Interview: Brian Chikwava - Double life of Brian

BRIAN CHIKWAVA LEFT ZIMBABWE in 2002, when he was 20, because it was no longer a culturally vibrant nation. Harare's artists, theatre performers, writers and musicians were fanning out around the world in search of a wider audience. Chikwava – both writer and musician – struck out for London.

Two years later, his short story "Seventh Street Alchemy" won the Caine Prize, Africa's highest literary award. That emboldened him, he tells me over peppermint tea, to tackle Harare North, a debut novel at once lyrical and gritty, offering an unsentimental view of the African immigrant experience in London's Brixton, where he now lives. (Amusingly, however, he admits that the real Harare North is Luton. No, he can't explain it either!)

Slight, with an infectious laugh, Chikwava is the very definition of sweet, so it's surprising that at the heart of this novel, recounted in patois, is an unreliable, unnamed narrator who is a Robert Mugabe supporter and former member of his marauding Green Bombers. Surely it was uncomfortable spending so long in this man's head?

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Chikwava nods. "I had done a lot of exploration. I tried writing the novel as a satire and it just was not working. First person made it easier for me to get closer to the narrator. But no, I don't believe these things. What I found interesting was the thrill of the mischief. I was thinking, 'Oh my god, this is such risk-taking and I don't know what will come out!' "

Unlike his narrator, Chikwava, who is the eldest of eight children, had the benefit of education. His late father was a police officer; his mother, who still lives in Zimbabwe, a nurse. They impressed upon their son their hopes that he'd set a good example for his siblings, and their desire that he become a doctor, but stood back when he moved into the arts, and waited to see what would happen. While resisting the idea that his was a privileged upbringing (he went to boarding school, but says it wasn't that great), he accepts that education and opportunity make all the difference.

"It was important to bring out this kind of character, who comes across as unfathomable – people will wonder why his attitude to everything is so nasty. It's very hard to accept that this person, more than anybody else, is probably a victim of Mugabe. A lot of youths got into (things like the Green Bombers] out of a lack of options. They blindly want to believe in it, because once they're in there they have to repudiate their whole life.

"It's easier for the government to brainwash young people who haven't had such a good education, and get them to do things a normal thinking person would find hard to get on with. They end up being the people sent out to do the horrible acts. They are very unprepared for different points of view because that would expose that the life they'd been living was a lie. It's quite intriguing and it's horrible. That kind of person, you can't engage with them in any way. I found being in his head really tiresome. I was glad to finish the book."

The narrator comes into conflict with his cousin and his wife, who try to point out the horror of what's taking place back home. He moves into a shared flat with an old school friend whose identity he slowly steals, while coming into conflict with an assortment of oddballs, including an innocent young girl struggling to make her way (she's Chikwava's favourite character), and winds up renting her baby out to benefit cheats claiming child allowance.

In Zimbabwe books are now luxury items, so Chikwava predicts people there will never see his novel. Just as well, for he describes a mood there as "writing nervous".

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"You wonder, 'Should I write about this? If I get it published, what will happen? Will I be OK? Will I have to leave the country?' You hear strange stories about what happens to people, especially journalists at the front line. Writers tend to be picked on rather quietly, which is also sinister. We used to go to this caf where you'd find lots of writers, poets, artists hanging out, but there was always a kind of fear about who is in the crowd. They used to have a lot of guys from intelligence organisations there, sitting quietly and threateningly. They don't say much – just drop a phrase, so you know, OK, this is him. Be careful."

Everyone is sitting around waiting for Mugabe to die, he says, predicting that it will be a long time before the situation in Zimbabwe improves. His greatest concern isn't for the economic forecast – he feels that can be slowly turned around. But what about the irreparable damage to society, and "the way people relate to each other now, because they've experienced these hardships. Will people ever be able to have a properly functioning society again? The small kindnesses people used to have; they have become much harder toward one another, less willing to help. I used to know even if I was jobless I'd never starve or end up on the street because someone, and not just family, was always willing to take me in. That's changed. People have become hardened and lost the warmth that used to be there. You can't just recreate that. If it's gone, it's gone."

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What, I ask, is the most important thing he wants westerners to know about Zimbabwe? "The most important thing is that there is no country that you'd wish Mugabe on," he says with a wry chuckle and a shake of his dreadlocked head.

• Harare North is out now from Jonathan Cape, priced 12.99.