‘I think it was important to have [Hannah] a little bit flawed, to show how children absorb some of the traits and qualities of the adults they see around them.’
Hannah lives in Zimbabwe during the reign of Robert Mugabe: it’s a country of petrol queues and power cuts, food shortages and government corruption. Yet Hannah is lucky. She can afford to go to school, has never had to skip a meal, and lives in a big house with her mum and their Shona housekeeper. Hannah is wealthy, she is healthy, and she is white. But money can’t always keep you safe.
Little Stones (UQP), June’s KYD First Book Club title, is a coming-of-age story built on Elizabeth Kuiper’s childhood in Zimbabwe. She discussed the novel with our First Book Club host Ellen Cregan at Bargoonga Nganjin, North Fitzroy Library.
This is an edited recording. Thanks to Elizabeth Kuiper, UQP, Yarra Libraries and Readings.
Our theme song is Broke for Free’s ‘Something Elated’.
Read Ellen Cregan’s review of Little Stones in our June Books Roundup.
Read Elizabeth Kuiper on returning to her childhood home for the first time as an adult.
Let us know what you think by rating and reviewing in your app of choice!
Meaghan Dew: Hello and welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m Meaghan Dew, and I’m pleased to bring your our June First Book Club event. Elizabeth Kuiper joined Ellen Cregan at Bargoonga Nganjin North Fitzroy Library to discuss her debut title, Little Stones. Little Stones, a coming of age story set in Zimbabwe during the reign of Robert Mugabe, is out now from UQP.
Ellen Cregan: So my name’s Ellen and I’m the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club host. The First Book Club features a debut book each month and it’s either fiction or nonfiction, and brings together a review, excerpts, interviews with the author, podcasts and events like the one we’re at tonight. So this evening we’re gonna be discussing our First Book Club pick for June, which is Little Stones by Elizabeth Cooper which is here, very lovely cover…
Elizabeth Kuiper: Sorry, Kuiper…
EC: Oh Kuiper, I’m so sorry, I should have asked you beforehand. Elizabeth Kuiper, welcome Elizabeth.
EK: Thank you.
EC: Thanks for coming out. So just how the event will run, we’re gonna talk for about 30 minutes or so, and then there’ll be some time for questions, I’ll give you a heads up before the time comes for those questions so you can be ready, and there’s not that awkward silence. Um, and what we’re gonna do is begin with a reading from the book.
Mudhudhudu is the Shona word for ‘motorbike’. That’s what we learned in Shona class during the term we spent on transportation. It was easy to remember, because the syllables mimicked the sound of the engine starting up. Mudhudhudu. My grandpa always took me on motorbike rides when I came to the farm.
‘Hold on tight, Hannah.’
We rode toward the nearest butcher, avoiding uneven basins of water in the road, filled from last night’s rainfall. Grandpa kicked kicked out the stand, counted an even four hundred million from his wallet, and went inside. As I waited, I watched two chongololos – giant African millipedes – edging their way across the pavement. The chongololos always came out after the rain, often seeking refuge in our home. We’d have to scoop them up and place them back in the garden, making sure not to crush their little legs.
Grandpa returned a few minutes later with two great parcels.
‘Some boerewors for tonight…’ He tucked one parcel into his tattered khaki jacket and opened the other, offering it to me. ‘And some biltong for now.’
In the middle of our afternoon snack, a white sedan pulled up. It was George and Louise, old family friends of ours. George had always scared me a little. A few years ago he had been in a combine harvester accident that had left him with two lonely thumbs. After the injury they moved to a small cattle farm nearby, for less physically demanding work.
George ambled around the car to give me a hug. I stiffened as the stumps of his hands grazed my back. He stepped away. I tried to avert my eyes, but my morbid fascination couldn’t be tamed. Two thick pinkish scars, reminiscent of the fishing worms we’d bait at Lake Kariba, lay in place of his fingers.
EC: So give us an elevator pitch for the book, if you can. [Laughs.]
EK: So I would call it a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a country in turmoil, and I did steal that from the bookmark…
[EC and audience laugh.]
..But I do think it’s a really good, short succinct summary. We follow Hannah who is this 11-year-old protagonist, as she’s dealing with a lot of complexity and turmoil in her life, and while the story is about this one girl, this one family, through her story we are able to connect with some of the political and economic situations going on at the time.
EC: And so I’ve taken this from the cover of the book, or the the sheet inside – this is loosely based on your own childhood. How do you begin to adapt stories from your life into a fictional format? Because this is a novel.
EK: I think it’s tricky, and, you know, sometimes I’ve said I don’t really know where I end and the character begins, and sometimes my mum has said, she’s read the book about three times now, and she says, ‘can’t remember whether that happened or if you made it up.’ So…I think it’s tricky, but I think it’s a testament to, I think it feels authentic even if something didn’t really happen, it was maybe something that happened to someone else, or someone we knew, or was at least connected to our reality of living in Zim.
EC: Mmm. And just – so your mother read it three times, that’s very nice, but also…
EK: My biggest fan.
EC: ..it kind of makes me think, what’s it like putting a book into the world – so crafting it is one thing, but then putting it out when it does have those close ties to your personal life, and like you say there’s a, you know, it’s unclear what is remembered and what actually happened, and – what does that feel like when that book is finally released into the world?
EK: I think I feel quite vulnerable, um, I think for those who know me, I’m, you know, I’m a bit of a joker, like a lot of self-deprecating humour and so I think, like, some of my friends are here tonight, putting something that is so deeply connected to who I am as a person and very revealing, it’s been quite hard – but everyone has been really supportive, so that’s been quite special too.
EC: And do you think there’s a certain amount of self introspection required when you’re writing a character like Hannah, who, you know is not necessarily a version of yourself, but like you say, inspired by things that did happen to you, or around you?
EK: Yeah, I think I had to really dig deep and interrogate my own background and my privilege, and Hannah is deeply privileged, but she’s 11 and she doesn’t have a nuanced view of gender or race politics, and – not to profess that I’m an expert, but at least I am a bit older and I’m able to sort of have that retrospection, and tackle it from a more mature point of view.
EC: Because yeah, as you say, Hannah is very privileged and is living quite a privileged life, but then there’s this other side of the story where there’s a familial breakdown, and so she’s going through these things that are kind of horrible despite that privilege.
EK: Yeah, and I mean, you know, white privilege is not to say that you don’t have anything bad going on in your life, it’s just to say that the bad things going on your life, going on in your life, aren’t because of the colour of your skin, really. So I think it’s important that Hannah also has stuff going on, but she also benefits from being a white middle-class girl in Zimbabwe.
EC: And can you give us some political context for Zimbabwe at the time that the novel is set, and when you were growing up?
EK: Ah, so it’s set in the early 2000s, at which point the Mugabe government had fast-tracked the land reclamation process. There was a time of a lot of economic instability, because suddenly you’re having a sort of fast, sweeping takeover of farmland, which accounted for a huge proportion of the country’s economy and the workforce, and suddenly it was all really thrown into disrepair.
EC: So another thing you’ve done for KYD actually, is you wrote this really lovely piece about returning to Zimbabwe recently, while you were writing the book, or before you were writing the book…
EK: I’d started writing the book, but really just for myself, not in any serious way, yeah.
EC: And you sort of talk about memory and your fears about your memories about Zim – can you tell us about the piece and what actually happened when you went back, with this book a little seed of a book in your mind, I suppose?
EK: Yeah, so, we hadn’t been back since we left, I think when we left, we left a lot of trauma behind…
EC: And this is you and your mum.
EK: Just me and my mum. When we left, you know, we were escaping what was quite a dire situation, and I think part of us starting a new life was closing that chapter and moving on and starting a life in Australia. So when we went back some decade later we didn’t really know what to expect, and there was always a part of us, I think, living in Australia that felt, maybe we didn’t fully belong, or there was a bit of a disconnect, but I think the shocking thing going back was realising that we were more Australian than we let ourselves realise, and the disconnect we felt was actually with the Zimbabwean people. We were staying in a family friend’s house and, you know, we’d been, before leaving Zimbabwe we’d been robbed, and I think there was a bit of anxiety staying in this home, and the woman sort of said to us reassuringly, ‘oh, you’re being paranoid, you’re not gonna get robbed, we got robbed six months ago and they just took the laptop, you’re being silly.’ And we were like, oh… for them, you know, a robbery where you don’t have a human interaction and they just take your laptop isn’t even worth mentioning or being concerned about. So I think, yeah, it was quite a, quite a strange experience, quite surreal coming back to that way of living.
EC: And that’s so different to what we would have here, if somebody said they were robbed six months ago, that’s extremely fresh. It’s not like…
EK: You wouldn’t be flippant about that.
EC: Absolutely not. Yeah. And we kind of touched on this before, but memory can be such a subjective thing – now that you’ve written a novel that sort of does have its roots in memories, where do you think the line is between fact and fiction when it comes to memories? Like, do you think that when you remember something so vividly, that in a way it kind of is true?
EK: Oh, I definitely agree with that. I think I struggled with that writing the book, I was like, well, did this really happen, did this place really look this way, and I sort of gave myself permission to not care, because everyone, everyone writing about the same place is going to come up with 50 different descriptions. So I think it was okay that I was just relying on my own subjective truth of the country.
EC: Yeah, and that’s definitely one of the benefits of kind of, you know, writing in a fictional form, even if you do want to be writing about something that is true, or a real time, or something close to your heart, I suppose.
EK: Yeah, I think you get a lot more creative freedom with that.
EC: Definitely. So Hannah is 11 in the book, and I think that, you know, in other books that I’ve read, when an author sets out to write a child narrator, they can often be like a little bit too good? As you were saying before, Hannah isn’t aware of her privilege, and she’s definitely not, like, perfect, she’s not like a perfect, you know, lovely child who’s, like, very far above her age group or whatever. There are moments where she falters and behaves quite badly to the people around her. Was it, was it important to you when you set out to write this book that Hannah be this imperfect child?
