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"Narrating Audiobooks: In Conversation with Chipo Chung"

Updated: May 22, 2021

Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with a fellow alum of the Dominican Convent High School in Harare, Chipo Chung. Well-renowed for her acting achievements, you may recognize her from Into the Badlands, Doctor Who, and A.D. The Bible Continues, to name but a few. A graduate of Yale University and The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Chipo’s love for storytelling goes beyond theater, television, and film, to include narrating audiobooks. For those who appreciate the art of listening, her voice brings to life Zimbabwean stories as she reads The Book of Memory and The News of Her Death by Petina Gappah, and Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga. In conversation via Whatsapp here in Harare, Chipo shared with Mosi oa Tunya Literary Review, not only of her experience recording audiobooks, but wonderful insights into literature, reading, and listening:

TM: Tendai Machingaidze CC: Chipo Chung

Chipo Chung

TM: How did you get into narrating audiobooks?

CC: I read An Elegy for Easterly and was a big fan of [Petina Gappah's] work. Sometime between An Elegy of Easterly and The Book of Memory, we met and became friends, so we knew each other. She specifically requested that I read The Book of Memory for her. She really wanted me to be the voice of that character and I appreciated that because the way that the acting business works is that you are kind of siloed to what your experience is - so if your experience is theater, your next job will be theater, if you do radio then you do radio, if you do television then you do television. I always wanted to do audiobooks because I am a good reader and I’ve always been a good reader. I loved reading books when I was younger, and in the school plays at Blakiston [Primary School in Harare], I can remember I was always the narrator, which was always quite boring, because you didn’t get to play Mary, but I had a good reading voice. I always wanted to read books, but it’s always a closed shop to get into anything, so I appreciated Petina really pushing that she wanted me to read that book for her. And, it being Petina, Petina being a creative, she was very involved, she was present for the whole of the reading of the book, and was able to coach me on particular parts of it, some of them being in Shona, and some of them being in various accents. She was very impressed with my accent. I am not a Shona speaker, but she says I have a very good Manyika accent. So it was great to have her there and to have that kind of collaborative experience.

Reading audiobooks is very challenging. It’s very hard work and in fact after reading Petina’s book, I did say that it is the hardest work that an actor does because if you work in film or television, you get paid very well to sit around a lot, and in theater you get paid less, but you also have processing time, whereas when you’re reading an audiobook, it’s just you talking the entire time, and you may read the same page two or three times. Of course you have to read the book beforehand, then you have to do the preparation, so for the amount of time invested in it, it is really quite exhausting. But, I was thrilled with the opportunity to do it and l love Petina’s writing, so that’s how I got into it.

TM: How did growing up in Zimbabwe help you bring to life the voices and the characters? Do you think it is necessary to have some sort of connection to the culture and the stories in a book to be able to narrate it well?

CC: It depends on the book, of course....When some people hear my name they expect to hear the voice of a Chinese man....When it is just your voice, you can be anyone. I trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I would be very happy to read a Jane Austen novel. I’m equipped to do that. When it comes to reading culturally specific books, I think then we may have issues….I could read a book from India and think that I was convincing, but to an Indian person, they might find my accents insulting. So, of course I could read Petina’s book because even though I don’t speak the language, I do recognize the characters and the diversity of the characters, and the settings. There is’t the amount of research one would have to do to understand what kind of school she is talking about, what kind of police officer she is talking about. So, that’s why Petina was so determined that I should read that book because I would be able to understand the character who is basically a black Zimbabwean girl who is essentially raised by a white, Rhodesian guy, so she spoke with not just a “nose brigade,” but with a Rhodie accent, which is very specific to have that be the voice of the narrator, as well as all the other characters.

People from our country are very proud of our country, and they will be the ones listening, and it is very easy for them to pick out when things are inauthentic. And in this day and age when we have successful Zimbabwean artists, and artists from different African countries, there is no reason why you can’t get a Ghanain actor to read a Ghanaian book, and a Zimbabwean actor to read a Zimbabwean book. If you are not doing that, then you are just lazy and haven’t looked hard enough.

TM: Was your experience narrating Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions similar to the process of working with Petina Gappah?

CC: Well, no….I [had previously done] two books that are on Audible, so the publisher asked for me. [In addition to Nervous Conditions] I also read The Book of Not [by Tsitsi Dangarembga]. Tsitsi very successfully wrote the final book in the trilogy, This Mournable Body, which did very well, but they had that recorded by someone else already. So, with the publisher choosing to [record the earlier books in the trilogy after the last one], Tsitsi wasn’t really involved in the development.

