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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #20: Learning to trust myself – sensory diaries and fiction-writing in prison


James Kilgore - 2010-11-16

I’m picking up on this notion of research for historical fiction raised by Craig Higginson and Louis Greenberg, but from a very different set of experiences.

Sometime in early 2003  I decided to write a novel about 1980s Zimbabwe. I hadn’t been there in a couple of years, hadn’t lived there in more than a decade. But that shouldn’t have mattered. Novelists are supposed to be imaginative, to be able to remember how the sunlight filtered through the curtains or the smell of the soup boiling on the stove. Getting all those details right provides what they call authenticity. Besides, what a fiction writer is not sure about, he or she just fanatically researches.

I had two fairly major obstacles to this sort of creative process. The first was that I’d never written a novel before. That shouldn’t have been a total show-stopper. Any budding novelist in the days of the internet can just search for something on line like “how to write a novel” or “fiction writers’ workshops” and a whole menu of options will emerge. Alternatively, a search for a writing groups could yield a cohort of supportive and insightful practitioners of the craft.

As useful as such options might have been, they weren’t open to me because of my second obstacle. I was in prison in California, some 8 000 miles away from Zimbabwe, and wasn’t likely to get out any time soon. In this great information age I had no internet access at all. My local library consisted of a bookshelf on wheels which held about 150 well-worn mysteries, adventure novels and Bibles.

But I was lucky. Once I got past writing a horrible first draft of that novel I got transferred to another prison with a serious library in penitentiary terms – about 1 500 volumes. Most importantly for me, the library’s locking cupboards held a set of a “how to write fiction” guides  put out by Writer’s Digest. The series covered everything: plot, setting, character development, dialogue. All the things I really didn’t know anything about.

Somewhere in one of those volumes was a sub-heading called “sensory diary”. This was a tool you were supposed to use to help recall the sensory experience of the setting of your story. What a marvellous idea. I quickly set out to compile a sensory diary of the early 1980s in Zimbabwe. I sat off in the corner of the library and made my lists. I did a different sense each day, striving for a daily quota of ten entries. Ten sights wasn’t hard. Ten touches was a little bit more difficult.

After I had several pages in my diary, I began to wonder about my memory. I’d read a lot of writing by historians where they described how all the people in a village remembered that the troops invaded on an October afternoon in 1944, when the records clearly showed the invasion took place in March of 1945. Such distortions were not merely bad record-keeping. There was apparently something in the process of collective memory that swept people away like a rip tide and pushed them out to the sea of imagination. The point was that a historian couldn’t just rely on the memory of witnesses, especially when they were telling the tale some twenty or thirty years later.

Of course that’s exactly what I was doing – telling a tale twenty or thirty years later – only I was telling it to myself. So when I got back to that little concrete box where I lived and looked at myself in that tiny piece of mirror stuck to the wall I had to ask some hard questions. Was I really remembering all these sensory experiences correctly? After all, eating matumbu (cow intestines) or drinking chibuku in a rural family kraal in 1982 was a long way, in both time and space, from a prison cell in George Bush’s United States. I had to wonder, could I trust my own recollections? But more importantly, did it matter? Couldn’t I just make it all up? I’d lived in Zimbabwe for seven years, certainly long enough to make everything sound authentic. Who would ever know?

So I sat there and thought about that matumbu, and how when you took a piece off the grill it burnt your tongue and left a coating of fat on the roof of your mouth. And then a sip of very cold Castle would soothe that burn and wash away that coating of fat. At least that’s how I remembered it, but the more I thought about it, the less certain I became. Ultimately I came to two very unsatisfactory conclusions. First, I probably wasn’t going to be able to find out about that matumbu. There were one or two people I could have asked in a letter, but once I’d settled the question of the matumbu there would be another set of questions, and no one wanted to spend their lives answering snail mail queries from an incarcerated guy writing a novel that would probably never get published. So my second conclusion was that I had to defy the historians and trust myself, cast myself as the carrier of some believable version of a true, or at least authentic, set of 1980s Zimbabwean sensory experiences.

Once I made those compromises, the sensory experiences started to flow. I’d spend hours laying on that steel sheet they called a bed and retrace my sensory footsteps through Zimbabwe. I could feel the banana peels squishing under my feet as I walked down the aisle of a Matambanadzo long-distance bus bound for Zaka. The guitar of John Chibhadura rang through my head as I fell asleep each night. I even walked around the prison yard singing a long lost hit of the early 1980s, “Tenga Gumbeze”, the title of which translated as “Buy Blankets”, a musical warning not to waste those precious Zimbabwe dollars (which had real value in those days).

My sensory diary opened the key to new personal universes. For a few moments I could transcend prison’s sensual assault of swastika tattoos and illicit cigarette smoke and take myself to a better time and place.

Sadly, though, as I got bits and pieces of news from Zimbabwe, I began to realise that Zimbabweans were almost as far away from the experience of the 1980s as I was. When I started writing my novel I thought it would have a clear connection to the present, but after a while I was no longer sure about that. Did anyone in Zimbabwe even have money to buy matumbu or the beer to wash away that coating of fat? I’d probably never find that out either. My sensory diary lost some of its life. Not that I was making it up, but aspects of Zimbabwean society I once thought of as immutable were now up for grabs and there was nothing I could do about it. As I continued to write that novel I wasn’t sure if I was trying to live in a romanticised past or to use fiction to carve out a whole new future. I wasn’t certain it mattered, but there were a lot of moments when I lay on that steel sheet of a bunk and washed that coat of fat off the roof of my mouth with an ice cold Castle . Ah, those were the days.

 

  • The novel James Kilgore writes about here ended up as We Are All Zimbabweans Now (Umuzi, 2009). He is also the author of two novels to be released in 2011: Freedom Never Rests (Jacana) and Prudence Couldn’t Swim (PM Press, Oakland, California). The drafts of both of those were also written while he was in prison.
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