Zimbabwean academic and author of African Migration, Human Rights and Literature, Fareda Banda, wanted her book to explore the refugee/migration issue from the perspective of one whose people were being dehumanized: ‘I was also curious about whether literature could reach places or invoke emotions such as empathy, that law and policy did not seem to be doing.’
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?
I grew up during the Zimbabwean liberation struggle. The country was under sanctions and books were in short supply. For many of my generation, our only exposure was to Enid Blyton whose Malory Towers Series about a girls’ boarding school, I devoured. Mine was the generation of sagas—Lace, Thorn Birds, as well as Mills and Boon novels and, whisper it, Barbara Cartland’s novels.
In your earliest days as a lawyer/law student, what books were foundational to your study and research?
I would be lying if I gave an answer to this. Law books were in short supply due to the cost and not having access to foreign currency. To my eternal shame, we breached copyright and photocopied the key texts. I am sorry for my past infractions, but needs must. That said, I have continued to be part of the problem-publishing books that are beyond the reach of many. I will try to ensure that any future book is open access so free to download. I will have to find a funder first!
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
It didn’t change my mind as such, but I found Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Black and Female challenging, stimulating and thought provoking.
What’s a book you wish you had read before going to Oxford University?
Hmm. Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s In Dependence is a great read-so evocative. Mind you she had not written it when I went. Also, something on imposter syndrome so that I did not spend most of my first year thinking that I had been admitted by mistake.
Finally, nothing prepared me for seeing the Zimbabwe bird on top of Rhodes house and the wooden staircase carved with Zimbabwe birds inside. That threw me emotionally. I don’t know if there is a book for that. That said, I loved Oxford and had the best time both socially and academically. I was treated with warmth, kindness and support.
I have continued to be part of the problem-publishing books that are beyond the reach of many. I will try to ensure that any future book is open access so free to download. Clearly, I will have to find a funder first!
What is the last book/text you disagreed with, and why?
It is not a disagreement as such. While I admire his writing, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace discomfited me. Disgrace, which won the prestigious Booker Prize, is set in South Africa and tells the story of the rape of a white woman on her father’s farm. I guess it reminded me of sitting in the library reading Native Affairs Department Annuals warning white men about Black men’s propensity for raping or coveting white women during the colonial era. (The Black Peril). I know others say it is a political allegory. A welcome gift was Fiona Snyckers’ Lacuna, which is in conversation with Disgrace. It helped me to make better sense of my ambivalent response to Disgrace. Painting with a feminist brush and an understanding of intersectionality, Snyckers, both centres the story of the woman who was raped while also explicitly engaging issues of gender, race and class. Coetzee comes in for some teasing. I think the two should be read as companion pieces.
What was your process for writing your latest book, African Migration, Human Rights and Literature?
Process—ooh that’s a question for a real author, not me. If truth be told, the book is an accident. I just started writing one day after reflecting on the various media accounts that I had read about people dying in transit. I was moved by the poetry of Nayyirah Waheed from her collection, Salt—which had been given to me (by Marcelle Akita) as a gift after my father died. Two poems stood out: Lands and Immigrant. Initially, it was to be an article, but it kept growing. The pioneering work of Kenyan legal academic, Ambreena Manji, and her reading of Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God within an African legal pluralist tradition was stimulating. I was also blown away by Kenji Yoshino’s book on Shakespeare and Justice, and in particular the chapter on Othello which he uses to highlight aspects of the O. J. Simpson trial. Theoretically, I was inspired by Iranian Sharam Khosravi whose book, ‘Illegal’ Traveller, details his journey from Iran to Sweden where he was finally given asylum and citizenship. He interviews people who are involved in migration, including a fascinating smuggler called Amir.
Why was it important that you wrote this book?
I wrote it because I needed to show my employers what I had been doing with my time and their money. No, seriously, I wanted to respond to what I saw as the erasure of the voices of the people at the centre of debates about migration, focusing on people coming from our continent. Rarely did one get a sense of their/our complexity and humanity. I also resented the ahistorical approach of many western media outlets and governments who seemed to forget our inter-connected histories. More positively, writing the book also gave me the opportunity to read many wonderful books which touched on issues of migration by African and diasporic writers. This was a real treat and a good incentive.
