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Writing From the Heart: Dance Grad’s First Book Presents Stirring Look at the Human Experience in Zimbabwe

Tawanda Chabikwa (M.F.A. Dance '10) to discuss his new work, "Baobabs in Heaven", in Hughes-Trigg at 3 p.m. Thursday, March 10

Chris Calloway (B.A. '11 - Music)
Through online periodicals and newspapers and 24-hour TV news channels, one can learn about the conflicts, dismal economic statistics, or food shortages that afflict Zimbabwe. One can also examine the U.N.’s Human Development Index, a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living for countries worldwide, and see that Zimbabwe ranks last. While the news coverage and broad statistics provide factual and top-down descriptions of Zimbabwe, they do not provide the fine details of the human experience in reaction to these events and circumstances.

“The book Tawanda has written has a form that speaks to us on deeper levels than a news story,” says Dr. William Carpenter, faculty member at the College of the Atlantic (COA) in Maine, who taught Tawanda literature and writing. “Tawanda’s book is a good example of how fiction can get closer to the truth than any other writing.”

Before attending SMU for graduate school in dance, Tawanda earned a degree at COA in creative studies. He wrote the bulk of
Baobabs in Heaven as part of his final project during his senior year at COA. In addition to writing the novel for the project, Tawanda also presented a full-length dance concert and exhibited a collection of his paintings. At the same time, he helped establish ndini wako , a Zimbabwean nonprofit that helps AIDs orphans through community engagements with dance, art and writing.

Originally from Zimbabwe himself, Tawanda earned a scholarship in high school to attend an International Baccalaureate school in Hong Kong, which served as a stepping stone to attending college at COA. Tawanda now wants to help the people of Zimbabwe any way he can with his artistic and writing abilities. Ask Tawanda why he wanted to write
Baobabs in Heaven and he will say, “It needed to be done.” He believes his ability to communicate through art and writing puts a responsibility on his shoulders to tell the rest of the world about Zimbabwe’s culture and also its hardships. In an interview with The Zimbabwean, he said, “Sadness, anger and depression manifest themselves in very different ways [in Zimbabwe] than they do in other places, and even love manifests itself in different ways because of that.”

Baobabs in Heaven tells the story of a man at three stages in his life. The first stage is about a boy from a rural village who listens to his grandmother share the mystical history of Zimbabwe; in the second, a young writer living in the city has to confront the violence of an authoritarian government; and in the third, the writer returns to his home village and then must confront the cultural tensions that exist between urban and rural Zimbabwe.

Dr. Carpenter said the book is influenced by Tawanda’s background growing up in the urban and rural parts of Zimbabwe. “Tawanda uses fiction as way to get at the truth of his country,” Carpenter said. “Because Tawanda has lived in both the village and urban culture, it is particularly suited for him to write about the tension of those cultures.
Baobabs in Heaven is a book of terrific eloquence and terrific heartfelt writing. It uses the language in a way that is both unsophisticated and very sophisticated at the same time, like the character who has both the urban and the village component.”

Tawanda says about his book, “
Baobabs in Heaven is a contemporary novel, and it depicts a contemporary Zimbabwean authentic experience. It’s not about the Africa of the villages or the traditional Africa, it’s a new generation of voices that comes out: an authentic young, fresh, psychosocial experience. I don’t think that has been done for my generation of Zimbabweans yet. The novel is a way of me trying to understand myself better, trying to understand my past, my country’s past, and also my global experience.”

Tawanda wants to spread the ideas from his book to as many audiences as possible, not just to Americans. “Most Zimbabweans are literate, but the cost of books is so high that many people do not have access to literature,” he says. For this reason, Tawanda is trying to lower the cost of a copy of
Baobabs in Heaven in Zimbabwe.

The public is invited to meet Tawanda and hear a passage from
Baobabs in Heaven at a book reading on Thursday, March 10 from 3:00-4:30 p.m. in Portico B-C-D of the Hughes-Trigg Student Center, 3140 Dyer St. on the SMU campus. Baobabs in Heaven can be purchased online.

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