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Out of Africa
Zimbabwean author Andrea Eames was 18 when her family, unable to put up with the threats of president Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party, fled the country for New Zealand.
Still "hugely angry for what he’s done to the country and to my family and to everyone’s families", Eames has channelled her experiences into her début novel. The Cry of the Go Away Bird (Harvill Secker, February) is the story of Elise, a white teenager growing up on a farm in 1990s Zimbabwe. She lives a privileged existence with her mother, new step-father and their black servants, until the economy collapses and Mugabe begins his persecution of white farmers.
Eames’ own family is "scattered all over the world now" after escaping the violence—her aunt and uncle had to flee their farm in the middle of the night. Eames remained in New Zealand for eight years, before moving to Austin, Texas, a few months ago.
She found the dissolution of her former life difficult to write about. "It took me about five or six years [after leaving] to sit down and actually think about it and write anything. I almost pretended Zimbabwe hadn’t existed because it was just easier that way . . . After a few years things started coming back and I started feeling more comfortable about remembering it. That’s when I felt I could write something about it."
The novel emerged from the MA in creative writing she undertook "to justify to my parents that I was going to make a living out of writing . . . not just sitting at home with a beret on and a cup of coffee." After sending the first draft to agents ["such a rookie mistake"] she received a "rash of rejections". But following advice from agents, rewrote the novel, about a month later obtaining an agent in New Zealand, and then a month after that selling UK rights to Harvill Secker. The entire process took about two and a half years.
Eames’ first foray into publishing was a "dreadful" fantasy novel The Adventures of Cat, Emma and Duncan in the Lost Land, published by small Zimbabwean publisher Textpertise Ltd, when she was only 15. Later, she worked as a junior book buyer for chain Books n’ More and as an assistant editor for travel publisher TML, but writing a novel was "what I always wanted to do".
Her love for Africa ["I remember thinking that everything had turned to black and white when I left because Zimbabwe is all colour"] is palpable in the novel, in which heat shimmers, electricity crackles and fallen bougainvillea flowers are "a smashed, bloody carpet of red".
The novel is also interwoven with magic and myths. Elise, who like many white children then has a black nanny, is brought up with the legends of the Shona people, including a belief in the malevolent tokoloshe sprite: "the landscape is so animated in the Shona culture—everything has a story and a spirit behind it."
The superstitions entwine with an increasing feeling of menace in the novel as the economy begins to fail, the relationships between blacks and whites crumble, and the sense of safety dissolves. "There was a feeling of something bigger outside of you that you don’t understand," Eames explains. "One thing I thought about when I was writing was The Lord of the Flies—the presence on the island that grows throughout the book. It felt like that in Zimbabwe—a presence, like the country had been building up to this for a long time, a sort of fatalistic quality to the way everything was going. We were living in a false paradise so inevitably it was going to fall apart."
Eames adds: "I’m a bit cautious about seeing [the novel] as catharsis because then it’s a bit like writing as therapy—and I also wanted it to be technically a novel, not just an emotional outpouring." She suggests that "10% of the book really is things that happened to me. [But] I didn’t want it to be my story because I wanted it to be something bigger . . . I did feel a responsibility to be honest but not like I had to be the ‘voice of Zimbabwe’."
Eames is currently writing a novel about the civil war there in the 1960s and 70s, which was never spoken about when she was a child. "There are things I still don’t understand, but I am going to keep on writing and writing and writing until I do."