Academic and author of The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe, Simukai Chigudu, is expanding his writing beyond traditional academia and into narrative nonfiction: ‘I hesitated about making this move, questioning whether this is the kind of writing I “should” be doing and fearing how the world might react.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
My early encounters with literature veered haphazardly through many different genres and styles that it is hard to neatly characterize the kinds of book I read. At the more exalted end of the spectrum, I read bestselling literary fiction from India that my mother purchased from Schiphol, Jomo Kenyatta or Heathrow airports during her extensive travels. Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Rohinton Mistry were on my bookshelves; I was in awe of their command of language but didn’t understand their works as a whole. The context was too far removed from my own to be intelligible to me at the time.
I dipped into white writing about Africa, both memoir and autofiction written by the likes of Peter Godwin and Bryce Courtenay. I enjoyed these books, but they left little room for me to imagine myself in literature, even when set in Africa. And then, at school, I met Chinua Achebe in English and Albert Camus in French, whom I continue to read today. But I also need to shout out a 1990s craze in many middle-class African homes to read the canonical self-help books that became cultural markers of America’s can-do, entrepreneurial ethos. As a remnant of that era, I still re-read the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey from time to time—it contains a rare wisdom despite the kitsch of the self-help genre.
What do the best self-help books/authors excel at?
In the case of Stephen Covey, I find his work most persuasive when he illuminates just how much agency we can exercise as human beings over our choices even in highly challenging circumstances. This is not to downplay the forces outside our control but to push against a passive acceptance of the world as it is.
You are currently an associate professor of African politics at Oxford University. What’s a book/text everyone should read before taking your class?
I teach a course on the politics of epidemics in Africa, and we always begin with Thabo Mbeki’s controversial speech at the international AIDS conference in Durban in 2000. It is full of ideas—some profound, some indefensible. But, as a document, it is an incredibly useful aide to think with as it shows how politics and epidemics meet in Africa.
And what are your students currently reading?
I am currently on sabbatical, but during this time I have been developing a new syllabus on decolonization after empire. In this course, I want my students to read across scholarly and literary texts to grasp the legacies of colonialism in the modern world. We will read Adom Getachew’s political history of anti-colonial thinking in the Black Atlantic alongside novels like Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. My aim is to show the interconnections between different aspects of the global Black experience and contemplate what this opens up for our current conceptions of social identity, geography and political imagination.
I dipped into white writing about Africa, both memoir and autofiction written by the likes of Peter Godwin and Bryce Courtenay. I enjoyed these books, but they left little room for me to imagine myself in literature, even when set in Africa.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
Perhaps, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which is a modern classic having been published in 1979. In this book, we meet an African American woman who, through some mysterious power, is repeatedly pulled back in time to the antebellum south to save a white boy on a Maryland plantation. This forces a confrontation with race and the hideous, raw excesses of White supremacy. Moving backwards and forwards through time, our protagonist oscillates between slavery and freedom. Imagine a similar book set in Africa, moving between the contemporary moment and some historical epoch while exploring how freedom and time both intersect and can be severed from each other—this is what I would (re)write…. if I could!
What’s one way the pandemic has changed your reading tastes/habits?
I have read a lot more during the pandemic. This has been a small gain during a period of unfathomable loss. I have read fiction, narrative nonfiction, memoir, travelogues, and essays. A novelty has been the time to luxuriate in long books that reward patience and attention. During the UK’s first lockdown, I devoured Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, which was my favourite read of last year. It is a dense, richly rendered masterpiece that spans different generations of characters and brings southern Africa to life with such a unique voice. I felt similarly when I finally read Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance a few months ago; a heart-breaking but profoundly beautiful work of historical fiction set during India’s emergency of the 1970s and 80s. (I should mention that I read all 700 pages of Obama’s presidential memoir in a matter of days; for all my equivocations about the Obama legacy, his book was a gift to the political scientist in me.)
You’ve lived in the UK for over a decade now. What’s the most interesting observation you’ve made about the UK in this time?
The social grammar of the UK can be tough to decipher. It takes a long time to make sense of the workings of language, of class, of how people relate to each other. But, as difficult as it can be to make sense of this country, it can also offer a lot of opportunities once you’ve cracked it.
I have read a lot more during the pandemic. This has been a small gain during a period of unfathomable loss.
What’s the last book/article you disagreed with, and why?
Earlier this year, I reviewed a book, Epidemic Illusions: On the Coloniality of Global Public Health, by the Harvard-based physician-anthropologist, Eugene Richardson. I fully agreed with the book’s core argument that global public health is a fundamentally conservative endeavour, founded in colonialism, that preserves and reproduces social hierarchy at a global scale. My disagreement was with the book’s form. It is not a conventional book. Epidemic Illusions is experimental: a ‘pseudomonograph’ presented in ‘carnivalesque’ fashion. In lieu of chapters are ‘redescriptions’. Each ‘redescription’ inverts a familiar feature of global public health practice and invites us to look at it from a new angle. The conceit is clever but, too often, this approach comes across as a performative showcase of the author’s wit and talent that distracts us from its salient arguments, which are then not developed as fully as I would have liked to see. For me, this is a shame because the book does not really decolonize anything. It is too absorbed in its novel presentation and not sufficiently invested in the empirical investigation or theoretical innovation needed to change how global public health is practised.
What’s a common misconception about health systems in Africa?
To speak of health systems in Africa is tricky. They are not a unitary, wholly coherent structural entities but often a diffuse network of services provided by the state, private companies, NGOs, missionaries, traditional healers, and humanitarian agencies. It is a common mistake therefore to assume that what African health systems need is ‘more’—more clinics, more doctors, more medicines, more scans, more diagnostics—before interrogating what that means in context or without considering how existing services might be harmonized and integrated. This long-term work is crucial. From HIV to COVID-19, via cholera and Ebola, a variety of social and political pressures periodically spike up to insist that Africa’s unruly health systems are oriented around single pathogen. This is surely unsustainable and dangerous. The challenge of managing health systems tends to the political as much, if not more so, than the technical. It is not about quick fixes or reacting to the next epidemic but about long-term durability and social equity.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I plan what I’m going to write in meticulous detail. Then I begin writing and all my plans change. I edit while I write. I return to my plan. I rework it. I write again. I edit and edit and edit. I finish what I’m writing. The I edit the whole thing, again and again. I grant myself permission to experiment with ideas and words on the page. So for me, editing is crucial at every stage of the writing process—it is how I think, how I figure out what works and what could be more persuasive or more compelling or more pleasing to read.
What was your process for writing The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe?
This book was based on my PhD thesis and was thus written over about four years: a year of reading and initial writing; a year of data-gathering through fieldwork; a year of writing up the thesis; and another year of turning it into a book. But this schematic outline doesn’t capture just how messy the whole process was! There were many fits and starts, including long periods where I did not type a single word for the book. I think I was most successful once I had completed the research phase of the project and cleared the hurdle of just getting started. I devised a steady work pattern that embedded my daily routine in longer cycles—lasting a month or two—of reading, planning, writing and editing to finish each chapter. At the end, I accelerated by taking a short, intense writing retreat focused entirely on pulling the whole thing together.
It is a common mistake to assume that what African health systems need is ‘more’—more clinics, more doctors, more medicines, more scans, more diagnostics—before interrogating what that means in context or without considering how existing services might be harmonized and integrated.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I am currently branching out of traditional academic writing into narrative nonfiction that draws on experiences from my own life and that is aimed at a general readership. I hesitated about making this move, questioning whether this is the kind of writing I ‘should’ be doing and fearing how the world might react. I liked to think of myself as a cool, distant observer of the world, protected by analytical distance, and not someone who spins narrative and analysis from my personal history. The latter felt too expository and vulnerable to accusations of solipsism. Then I read the following passage from the American novelist and short-story author, George Saunders, about the tension between our fantasies of the writer we want to be and the quest to become the best writer we can actually be:
This [latter] writer may turn out to bear little resemblance to the writer we dreamed of being. She is born, it turns out, for better or worse, out of that which we really are: the tendencies we’ve been trying, all these years, in our writing and maybe even in our lives, to suppress or deny or correct, the parts of ourselves about which we might even feel a little ashamed.
I find Saunders’ call to authenticity, his suggestion that we reckon with and embrace our core selves, the most liberating writing advice I have come across.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
The most bewildering period of my life unfolded during my time as an undergraduate studying medicine in Newcastle University in the northeast of England. I was dislocated in space and alienated in culture as I was taking my first awkward steps to manhood in a city I barely understood and studying for a degree about which I was ambivalent. Reading was an inconsistent escape for me as I struggled to find a literary alcove in which I felt both safe and alive. The author closest to me was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; I read her work in a para-literary way discovering for the first time that I could appreciate a book for more than its story or writing but for what it represented to me personally, socially and culturally. I wish that I had stumbled upon Jhumpa Lahiri back then, whose migrant stories quietly contemplated the quotidian but jarring realities of being foreign and spoke with uncanny accuracy to my own experience. From a more academic standpoint, I wish I had discovered Jocelyn Alexander, the professor who would eventually become my PhD supervisor, at an earlier stage. Through her scholarship, I learnt an immeasurable amount about my own country and realized that one could dedicate one’s profession to understanding Africa better—knowing that sooner would have spared me much angst and early-career indecision!
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I am delighted by literary nonfiction that uses fine and polished language, that masters imagery and word choice and colour and rhythm, that tells true stories or unpacks ideas with a novelist’s flourish. By way of life writing, I have recently enjoyed Tara Westover’s astonishing memoir, Educated, about growing up in a survivalist cult in rural Idaho. I was mesmerized by Katherine Boo’s vertiginous depiction of life in the slums of Mumbai, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, where soul-crushing poverty rubs up against the hubristic, ostentatious, domineering ‘infrastuctures’ of modern cityscapes. I found Timothy Brennan’s new biography of Edward Said, Places of Mind, gripping as a story and revealing as a kind of exegesis of one of the most transformative thinkers of the twentieth century. And for work that is idea-driven, few writers exhibit the clarity of thought and potency of argument that Amia Srinivasan does in her debut book, The Right to Sex. Equally, Teju Cole’s new book, Black Paper, is profoundly persuasive but Cole develops his arguments more obliquely, through lyricism and fractured meditations.
I am delighted by literary nonfiction that uses fine and polished language, that masters imagery and word choice and colour and rhythm, that tells true stories or unpacks ideas with a novelist’s flourish.
What is more important to you: the story or how it is written?
It is a unique joy to be drawn into an unfamiliar world that I might otherwise find uninteresting through a writer’s use of vivid prose or their ability to reveal deep emotional and psychological truths through subtle, penetrating language. Russian writers like Chekhov or Gogol have invited me to ask big questions about life and purpose, values and truth, love and tragedy through seemingly banal or absurd stories revolving around eighteenth-century peasants in places and circumstances that hold little intrinsic interest for me.
What can we expect you to write about next?
I am currently writing a literary memoir, When Will We Be Free? Living in the Shadow of Empire and the Struggle for Decolonisation. Combining political history, cultural criticism and narrative nonfiction, the book will recount my family’s and my own story with the history of Africa’s anti-colonial struggles from the 1950s to the present in order to provide an intimate and nuanced account of colonization not merely as a historical or political phenomenon but as something that inescapably affects one’s heart and mind, one’s sense of identity and home—and an investigation of what it would mean to be truly free of it. The book will be published in 2024 by The Bodley Head in the UK and Commonwealth and by Crown in North America.
Question from Grieve Chelwa: If you had a yearlong all-expense-paid fellowship and were given the chance to write a book about African history, how would you write it?
When Will We Be Free? is my attempt to write such a book. Using the literary form allows me to reside in the eclectic textures of life in Africa and, in the words of Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, ‘to capture not just the broad sweep of history but the contradictions and complexities of humans living inside history.’ To achieve this effect, my book will bring together numerous threads—an account of the end of empire from an African perspective, the ambiguous cultural politics of racism and decolonization, and an intimate portrait of my family and personal history—to show every aspect of a subject that is too often buried in heated rhetoric or made distant and abstract.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
Which African thinker has had the greatest influence on your understanding of the world?⎈
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