Promoting women’s literature

M.C: Who are the Zimbabwe Women Writers?

ACC: ZIMBABWE WOMEN WRITERS is an arts and culture trust, concerned particularly with the promotion of women’s literature in Zimbabwe.

MC: Why and how were you founded?

ACC: Zimbabwe Writers Union (ZIWU) that existed and still exists to cater for the needs of all writers, did not quite meet women writers expectations.

MC: Where men and women writers fighting in ZIWU?

ACC: There was no animosity really, but, for instance, meetings would be held in spaces that were not very women friendly and the meeting times would also be out of the question – say 7pm after work.

This was just not conducive to women, who as you know have multiple tasks as mothers and custodians of their homes. When it came to workshoping and publishing, the men being the decision makers, obviously had an edge over their female counterparts.

A handful of women came together to found an association that would specifically cater for their needs in terms of building their capacity through their their writings through publishing as well as providing the forum for moral support, among other things.

MC: Who are some of these founding women?

ACC: Barbara Nkala, Tawona Mtshiya, Chiedza Msengezi, Collette Mutangadura, Virginia Phiri and others. Even women from outside, resident in Zimbabwe at that time, helped a lot. I am thinking of the great writer Ama Ata Aidoo, the German scholar Flora Wild and lawyer, Mary Tandon

MC: What have been your major publications so far?

ACC: One of our earliest books is There is Room at the Top (1995). This five- book series sought the biographies of women who had scored firsts in male dominated spheres. This project was key in building role models for the girl child in a context that she can identify with.

Then there are short story collections; Masimba (Shona) and Vus’inkophe (Ndebele) both of (1996). They were compiled in acknowledgement of the Convention of Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Among Women (CEDAW).

I can also single out works of poetry like Nhetembo(in Shona) and Inkondlo( in Ndebele).

MC: Is the poetry book the same book, Ngatisimuke which is a school reading text?

ACC:Incidentally we had to reprint, revamp and recast the Shona poetry Nhetembo into Ngatisimuke so that it could be more user friendly for O level students.

Similarly with Masimba, which is an A level text. Then there is Women of Resilience(200) and 2003 the stories of women in prison titled A Tragedy of Lives(2003). Our most recent set of publications are creative narratives on HIV andAIDS.

MC: A Tragedy of Lives, what inspired it?

ACC: It is a book that tells the experiences of some women prisoners in Zimbabwe. The organisation, through various experiences with prison in different capacities, (as counsellors, as relatives to prisoners, as having lived with people who worked in prison etc) felt that this was an untapped area.

Surely what were society’s attitudes towards a mother, wife, daughter- in-law and sister who had been incarcerated?

What about the children who went in with her – how would that shape their world view? Indeed a lot of issues and people -women who had been in prison, inspired the project which resulted in the book – A Tragedy of Lives.

MC: Which, among your texts do you consider more successful and why?

ACC: So far it is A Tragedy of Lives. Not only has it stirred the debate that all good literature should, but also we have actually seen spin offs from the project.

Through that book we persuade society to look at the driving force behind crimes generally committed by women.

Partly through our book, the conditions in prison (which by the way, were designed for men,) have been reviewed and I think authorities have and continue to work at improving them to be more accommodating to women.

Women prisoners’ children who in the past, would literally serve the sentence with their mothers, have since begun attending a play centre, which was constructed by a Christian organisation on reading our book.

As we speak, there are plans to establish an open prison system for women in Marondera not withstanding the proposal of community service as punishment for offending women instead of incarceration.

MC: Describe the processes and challenges of putting together A Tragedy of Lives.

ACC: It was a long process. I was not in administration then, but I participated in the project. Firstly, having agreed as an organisation on the project, funding had to be sought.

CIDA were glad to partner with us. Then came the clearance with the authorities. The Zimbabwe Prison Services were very helpful -we got permission to interview the prisoners.

We also got connected to other organisations that work with prisoners such as ZACRO and Zimbabwe Prison Fellowship, who connected us to ex-prisoners.

MC: But do you have capacity for research?

ACC: We are great believers in networking so we also worked with some researchers. Jill Makarati who was with the Ministry of Justice was doing her research on the prisons system and she provided us with a lot of insights.

We also worked closely with the women’s Law Centre and the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network.

MC: Does that mean you people also went into prisons?

ACC: Yes and it certainly was not a piece of cake. Interviewing the subjects in a prison environment was not easy as they sometimes showed discomfort.

