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Zimbabwe: The Zimbabwean lawyer turned publisher who took on a ‘WhatsApp’ author

A writer’s struggle to get her poetry book Shona published overseas led her to find a publishing house that now helps Zimbabwean writers get their books published – including one who typed her entire novel on WhatsApp .

Samantha Vazhure founded Carnelian Heart Publishing in the UK in 2020 after discovering that major online stores like Amazon wouldn’t list Shona language books unless they came from a publisher.

Her book of poems and its English translation, Uprooted, were published by her Carnelian and are now available on Amazon. But the obstacles Vazhure had to overcome to get there made him realize the difficulties writers back home have to face.

“I thought, if I’m here in the UK with access to resources, and I’m finding it so difficult, what about people in Zimbabwe?” Vazhure told RFI from his home in Wales.

“I wanted to help people who were trying, but weren’t getting anywhere with their efforts.”

Did you know that my 1st book ‘Zvadzugwa Musango’ is a collection of poetry written in my mother tongue, Shona. It explores the experiences of immigrants living far from their country of origin. I translated Zvadzugwa Musango into English and called it ‘Déraciné’. Happy poetry month! pic.twitter.com/9FhQnM9TMj

— Rumbidzai (@SamanthaVazhure) April 13, 2021

A novel via WhatsApp

One of these writers – Vice Nganga – found her on Twitter.

Nganga didn’t have a computer and typed his entire 48,000-word novel – a tale set in pre-colonial Zimbabwe – on WhatsApp. Nganga’s fascinating history 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 she could edit proved a daunting task. Once Upon a Time was published by Carnelian Heart early last year.

“We finally got there,” Vazhure said. “I can’t begin to tell you how rewarding it is to go through this process and have a novel at the end. If I wasn’t there, it would never happen.”

As an individual operation, Vazhure lacks the capacity to deal with a flood of submissions. This often means she has to search for talent online.

For her first anthology of short stories, Turquoise Dreams, she took to social media to find 10 unpublished female Zimbabwean writers.

This is also how she met the poet Dzikamayi Chando, whose collection of poems, Cremation of the Scarecrow, has just been published by Vazhure. She had found samples of her work in online literary journals.

“I approached him and asked him 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’ .”

“Here’s a message for newborns waiting to breathe

If you believe in it, then you can do it, look at me!” -2pac pic.twitter.com/1Y4uPsJyhd

— Dzikamayi Chando (@dzikamayic) January 26, 2022

Struggles and celebrations

Zimbabwe’s publishing industry has been struggling for some years. Dominated by a handful of established houses, the industry has been hit hard by the country’s long economic crises.

Over the past two years, self-publishing and print-on-demand have found new popularity, with authors like Tendai Garwe (Letter to My Son), Rutendo Gwatidzo (Born to Fight) and others bringing news stories to local audiences, often using social media to promote them.

Vazhure’s publishing house has now published 10 books by Zimbabwean writers. Six more are already in the works. And it doesn’t just publish 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 contacted at least 50 people based in Australia, Dubai, South Africa, the UK and the US. She asked them to contribute to the work. Only 15 made it, but that was enough.

She describes this book as probably the most impactful she has published to date.

“I felt I was able to pull together such a diverse collection of voices in one place who spoke about their various experiences, both good and bad,” she said.

“I am an immigrant myself and understand the struggles and celebrations of Zimbabweans who have moved on to greener pastures.”

labor of love

For Vazhure, doing the job of editor and publisher, alongside her own demanding career as a lawyer and financial services consultant, is a labor of love.

The publishing is financed by his own salary. She must also maintain her own creative output, while being a mother and wife and running a household. It’s there, she says, that she leans on her smartphone.

She uses it to jot down story ideas or to take pictures on walks of scenes that inspire her to write haikus or short poems later when she has more time.

Born in the UK in 1981 and raised in Zimbabwe before returning to the UK in 1999 for college and work, Vazhure studied English and Shona Literature at Masvingo boarding school, but never considered writing as a viable career option.

Top African Literary Talents Among 2021 AKO Caine Prize Finalists

That changed in 2019. She suddenly felt compelled to write and started working on poems, short stories, and her first novel.

“Since I started, I couldn’t stop. I regret not having written all those years when I was so focused on my academic and professional career,” she said.

Vazhure wants to see many more Zimbabwean writers join the ranks of the country’s literary icons – authors like Tsitsi Dangarembga, Petina Gappah and the late Chenjerai Hove.

“That’s why I do this,” she said. “We need to do more to get more author names from Zimbabwe.”