Article published on June 8, 2018.
“Three days after arriving in Zimbabwe, Natalie discovers an abandoned newborn baby on a hill near her uncle’s farm. 115 years earlier, the hill was home to the Mazowe village where Chief Tafara governed at a time of great unrest. Faced with taxation, abductions and loss of their land at the hands of the white settlers, Tafara joined forces with the neighbouring villages in what becomes the first of many uprisings.”
After reading and reviewing A Child Called Happiness, Gill Chedgey interviewed author Stephan Collishaw about his connection with Zimbabwe, the role of real people and events in fiction, the power of dual narratives and his writing process:
Gill Chedgey: I’ve just read A Child Called Happiness and I enjoyed it very much. I was unfamiliar with your work prior to reading this book. My loss indeed. My first impression as I began the book was that you must have some deep connection with Zimbabwe. Is that so? And what was the motivation behind this book?
Stephan Collishaw: My first three novels have all been set in Eastern Europe, so this new novel is something of a departure for me. Geography and writing are intimately entwined; there is something special about places – different places have different atmospheres, and these, for me, are often intimately connected to their histories. The past is rarely indelibly erased; it continues to haunt a place. It is a part of the emotional geography of place. I am particularly interested in places in which one set of people have attempted to change the narrative course of a place, something that is common with the shifting borders in Eastern Europe. I first went to Africa in 1989. I was twenty and it was the first time I had ever been out of Britain. Zimbabwe was not just a new continent, it was a new world. It was a place I very much fell in love with – not just because of the extraordinary beauty of its physical geography, but because of the warmth and the generosity of the people I met there staying in villages and townships around the country. And as is always the case when you fall in love, you want to know everything, you want to discover the history of the one you have fallen for. Understanding who they are means understanding the journey they have been on to get to where they are. And so, A Child Called Happiness is a belated attempt to do that. To explore the history of a beautiful place. I did write a ‘Zimbabwean’ novel earlier on in my career, but then gave it to my brother, the artist Mat Collishaw for his opinion, but he left it on a train and I never got it back. It took me a few years to come back to it.
GC: A story such as this seems dependent upon authentic research. The descriptions and atmospheres created within the story are palpable. How did you go about your research? Obviously Robert Mugabe is a real person, but how much of the book is fact and how much is fiction? Did you visit Zimbabwe?
SC: I went to Zimbabwe a number of times in the late 1980s, early 1990s. I travelled the whole country, staying on the whole with local people in villages and townships. I got to see some of the wonderful sights of Zimbabwe, including the amazing ruins of a medieval town Great Zimbabwe, and the stunning Victoria Falls, but it was the villages and the townships that I really loved. There was one particular farm that I visited that has stuck particularly sharply in my memory. Separate buildings were allocated to specific roles. The kitchen was a traditionally built round hut with a conical thatched roof. The blood of an ox had been mixed with the clay used for the floor, which had been polished to a glorious dark shine. The walls were smoked to a beautiful shade and against the far wall locally produced pots had been stacked, looking like an art installation. It was stunningly beautiful, and something I had really not expected from a small farm out in the bush.
The novel is rooted in real events and there are some real characters who appear in it, like the spiritual leader of the first Shona rebellion, Nehanda. She was an inspirational figure in the late nineteenth century. And then, of course, there is Robert Mugabe. The history is as accurate as I could get it while shaping my story, though of course the majority of what I have written is fiction.
As a history graduate, I love the research element of writing a novel, but I really hope that very little of that research is evident when you actually read the story.
GC: As a reader, initially I found the dual storylines frustrating as I got so absorbed in one and then had to switch to another. But all became clear as I progressed through the story and I thought it was very cleverly done. Was this always the format you intended for the book?
SC: The intertwining of the stories is, I think, thematically important. The two narratives – the stories of these two sets of people who have inhabited the land – reflect each other. Both sets of people experience a loss.
GC: I enjoyed the impartiality you write with. As a reader I never felt I was invited to ‘take sides’ as such, although I felt encouraged to understand all perspectives. But I imagine it must have been hard not to be partisan during some of the events described in the book. Was this so?
