If there was any doubt about the importance and necessity of an imprint like BlackBird Books, the launch of Panashe Chigumadzi’s debut novel Sweet Medicine came and washed it away. The massive crowd of young, eager black readers welcomed this new author with open arms as she joined SAfm’s Shado Twala in conversation at The Book Lounge less than a fortnight ago.
This was the first of what one hopes to be many celebrations of Sweet Medicine, with other launches having been postponed due to Chigumadzi’s solidarity with student protests that dominated the country last month.
“Black women – I have never seen this many in Cape Town before in my life,” Chigumadzi said, inciting a round of applause and ululation. When asked where they had heard about the event and novel, the crowd confirmed Twala’s suspicions – social media.
Chigumadzi is a Ruth First Fellow and delivered a poignant and somewhat controversial speech entitled “Coconuts Behaving Badly and Militantly” during the annual Ruth First Memorial Lectures at Wits University in August. “I think there will be an expectation to get a taste of that in your book. Does it exist?” Twala asked, opening the conversation. Chigumadzi explained that she wrote, and started, Sweet Medicine long before she had any of the politics that she has now. She went on to say that she prefers verbalising her political stances in essays and articles rather than in fiction. “I think I respect the audience enough not to make this a thinly veiled critical essay.”
Sweet Medicine is set in Zimbabwe, but, Chigumadzi stressed, it is not about Zimbabwe. “I think that’s a lot of the things we talk about in black feminist politics and Black Consciousness – how do we reimagine ourselves?” She explained that for her personally, within the fiction space, she found that writing about race is very difficult without being guilty of lecturing or being boxed into a certain category. Setting the book in Zimbabwe allowed the story to develop without consideration for things like whiteness and race in the way you necessarily have to when looking at South Africa, where it is very visible.
“There is something freeing about writing in a different context, where I write about black people without having to consider if there’s a boss if it’s a white boss or a black boss,” Chigumadzi said, illustrating that a “Ruth First novel” would have been too tricky and tedious for her to write.
Where concepts like feminism and patriarchy are concerned, especially in the novel, Twala noted that they are never addressed full-on, yet are always there. “I think, for a lot of us, particularly in the last couple of months, the last couple of years, it has been a process of conscientising. We find the words to describe what we have been going through. So, it’s not as if we didn’t have the same inclinations, it’s that you have the words to describe what you are seeing,” the young author explained.
These words come to young South Africans through social media and the use of tools like Google, outside academic spaces. “I know a lot of people knock that as a space of conscientising, but I started seeing the words intersectionality and privilege and all of that and I’d think ‘hmm, what is this?’ and I’d go and Google and find links upon links; I learnt it outside an academic environment,” Chigumadzi said.
Google is a great tool to remember when reading Sweet Medicine, which includes a lot of Shona or Zimbabwean references. “There’s a lot of Shona in the book, and I didn’t battle much in getting the gist of some of the words being said, and I found it exciting that I could go and look up the words. In fact, we should all be able to speak Shona,” Twala said, to which Chigumadzi replied in jest: “You should, there’s so many of us here! More than there are Chinese people.”
This book was written for a Zimbabwean audience in South Africa, first and foremost, and the author did not want to explain as if to a tourist what certain things meant. If you can’t deduce it from the context you can ask your Zimbabwean friend or co-worker. We learn cultures by listening to and observing others, she said, and she wanted readers to learn about her home country in a non-confrontational way. An editor read the book and complained there were too many things she did not understand, to which Chigumadzi just replied, “Good thing you are not my audience.”
Naturally, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s name came up. “I knew her first, before Beyoncé, before she blew up, I knew her,” Chigumadzi said, sharing her first encounter with the Purple Hibiscus author when she was on exchange in Australia in Grade 10. “That just really stuck by me, to see myself in there.” This discovery led to many Google searches where the young author was captivated by, among other things, the image Adichie portrayed when she accepted the Orange Prize for Fiction for Half of a Yellow Sun in 2007. This made Chigumadzi believe that she, as an African woman, could do it too – she could also be who she was and say what she wanted to say and be successful. “[Adichie was] the person who really, really made me decide that I want to write.”
The conversation was incredibly rich and vast, paused only for enchanting readings by the author herself, and difficult to sum up. Listen to the recording for Chigumadzi’s thoughts on feminism; modern religion; storytelling; the various characters, themes and soundtrack of the book (“Mugove” by by Zimbabwean artist Leonard Zhakata); LGBTQI issues; writing and more. She also shared why Tony Gum absolutely had to grace the cover and spoke about the relationship between Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Listen to the podcast:
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Helené Prinsloo (@helenayp) tweeted live from the launch using the hashtag #SweetMedicine:
Listen to the theme song on Sweet Medicine while you scroll through the Facebook album: