Irene Sabatini - Interviews - Irene Sabatini

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Author's interviews about what inspired her to write

An Interview with Orange Award for New Writers Winner - 'Geosi Reads',  Feb. 2011

Love in a Turbulent Zimbabwe - 'The African', October 2010

Poppie Mphuthing talks to Irene Sabatini, author of the award-winning new novel, The Boy Next Door.

Interview with Irene Sabatini - Tricia Wombell, August 2010

What inspired The Boy Next Door’s theme of an interracial relationship in the Zimbabwe of the 1980s and 1990s?

The genesis of book was two pronged: a suggestion from an editor that I write a memoir about growing up in Zimbabwe during the 1980s and 1990s, and a phone call I received from Bulawayo in 2007 about a fire that had broken out in the neighbouring house of my childhood home. The two events came together one morning as I sat in front of the computer, and typed out that first line, Two days after I turned fourteen the son of our neighbour set his step mother alight, a line which seemed then to come from nowhere!

So, Lindiwe’s childhood draws from my childhood in Bulawayo (the memoir suggestion) and the fire bit draws from that phone call. The wonder of fiction is that I was at liberty to fuse two events which happened in completely different time zones and create something new. Ian, appeared, and he is entirely a work of fiction.

We see Lindiwe Bishop grow from an observant youngster, into a wilful teenager, and then tentatively into motherhood, you have created a character that will be with us for a long time. How did you set about creating her and her development?

Lindiwe's transformation was an organic process; there was no conscious decision to give her a particular voice or to shape her character and personality. Once she was there, sitting on that veranda reading her Sue Barton book, where we first set eyes on her, her voice took over. Who she is, I think, is set up on those opening pages of the book. It’s wonderful when readers come to me and tell me how much Lindiwe’s growth from childhood to womanhood rings so true, how her voice changes from this naive teenager to this sophisticated woman… in a way, I can’t take too much credit- she was such a vivid (and delightful) presence!

Lindiwe's mother is so tautly drawn and the ambivalent relationship between mother and daughter throughout the book is pretty much unbearable! How did you cope with creating it?

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A Novel Revolutionary - Alumni Life, Institute of Education, Summer 2010

You did your first degree at the University of Zimbabwe. How did university life in Harare compare with university life in London?

University life in Harare was an exhilarating frustrating, fun and highly volatile experience. I was coming from the quiet city of Bulawayo to the buzzing metropolis. I had also had a rather sheltered upbringing: I went to a catholic school with very watchful nuns and my parents were strict about such things as going out. Harare was my first experience of freedom.

The usual university shenanigans went on: the socialising and the passionate taking on of new ideas. I met people from very different backgrounds to my own, who either sharpened my views or broadened them. For example, from an American student, I was introduced to feminism which, according to my revolutionary brothers on campus, was a bourgeois luxury - first the workers had to be liberated, and then maybe women! She gave me a highly treasured volume of The Second Sex which makes an appearance in The Boy Next Door.

There was also the added drama of politics, revolutionary politics. This was in the late1980s and there was much to get excited about: imperialism and corruption in government being the main targets. So I marched - I wore a beret! I felt the fear and pulse of running away from riot police, of being trapped in a tiny room in the student hostel as riot police unleashed tear gas, batons. But there was also the camaraderie of meeting with fellow students and coming up with new adjective-packed slogans. University life in my Harare years was completely different from my experience at the IOE. In London, I relished the calmness and the lack of distraction from my studies, possibly because I was much older and was a spent revolutionary force!


In Conversation: Irene Sabatini - Belinda Otas, June 2010

What inspired The Boy Next Door?

The Boy Next Door was inspired by two events. The first, a telephone call I received from my father: a fire had broken out next door. I hadn’t been in Bulawayo for almost five years but the image of the house next door burning was very vivid to me (my parents still live in my childhood home).

Then, much later, I had a conversation with an American editor: he was trying very hard to convince me to write a memoir about growing up in Rhodesia and then independent Zimbabwe. I told him, I didn’t want to abandon my fiction writing, but somehow his suggestion sparked off this long, beautiful trip down memory lane: all these images about my girlhood in this sleepy city (the wonderful Public Library, for instance, where I spent many, many hours) the different textures and flavours of it.

Then, in one of those mysteries of how a story begins, I was sitting at my desk, a year or so after my father’s telephone call and the very first line of the book came to me….Two days after I turned fourteen the son of our neighbour set his stepmother alight. That line, which has never changed during countless revisions, is the coalescing of the two events that in reality occurred in different time periods- the fire (which became something else in the book, not a house on fire anymore but a person) and childhood. Snatches of memory ultimately gave the young Lindiwe her body and voice, which is not to say that Lindiwe is me!

Lindiwe’s story serves as a lens for readers to see daily aspect of life in Zimbabwe years back like we have never heard or seen it. What’s the story about Zimbabwe and your background that you were keen to get across to you’re the reader?

