On Day 2 of our International Women’s Day 2017 interview series, we hear from writer and activist Grace Mutandwa.
Click here for the first interview in the series.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘Oh yes I want to be a writer.’ What I do remember is that in junior school I wrote the most creative compositions in class and it made me happy. I think from a very early age if I was not reading I liked writing stories. Going into journalism just seemed like the most normal thing for me and eventually writing a novel and contributing to various books just felt very comfortable. I cannot put a place and date to the full realisation that I wanted to be a writer because all I know is that it is something I just slid into and I felt at home.
How have your experiences as a woman and your experiences as a writer collided?
I am confident in so many ways but as a woman and a writer sometimes I am not always sure that the story I have to tell has a readership. I battle with some of the stories inside me because I wonder if they are not “too woman” or “too revealing of my soul”. I am at ease with my womanhood but struggle with how some of the women around me would relate to the stories I have locked up inside my heart and head. I find that I judge and criticise myself more harshly than I should and that makes me falter at times. I am a woman with an opinion and not scared to put it in the public domain and as a writer that fulfils me but does not necessarily satisfy some readers who believe truth should be reshaped or avoided in writing. As a woman what I write is analysed and criticised more by fellow women and ironically embraced by men. I have to work three times harder than male writers to prove that I can write stories that resonate with everyday life. I have to withstand the withering attacks of male privilege that seek to trivialise women’s issues.
A lot of women writers for whome we have worked have faced threats of violence or experienced violence, which is another form of censorship. How do gender roles as perceived in society impact the topics you feel you can write about and what the characters in your books can do? In other words, do you feel that gender roles can restrict writers and what they write about?
I am a non-conformist. I am daring and curious. I am sensitive towards minority rights and sometimes I feel drawn to write more about issues that affect those whose rights are threatened. As a newspaper columnist I have written about gay rights and received death and “corrective rape” threats and insults via email but it has not scared me off speaking up about gay rights. I am currently working on a book whose main protagonist is a lesbian and I am quite certain when the book is eventually out I will be subjected to all sorts of threats and insults but I am too old to care and I believe in standing up for something. Women writers who are ambivalent about how they might be perceived if they don’t restrict themselves to the “nice and tame” roles demanded by patriarchy will most certainly have problems getting their characters to mimic real life. We live in a beautiful but dangerous, cruel, dirty, violent and sexually explosive world where things are not always black or white – there are grey areas and splashes of bold colour too. I find writing exciting and stimulating when I am true to myself and when I address the world frankly.
Who was the first female character that you read that really inspired you and why?
The late Florence Onyebuchi “Buchi” Emecheta in her autobiography Head Above Water inspired and motivated me to be a writer. Her character spoke to the sacrifices black African women have to make in foreign lands while struggling to meet cultural demands and expectations. She fought hard to remain true to her values but also made the tough decision to put her needs first. In an unforgiving patriarchal society that had (still has) a reach that followed her all the way to the United Kingdom, Buchi was way ahead of her time in the battle for space to grow and for equality. If she was here today, she would be in the trenches not just holding up the banner; “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030,” but actively pushing the barriers that keep popping up in gender parity. Warm and soft, she exuded a strength of character that I admire.
Does story-telling have the power to challenge social injustice?
It does, especially if you believe that our words are powerful – they can make or break a person. We use words to build or destroy and in story-telling we both infuse and extract value. My father told me folk stories told to him by his parents when he was a child. They taught me about both the wise and foolish ways of man and the world. I learnt right from wrong from story-telling. In Africa we have a long tradition of instilling values of social justice through story telling. Sure, stories are told to entertain too but they always have a moral. Story-telling has the power to challenge social injustice and to encourage and nurture people on the importance of social justice in a democratic society.
What book should every girl read?
Definitely Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the late Ngugi wa Mirii. Set in post-colonial Kenya this is a story whose narrative still holds true to some of the struggles post-colonial Africa is still facing. Navigating between tradition, Christianity, holding onto ancestral land and trying to embrace change brought on by urbanisation is an ongoing battle. The simmering tensions of political dissent and social classes still abound. Every girl should read I Will Marry When I Want at the start of their journey in creating a space for themselves in fighting for how resources are shared, decisions are made and where and how they should fit into social justice and governance issues. Every girl should read it and vow never to be invisible but to stand up and be heard.
Click here for the next interview in the series.