While running a creative writing workshop in Bulawayo in January 2006, I asked what writer excited other writers. “Virginia Phiri,” one woman said. She was making her book ‘Desperate’ a set text in a teacher training course she was running. The book choice was confrontational given the conservative social structure of Zimbabwe, being a series of stories with sex-workers as the narrators. “I don’t care what people say though,” the book’s champion declared. “It is beautiful writing.”
Back in Harare I met Virginia Phiri at a book launch, and she agreed to an interview at the British Council offices the next day, February 3rd 2006. I had questions, but did not really need them. “I love people. I love talking,” she says. For over an hour the talk flowed, with only occasional prompting from me. For ‘survival and buying food’ Virginia works as an accountant. Back in 2002 her sister in Bulawayo bought a car. That sister is the family member most like Virginia, the others are ‘normal’, but instead of a car Virginia spent her money that year on the publication of her book. ‘Desperate’ was her tribute to the sex workers who had taken her in, hid her, fed her and saved her life when she was active as a guerrilla fighter in the 1970s liberation war that saw Zimbabwe emerge from the colonial era.
That War of Independence sits behind much of Zimbabwean writing. Few people parade their participation. It sits in the heart of a whole generation of writers, and finds its own way of emerging. Virginia Phiri is also an expert on orchids. She sees the sweep of human drama, but also has an eye for the rarities of life, spotting orchids which other experts have passed by.
“I am from a background of women who are activists,” she told me. “Some were chiefs. My grandmother was a chief’s wife who influenced the chief in good governance. I had an aunt born in Bulawayo who married a foreigner in 1936. She started the burial societies. My paternal men were moneymakers, my maternal men were chiefs. I have always done things in my own way, since primary school,” Choosing to write in the voices of sex workers is surely doing things ‘her own way’, when there is a danger of writers being cast in the same light as their characters.
“Aftrica is an oral culture. The orality of things is selective—we choose what we talk about. Black people in a black community are expected to behave in a certain way. Someone asked me ‘Are you still black?’”
“I believe in speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves. In the 1970s I was rescued by these women, by sex workers. Those people had a heart. They were women, mothers and sisters. They really felt for people. If a man wrote it, he wouldn’t understand how it worked. These women never have the time to sit and write their experiences. They are too shameful, too embarrassing.
“One woman, named Patricia, now in her sixties, could not go back to her village where to be unmarried was shameful. ‘Most of my friends are dead’ she said. ‘When I heard of protection against Aids I took it very seriously. I learned how to use female condoms.’ She is the grandmother of all and looks after her extended family
Most sex workers are the breadwinners. One said to me ‘I need to buy a ticket for my niece to get to London’. My first story, ‘Diary of a Sex Worker’, was originally in Ndebele. Nobody complained. Yvonne Vera wrote to me and said, ‘You are so brave’. I am not encouraging prostitution. I am bringing out the way things are.”
Yvonne Vera is one of the benchmarks for modern writers in Zimbabwe. She ran the National Gallery in Bulawayo for many years, dying of Aids in the US in 2005. Many writers told me how difficult they found her to read, and indeed Virginia Phiri’s ‘Desperate’ has displaced Yvonne Vera’s ‘Stone Virgins’ for those students in Bulawayo. Virginia Phiri marvels at ‘Stone Virgins’ though. She feels it starts with intentional difficulty for the reader, and grows to something sublime and luminous.
Dambudzo Marechere, who died from Aids in1987, is the other writer most voiced as creating a shift in the writing of Zimbabwe. Virginia Phiri cites him as well. “Marechere said we must write how we feel. Self-censorship in an author is very serious. I don’t intend to annoy anyone. When most writers stop self-censoring we will bring out what we want to say.”
Virginia is grateful to her husband. He is supportive of her writing, which she sees as an exception to the norm. “Men don’t want women to have more about them. One woman writer’s husband used her manuscript for his roll-ups and smoked it.”
And what other writers inspire her?
She has just made a film about the South African writer Noni Jabavu, in tribute to the strong effect of reading her ‘Ochre People’. Barbara Nkala, who writes in Ndebele and English, and Chiedza Musengezi, who writes in English and Shona. And across in the States, Toni Morrison.
She is happy to have a growing international reputation herself, but wante her book to find readers in Africa first. “I must start here. I am read all over Africa. I was invited to Colorado because of this book. Churches are buying it. A pastor bought some and sent them abroad.”
Virginia Phiri is working on a sequel to ‘Desperate’ to be called ‘Southern Highway Queen’. And a new novel, ‘Destiny’, dealing with another taboo, this time of visible physical blocks to sexual reproduction, has just gone to her editor. From her independent start, paying for her own publication, publishing houses are now approaching her looking for deals. Her independence is hard-won, though. I doubt she will compromise it in any real way.