Mark Radcliffe, Subject Leader for the MA Creative Writing and Publishing programme, enjoys a conversation with Rutendo Chabikwa during her one-week residency at West Dean College.
This week, West Dean College has very much enjoyed playing host to Zimbabwean writer Rutendo Chabikwa. Rutendo is the joint winner of Myriad Editions in conjunction with the West Dean College First Fiction competition. Her work can be seen in the upcoming New Daughters Of Africa, a collection of 200 African women writers that is published in March 2019 by Myriad, and she is currently working on a brilliantly conceived pair of novellas.
I met her early in the week to see what she thought of the College, its community and (because I think of them as motif mascots) the sheep, and to chat about how the environment here is affecting her writing process.
Rutendo has just finished an MSc in Women, Peace and Security at LSE, a course she was in the middle of when she decided to enter the First Fiction competition.
Like me Rutendo didn't know much about West Dean before she got here, and frankly she suffered for having me as her guide. I did manage to show her some of the gardens and some of the walks as well as some art, including Dali's Lips Sofa and some selected tapestries. But my commentary consisted of insights like: 'And this is a really big, impressive tapestry.'
I did reflect that it can take a little while to 'land' in a place like West Dean. One can be invited to notice the detail, the content, the richness, the art and history but we agreed that for both of us we were still revelling in the fact that it exists; as a community, an environment, a source of creative possibility.
Rutendo reflected on West Dean as a different type of England from the one she had so far experienced. She noted the greyness of London, and the capacity for people in the capital to seem angry, and the contrast West Dean offered in terms of colour, pace and a wholly welcome reduction in angry looking people.
We talked about the place of reflection in writing and the balance between having time to reflect on the drivers of a large piece of fiction: structure, mechanics, narrative arc and simply grabbing the opportunity to write; to essentially produce the words secure in the knowledge that one can sculpt and edit later.
Rutendo said she came with a determination to produce a few thousand words across the week but the shift in environment has made her stop, review, reorganise, restructure.
Writers can fill months with a lot of internal conversations. Some of them function to keep us from our task. They are metaphorical fridge cleaning; prevarication and distraction really and we do it for all sorts of reasons. But sometimes the internal conversations are necessary, they are about articulating: 'What needs to be done and how?' Knowing the difference is quite important.
West Dean is an interesting place to come to find clarity. It invites both introspection and discipline: It facilitates reflection and demands you produce - because not producing here would be a waste, close to sacrilege. Quite a pressure really, but one Rutendo appears to be able to navigate.
Mark: What do you think of the place?
Rutendo: The college is very beautiful and serene. A perfect place to get into the right head space without too many external distractions and focus on writing. It also has an interesting history which makes for an interesting walk around the campus.
Mark: What made you want to enter the competition?
Rutendo: Two things drew me to the competition. The first was that it was dedicated to writers who have not been previously published. I am yet to be published and to have the opportunity for people in the industry to look at my work was something that drew me to it. The second was that it was a follow up on the initial Daughters of Africa anthology first published in 1992 and was considered a pioneering work. The mission to create a contemporary version of that is something I found to be important.
Mark: Can you tell us a little about how you work?
Rutendo: I usually start with vague ideas of either concepts or characters, sometimes both if I am fortunate. I let them sit for a while just to make sure that they stick and then I start writing and researching. I do both simultaneously, as I usually find out what I need to know once I begin to write something.
Mark: Is this feeling productive?
Rutendo: It is feeling very productive. This is the first time in a while I have had time and space to think about nothing but writing. I turned off my social media for the duration of my residency here and that has allowed me to be more in the moment than I have ever been. Also speaking to writers such as yourself about writing has given me so much perspective on the process as well as the confidence to continue to write.
Mark: Do you have a title for your work in progress?
Rutendo: My working title at the moment is, Todzungaira, but I think it may change once the work is actually complete. I am not really good at coming up with titles.
Mark: Who are your main influences?
Rutendo: My main influences are my parents. Growing up, they told me so many stories about their own childhoods and about a time I knew nothing about. They are a window into a time I never experienced and a life I never lived, yet in some way I feel that the past is very much a part of where I am today.
Outside that, I would say anyone whose work I have read or who has talked to me about my own work is also an influence because I am intrigued by varying perspectives. I love to hear different perspectives and different stories because I pick something up from them all the time.