What were you curious about when you wrote this book?
Well, I suppose I wanted to explore the refugee/migration issue from the perspective of one whose people were being dehumanized. I was also curious about whether literature could reach places or invoke emotions such as empathy, that law and policy did not seem to be doing. On a personal level, I wanted to see if I could pull off writing an interdisciplinary book. The book also has numerous inspirations:
Former barrister Ellen Wiles captured the legal challenges faced by those seeking asylum really well in her 2017 novel, The Invisible Crowd. Chike Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street was so evocative and helped to frame my thinking about trafficking. I ended up focusing the chapter about women and trafficking on women from Edo State. The section on the exploitation of domestic workers relied on Zadie Smith’s 2013 novella, The Embassy of Cambodia and the powerful autobiography, Slave, written by Mende Nazer about her exploitation by a Sudanese diplomat—diplomats are overrepresented in complaints about exploitation of domestic workers. On a more cheerful note, I loved Cameroonian Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers (2016) and the portrayal of the many schemes that people use to migrate. My favourite character is the resourceful Nigerian lawyer Bubakar.
What sources or cultural influences helped develop this book?
In addition to the sources cited in question 8 above…
Well, this year I have had the incredible privilege and honour to chair the Caine Prize for African Writing. I had long been a fan of the Caine Prize and my book referenced many previously shortlisted/winning writers. From my fellow Zimbabwean, No Violet Bulawayo, whose ‘Hitting Budapest’ went on to frame the early part of her Booker Prize shortlisted best seller, We Need New Names (2014), the second part of which dealt with the experiences of international students and those without papers in the USA. I also used Uganda’s Monica Arac de Neyo whose ‘Jambula Tree’, a lesbian love story, challenged stereotypes as did Kenyan Cherrie Kandie’s ‘Sew My Mouth’. Caine Prize finalists and prize winners have written about contemporary issues including trafficking of girls and domestic servitude such as ‘It Takes a Village Some Say’ by Cameroonian Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti. Epaphrus Osondu, the author of the collection, Voices of America (2010), won with his story ‘Waiting’, written from the perspective of a child in a refugee camp. The work of novelists who have won the Caine Prize including Segun Afolabi, ‘Monday Morning’ in A Life Elsewhere (2006), Brian Chikwava who went on to write Harare North (2010) and Helon Habila, Travelers (2019) proved insightful and funny. The arc of my book on migration and the treatment of asylum seekers relies on Ethiopian Meron Hadero’s 2019 shortlisted story, ‘The Wall’, which reminds us that the architects of walls—legal or metaphorical—forget, ‘whichever side you’re on, it’s shadow is cast on you.’ They have all gone on to have stellar careers. Hadero, who, incidentally, is a Yale trained lawyer, went on to win the Caine Prize in 2021 and has just published a collection of her stories, A Down Home Meal for these Difficult Times.
I wanted to respond to what I saw as the erasure of the voices of the people at the centre of debates about migration, focusing on people coming from our continent.
You also co-edited the book, Women’s Rights and Religious Law: Domestic and International Perspectives. What’s the most important contribution an editor makes to a piece?
A good editor will have a curator’s eye, pulling together an eclectic but thematically coherent collection. The four excellent examples that come immediately to mind are Margaret Busby’s magisterial Daughters of Africa and the more recent New Daughters of Africa that span generations of African women writers, many of whom had been lost or forgotten. Ellah Wakatama is a particularly gifted editor. In her literary non-fiction book, Safe House: Explorations in Creative Non-Fiction, she is a seer and can anticipate issues that are on the horizon. The collection shows that she is not afraid to tackle unpopular issues commissioning excellent writers to fill the gaps. Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s recent collection of interviews, Between Starshine and Clay, is a masterclass in curating a great collection of interviewees who range from the famous—including the late Toni Morrison and the academic Henry Louis Gates—to those who don’t have the same name recognition. Ladipo-Manyika has a finely tuned ear so one can hear the voice of the interviewee. A favourite of mine is the South African documentary maker, Xoliswa Sithole, whose focus leaves one inspired and fired up. I like direct, confident women. My fourth pick is a thoughtful selection of 50 Decolonial books which I think is a useful addition to any library including schools and all those who say they want to broaden their curricula but are not sure where to start. The book, This is the Canon: Decolonize your bookshelf in 50 Books, is edited by Joan Anim-Addo, Deidre Osborne and Kadija Sesay George.
You’re a professor at the School of Law, SOAS London. What books do you recommend to students who take your class?
Well, I teach both undergraduates and postgraduates. Of late, I have taken to assigning fictional literature as well as ‘proper law.’ It keeps things fresh. I try to stick to short stories as these are more likely to be read. This year my reading lists will be immeasurably enriched by many of the stories that I read for the Caine Prize. My students love Petina Gappah’s short story, ‘In the Matter Between Goto and Goto,’ a fictional but legally accurate short story written as if it were a divorce decision by a judge in a law report. It is hilarious. They often cite it in their essays as if it were a real case. The story is in Gappah’s collection, Rotten Row. I also assign Jennifer Makumbi’s short story collection, Manchester Happened, which speaks to the diasporic experiences of many of my students as does the poetry of the peerless Warsan Shire. Her new collection, Bless the Daughter Raised by the Voice in her Head, is sublime—it offers a cornucopia of riches and I will both use it in my teaching and give it as a gift often. There is a stunning edited collection comprising art, poetry and stories from South Sudanese women that speaks powerfully to the gendered impact of war and its aftermath. It is titled No Time to Mourn, edited by Hilda Twongyeirwe and Elizabeth Ashamu Deng. I discovered Annie Ernaux’s Happening translated from French by Tanya Leslie (2001), in a charity shop before she won the Nobel Prize. It was one of the most powerful and direct pieces of auto-fiction that I have ever read, and I use it in my masters teaching on reproductive rights.
On the law front, this year I will be recommending a new collection edited by Rebecca Cook titled Frontiers of Gender Equality. I have a chapter on ‘African Gender Equalities’ which explores three revolutionary cycles, from colonial resistance, to fighting for legal equality in the years following independence and now, in the third phase, pushing for our economic freedom within the global order. This year, I will be adding Laurie Parsons’ Carbon Colonialism to my reading lists. I will be using his chapter on money talks, where he engages knowledge inequalities including the privileging of Northern scholars who have access to resources and who become the environmental experts whose voices shape policies ahead of those whose communities are directly impacted. His book/chapter provides a timely reminder that ‘climate knowledge, like any form of knowledge, is power.’
Which books from Zimbabwe books should everyone have on their bookshelf?
I am spoiled for choice. We produce such excellent writers and have done for decades. You can work your way through this short sample list, reading at least one book from each of the listed authors: Dambudzo Marechera, Yvonne Vera, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Charles Mungoshi, Sue Nyathi, No Violet Bulawayo, Novuyo Tshuma, Petina Gappah, Paula Hawkins, Brian Chikwava, Tendai Huchu, Blessing Musariri and Irene Sabatini. I also claim the late Doris Lessing. There are many more.
We are also great poets, and two recent discoveries are Belinda Zhawi Small Inheritances and Batsirai Chigama whose Women Trying to Breath and Failing, I recently picked up at the bookstore in Harare Airport. In addition to writing fiction and a family memoir, Panashe Chigumadzi is for my money, one of the finest essayists of our time. Panashe Chigumadzi Her piece, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to Nigerians About Race’, nearly caused an international incident. I want to give a shout out to our daughters who are coming through in the diaspora; among these brilliant writers is the wonderful artist and satirist, Kazvare, whose collection, Stay Woke, Kids!, is fresh and innovative.
A good editor will have a curator’s eye, pulling together an eclectic but thematically coherent collection.
Who are the young Zimbabwean authors and scholars you’re most excited about today (and why?)