Those who had finished their sentences and were interviewed outside prison were more open. We all learnt that women commit crimes usually not out of mere delinquency, but in an effort to meet their responsibilities as mothers – to fend for their families.

A few have committed crimes out of gross pain resulting from maltreatment by society -but generally, women are concerned about putting food on the table for their families and being able to give their children quality life.

MC: Any other technicalities?

ACC: Prior to going to print, in fact at all stages, we sought legal and technical advice from the experts, to ensure that our book would not be labelled as libellous as well as cross-checking similar facts which interviewees from different prisons raised.

MC: How has this book been received?

ACC: The book has been well received. The Zimbabwe Prison Service in training their prioson officers is currently using it as a resource book. It is also a recommended text in some tertiary institutions.

The Women’s Law Centre uses it also. Recently it was selected as an A level text for the 2008 examinations. It has received a lot of reviews in all media in Zimbabwe and I know abroad it was well received – in Zambia they indicated that they were using it as a resource book in one of their colleges.

MC: Women of Resilience is a bold topic for a book, which resilient women are these? I ask because recently it was a centre for discussion at one literary evening in Harare.

ACC: In this book we interview women combatants from the Zimbabwe war of liberation. We sought to write the history of the liberation struggle from a women’s perspective.

To portray women not only as collaborators, but also as actual participants at the battlefront.

One of the major highlights of the book is the stigma that the women who went to war have had to live with. While the men are celebrated as heroes, the women are ostracised because somehow they ‘went beyond femininity’

MC: What is at the core of this book?

ACC: It I amazing that almost all the interviewees seem to concur that 1980 was not a destination, but perhaps the starting point for women’s struggles in other areas in life.

Your question is timely in that I can actually refer to the current domestic violence bill under the spotlight – that again is a woman’s struggle for safety and security within the home that she has made.

MC: I also see that for sometime now you have been winning national literary prizes, sometimes ahead of some very established authors and established literary houses. Which prizes are outstanding and tell me?

ACC: We have been thrilled at winning Zimbabwe Book Publishers Awards, National Arts and Merits Awards in two consecutive years, and special mention in various categories.

We have won for the best published research work on Arts/ Culture with A Tragedy of Lives in 2003, then in 2004 Masimba was recognised as one of ZIBF’s 75 best books, Ngatisimuke: nhapitapi yenhorimbo won the 2005 second prize in the ZBPA literary Awards for best fiction. Totanga Patsva won the 2006 National Arts Merits Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Fiction. The same book won the ZBPA awards at the recently ended book Fair.

MC: How do you do it?

ACC: I think the secret really is in the diversity of our work – we have members who respond to calls for creative works at any given point in time. While most are generally talented writers, the writing skills workshops, which we conduct regularly among the branches, are also responsible for the high quality manuscripts we receive for each of the projects.

MC: You did three book on AIDS recently. Tell me about that project .

ACC: It is a project which we did in partnership with the National AIDS council in commemoration of World AIDS Day.

We produced three fictional titles on AIDS related issues from our mebers. These are Totanga Patsva, ValaSingafohleli Lesisilo and Light A Candle. We felt that disguised as light reading, the stories would explore the importance of breaching the subject at different levels, seeing HIV and AIDS in realistic set ups, as well as leaving the readers somehow informed about prevention, treatment and care.

MC: The EU bought a record number of copies ever sold on any title in Zim. It was in the news. Tell me about it.

ACC: The EU undertook that purchase as one of its ways of showing its commitment to the fight against the epidemic.

The books were bought to furnish libraries in schools which receive EU support through the Education Transition Reform Programme. We supplied them with all the three titles. They have already begun distributing them in schools.

MC: What are your links with other writers’ orgs like you in the region?

ACC: We have fairly strong networking partnerships with other writers’ organisations in Zimbabwe and in the region we communicate with Women Writing South Africa and of course Femrite in Uganda, which was born out of our mentorship. We are in the process of establishing other links with other women’s writing organisations to enable to strengthen our voices.

During the Women Writing Africa Project, coordinated by the Feminist Press in the USA, we participated extensively with Chiedza Musengezi, Collette Mutangadura and Virginia Phiri, among others, as some of the editors. Most of the Zimbabwean resources were our members.

MC: From Here, what is the way forward?

ACC: Ours is to continue promoting the voices of women in print, to uphold our values as women, as a people demanding the respect that we deserve and registering our presence in all spheres that affect our lives.

MC: Any other thing you want to say?

ACC: when you write, it is for posterity. Thank you.

December 2006
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