MEET THE WRITERS BEHIND "WAYS OF BEING HERE": TINASHE JAKWA

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It's rare that you get to interview a writer whom you mentored, and even rarer for said writer to be one of the most well-rounded, delightful people that you've met. But then, Tinashe is like that: erudite, contemplative, at times funny, and always a joy to be around. I spoke to her about her life, story and journey in the lead up to the publication of Ways of Being Here, which was jointly published by the Centre for Stories and Margaret River Press.

When reading your story, ‘No Child of One's Own,' I was struck by your interest in translation. It's an apt metaphor for the migrant experience, don't you think? In your life, how did you straddle certain cultural norms pertaining to Australia, and at the same time hold on to your cultural heritage?

I often speak about how regimented and structured life in Australia is, particularly Australian "public" spaces. Neat demarcations and separations are highly valued here. For instance, you can visit the outback, and there'll be acres upon acres fenced off from the public. Mountains can only be admired from the comfort of tarred roads; we are restricted from actually climbing them. It is private property run amok. When my family and I moved to Australia, the first thing I learned was to deny myself, my mother, my father, my brother, my heritage, my history. Racial separations and racial differences that were emphasised required that I distance myself from what I knew to ensure that I was understood by Australians of different colours and creeds. The only way to make myself understood was to speak their language, to fulfill stereotypes they held, to meet their expectations, always. My own desires and priorities became misplaced and irrelevant. I lost my bearings walking on tarred roads instead of jumping over the fence and climbing the mountain.

So much distance and emptiness characterises life in Australia; it takes many forms. When we moved to Australia in 2006, I believed it freed me from the Shona-Karanga, Zimbabwean structures of which I was suddenly aware. Family and community are important where I'm from, and people are understood to be part of a community first and foremost. But there are often silent, silenced fractures in that fabric, unacknowledged distances. Australia seemed to allow speaking up, which is odd because I have always been outspoken, a truth to which my parents can attest! At eleven years of age, I couldn’t catch my breath long enough to realise it wasn’t that simple. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen and a deep depression set in, still unable to catch my breath.

It’s true, a lot of meaning, intention, and truths get lost in translation. Each of us is engaged in acts of translation. It’s as much true for the migrant and refugee as it is for the settler and the owners of the land. These acts require humility. This is what I've learned over the years and from my experience of straddling different cultural norms that also resonate with each other. All life is regimented and structured in one way or another. Indeed, it must be. Many lessons can be learned from this. We simply must determine which lessons to keep and which to discard.

You also show a fine grasp of the poetic in your work. How important are poetry and poetic language in bypassing prescribed thought? What's more important in appreciating the complexity of a subject, do you think, to first reach the head or the heart? Can both be touched in the reader, providing the work is appropriately crafted?

I actually believe it’s impossible to touch one without touching the other, and that it’s false to think there exists a single and universal formula for appreciating the complexity of any subject. The beauty of poetry is that it cannot be contained. Before thinking about form and how a writer engages a subject, call me sentimental, but I think it’s more important to ask about the writer’s feelings. What drove someone to want to write something, what created the sense of urgency? Were they crying, laughing, how about both? Before words are put on a page, there’s another story to be told, perhaps the actual story. The poetry lies in whether or not the writer manages to translate that sense of urgency into another form, and whether they stay true to it, tempering it as necessary. If we get hung up on how we are told a poem, short story or novel should be written, on how a story supposedly must be told, then we betray a very important virtue, learning to always better our understanding. Poetry as I understand it is central to meeting prescribed thought halfway and challenging it as needed.

How important to you are distinctions of fiction and non-fiction when it comes to literature? Is there scope for, say, creative non-fiction in relation to your own work? What does or doesn’t matter to you when crafting and creating worlds and characters? 

I think distinctions of fiction and non-fiction are dishonest. They have limited utility.  It is rare for such neat separations to exist, but people adore dichotomous thinking! It is simply not possible for a writer or artist to create something that does not draw from their lives and the experiences of the people they encounter. Stories are not written in a vacuum, nor does inspiration arise in a vacuum. But the distinctions are interesting because they reveal the contested nature of truth. They are also dangerous because someone strictly claiming to write non-fiction can be tempted to falsely believe they are in possession of the whole and not a partial truth.

I guess you could say my work is creative non-fiction, which would at least mean that my writing is not boring! But I prefer (auto)biographical fiction. Even where one is writing a biography, their story and interpretations are intertwined with the people whose stories they are telling. And where one is writing about their own experiences, they are intertwined with those of the people in one’s life. In ‘No Child of One's Own,' I make extensive use of metaphor. As well as having stories and memories narrated to me, I am also the narrator. The story is written in such a way that it appears to be a single person’s story, but it’s highly differentiated with many dislocations, but very few discontinuities between each of the stories.

If I were a pothead, I'd constantly be that person going, ‘everything is connected, dude.' But what matters most to me in revealing and exploring characters and worlds is highlighting the continuities and discontinuities between each of our experiences. It is a legacy.

How did you find the mentoring program, as provided by the Centre for Stories, for this particular piece of writing? Going forward, what other kinds of support might help you to develop as a writer and writing professionally?

 I found the mentoring program very worthwhile. It has highlighted that it’s not the amount but quality of time spent and shared with a mentor that counts. You and I didn’t find much time to meet and discuss ‘No Child of One's Own,' but what time we found was invaluable. The story's name arose through my mentorship with you, a big family man. It is always refreshing when mentors aren't prescriptive but challenge you to give strength to your voice while pushing you to refine your writing where necessary. But going forward, I think access to shared writing space where I can work with others and hear their stories would greatly develop my abilities as a writer. To be a great writer, you must first be willing to listen to others. Of course, I would never turn down another mentoring opportunity, especially from Oscar’s father.

Tinashe Jakwa is studying a Master of International Relations at The University of Western Australia, and is an active member of the university’s Africa Research Cluster. Her work has been published in The Australasian Review of African Studies; the Australian Institute of International Affairs’ blog ‘Australian Outlook’; and the Young Australians in International Affairs’ blog ‘Insights’.

Click here to pre-purchase your copy of Ways of Being Here.