A writer’s struggle to get her book of Shona poetry published overseas saw her found a publishing house that’s now helping Zimbabwean writers get their books published – including one who typed out his entire novel on WhatsApp.
Samantha Vazhure founded Carnelian Heart Publishing in the UK in 2020 after she discovered big online stores such as Amazon wouldn’t list Shona-language books unless they came from a publishing house.
Her book of poems and its English translation, Uprooted, were published by her Carnelian and are now available on Amazon. But the hurdles Vazhure had to overcome to get there made her realise the struggles writers back home must be facing.
“I thought, if I’m here in the UK with access to resources, and I’m finding it this hard, what about people in Zimbabwe?” Vazhure told RFI from her home in Wales.
“I wanted to help people who were trying, but were going nowhere with their efforts.”
A novel via WhatsApp
One of those writers – Vice Nganga – found her on Twitter.
Nganga didn’t have a computer and had typed out his entire 48,000-word novel – a tale set in pre-colonial Zimbabwe – on WhatsApp. Nganga’s compelling story is steeped in the ancient Karanga culture of Vazhure’s home province of Masvingo.
But extracting the novel from hundreds of WhatsApp messages and putting it into a format that she could edit proved a huge task. Once Upon a Time was published by Carnelian Heart early last year.
“We got there in the end,” said Vazhure. “I can’t begin to tell you how fulfilling that is: going through that process and having a novel in the end. If I wasn’t there, it was never going to happen.”
As a one-person operation though, Vazhure doesn’t have the capacity to deal with a flood of submissions. This often means she has to scout for talent online.
For her first anthology of short stories, Turquoise Dreams, she went onto social media to find 10 previously unpublished Zimbabwe women writers.
That’s also how she found poet Dzikamayi Chando, whose collection of poems, Cremation of the Scarecrow, has just been published by Vazhure. She had found samples of his work in online literary journals.
“I approached him and asked if he was interested in publishing a collection and he said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m sitting on over 400 poems, I can send you a manuscript next week’.”
Struggles and celebrations
Zimbabwe’s publishing industry has struggled for some years. Dominated by a handful of established houses, the industry was hit hard by the country’s long-running economic crises.
In the last couple of years, self-publishing and print-on-demand has found new popularity, with authors like Tendai Garwe (Letter to my Son), Rutendo Gwatidzo (Born to Fight) and others bringing new stories to local audiences, often using social media to promote them.
Vazhure’s publishing house has now published 10 books by Zimbabwean writers. Another six are already in the pipeline. And she’s not just publishing writers based in the southern African country.
Brilliance of Hope, published last year, is an anthology of 41 short stories by Zimbabwean writers living abroad.
Vazhure reached out to at least 50 based in Australia, Dubai, South Africa, the UK and the US. She asked them to contribute work. Just 15 did, but it was enough.
She describes that book as possibly the most impactful one she’s published yet.
“I felt I was able to get such a diverse collection of voices into one place that were talking about their various experiences, good and bad,” she said.
“I myself am an immigrant, and I understand the struggles and the celebrations of the Zimbabweans who have left for greener pastures.”
Labour of love
For Vazhure, doing the work of an editor and publisher, alongside her own demanding career as a lawyer and financial services consultant, is a labour of love.
The publishing is funded out of her own salary. She also has to maintain her own creative output, while being a mum and a wife and running a home. That’s where, she says, she leans on her smartphone.
She uses it to jot down story ideas, or to take photographs on walks of scenes that inspire her to write haiku or short poems later when she has more time.
Born in the UK in 1981, and raised in Zimbabwe before she returned to the UK in 1999 for university and work, Vazhure studied English and Shona literature at boarding school in Masvingo but never considered writing to be a viable career option.
That changed in 2019. She suddenly felt compelled to write and began working on poems, short stories and her first novel.
“From the time I started I haven’t been able to stop. I regret not writing all those years when I was so focused on my academic and professional career,” she said.
Vazhure wants to see many more Zimbabwean writers joining the ranks of the country’s literary icons – authors like Tsitsi Dangarembga, Petina Gappah and the late Chenjerai Hove.
“That’s the reason I’m doing this,” she said. “We need to do more to get more author names out of Zimbabwe.”