As it turns out, BBC World service have just featured a wonderful documentary ‘Women Writing Zimbabwe’ which I recommend. On scholars—well, my late father was Malawian so for him, the young scholar whose work I look forward to reading is Dr Chisomo Kalinga at the University of Edinburgh. She looks at the use and impact of arts within health settings. She is the founder of the Malawi Medical Humanities Network.
I have long been impressed by Robtel Neajai Pailey, an amazing Liberian academic (she is based at the London School of Economics and Political Science), activist and author notably of the children’s story Gbagba (illustrated by Chase Walker) which tackles corruption. She also writes about citizenship and development. Finally, a shout out to my Tanzanian colleague, Dr Olivia Lwabukana, an extraordinary academic whose work on law, gender, development and human rights bridges academia and the real world.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
I like to read widely and so end up not having time to write because there is always one more book to read! In the past year, I have been actively searching out books in translation. I think those of us colonized into English have a narrow understanding of the richness and diversity of books written in other languages and we miss out on so much. I genuflect before Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for refusing to play the colonial language game. One of the books that my daughters remember me reading to them when they were younger is a classic by Korean novelist, Sun-Mi Hwang, titled The Hen who Dreamed She Could Fly translated into English by Chi-Young Kim. It is exquisite and we all cried, but also loved it. I am mad for Alain Mabanckou whose books are clever, funny, and insightful. They are translated from French to English by Helen Stevenson. Faiza Guène, the author of Men Don’t Cry, is a fabulous writer. Her Bar Balto made me laugh. Her French to English translator is Sarah Ardizzone whose knowledge of French slang is impressive. This summer I read some of the books shortlisted for the 2023 International Booker prize. I enjoyed two books exploring ambivalence about motherhood; Eva Baltasar Sardà’s Boulder, translated by Julia Sanches and Still Born by Guadelupe Nettel translated by Rosalind Harvey. Another wonderful read was Standing Heavy by Gauz, translated by Frank Wynne. The book explores the life of migrants from Cote d’Ivoire living in Paris.
Literary translators don’t get enough attention so a shout out to Ivorienne Edwige Dro and and my colleague, Ida Hadjivayanis, who has translated Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise into Swahili (Peponi). As a Zimbabwean, I am particularly thrilled to see the translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm into Shona by Gappah and Muchiri with their co-authors. It joins No Violet Bulawayo’s much lauded Glory, which also used Animal Farm as its inspiration.
Being an older aunty, I also like to know what the youth are writing about, so earlier this year I attended the joint book launch of two young British diasporic writers, Jendella Benson who wrote Hope & Glory and Krystal Appiah, the author of Rootless. I enjoyed their exploration of family in all its forms. I have just finished the much discussed, Yellowface by Rebecca Kuang. I understand the hype. I have now started Evening Primrose by South Africa’s Kopana Matlwa, which is original and engaging. A colleague recommended Isabella Hammad’s Enter Ghost which sets my favourite Shakespeare play, Hamlet, in Palestine so I’ll be reading that soon.
Another recent charity shop buy that I have been reading is the non-fiction book White Feminism by Koa Beck who has worked in women’s magazines so writes in an engaging way—academics are not always good at presenting our ideas clearly, or in my case, succinctly.
Literary translators don’t get enough attention so a shout out to Ivorienne Edwige Dro and my colleague, Ida Hadjivayanis, who has translated Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise into Swahili.
Question from Ẹ́lọ́hór Ẹ́gbọ́rdí: What was the first book you read that made you realize you wanted to write books?
Well, the two quotes that I put in the front of my first book, Women, Law and Human Rights: An African Perspective, are from Njabulo Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela, where he writes:
We read about other people, reflect on them and never think that we ourselves, the readers, could be our own book to read and reflect upon; that we could become the subject of a book we could write about ourselves and watch ourselves become somehow more important in our own eyes because we have become a subject of reflection.
That provided the provocation and encouragement that I needed to start. The other quote was from the peerless Ama Ata Aidoo: ‘If I don’t fight my battles now, who would fight them for me and when.’ This kept me going. I could not complain about our voices not being heard if I was not prepared to put in the work.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What is your mother’s favourite book? (My mum loves Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter)
Which book do you think should be translated into other languages and which languages would you prioritize?⎈
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