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Stanzas and Reflection: An Interview With Batsirai E. Chigama

I am a sucker for poetry and I always have one or two anthologies on my bedside table (it’s that deep!). Two years ago, Book Fantastics introduced me to Batsirai Chigama’s debut work ‘Gather the Children’ and I was instantly hooked . I’ve read her works a number of times and recommended her books to friends and readers (too good not to share!). I’ve also reviewed her two anthologies, Gather the Children and For Women Trying to Breathe and Failing (It’s Not Your Fault). This month we decided to have a chitchat with Batsirai E. Chigama on all things poetry and beyond. I enjoy a good cup of tea, so grab your cuppa and join the conversation.

[Batsirai E. Chigama - Page Poet, Spoken Word Artist, Artsy Events Organizer, UIIWP Honorary Fellow(2019)]

*Batsirai, you're both a page poet and spoken word artist. How has your journey as both been so far, taking into consideration the ever changing nature of the creative industry in Zimbabwe ?

BEC: When I was younger the stage was such an attractive space but now that I am getting older I am starting to look at where I want to be critically.  The stage was a launch pad, now I want to write and read more.  I want to involve myself in the things that will grow poetry and make life easier for future generations.  First it was play, something I did on the side as and when I could make time but now I find myself dedicating more time to my work as a writer and thinking of what the future of Zim poetry looks like to me.

*I've had the opportunity to read and review your works, 'Gather The Children' and 'For Women Trying to Breathe and Failing (It's Not Your Fault).' I thoroughly enjoyed both. Your latest collection seems to take off from where Gather The Children left off as a call to humanity to face its truths, fears and desires. It reads like a personal reassuring letter to a specific audience, what inspires you?

BEC: I can never thank you enough for the work you do and I am glad you enjoyed both reads, it is an affirmation in itself.  I am intrigued by what you say that the latest collection seems to take off from where Gather The Children left.  I was deliberate with both, one specific to country and the second a reflection of the individual either man or woman.  The state of the nation affects and effects the individual in ways we may never begin to imagine, it is also the oasis of inspiration giving substance to the individual and collective experience that become the stories I tap into as a writer.

*Both your works are self-published. Please tell us more about publishing independently?

BEC: We have very few publishers in Zimbabwe and the few are mostly taking funded projects by donors. Many writers, myself included, have no choice but to take the self-publishing route. It is an avenue that has kept our story telling alive for over a decade now more than the traditional publisher.

It is not easy as it may seem. There are processes to be followed. These are critical to how the published work will be viewed because the struggle has always been that self-published works are substandard so whilst the writer is aiming to produce a grounded body of work they are worrying about the admin side of producing, marketing and distributing the published work. From experience, it is no easy feat. It requires hard work and diligence.

*You're a multi-award winning poet. Congratulations on your recent win for Outstanding Poetry Book at the NAMA 2022 Awards. What is the place/value of awards in the literary field especially here in Zimbabwe?

BEC: Thank you.  Awards are a bonus.  NAMA is one of the biggest awards in the country and to be recognized by NAMA is a big deal.  Not to take away from the monetary benefits, I feel awards open doors and direct attention to an artist's work and that in itself is the real award.

*What makes poetry powerful?

BEC: The ability to say so much with so little words.

[BEC’s debut collection, Gather The Children, 2018]

* Ipikai is a recently launched Zimbabwean poetry journal and that's some exciting news to all poetry lovers. As one of its founders, what does this project mean to you? 

BEC: Ipikai is for me the beginning of a huge archive for work by Zimbabwean poets.  It is a space that offers visibility and an opportunity for the world to interact with work by Zimbabwean poets, some who might not have been able to do that on their own.

*What advice would you give to poets considering publishing their work or taking it to the stage for the first time?

BEC: The traditional local publishers don't publish poetry because they say it doesn't sell.  Do not be disheartened.  If you do that will be the death of poetry in this country.  There are many ways that can be used to tell our stories, self-publishing without forgetting to diligently follow due processes.  Also the stage is place where stories can be told.

*It can be unsettling to have your work scrutinized. Do you see/find any value in book reviews or commentaries?

BEC: Book reviews are critical in a writer's life. They are the mirror through which writers can see how their work effects the audience, if they are talking to someone or to themselves. Personally, I believe, reviews, either 'bad' or good can shape the growth of a writer. It is sad that we don't celebrate book reviewers in ways that encourages and inspires them to keep doing the book reviews and they are part of the ecosystem which someday soon, hopefully, we will call the book industry.

*One book that you'll never forget and highly recommend to all book lovers? 

BEC: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Houseini.  Mariam could be me, could be a neighbor or friend.  It is the earnestness with which the story is told compacting the world of experiences into something relatable that keeps me going back to this book.

*Lastly, what are you currently reading? 

BEC: Memory Chirere's Tudikidiki, a gem given to me by Tinashe Muchuri.  Most of the short stories in there read like flash fiction. Poignant, whimsical and hilarious everyday life told in very few words.

[BEC’s second collection, For Women Trying to Breathe and Failing (It’s Not Your Fault), 2021]

Please support Batsirai’s work. You can buy her books and contact her here.

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