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Author brings Harare to London

By Nikki Jecks
BBC World Service

The challenge of making a fresh start in Britain is the subject of a darkly comic and fast-paced new novel, Harare North, by Zimbabwean writer Brian Chikwava.

FROM THE BBC WORLD SERVICE
Brian Chikwava in Brixton

The novel is set in Brixton in south London, and it offers a view of London as seen through the eyes of its migrant population, particularly Africa's dispossessed.

Hence, Harare North, the title and ironic name the book's unnamed hero gives to London.

He arrives in London as an illegal immigrant hoping to make enough money to pay off his debts and bribe his way out of a series of charges he is facing back in Zimbabwe.

He plans to stay just long enough to achieve this, hoping to return quickly to Zimbabwe - the land made great, he believes, by his idol Robert Mugabe.

While he is in London, the Zimbabwean dollar begins its perilous descent, and his unflinching support of Robert Mugabe begins to cause problems among his new found friends.

But the author says the novel is not about Zimbabwean politics and British immigration policy.

Instead, he says it is about the people his narrator meets on the streets of Brixton and in the illegal squat that eventually becomes his home.

"What I was trying to bring out is almost a different class of urban people who exist...this kind of underclass of people living in very squalid conditions and trying to make ends [meet] under very difficult circumstances," says Chikwava.

"They are hidden from view, this is what I find interesting."

Anti-hero

The narrator of the story is a surprisingly unsympathetic character - a crooked, ex-militia member, and strong supporter of Robert Mugabe.

Brian Chikwava
I wasn't really trying to get people to feel sorry for them or eliciting any sympathy, but just as a way of saying, here is a different life
Brian Chikwava

He is an unexpected and unlikely hero for Zimbabwe's displaced and sometimes forgotten Diaspora - perhaps more anti-hero than hero.

"He really is not a nice person, the way he looks at the world is sometimes completely screwed. It can be hilarious and you end up empathising from that point of view," says Chikwava.

But he says creating such an unlikely hero and narrator enabled him to explore people and communities that often get overlooked.

"I wasn't really trying to get people to feel sorry for them or eliciting any sympathy, but just as a way of saying, here is a different life," he says.

"Sometimes you see people walking past or through the streets, especially here [in London] and sometimes you've got no idea how this person lives or how they survive."

Brixton, he says, was the perfect place to situate the novel because of its eclectic mix of people and communities.

"The crowd has changed over the years, but when I first started going there, it was really such a mixed crowd of people, homeless people, asylum seekers and people from all over the world."

Fresh start

Chikwava was born in Bulawayo and spent his later years in Harare, before moving to London about five years ago.

He himself knows what it's like to land in a foreign country with few friends and hoping for a fresh start.

"Sometimes it is hard, especially in a land where people don't really know how things work. They just have to survive one way or the other."

"This is the case with a lot of Zimbabweans who have left the country for economic reasons, they just come and want to find a job and survive...they just try to make ends meet in whichever way they can."

Chikwava left Zimbabwe because he says it didn't provide him with the opportunities to work creatively and experiment.

Brian Chikwava takes us on a tour of Brixton

The introduction of legislation which prevented gatherings of groups of 12 people of more also made it difficult for Harare's literary community to share experiences and ideas.

Despite this, Chikwava says Zimbabwe remains a stimulating place.

"Just being there, you sometimes get a sense of being overwhelmed by watching things just go badly and it's very hard to balance observing things going badly and your own personal feelings, and even a bit of anger at seeing things fall apart."

That anger has paid dividends.

He won the annual Caine Prize for African writing in 2004 for his book Seventh Street Alchemy about a prostitute living in Harare.

In awarding him first prize, the judges described it as: "A very strong narrative in which Brian Chikwava of Zimbabwe claims the English language as his own, and English with African characteristics."

This time round he is not really sure what his new novel is about, but he is sure of the voice.

"If there is a message, I've yet to work it out myself," he laughs.

"It was really a story I decided to write, because the moment I found the voice, I thought I would just follow it through, because I found it interesting, and see where it takes me."



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