They are very different books - Nervous Conditions, The Book of Not, and This Mournable Body, with The Book of Not perhaps being the most challenging. This Mournable more the degraded version of Zimbabwe, and [in] Nervous Conditions....there’s this hope of a new Zimbabwe to it, whereas The Book of Not sort of sits in between the two. There’s a basic optimism to Nervous Conditions that if you work hard and you are bright, you can provides you with opportunities. Wheres This Mournable Body represents the fragmentation of society…..and the exploitation of whatever we can use to make a buck to survive. The Book of Not therefore has this declining cynicism throughout it, so it’s quite challenging.

It was different [from my experience recording Petina’s book] because I recorded them here in Harare....just last month. It was a real pleasure because I was working in Zim, which I never do, so it felt really good to get in the car and drive to work in Harare, at a small recording studio here, and have the two people I’m working with, the Director and the Sound Recorder be Zimbabwean.

Nervous Conditions really is an African classic. It’s a brilliant book. It had been twenty years since I last read it, but it is one of those books that doesn’t grow old. It is a kind of book of genius really. It reads so well. One thing I will say about Tsitsi, as a reader, because reading out loud is slightly different from reading in your head, because it requires breath….she writes really long sentences, many many subclauses, and that was quite challenging to read, but also quite astounding because the trajectory of thought would be maintained through sentences that are like half a paragraph. It was challenging to read, but at the same time, the voices are so clear. In Nervous Conditions, she has these wonderful voices. I’ve never read a play by Tsitsi, but many years ago she used to write plays, and she has gone on to make films. In Nervous Conditions, you can just hear the specificity of the characters so clearly, and as an actor that is a wonderful opportunity to read. So that was a pleasure.

The other pleasure [I had while working in Harare] was that I got to set the schedule. We would record maybe two days a week instead of every consecutive day, so it wasn’t as exhausting as other books I’ve read.

TM: You’ve worked with various organizations that empower women over the years. Nervous Conditions and The Book of Memory have strong female characters. Has your work with women around the world fed into how you read the voices of the women in these books?

CC: Nervous Conditions...when I was reading it, I related it back to my upbringing and to what it means to be a woman in Zimbabwean society or in a patriarchal society. It’s very clear what that book is about. Finding one’s voice as a young woman and the difference between what happens to the narrator character and her cousin Nyasha who is very well-read, and very intellectual, and very outspoken, and I suppose very Western. What happens to Nyasha at the end of the book, because she is caged by this very authoritative, masculine figure….to me it really spoke of male authority figures when I was growing up. Tsitsi was doing that wonderful magical thing of talking about a whole society while talking about very specific individuals. For me that’s part of the greatness of that book. It is quite subtly able to revere the traditional family, as well as critique it. It’s a real analysis of society....It’s not superficial.

So, has my work with other women’s organizations affected my work? No. It just makes me appreciate when a woman writer is really using art. Art speaks above the NGO/Charity agenda to capture the essence of what the experience is of oppression, and to give you greater understanding. In the end, a lot of my work with charities and NGOs is about trying to get a better understanding of people’s experiences, and I think that art is able to do that in a much faster way.

My experience in theater….I’ve done quite a number of verbatim plays - using verbatim the testimony of people who I interviewed….so they are like documentary plays. There is so much drama in real life, and when you listen to the real voices of people, even if they are acted by actors, it is quite astounding what can be revealed by that.

I haven’t listened to that many audiobooks, but I got into it last year. I listened to a fantastic book...I’d look out the window and take in what was being said...and I’d have to stop after an hour to just take that in. It was a wonderful experience learning to listen differently, because I’m not a person who has been big into radio. Radio is always something in the background, as opposed to just sitting and focusing and listening. I think it's quite a special experience and opportunity. With a book like Nervous Conditions….especially at this time when we can’t go to the theater….there is something of being in the audience and having someone perform for have that theatrical experience. I feel that about Nervous Conditions because it has some real high drama and lots of characters.

TM: Do you have any plans to narrate more audiobooks in the future?

CC: I really enjoyed these last two. I also, a few years ago, read The News of Her Death, which is one of Petina Gappah’s stories in Rotten Row, that is currently on a podcast. I really enjoyed that as well. I know Petina is planning on getting the whole of Rotten Row read by different voices, so I guess I’m already involved in that. I love reading and actually these days I spend more time reading scripts and reading for work than actually reading for fun, so it was quite nice reading these two books because they were forcing me to….well they were still reading for work...but to read fiction. I’m looking forward to doing more.

TM: What are your favorite books? Or a favorite book if you have one?

CC: A Suitable Boy. I think it’s in three volumes, but I had it as like a 1000-page book all bound together. I can remember getting to about page 750 and being like “oh no we are near the end” and getting really depressed with still like 150 pages to go. That’s how good that book is. For someone who doesn’t get to read a lot, just remembering reading that book and not wanting it to end...that is one of the best books I’ve read.

TM: With your love for books and narrating books, do you write at all, or have any plans to write?

CC: That has been the great gift of lockdown actually is I have started writing.

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