Wednesday, 23 May 2018

A Child Called Happiness - Stephan Collishaw Blog Tour

Good morning.

Today heralds my SECOND blog tour, hot on the heels of the first. I am suffused with a little more confidence this time. But...... to business……. and all things book blurbish.

 Three days after arriving in Zimbabwe, Natalie discovers an abandoned newborn baby on a hill near her uncle’s farm. 115 years earlier, the hill was home to the Mazowe village where Chief Tafara governed at a time of great unrest. Faced with taxation, abductions and loss of their land at the hands of the white settlers, Tafara joined forces with the neighbouring villages in what becomes the first of many uprisings. 
A Child Called Happiness is a story of hope, resilience and reclamation, proving that the choices made by our ancestors echo for many generations to come. 

Some other responses to this exciting work include.

 ‘A Child Called Happiness is steeped in the beautiful smells and sounds of Zimbabwe and evidences Stephan Collishaw’s love of the country… His balanced treatment of an emotive issue will challenge and provoke many readers. ’ Philip Barclay 

‘This is a beautifully descriptive story that evokes the harsh realities of life and the complex historical narratives that shape present-day Zimbabwe. Collishaw’s characters are delicately created and endearingly human,’ Celeste Hicks 

An incredibly timely book about the human impact of political upheaval in all its emotional forms. It places you right there in Zimbabwe’ Rosie Garthwaite 

To accompany these glowing endorsements I submit my own review for you. 

I don’t know what’s in the water this year but the number of African themed books that have come my way so far continue to grow. It must mean something but I don’t know what. Yet!

The latest from Stephan Collishaw is set in Zimbabwe. Unfamiliar with Mr. Collishaw’s work my first impression was that he must be a native Zimbabwean or at the very least have strong family ties or links of some kind he writes so convincingly of the country, its people, its culture and its politics. 

The story begins intriguingly enough with our female protagonist, Natalie, finding a new born baby near her uncle’s farmstead. What follows appears to be two parallel stories, present day Natalie, and another from an, as yet, unknown protagonist detailing his family history from the days of his grandfather, Tafara, over a hundred years ago. Initially I found this extremely irritating!! I got sucked into one narrative and wanted it to continue but I was then forced into the parallel narrative where the same thing happened. But it is as these two stories unfold that you begin to see the links and start to understand what this perceptive writer is attempting here. 

Zimbabwe has a colourful history to put it mildly. I am not a political animal by any means since it seems to me that politics causes more problems than it ever actually solves but what this book attempts is to show two sides. How the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. And how loss is experienced on a variety of levels and how a group or an individual deal with those losses. 

The history of a country is complex and no credible writer would attempt to offer a definitive archive. What Stephan Collishaw has done here is to take one small pocket and suggest through fiction how it might have been. How white minority rule came to an end and human rights violations threatened the equilibrium of blacks and white alike. But also how throughout any political regimes there are people simply trying to live their lives, fulfil their dreams and right their wrongs with no wider agenda. The news reports seldom shows us these people but a work of fiction does and in the hands of an intelligent, succinct writer such as this the humanity shines through all of the political machinations leaving us with people, trying to do what they believe in, trying to do what they believe is right.

I found the writing pleasing, the work of a story teller. The two stories unfold and the realisation of the ultimate link between the two was a moment to be relished. And the two stories became one almost imperceptibly. The characters are well drawn, nobody, bar one, really comes cross as ’the bad guy’ and even the lesser characters are endowed with their own voices rather just being there as merely functional for the story. 

Returning to my earlier impression that this writer was somehow linked to Zimbabwe my perfunctory googling showed that nothing could be further from the reality!! If Wikipedia is accurate he is from Nottingham. Which makes this novel even more impressive. Thank you Legend Press for the opportunity to experience this wonderful writer.

And now to Stephan himself.

