“War is the province of men!” A sentiment that has been echoed time and time again in history books that are written in the voices of men and films that are told from the perspectives of men. It is so commonplace an idea that we rarely pause to question it. Kay Powell’s debut novel, Then a Wind Blew, published by Weaver Press Zimbabwe, does just that.
Set during the tipping point in history when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, Then a Wind Blew, grips and transports the reader to a time that was plagued by unimaginable turmoil and heartache. Through the graphically poignant voices of three women, Kay forces the reader to see, to hear, to feel, the brutal injustices that these women faced.
What struck me the most as I read Then a Wind Blew was how Kay masterfully interweaves the points of view of three very different women - Susan Haig who has lost her son in the war, Nyanye Maseka who has fled to a guerrilla camp in Mozambique, and Beth Lytton, a nun serving her church on an African Reserve. The war for independence was inherently racial in nature. Libraries are full of books written with single-minded opinions and rarely from an integrated outlook of shared experiences. Through her three main characters, Kay gives the reader a diversity of credible vantage points and frames of mind from which to mull over the war for independence in Zimbabwe with understanding and compassion for what was endured by all.
Then a Wind Blew is a must-read for all who are brave enough to consider and reconsider the prickly truths of the guerilla struggle from diversely provocative and evocative frames of reference of female voices of war.
We at Mosi oa Tunya Literary Review were honored to chat with Kay Powell and hear more from her about her storytelling journey:
TM: Tendai Machingaidze KP: Kay Powell
TM: Tell us about yourself - Where you are from; Where you studied; Where you’ve worked; Where you are now.
KP: I was born in Zambia, came to Zimbabwe as a baby and grew up in Redcliff and Bikita (my father was a mining engineer). I went to school in Bulawayo (Eveline) and in 1968 I went to the UK to attend university (Exeter) and stayed on, working as a Social Worker. I returned to Zimbabwe from 1974 to 1978, working first in Social Work in Bulawayo, then in publishing in Harare (for College Press). At that time I had two daughters. We went back to the UK for a short time, and returned to Zimbabwe after Independence, in 1981. I worked for Macmillans publishers, then set up my own publishing company (Quest), mainly to produce the Tabex Encyclopedia of Zimbabwe, as well as other non-fiction titles. Among them was Serving Secretly, the memoir of the head of the CIO from 1964 to 1981. I returned to the UK in 1988 and have been here ever since, most of the time providing publishing services to international development agencies. I live with my husband (also a novelist) near Cambridge.
TM: Your book “Then a Wind Blew” was published in January 2021 by Weaver Press Zimbabwe. Tell us about your storytelling journey from inspiration to publication.
KP: Being in publishing, mostly as an editor, I had long wanted to try to write fiction myself one day. I always knew that, if I did do it, it would be about Africa, because that is where my heart is. And the sorrow of Zimbabwe’s unnecessary war seemed an obvious choice as a subject. Another reason to write about the war was that my daughters were born during it, and I wanted them to know as much as possible about why it happened, who it hurt, what the repercussions were – and still are. When I had finished it, I looked for a southern Africa publisher who might be interested in publishing it and was so lucky to get a positive response from Irene Staunton at Weaver Press, whom I’ve long admired for all she has done to keep book publishing alive in Zimbabwe.
TM: Talk to us about the importance of the diversity of voices and points of view of the women in the book.
KP: One person who read my novel wrote: “This was an excellent albeit distressing read… Kay Powell writes like an artist who paints not because she wants to sell her paintings, but because it is an expression of truth.” The truth – so far as I could find it – was my underlying aim with this novel, not least because I was writing it partly to tell my daughters something of the country in which they were born. The truth means listening to and recording all voices, as impartially as possible. I have long held an interest in the plight of women in war, not least because we seldom hear their voices during or after wars, and yet in many ways they bear the greatest burden. When I received this review from Matthew Parris, who’d grown up in the country and has become a renowned columnist in the UK for The Times newspaper, I couldn’t have been more delighted:
“We who were close to it saw the Zimbabwean conflict as a man’s war. There is no such thing, and Kay Powell has channelled the voices to tell us so: women’s voices, with sad, brave, moving songs on their lips. How did we not hear them?”
TM: How much research went into writing your novel? What resources did you use? What advice would you give to budding authors aiming to write “historical fiction”?
KP: I spend about three years, on and off, researching the background for the novel. This meant re-reading everything I had on the subject, spending a lot of time in the British Library reading anything relevant there, and corresponding with and meeting people who’d researched the period. What I read included non-fiction accounts (e.g., Fireforce by Chris Cocks, Guns and Guerrilla Girls by Tanya Lyons, Weaver Press’s Mothers of the Revolution and Dirty War by Glen Cross), fiction (e.g., Charles Mungoshi, Yvonne Vera, Shimmer Chinodya, Stanley Nyamafukudza – I worked with him at College Press!), memoirs/biographies (e.g., Pat Chater, Fay Chung), research documents (e.g., all the verbatim interviews Mary Ndhlovu conducted with women who’d been in the Zambian camps, Ireen Mudeka’s study of female guerrillas in the war, and Gerald Mazarire’s study of life in the camps), and old newspapers and TV documentaries. My work with the head of CIO on his memoir had also given me access to a lot of what was then secret information.
TM: What is your favorite book/Who is your favorite author?
KP: That’s so difficult! Top of my list would be the masters of the short story – and top of that list for me is Katherine Mansfield (followed by Alice Munro, Guy de Maupassant, Ernest Hemingway and, of course, our own Yvonne Vera). With novels, my favourites tend to be North American women authors (e.g., Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood). Favourite book? Probably Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.
TM: What can we expect from you in the future?
KP: I haven’t thought about it! Would you come back and ask me in a year’s time?
Find out more about Kay Powell and Then a Wind Blew at: