"All Come to Dust: An Interview with Bryony Rheam"
"Somehow Edmund always knew this day would come. Every night for the last ten years, he had gone to sleep with the thought that it hadn’t happened that day, but it could happen the next. This was it, his day of reckoning. It had bided its time; he had seen it waiting in shadows and corridors and out in the market square. It was in a child’s smile and the sly, sideways glances of the women on the bus, their heads wrapped in doeks and their produce for sale piled high on their laps. It was in the hunchbacked shuffles of old men and the wary aggression of stray dogs. It was in the call of the minibus conductors and the rev of the engines: your day will come.
And so it had. The sky was alive with the blaze of orange from the fire. People ran all over the place like ants that have had scalding hot water poured into their nest, screaming and shouting and wailing. The fire boiled and spat and raged, burning with the confidence that came from knowing controlling it was beyond the power of any there. Some rushed foolishly at it with buckets of water, tins of water, mouthfuls of water. By the time the sirens of the fire engine could be heard, clanging wearily nearer, the fire had beaten its antagonists back and they ran, no longer people, but shadows flitting fearfully through the darkness."
TM: Tendai Machingaidze
BR: Bryony Rheam
TM: Tell us about yourself - where you live, where you studied, where you work?
BR: I live in Bulawayo with my partner, John, and our two children, Sian and Ellie. I am an English teacher at Girls’ College and I am also a proofreader and freelance writer. I studied in the UK and then worked for a year in Singapore before returning to Zimbabwe in 2001. In 2008, we left to work in Zambia and ended up staying there for 7 years. We have been back in Bulawayo for five years and do not regret the move.
TM: What inspired you to become a writer? What is your favorite book? Which authors have influenced your writing?
BR: I have always wanted to be a writer. Even when I was very young, I would write little stories and put them in a book. When I was eleven, my dad bought me a typewriter and I just loved it and would spend hours producing stories about fairies and dogs and that sort of thing! I also remember reading a biography of Enid Blyton who was quite a prolific writer and how she kept notebooks and detailed plans of stories. This really appealed to me. I think my favourite book is The Great Gatsby because I think Fitzgerald’s writing is just so beautiful. I remember the first time I read it and how powerfully it affected me. There is a real strain of cynicism in a lot of modern writing which I don’t like. Some writers delight in being vulgar or brutal; it’s a tendency that can come across as childish, a need to shock. Writing like that of Fitzgerald’s is so beautiful, it reminds us how fragile the world really is. It affects us on a much deeper level.
TM: This September Sun has had much success, from being selected as a set book for ‘A’ Level Literature exams in Zimbabwe, to being translated into Arabic. Please tell us about your writing journey with your debut novel.
BR: It has been quite a journey and when I was sitting on many a long, lonely evening, often without power, I didn’t think it would be as popular as it has been. I have received many messages from people who say it struck a chord with them; it was something they could relate to. Perhaps because it was more of an urban novel to those we are used to seeing and maybe because it spoke for a strata of society that is ironically often overlooked in African writing, the middle class.
It has been very popular with people who have left Zimbabwe and feel homesick, but it has also been fairly popular with people who have never even visited Zimbabwe.
I think my greatest moment was when This September Sun got to number one on Amazon kindle. That was wonderful. I didn’t know anything abut it until a friend of mine in the UK messaged me to say that it had picked as the Editor’s Choice and then suddenly sales went right up and it hit number one. I still have a screen shot of This September Sun at number one and The Da Vinci Code at number two.
TM: Please describe your relationship with amaBooks. What is the importance and significance of local publishing houses to the future of writing in Zimbabwe?
BR: I have a very good relationship with amaBooks and without them I don’t think This September Sun would have been published at all! They have done wonders for local writers over the years, producing various anthologies of short stories. My first short story, The Queue was published in their first Short writings From Bulawayo anthology back in 2003 and it gave me the confidence to finish This September Sun.
Often when people find out that I am a writer, they tell me that they have written a book, but have not got it published. There are so many people out there who would like to write but the chances of being picked up by a big publishing house are very slim. We need more local publishing houses who are aware of what people here want to read. We also need people who are prepared to give advice to writers on how to edit their work and how best to present it.
TM: In 2017, you were selected as one of five recipients of the Miles Morland Foundation writing scholarships. Please tell us about your experience with MMF and what it means for a writer from Zimbabwe to receive such an award.
BR: This was the third time that I had applied for the Morland and, to be honest, I was going to give it a break in trying, but decided to give it one last chance – and I am glad I did! Unfortunately, 2018 was not a good year for me as my mother died, but the Morland were very generous and allowed me to take my time about coming back to writing.
I had to submit 10 000 words a month. This was often quite challenging but also very good as it pushed me to get down to work. I think we all need that incentive!
TM: Your second novel, All Come to Dust, will launch in Zimbabwe on November 11. Please tell us about your latest work - What inspired it? Why a crime novel?
BR: I have always enjoyed crime writing. I am a big Agatha Christie fan and so I thought about writing a novel along similar lines set in Zimbabwe, but also reflecting something of our lives here. The plot includes two mysteries: the first is the mystery concerning the death of Marcia Pullman, a woman who was not very well liked by many people. The second mystery is one from the policeman’s past. When Edmund was a young boy, his mother worked for a couple called the MacDougals. Mr MacDougal was a policeman and the inspiration behind Edmund joining the police force. One day, Edmund got home from school to find the house empty and the MacDougals gone. The mystery concerning what happened to them has haunted him all his life.
All Come to Dust is more than just a crime novel in the sense that it is also an exploration of where we are today in Zimbabwe and how in so many senses we have lost our way. We treat each other badly; we exploit the poor; we look after ourselves first.
Each of the characters has some sort of problem that they have to overcome and each of them have a connection with the past that is holding them back. I feel that in Zimbabwe, we constantly live in the shadow of the past. The most obvious one is the way in which the government constantly refers to the liberation war and forces the younger generation to be mindful of the sacrifice made, even though it means very little to them. However, there are other ways in which we all hark back to ‘better days’.
TM: What challenges have you faced as an author in Zimbabwe? What advice would you give to aspiring writers in Zimbabwe who wish to publish short stories as well as novels?
BR: I think that one of the biggest challenges I have faced is from readers and publishers outside of the country who have stereotypes about Africa and what life is like here. They are stuck with a version that focuses on famine, poverty and disease and they want to see that reflected in what they read. For anyone wanting to break that mould, it is very difficult to be heard. I don’t think I am alone in this though as I have met many a writer who complains of the same thing.
What aspiring writers need to do is submit their work on platforms where their work will be easily seen, like this literary journal. Don’t start by sending work to big publishers as you can wait a long time to hear from them, if at all. Get your work seen by as many people as possible and build a reputation. And always keep at it. Take into account constructive criticism, but don’t give up. There will always be somebody who doesn’t like your work, but there will always be someone who loves it.