Behind The Story: AVENUES BY TRAIN

Author, Farai Mudzingwa takes us through the inspiration behind his forthcoming debut, AVENUES BY TRAIN coming out September 2023!

My writing inspiration mainly comes from other books and music. Certain songs turn a personal experience or a moment into a memory that then stays with them forever. The music around trains and exile – Chitima Nditakure, Ndave Kuenda, Stimela etc – nudged into focus a bicycle ride from my childhood, that then sparked the idea for my novel, “Avenues By Train.”

I was a kid, alone and bored at home, and rode out across town headed towards my parents’ shop.  The ride took me through the centre of town and then along the highway towards the railway crossing. Fortunately it was a small town and someone who knew me stopped and took me to my parents, thus averting any possible tragedy. I wanted to write a story that reimagined the outcome of that ride but also to extend it as a metaphor for restlessness and economic exile.

The novel follows the time-separated journeys of two siblings, Jedza and Natsai, from the small town of Miner’s Drift to the city of Harare. They are both at a crossroads in their lives and looking for something to change. As they find their way through the Avenues of Harare, they navigate friendships, aspirations, romance and the spectre of spiritual encounters that haunt them from their childhoods.

The inspiration for Jedza and Natsai’s story came from my own experiences of meeting small-town people seeking fortunes in the cities of Zimbabwe and South Africa. There’s something about the journey, the source of discontent and the transition to the city, that changes them in a way they might not otherwise. I wanted to explore that idea and create characters that were relatable and authentic.

In writing Avenues By Train, I also drew inspiration mostly from mbira music and the music of Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited. Music has always been a huge part of my life, and I find that certain songs can transport me to another time and place. The novel’s title is actually derived from the Mapfumo song Chitima Nditakure/Train Carry Me. The song has the cyclical mbira quality infused with electric guitars; a blending of the past and the present that I wanted to capture in the book, and it became part of the the soundtrack to Jedza and Natsai’s journeys.

There’s a moment when Jedza is running in the Avenues and his breathing rate, footfalls and thundering memories take on the staccato rhythms of Hugh Masekela’s Stimela/The Coal Train. I also mention and tap into the traditional lamentations of Kure Nehama and Mahororo as Jedza and another character, Penny, go through the motions and question their existence at the peak of their anguish.

As I was writing, I was struck by the idea that so much can happen to seemingly unconnected people and how events happening in the present can be affected by events from a centuries past. There’s a sense of freedom and possibility that comes with being on the move. And yet Jedza and Natsai can never escape colonialism, the war of liberation, their ancestors and the spirits of the land, and their individual traumas.  Their journeys take them through different places, each with their own stories and characters, but that are ultimately connected.

The novel also explores themes of love and sexuality, loss, and identity. Jedza and Natsai are both struggling with their own personal demons, and their exile becomes a catalyst for them to confront their issues with varying success.

Avenues By Train is a story that I hope captures the magic of Shona spirituality and the connections we make with ourselves and our past. Jedza and Natsai’s journeys are a reminder that even in our darkest moments, we’re not alone. We all have our own avenues to explore, and sometimes it takes us leaving to help us find our way home.

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