Only after several years safe in Christchurch was first-time novelist Andrea Eames able to look back and write about the violent Zimbabwe she grew up in.
‘I don’t think I’ll ever become someone who can’t check a door is locked seven times,” says Andrea Eames – one legacy of living through the violence and farm invasions of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, before she and her family fled for a new life in Christchurch in 2002.
The first thing Eames saw on arriving at Christchurch Airport was a Canterbury Draught ad shaped like a giant beer can. Given the beer-swilling culture of the white Zimbabweans in her newly published first novel, The Cry of the Go-Away Bird, a giant beer can might have made her feel right at home. “Yes, I should really have embraced that,” she says, “but on a cold drizzly day when you’re 16 it seems a bit depressing.”
The cold was especially hard to take after Zimbabwe. “We moved right in the middle of winter as well and it was a bad winter. We were house-sitting in a house in Merivale and it was wooden and had no heating. I wore all my clothes to bed and put on six pairs of socks and my winter coat and a hat and I slept in all of that.”
The drop in the social, racial and political temperature was more welcome. The heated situation in Zimbabwe is wonderfully evoked in The Cry of the Go-Away Bird through the eyes of teenage narrator Elise, a white Zimbabwean living on a farm with her mother and stepfather. Eames shies away neither from the shortcomings of the whites – including Elise – nor the actions of the blacks attacking them. And with striking descriptive language and an acute attention to detail, she conveys what it is like to be “a White with a capital W”, rather than “just another white person”, and eventually “Whites, and nothing else. We did not have lives outside our whiteness.”
“My skin had such power, good and bad,” says Elise. What was it like for Eames to shed that power when she arrived in Christchurch and lose that sense of difference?
“It was such a strange feeling being in the majority, and not standing out. In some ways, it was a huge relief to be invisible and anonymous and not have my skin proclaim all these things true or false about me. But in other ways it was quite disconcerting. It felt like we just vanished and were swallowed up into this big crowd.”
In the novel, Elise talks about obsessively watching TV reports of the escalating troubles: “Our own lives had all but disappeared – absorbed into the wider drama.” In that respect, Eames got her life back in Christchurch.
“Yes, and I think that’s a good thing and a bad thing. Because there’s that ‘all pull together’ camaraderie of being in a situation like the one in Zimbabwe. It’s kind of a Blitz spirit, where there’s a feeling of belonging and a feeling of community. Even though it’s sad and scary, you feel very close to everyone that you go through that with. And it gives a higher emotion to life, it makes it grander and more dramatic, which can be sad but can also be inspiring.
“And then we moved to New Zealand and I suddenly had all this adrenalin that had nowhere to go. And we were all sitting there looking at each other, thinking, ‘Well, it’s all gone quiet. What do we do now?’ I did still jump whenever I heard fireworks and check the doors were locked a million times, and acted as if I was still living in Zimbabwe. It was very hard to shake that feeling.”
Now 25, Eames, who recently moved to Austin, Texas, for her husband’s new job, is especially good at capturing the sights, sounds and smells of Zimbabwe – but that’s because she never really left them behind.
She writes in the novel of “the sickly, greenish tinge that white skin could have, the way it made us ghosts in a vivid country”.
“It was like watching a movie in full colour and everywhere else feels like black and white,” she says. “So it’s hard not to remember. I might forget things that happened last year but I still really vividly remember exactly what it was like in our back garden in Zimbabwe.
“It’s still home. It’s the only place I feel I know by heart. And the only place where the landscape feels like it’s part of me. It’s the backdrop for all my experiences and the dreams I still have. It’s still the place that feels like my natural setting even though in some ways I am an interloper.”
In the novel, Eames is clear-eyed about the hubris of older white Zimbabweans, for whom, beneath a veneer of good relations and mutual respect, blacks are “like children, but also … cunning and not to be trusted”. Black women are “girls”, black men are “boys”, and pretty soon they are all “bluddy kaffirs”.
“I tried to be really honest,” she says. “I didn’t want to have any position. I just wanted to report how it had seemed to me growing up. And it did seem like there was a veneer, post-independence, there was a glow of ‘We’re all living together now in this new Zimbabwe’ … but it wasn’t real, there was no depth to that. There was always something beneath the surface. It was always a matter of time.”
That time came in 2000 with the violent and in some cases murderous raids on farms instigated by Mugabe and his Zanu-PF political party to evict their white owners.
Given time and a different set of circumstances, without the malign influence of Mugabe and his cronies, one wonders whether the antagonising attitudes of older whites might have given way to a younger, more liberal generation, like Eames’s, and as a result the catastrophe that has ensued in Zimbabwe might have been averted.
“When I think about my friends, white and Shona [the majority group of black Zimbabweans], Indian and all the different nationalities there were in Zimbabwe, I feel that if we had stayed in Zimbabwe, gone to university there, grown up, got jobs, things would have changed. Because we were all in it together as young Zimbabweans, we’d all laugh at our parents – whether they were Shona or white – and their attitudes. I like to think if we had been left to our own devices and had been able to stay, then … but maybe that’s a bit naive. Perhaps there was just too much old blood.”
The Cry of the Go-Away Bird began life as a short story Eames wrote as an undergraduate at the University of Canterbury (which won the university’s Macmillan Brown Prize for Writers) and then, in 2008, she started to develop it into a novel under the auspices of the university’s master of fine arts programme run by Patrick Evans. It has been published by Random House imprint Harvill Secker in the UK, after New Zealand publishers she approached told her “it would sell about 50 copies and not do very well and people wouldn’t be very interested”.
Before writing the novel, Eames admits, she had not looked back and had tried to move on from her experiences in Zimbabwe. “It was just too hard. It sounds really cowardly but it seemed easier to compartmentalise it and shut it away.” And while she was writing it, she got sick. “If I was a superhero, I’d be Psychosomatic Girl. I got really ill and had a lot of resistance and avoided it a lot.”
She has since completed a second novel set in Zimbabwe, however, and is at work on a third.
The finished novel is written more from a Shona perspective. “It is challenging, obviously, and opens you up to scrutiny and criticism, rightly so. But I suppose if I didn’t do it I’d only ever be writing about white Zimbabwean girls and I want to try to understand my country better and have a fuller understanding of all the different people in it and how things came about. I will never wholly succeed but I want to at least make the attempt.”
THE CRY OF THE GO-AWAY BIRD, by Andrea Eames (Harvill Secker, $37.99).