Zimbabwe novel not a memoir, says author Andrea Eames
It's a long way from the searing heat of the African bush to a café by the Thames on a dreary London day. The novelist Andrea Eames has come prepared: she's cradling a mug of tea and wearing a hat.
But she, if anyone, should be used to the contrasts of a peripatetic existence. Eames grew up in Zimbabwe but had to emigrate to New Zealand in 2002. She's just flown in from Austin, Texas, where she now lives with her husband. "I feel most at ease in airports, weirdly, where no one is at home and we're all foreign," she laughs.
It was the first of Eames's many homes - and nationalities - that inspired her moving debut novel, The Cry of the Go-Away Bird. First novels are often derided for being thinly veiled autobiography, but in Eames's case, her childhood was so vivid and traumatic it was only natural she should want to return to it as a writer. So, like Eames, her protagonist Elise at first lives an idyllic life in Zimbabwe. But a life making rock gardens out of pebbles and twigs is turned upside-down when the Mugabe-sponsored "war veterans" begin forcibly taking over the white-owned farms. She soon realises she may not be welcome in the land she's always called home, and Eames expertly captures the unruly atmosphere of mutual distrust and racial division.
Elise's mother wrestles with a dilemma: to stay and tough it out despite the obvious dangers, or to admit defeat and flee. It's the choice Eames's own family also faced, until in 2002 - "when we'd run out of excuses not to leave" - they moved to New Zealand. But the strange, beautiful Zimbabwe remains, in a way, home. So would she - can she - go back?
"I would like to, but I'm scared to go," she says. "Not because I'd be arrested or anything, but because the country that I grew up in doesn't exist any more. Like when anyone goes back to their childhood home and the walls are a different colour and there's a swing in the garden. It would bring up a lot of emotions, I think, and I'm scared about what I might feel."
Not least because The Cry of the Go-Away Bird is, for Eames, a search for the part of herself she's left behind and might never find again.
"Oh yes," she agrees. "If I hadn't written about it, actually, the whole thing would be so desperately sad. Hideous, in fact. You have to try to find a story, a message, a meaning to what happened. The book allowed me to make sense of it all, but it also meant I could relive a lot of the things I loved."
This sense of affection towards a country that became a kind of prison is the beating heart of her debut novel. Eames was determined not to write an angry, sad or even judgemental book. Like her fellow Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah, whose award-winning short story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, was shot through with humour and humanity, Eames's interest is in people rather than politics.
"I love Petina's work," she says. "And I do like the comic aspects of Zimbabwe, too. We're not an angry people; Zimbabweans are very warm, hospitable and funny. That's what the country's really like, despite all the darkness and bad things that happen there."
It's interesting that nearly every time I ask Eames about the intelligent, inquisitive teenager that is Elise, she refers back to her own experiences. Though this is a genuinely thought-provoking and elegant first effort, it does feel more like a memoir than a work of narrative-led fiction - admittedly lending The Cry of the Go-Away Bird a shocking authenticity. But she's prepared for such opinions.
"I was really keen that it wasn't just my story," she says. "I wanted it to be more universal than that - which sounds a little pretentious, I know, but it was important to me that this was a story of a lot of families in Zimbabwe. It felt truer to fictionalise it because I could be more visceral and heartfelt. You're removing yourself and making the meaning important."
Still, it turns out that even the chapters that feel most obviously novelistic - Elise's house on the tobacco farm appearing to be haunted, for example - come from Eames's own experience of an exorcism in Zimbabwe. So even though revelling in things that go bump in the night might seem a writerly device to emphasise the creeping sense of menace, there's actually something firmer behind it.
"I've always been interested in the Shona's sense of spirituality, their myths and customs - and we definitely had a ghost in the house for a while," she smiles. "And that might sound odd, but it's part of the landscape and part of growing up in Zimbabwe. There is a story, a spiritual element to everything there - a rock isn't just a rock, an animal isn't just an animal."
After the haunting episode reaches its conclusion, Elise's world shrinks from the expansive bush to a life behind barred windows and locked doors. The novel becomes brilliantly tense and claustrophobic, the shift from her previous life of privilege and unlimited freedoms expertly judged.
Zimbabwe appears to collapse around Elise, making her the outsider. It's difficult at times to comprehend why this increasingly beleaguered family doesn't leave earlier - but then, neither did Eames's parents.
"It wasn't that easy to leave," she nods. "It felt like a death in the family. People often talk about Africa being in the blood and it getting under your skin, but it genuinely does have that addictive, vivid quality." She continues: "So it's not surprising that we built up excuse after excuse not to go. So it was like, 'when we get burgled, we'll leave', or 'when we get the car hijacked we'll leave'. And all these lines in the sand kept getting crossed and crossed until there were no more left."
And yet this isn't a partisan novel that pleads for understanding. Eames herself believes that redistribution of land was a good plan - just appallingly managed by Mugabe.
"You know, I do want people to see that the land invasions were gone about in the wrong way and it caused great pain," she sighs. "But the white population was in some ways living in a fool's paradise. Something had to give at some point. Yes, it was sad and awful but there was an inevitability to it all; there was going to be a breaking point."
And the results have been felt not just in Zimbabwe but all over the world. Like Gappah, Eames talks about Zimbabwe being a scattered nation - a whole generation of people born in the country who are exiled, but want to understand where they come from and why they still feel attached to that beautiful country.
"Being displaced sounds dramatic, doesn't it, but it makes you feel foreign everywhere. Home gets further and further away the more you move. I wouldn't say it's a hugely uncomfortable sensation, but it's like having a pair of shoes that don't quite fit. You put up with it."
Ÿ The Cry of the Go-Away Bird (Harvill Secker) is out now