2. Is African folklore an interest of yours? What made you decide to explore this for a fantasy novel? With themes of the lingering effects of colonialism at play in your book, what sorts of concerns did you have about cultural appropriation as you wrote it?
Yes, it is of great interest, along with other non-Western narratives. In all my books, I try to break away with the traditional linear three-part arc, so embracing a different tradition certainly gave me a good template of doing so. As for imperialism: I don’t think one can honestly write about the world today without talking about it. I mean, we grow coffee and cocoa where we grow it because of it – imperialism shaped the world, and going about as if it was just that brief phase that ended without any long-lasting effects is disingenuous, to say the least.
As for cultural appropriation, it’s a several-fold answer. It’s always a concern, sure. First, I was reluctant to use existing myths, so I used them very sparingly and in close consultation with Tait, the aforementioned friend. The myths that characters tell each other are all made up but within bounds of existing folkloric tradition (such as characteristics of animals) or literary ones (man-fish is a Zimbabwean urban myth of sorts, explored by Marechera, and one of Vimbai’s stories is a riff on Tutuola.) Europeans tend to be very liberal while “collecting” folklore and I tried not to do it – that is, I went by definition of creative transformation rather than mere copying as described in African customary laws folklore copyright protection (summary document here: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001277/127784e.pdf).
Then, Vimbai herself is a cultural outsider to her parents’ tradition – that is, she is second generation and is culturally an American, with not as much insight into her parents’ culture as she would like. I would not be comfortable writing about Zimbabwean folklore from the insider perspective, because I am not an insider. I was careful to speak about the culture rather than for it, which I believe is a crucial distinction between talking about other cultures and appropriating them.
Finally, I do realize that my insight is limited, and the book is really much more about the immigrant experience – something I do know about first-hand. And this is something I spoke a lot to my friend about. He was very supportive of the book, but he also said, “You do realize that some Zimbabweans will not like this book because it was written by a white woman.” And yes, of course I do realize that, and you know what? It’s a valid position. I think it’s an important thing, to accept that you won’t have a unanimous approval, and to not be hurt about it. Westerners writing about other cultures either seek validation or just default to “haters gonna hate so screw them, I’ll write what I want” positions. So for me, I think it’s important to do one’s best, but not expect that everyone will love you for it. I mean, I myself am wary when Westerners write about my culture, so who am I to expect a different treatment? – read the full interview!