? 
 I would like to think that, in the big city, cultural generosities cost time and money, the two things that the big city dweller is perpetually short of. So perhaps it's understandable when they dispense with some things that are of intangible utility. 

Did you have any specific inspiration for Harare North?

BC: I was lucky that at a stage before the novel gelled into anything meaningful I met a Ugandan in Brixton, started chatting and he turned out to be a former member of Lord's Resistance Army. Interestingly, he was unchanged by the 5 years that had passed since he fled Uganda, and still missed Joseph Kone. He seemed pretty unreconstructed if not unreconstructable and I found him intriguing and hilarious. Soon after that encounter my novel crystallised quickly.

So there is a sense in which your novel was actually born in Brixton! Quite a few London natives who have lived in that city all their lives will not recognise the London of your debut novel. How easy is it to live in bubbles, in the midst of present day 'multiculturalisms'?
Yes, the novel is very much a result of living in Brixton. What I find interesting about the place is that it one of those places where anyone from any cultural background can easily blend in. In that sense it is very multicultural and offers endless possibilities for any imagination.

You made your literary 'debut' with your Caine prize win for the short story, 7th Street Alchemy. You have now published your well-received novel, Harare North. Are you a short story writer having a fling with the novel? Or have you moved on? What other projects have you on the boil?

BC: I feel more like a vagrant, at turns, masquerading as a short story writer, novelist or musician.  I can not honestly say I'm this or that without immediately feeling like a charlatan.

Your music is obviously an important part of who you are. Tell me about this side of you.

BC: Yes, I suppose music is important as a refuge during those times when I can't even string a single sentence together. That's when I start thinking that I'm actually more of a musician than a writer. - That's until I start doing music with people who insist on using a score. But since I can't read music and only play it by the ear, this triggers all kinds of insecurities and then, I start thinking I'm actually a writer and not a musician. 

A couple of years ago you contributed a political article to AW's debut issue: Writing the Story of Zimbabwe. At that time it was not concievable that Mugabe and his arch rival, Tsvangirai could ever share a government. Is this 'thinking outside the box' or has the opposition boxed themselves in?

BC: I was optimistic towards the end of last year when the idea of the power sharing gvt came into being, at least on paper. Also a lot of people in Zim had high hopes. Since then it's been a mixed bag, in my humble opinion. I understand that now supermarkets are better stocked than they were a few months ago. That's a good start.
      But in terms of building a democratic tradition for a nation as young as Zimbabwe I find it hard to be positive. The African solution as mediated by the South Africans ultimately made the loser the winner. That's a bad starting point. Also the opposition did not do themselves any favours by failing to leverage anything out of the deal through using the masses. As a result when they were leaned on during the negotiations, the South Africans - the chief mediators - may have been aware that Morgan and his lieutenants had allowed themselvesto drift from the, by then, fatigued and disinterested ordinary citizen and were increasingly negotiating for themselves as a clique as opposed to representating the people. May be green shoots will start to appear in the future but right now a lengthy and messy war of attrition may have started. I'm not sure the people with the best interests of country at heart will be able to outmanoeuvre some of the dark angels flitting about in the night. But there is hope. Worth praying for even if you don't believe in God.

Any pet hates?

BC: I hate being short - everyone looks down at you. 

Favourite causes?

BC: My favourite cause is to defy online social networks!

Do you enjoy the process of writing? Have you started a new writing project? A new novel?

BC: Only in retrospect. Which may explain why I'm not so keen to chain myself to the desk yet again.

I like the earthy wisdom of Harare North's narrator. He deploys sayings like:

That's because money is like termite; you don't catch it by its head as it try to come out of its hole otherwise it go back and disappear. You just let it come out in the open and soon it is crawling all over the counter.

Are these sayings in common usage, or did you fashion them for this character?
BC: No, they are not that much used and I've also had to rework them a bit. Like, the one that you have picked - it comes from a Ndebele proverb but I had to extend it into a simile and use a termite in place of a flying ant - inhlwa - which sheds its wings after a while and go into the earth. 

Is the cultural treasury for Harare North more Ndebele than Shona, or is it a mixed grill?

BC: Oh, it's a completely mixed grill!

You have lived in London for a few years. Have you put down roots in Harare North? Or do you still return, will you still return, to the real Harare?

BC: I think I will try to be rootless for a while, if I can manage it. Putting down roots shuts all other options, which can be frightening. Maybe only after I've acquired a passport from the UK, Japan, China, Spain and Peru will I be ready to make a choice.

:   When you finally acquire a foreign passport, can you continue to moral justify the extent of your creative engagement with Zimbabwean politics and circumstances. Should Brown, rather than Mugabe not then become the predilection of your fiction? ... roots in other words?

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that positioning oneself globally can be interesting for your writing. And no because sometimes it's a matter of pragmatism - waving an African passport at an immigration officer in the world tends to triggers all manner of fights. Sometimes even when you land at an African country.

Any favourite novels or novelists?
BC: I am very drawn to Sembene but not just for his writing but his other works such as film. Stylistically speaking, he's my favourite.

Harare North
Copyright © African Writing Ltd & respective copyright owners. Enquiries to