SC: I was particularly pleased that Philip Barclay, a British writer and diplomat, who knows a lot more about the subject than I do had kind words to say about the novel and felt that I managed to achieve a ‘balanced treatment of an emotive issue’. Though he noted that the issue would ‘challenge and provoke many readers.’ We’ll see. We often seek to simplify our world into the good guys and the bad guys, the heroes and the villains; my writing has always attempted to break down those barriers. Good people can often do bad things and bad people can sometime be right and achieve good things. That is not to say that I think there is no such thing as right and wrong, or good and evil, but just that as humans we rarely sit easily in categories. I’m not sure that the novel is about the rights and the wrongs of the often bloody history of Zimbabwe, it is about the stories of people caught up in these conflicts.
GC: Very often in fiction some of the lesser characters appear as no more than functional. But in A Child Called Happiness I found them to have their own voice and persona. Was this intentional or part of your intrinsic writing ability?
SC: Thank you, that’s very good to hear. I love the characters in my novels. I live with them for a long time as I build the novel. Characters do take on a life of their own. You can be planning for a character to do something in chapter twenty, and then when you get to that part of the novel, the character says to you, that’s ridiculous my character would never do something like that. As a writer you feel like saying, ‘Well tough luck, that’s what I’ve planned for you.’ But then it’s a lie. And you know it, so you can’t do that anymore, you have to bend your will to the integrity of your character. The minor characters in novels are often as important as the main ones and will often fight for their space. Certainly, when I wrote The Last Girl a very minor character just demanded to be explored and he found himself central to the next novel I wrote.
GC: Could you tell us a little about how you approach the act of writing? Do you store up ideas? Or do you act upon one the instant it manifests itself? Do you have any writing rituals or routines?
SC: I have a notebook and I write down ideas in that whenever I can. Often I write them down and then lose the notes, but the fact that they have been written stores them somewhere in the back of my brain. And that it is the best place for them to be, because then they start talking to the other ideas I’ve had and they start sparking off each other, or merge, and the novel I actually write is an amalgam of different things I’ve planned. I don’t have any particular writing rituals. The most important thing for me is to switch off the internal critic who constantly peers over my shoulder telling me how rubbish my writing is. Self-consciousness is the enemy of writing. A glass of whiskey helps sometimes.
GC: I did some cursory googling as you were unfamiliar to me and Wikipedia described your genre as ‘Historical’. Is this a fair description? Is that how you would describe yourself?
SC: All four of my novels have been historical dramas, but I don’t think you have to be interested in history to enjoy them. Personally, I love history, but I really try to make sure that all of my research is as unobtrusive as possible.
GC: I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer so a question I always ask is if you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears, if any?
SC: So many books have moved me. The first novel I remember falling in love with was Middlemarch by George Elliot, which seems a little odd in retrospect. I was seventeen when I first read it. I had failed my GCSEs not once but twice and was employed as an office junior on a Youth Training Scheme. I would nip off to the toilets to read it. I read it three times before I was twenty. A totally different book that moved me was Anne Michaels Fugitive Pieces. The first time I read it I was very sniffy about the overtly poetic style, even reading sections out to my wife ironically. However, when I finished it, I reopened it at the beginning and read it all over again, which is the first and only time that I have ever done that. I think the feeling of loss and grief in the novel and its meditation on memory are themes similar to those I often find myself exploring in my own writing. If not so beautifully as Michaels.
GC: Finally, are you at liberty to tell us what you are working on at the moment?
SC: I’m working on a new novel and it is slowly finding its shape. Very slowly. I also run a small press which specialises in publishing translated fiction from the Baltic countries, specifically Lithuanian fiction. We’ve brought out a number of superb novels written by award winning novelists who have never been published in English before. Late last year we published Shtetl Love Song by the internationally acclaimed Grigory Kanovich and in July we will be publishing the award winning Lithuanian-Ukrainian novelist Jaroslavas Melnikas’ collection of short stories, The Last Day. You can find out more at www.noirpress.co.uk.
A Child Called Happiness by Stephan Collishaw
Legend Press 9781787198814 pbk May 2018
Our thanks to both Stephen and Gill for this excellent Q&A.
SECOND OPINION: A Child Called Happiness by Stephan Collishaw
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