In an interview with Conversations with Writers, the Zimbabwean author Lilian Masitera talks about the background to and influences behind her work.
Lilian Masitera is a woman of many talents.
She is a lecturer-in-charge in the Mathematics Department at Belvedere Technical Teachers College in Harare, a novelist, short story writer and poet.
In 1989, while teaching at Queen Elizabeth High School in Harare, she formulated a way through which the vertical angles of cones could be calculated. The formula was accepted as original by the University of Stanford in the United States and is now widely used by high school students.
In 1994, she was among a group of women who published the first anthology of poems and short stories by Zimbabwean female writers. The anthology was described by local critics as ‘a landmark in the history of Zimbabwean literature’. In 1997 she received a merit award from the International Society of Poets for her poem, ‘Enter the Teetotaler’, which also appears in Militant Shadow (Minerva Press, 1996).
In an interview originally published in Mahogany (November/December 1999), Lilian Masitera spoke about her writing:
What made you publish Now I Can Play on your own?
I submitted the seven stories that make up Now I Can Play to a local publishing house a year or so ago. The editor who was handling the stories later informed me that the publishing house was not in a position to publish a collection of short stories from a single writer. Instead they wanted to do an anthology from a number of different writers. Some of my stories would be included in the anthology. Another four were going to be used in an English textbook for secondary schools. The publishing house had also taken another story, ‘Eleven Twice’ and translated it into Shona for publication in a Shona textbook. Although I let them keep my stories and choose what they wanted, I am tired of anthologies. I have been in so many of them with my poetry, so I decided to go solo and publish the collection of short stories on my own.
Did you ever consider sending the manuscript to another publisher?
Minerva Press wanted to publish it. They had accepted the manuscript but I have a problem with being published abroad. My readership is here in Africa but the books don't get here. For them to be available locally, for them to be read here I have to order them myself and it's expensive.
Why Now I Can Play?
Because the whole collection is about women who have fought, won or lost and who say Now I Can Play. For example, there is a schoolgirl who gets raped by her teacher and ends up having an abortion. The story looks at events that led to the abortion.
How autobiographical are your writings?
A lot of what I have written is, to some degree, autobiographical. They are things I have experienced, things I have rubbed shoulders with. I believe I am writing better because of this first-hand experience. Also, it is not too difficult for me to figure out how other people I work with, people I live with, people who were in my childhood, feel. I use them as ingredients in many cases. It is going to be difficult for me to write something totally fictitious.
When did you start writing?
I was writing when I was at school. When I gave what I wrote to other people to read, they enjoyed it. One or two people were shocked by what they read. I remember a composition I wrote once, when I was at secondary school. I went to a girls' school. At the bottom of my composition the teacher wrote, ‘See me.’
When I went to see her, she pointed out some paragraphs which she said were indecent. I remember she told me, ‘Nice girls don't write like that.’
Did you deliberately try to be shocking?
No, not at all. In my composition I had said something about gonads. I didn't realize the impact it would have on the white nun who took us for English. At that time I thought I could write about anything, especially when you write in English — things don't appear as rude or as shocking as when you write them in Shona.
Why do you think this is so?
I suppose it has to do with the place of certain words in culture. You find that in Shona we do not have any words on the reproductive system that can be spoken. You don't refer to certain parts of the anatomy, even to breasts, without causing embarrassment, but in English when I came across them it was in the context of Biology where you draw diagrams and labelled them. Also, some people who use English as their mother language casually throw sexual swear words in their association with people who use English as their second language. So we have learnt them as things which are not vulgar.
What would you say compels you to write?
There are many reasons. I want to share my experiences with others. I want people who read my books to know that what they go through is also experienced by others. I want others to experience the same joy I experienced when I read other people's books, and yes — writing is a compulsion, an addiction.
* This interview appears courtesy of Conversations with Writers. If you are a writer interested in participating, please contact Ambrose Musiyiwa.
* Lilian Masitera is the author of Militant Shadow and Now I Can Play.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.