Those who remember NoViolet Bulawayo as an SMU graduate student in the mid-2000s will likely recall a talented young woman who spoke rarely and modestly. They will not be surprised to learn, however, that it is that it is often the quiet women who have the most to say.
Today, Bulawayo is Truman Capote Fellow at Cornell University where she earned her MFA and where she now teaches creative writing and composition. Most impressive, though, is her recent success outside of the classroom as the 12th recipient of the prestigious Caine Prize. Awarded annually for a short story written in English by an African writer, The Caine Prize is Africa's most distinguished literary award, founded in the UK by the late Sir Michael Caine of the Booker Group.
First published in The Boston Review in November/December 2010, Bulawayo's winning story "Hitting Budapest" sweeps a reader back to her Zimbabwean roots where empty bellies and bare feet are a tacit implication behind every line.
Bulawayo is authentic, eloquent and empowered; like a knife to the throat, her prose halts the breath, leaving the reader immobile -- waiting, begging for the next line. Her writing feels effortless, but wields the palpable force of a thousand pens. As if amplified through a bullhorn, this meek SMU girl who so rarely spoke up in class is now a formidable voice in both academia and literature.
NoViolet Bulawayo was gracious enough to return eager emails, and speak about Africa, her talent, and her recent success after the jump.
I know the Cain Prize requires that the stories submitted for selection are written in English. Do you write exclusively in English? I'm just now starting to write in IsiNdebele, my native language, but for the most part I write in English which has always given me the permission to speak what is otherwise unspoken or unspeakable in my own tongue. While not being myfirst language it's still my country's official language as well as an "international" language which is of course quite useful for a writer whois trying to cross borders.
I would guess that you are very young, particularly for someone who has achieved such success (both as a Capote Fellow at Cornell and as a artist). How long have you been writing creatively? I'm not that young, but I've been writing ever since I took my first creative class at 18. I made a decision at that point that every semester in college would find me enrolled in a creative writing class and I was lucky to work with teachers who were very encouraging. This gave me the courage to stick to the plan until I was able to go for my MFA at Cornell.
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I've read in interviews that part of your mission as a writer is to inspire young people from Zimbabwe and all of Africa. Is this purposefully in mind when you sit down to write, or do you find it, rather, coming up organically as you start to put together stories? Part of why I write is because I was inspired by those who came before me and I do realize that as a writer coming from a country with very very few women writers for example, it is my unspoken responsibility to try and improve the situation. To that end I'm looking to start a summer writing workshop in Zimbabwe where I'd go and teach/work with writers when I'm not teaching here in the US. I'm at the early planning stages at the moment and am hoping to get the support I need to make this a success. In terms of my work itself being inspiring I'd say that happens organically; I don't sit down and take pains to make it happen.
Can you tell our readers a bit about what you are working on now and when they might be able to find you next in print? I've recently finished work on a novel, a tiny section of which actually came from my SMU days where I worked with the amazing David Haynes (I must say I'd had quite a few wonderful teachers but he was the first to take me very seriously as a writer thereby changing my work ethic and the way I saw myself and I can't thank him enough). I've also started work on an AIDS memoir, something I'm very much passionate about as somebody who has lost a lot of family members to the disease; as we speak Zimbabwe's life expectancy for women is around 33.5 so of course that's a cause for concern. I'm also trying to do work in film -- I guess I'm just busy at the moment but I'm doing what I love doing and couldn't be happier!