I guess one of the most important stories that I wanted to convey (although I wasn’t consciously working towards that as I was writing) about Zimbabwe in the eighties (and nineties) is just how multicultural it was. There was such a heady mix of nationalities: young people, full of energy and good will, from all over the world, who had come with NGO’s or the United Nations to help this new nation find its feet. Zimbabwe was going to be socialist paradise. There were doctors and teachers from England, Cuba, the United States Italy, France…all manner of what Ian calls ‘fundies’, experts. There was Black, White, Coloured, Asian, Shona, Ndebele…and the rest of the world, all squashed up against each other in this (previously) isolated land-locked country; it was a shock to the system for the newly minted Zimbabweans, this sudden international invasion. There was a great deal of optimism particularly in the northern part of the country, in Harare.

The situation in the south was different. The image of Zimbabwe being a thriving nation in the eighties has glossed over the massacres that took place during the early part of that decade, what Zimbabweans refer to as Gukurahundi. Lindiwe grows up in Bulawayo which is in the southern part of Zimbabwe, called Matabeleland. Her girlhood is shaped by both the war for independence and the consequent reign of terror when a special unit of North Korean trained government soldiers called the Fifth Brigade was let loose in the south resulting in untold suffering and deaths. Ian is also from Bulawayo, and their relationship is shaped partly by this shared geography and history. Several readers have told me how touched they were by these two teenagers, Lindiwe and Ian, who are able to connect in this very human way during a time of widespread fear in Matabeleland.

You explore different themes in your book; political disorder, violence, dislocation and dispossession and love, among many others. But one thing that stood out for me was the relationship between Lindiwe and Ian, and what the power of endurance can do. Is that an element of the Zimbabwean society and the world at large that you wanted to question and explore; people’s ability to endure the rough times and still have hope?


Irene Sabatini Recommends - Poets & Writers, 14 October 2009

I wrote The Boy Next Door in Geneva, Switzerland and one of the biggest challenges for me was to capture the essence of life in Zimbabwe, particularly the second largest city, Bulawayo, in the eighties, which was a delicate period: optimism and hope (Zimbabwe was newly independent after a brutal war) and fear (the peace, at times, seemed fragile).

Music was what constantly brought Bulawayo during that period vividly alive for me. Mostly Johnny Clegg and Savuka with their song, "Scatterlings." That song had a visceral effect on me, the energy and vibrancy of its African beat surging through my body, sweeping away the years and landing me right there in that time. More so when I came upon the video on YouTube. It made me both sentimental and clear-eyed.

And then there is the wrenching cry of the song 'Asimbonanga,' 'We have not seen him,' that captured for me the sorrows of that period when South Africa was still under apartheid and the southern part of Zimbabwe was suffering from a wave of killings. The music grasped me at a profoundly emotional level; when the emotion subsided its echo was still there as I sat down and wrote Lindiwe and Ian's story."

The Origins of The Boy Next Door- Little Brown & Co. website,  September 2009

How did The Boy Next Door begin?
When did you know that this was the story? When did you meet Lindiwe, Ian?

Each of these questions could have a myriad of answers. The most simple would be to locate an event, a date, a time, and say, well it was on such and such a day and this thing happened, and that that’s the root, the germ of the story, right there.

So then, a phone call, sometime in early 2006. And the first line came some months later. Much changed in the story itself (draft after draft), but that first line has remained constant, true. The phone call was from Bulawayo. A fire had broken out next door to my parents’ house, the house of my childhood. Just that. A fire. And then, my first line — Two days after I turned fourteen the son of our neighbor set his stepmother alight — there it was: the story; the sum and whole of it, its core . . . from there springs Lindiwe’s story; without this line, her story would be another story, shaped by some other thing.

But where exactly did that line come from? What did some fire (in 2006) have to do with that line, which takes place in the early ’80s? What was it that drew me all the way back to that time, that period, to then?

Ah, in between the phone call and the line, a suggestion from an editor that I should write a memoir of growing up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. My response was no. I wasn’t ready for a memoir. But his idea, his suggestion, opened the door for memory, for childhood, for the broad strokes of Lindiwe’s childhood: the bookworm in Bulawayo; the family outings; the cherished Cortina. Bulawayo as I knew and breathed it so many years ago. The Bulawayo that is in my veins, in my heart, in my spirit. Borrowed from my childhood but once again worked over. Imagined and reimagined until it became that Bulawayo, the Bulawayo of the story. Lindiwe’s Bulawayo.

But, perhaps because I’ve been musing about this very thing — where do our stories, characters, begin — with another writer, I’m inclined to think that this story, these characters, come from everything that has gone into making me who I am today, everything that has fed my body, my mind, my spirit, over these forty plus years; all that I am conscious and unconscious of, ranging from books I’ve read, to music I’ve loved, to, well, perhaps what I had for breakfast seventeen years ago; what remains behind, embedded, I suppose, in my psyche. In conversing with this writer, I suddenly had an inkling, a suggestion of where Ian might have come from. And the discovery made me smile at the wonderment of it...     


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