NoViolet Bulawayo pays tribute to father at Zimbabwe book launch

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Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo launched her novel, We Need New Names, long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Awardto a gathering of about 100 people in her home country ahead of a busy schedule that sees her attending a host of high level literary festivals in the coming weeks.

In front of an audience made up of old high school friends and close family members – including sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces, Bulawayo paid special tribute to her 74-year-old father, Noel Tshele, who she praised as a “master storyteller” with an engaged relationship to language which has influenced her own foray into the world of telling stories.

“When I look in the mirror of my writer identity, I not only see myself, but I also see his shadow hovering there somewhere,” she said before asking him to stand up to applause from the audience. “In essence, I am because he is. And I am absolutely lucky to be his daughter and to have received all the gifts that he came with.”

Earlier in the year, Bulawayo returned to Zimbabwe for the first time after a 13-year-long hiatus. In an article she wrote after her trip, Bulawayo recounted the experience of seeing her father and other family members again, and of their ageing; something which she had largely observed from a distance through voice and images.

“I have tried to be what she needs in life, but of course, growing up, I couldn’t be all things to her,” said her father who expressed pride at Bulawayo’s achievements. Her assumed name (Bulawayo’s real name is Elizabeth Tshele) is a tribute to her mother, Violet, who died when Bulawayo was a baby. NoViolet means “with Violet”.

Filmmaker Rumbi Katedza joined Bulawayo on stage for an intimate conversation about Bulawayo’s debut novel which launched internationally in May to rave reviews.

“I look at this book as a national project as it’s the first Zimbabwean novel to be long listed for the Booker,” said Bulawayo who said she felt humbled and encouraged by the recognition.

Bulawayo also gave a short reading from the text to the gathering, which included a who’s who of the Zimbabwean arts with guests including Barbara Nkala, Jesese Mungoshi, Nevanji Madanhire, Ethel Kabwato and Batsirai Chigama.

Asked whether Bulawayo considers herself an “African writer”, an issue which has been discussed by a range of writers across the continent, including Zimbabwean author, Petina Gappah. In an article a few years ago, Gappah is quoted as saying that she did not see herself as an African writer because of the expectations that come with the identity.

“For me, I always insist that I am an African writer because it’s true; I am an African,” said Bulawayo. “I feel that even if I deny that label, my work will scream otherwise.” She added that her aesthetic and themes where all inspired by Africa and its modes of storytelling, including the oral tradition.

The launch was held at the British Council premises in Harare on Tuesday. The Zimbabwean edition of We Need New Names is published by Weaver Press. Buy a copy here.

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