Stephan Collishaw was brought up on a Nottingham council estate and failed all of his O-levels. His first novel The Last Girl (2003) was chosen by the Independent on Sunday as one of its Novels of the Year. His brother is the renowned artist, Mat Collishaw. Stephan now works as a teacher in Nottingham, having also lived and worked abroad in Lithuania and Mallorca. 
Stephan was selected as one of the British Council’s 20 best young British novelists 
Stephan visited Zimbabwe and Zambia in 1989-1990 during the last says of Kaunda's dictatorship, he uses this experience to accurately cover the topical Mugabe dictatorship. 
Follow Stephan on Twitter at @scollishaw 

Reading the book piqued my curiosity about this writer and his raison d’etre so I posed some questions for him to which he has responded with some frank and full answers.

I’ve just read A Child Called Happiness and I enjoyed it very much. I was unfamiliar with your work prior to reading this book. My loss indeed. My first impression as I began the book was that you must have some deep connection with Zimbabwe. Is that so? And what was the motivation behind this book?

My first three novels have all been set in Eastern Europe, so this new novel is something of a departure for me. Geography and writing are intimately entwined; there is something special about places - different places have different atmospheres, and these, for me, are often intimately connected to their histories. The past is rarely indelibly erased; it continues to haunt a place. It is a part of the emotional geography of place. I am particularly interested in places in which one set of people have attempted to change the narrative course of a place, something that is common with the shifting borders in Eastern Europe. I first went to Africa in 1989. I was twenty and it was the first time I had ever been out of Britain. Zimbabwe was not just a new continent, it was a new world. It was a place I very much fell in love with – not just because of the extraordinary beauty of its physical geography, but because of the warmth and the generosity of the people I met there staying in villages and townships around the country. And as is always the case when you fall in love, you want to know everything, you want to discover the history of the one you have fallen for. Understanding who they are means understanding the journey they have been on to get to where they are. And so, A Child Called Happiness, is a belated attempt to do that. To explore the history of a beautiful place. I did write a ‘Zimbabwean’ novel earlier on in my career, but then gave it to my brother, the artist Mat Collishaw for his opinion, but he left it on a train and I never got it back. It took me a few years to come back to it.

          A story such as this seems dependent upon authentic research. The descriptions and atmospheres created within the story are palpable. How did you go about your research? Obviously Robert Mugabe is a real person but how much of the book is fact and how much is fiction? Did you visit Zimbabwe

I went to Zimbabwe a number of times in the late 1980s, early 1990s. I travelled the whole country, staying on the whole with local people in villages and townships. I got to see some of the wonderful sights of Zimbabwe including the amazing ruins of a medieval town Great Zimbabwe, and the stunning Victoria Falls, but it was the villages and the townships that I really loved. There was one particular farm that I visited that has stuck particularly sharply in my memory. Separate buildings were allocated to specific roles. The kitchen was a traditionally built round hut with a conical thatched roof. The blood of an ox had been mixed with the clay used for the floor, which had been polished to a glorious dark shine. The walls were smoked to a beautiful shade and against the far wall locally produced pots had been stacked, looking like an art installation. It was stunningly beautiful, and something I had really not expected from a small farm out in the bush.
The novel is rooted in real events and there are some real characters who appear in it, like the spiritual leader of the first Shona rebellion, Nehanda. She was an inspirational figure in the late nineteenth century. And then, of course, there is Robert Mugabe. The history is as accurate as I could get it while shaping my story, though of course the majority of what I have written is fiction.
As a history graduate, I love the research element of writing a novel, but I really hope that very little of that research is evident when you actually read the story.

          As a reader initially I found the dual story lines frustrating as I got so absorbed in one and then had to switch to another. But all became clear as I progressed through the story and I thought it was very cleverly done. Was this always the format you intended for the book?

The intertwining of the stories is, I think, thematically important. The two narratives – the stories of these two sets of people who have inhabited the land – reflect each other. Both sets of people experience a loss.

I enjoyed the impartiality you write with. As a reader I never felt I was invited to ‘take sides’ as such although I felt encouraged to understand all perspectives. But I imagine it must have been hard not to be partisan during some of the events described in the book. Was this so?

I was particularly pleased that Philip Barclay, a British writer and diplomat, who knows a lot more about the subject than I do had kind words to say about the novel and felt that I managed to achieve a ‘balanced treatment of an emotive issue’. Though he noted that the issue would ‘challenge and provoke many readers.’ We’ll see. We often seek to simplify our world into the good guys and the bad guys, the heroes and the villains; my writing has always attempted to break down those barriers. Good people can often do bad things and bad people can sometime be right and achieve good things. That is not to say that I think there is no such thing as right and wrong, or good and evil, but just that as humans we rarely sit easily in categories. I’m not sure that the novel is about the rights and the wrongs of the often bloody history of Zimbabwe, it is about the stories of people caught up in these conflicts.

Very often in fiction some of the lesser characters appear as no more than functional. But In A Child Called Happiness I found them to have their own voice and persona. Was this intentional or part of your intrinsic writing ability?

Thank you, that’s very good to hear. I love the characters in my novels. I live with them for a long time as I build the novel. Characters do take on a life of their own. You can be planning for a character to do something in chapter twenty, and then when you get to that part of the novel, the character says to you, that’s ridiculous my character would never do something like that. As a writer you feel like saying, ‘Well tough luck, that’s what I’ve planned for you.’ But then it’s a lie. And you know it, so you can’t do that anymore, you have to bend your will to the integrity of your character. The minor characters in novels are often as important as the main ones and will often fight for their space. Certainly, when I wrote The Last Girl a very minor character just demanded to be explored and he found himself central to the next novel I wrote.

       Could you tell us a little about how you approach the act of writing. Do you store up ideas? Or do you act upon one the instant it manifests itself? Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I have a notebook and I write down ideas in that whenever I can. Often I write them down and then loose the notes, but the fact that they have been written stores them somewhere in the back of my brain. And that it is the best place for them to be, because then they start talking to the other ideas I’ve had and they start sparking off each other, or merge, and the novel I actually write is an amalgam of different things I’ve planned. I don’t have any particular writing rituals. The most important thing for me is to switch off the internal critic who constantly peers over my shoulder telling me how rubbish my writing is. Self-consciousness is the enemy of writing. A glass of whiskey helps sometimes. 

         I did some cursory googling as you were unfamiliar to me and Wikipedia described your genre as ‘Historical’. Is this a fair description? Is that how you would describe yourself?

All four of my novels have been historical dramas, but I don’t think you have to be interested in history to enjoy them. Personally, I love history, but I really try to make sure that all of my research is as unobtrusive as possible. 

  I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer so a question I always ask is if  you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears, if any?

So many books have moved me. The first novel I remember falling in love with was Middlemarch by George Elliot, which seems a little odd in retrospect. I was seventeen when I first read it. I had failed my GCSEs not once but twice and was employed as an office junior on a Youth Training Scheme. I would nip off to the toilets to read it. I read it three times before I was twenty. A totally different book that moved me was Anne Michaels Fugitive Pieces. The first time I read it I was very sniffy about the overtly poetic style, even reading sections out to my wife ironically. However, when I finished it, I reopened it at the beginning and read it all over again, which is the first and only time that I have ever done that. I think the feeling of loss and grief in the novel and its meditation on memory are themes similar to those I often find myself exploring in my own writing. If not so beautifully as Michaels.

        Finally are you at liberty to tell us what you are working on at the moment?

I’m working on a new novel and it is slowly finding its shape. Very slowly. I also run a small press which specialises in publishing translated fiction from the Baltic countries, specifically Lithuanian fiction. We’ve brought out a number of superb novels written by award winning novelists who have never been published in English before. Late last year we published ‘Shtetl Love Song’ by the internationally acclaimed Grigory Kanovich and in July we will be publishing the award winning Lithuanian-Ukrainian novelist Jaroslavas Melnikas’ collection of short stories, ‘The Last Day’. You can find out more at

My thanks to Stephan for such a rich interview. My thanks to go to Imogen Harris at Legend Press for facilitating this interview and for the opportunity to read the book in the first place. 

Finally do check out the rest of the blog tour. See what others have to say about this fascinating novel.

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