EK: Oh, definitely. I think there were times where I wanted to, you know, add my own sort of adult perspective and, you know, try to make her a bit too aware for her years, but I really did want to make it authentic and, this is just another young, you know, privileged girl growing up in Zimbabwe. She’s not special, she’s really, she could be a placeholder for anyone in her circumstances.
EC: Because a lot of her friends at school are kind of similarly placed in the privilege scale, I suppose.
EK: Yeah, I mean, and, you know, I think, I think it was important also to have her a little bit flawed, to show how children absorb maybe some of the traits or qualities of the adults they see around them and, you know, she sees this acrimonious divorce taking place between her parents, and the manipulation, and we also see her in a childish, really blameless way, being a bit manipulative herself.
EC: She never seems to, like, latch to being a manipulator though, which makes her quite endearing. Like, she does sort of test the waters of, ‘maybe I can make mum do this,’ or ‘maybe I can make dad do that,’ but never seems to sit right with her?
EK: No, and immediately retracts it, and feels really guilty, yeah.
EC: You know, because it might become kind of, you know, irritating to read a character like that who is too manipulative and too, like, pushing those boundaries, I suppose.
EK: Oh no, I think she’s lovable and, you know, she’s…she’s not a manipulator, she’s just cheeky, she’s an 11-year-old.
EC: Exactly. Throughout the world we are seeing the book, Hannah’s world really closely through her eyes – how did you try and get into the mindset of an 11-year-old? Because it does feel very…it felt very real to me.
EK: I think it helped that at the time I left Zimbabwe I was at a similar age, um, and it might have been different if I had stayed in Zimbabwe until I was an adolescent, but I think all of my memories of the country were so interwoven with that formative childhood experience, that connecting with the memories was also connecting with being that age.
EC: Mmm. And did you find it difficult to write about quite serious political issues through the lens of a character who doesn’t understand them? Was your adult writer self kind of overreaching at times?
EK: I think so… look, it’s tricky because I wanted to convey, you know, my own anti-white-supremacist ideology, but again that’s not real for an 11-year-old. And if I try to imbue her with too much awareness or, you know, goodness…I think that would be doing a disservice to the real, sort of, ingrained racism that a lot of white Zimbabweans grew up with.
EC: Mmm. And that’s definitely in the book, and it almost, seeing it from Hannah’s perspective you can almost see it from, not necessarily a level playing ground, but because she doesn’t understand what she’s seeing, she doesn’t attach any emotion to it necessarily, or opinion to it as such, and so you’re just reading that as a reader, and you can make your own mind up about it.
EK: I think so, and that’s, you know, death of the author – I think hopefully I give enough context for the reader to discern and make what they will of it, and most people will have some awareness of what was going on at the time.
EC: Mmm, yeah. And I think I, I really learned a lot about Zimbabwe at that time through this book, ‘cause I didn’t really know much about it at all, and I kind of went on a Wikipedia click hole after I finished, I was like, oh my god! This inflation! [Laughs.] Wild.
EK: What was it, billion dollar, trillion dollar notes?
EC: Yeah, and her mother just casually whipping out, like, a billion dollars to pay for the groceries, it’s just…
EK: People had to wheel wheelbarrows full of cash to get their, their groceries, it was that bad.
EC: Oh my god, it’s horrible. So as an author who has used a child narrator, why do you think that this is such a popular feature of contemporary literature? Because we do see it cropping up – and I think in Australian literature we see it a lot.
EK: Um, well, I really like it because I think, when you’re dealing with topics as difficult as, um, colonialism or, you know, sort of violence, it’s almost easier to access those issues in a way that doesn’t feel as, you know, confrontational and macabre as if it were an adult recalling that? But it can also simultaneously be quite powerful to see it through the eyes of a child, because you realise there’s these innocent little lives that are being impacted by what’s going on.
EC: Yeah, because Hannah’s swept up in some pretty serious stuff, like some pretty, you know, some stalking and violence and spying and all this kind of stuff that, you know, it does, the impact is there definitely as you’re reading it. What were some things that surprised you in the process of writing this book?
EK: Hmm. I think… I learnt a lot, you know, I thought I already knew a fair bit about my country, but doing the research to make it really authentic I um, I learned more and more about the country and sort of had an appreciation of everything that came before. Because I think, at least in the era I grew up in, I was born in 95, at that time the Mugabe regime, you know, it had been in power before I was born, black majority rule had existed for 15 years prior to my birth, but in, in writing the novel I had to really look at the Ian Smith regime and the atrocities of colonialism, and just to really get that broader picture of life before I was there.
EC: Yeah, definitely, because there are… another part of the novel that I thought was really interesting is that there are a lot of older characters throughout, who have this really different view of what the country is, as opposed to Hannah’s mum, who would be in her 30s, I’m guessing.
EK: Yeah, maybe 40, yeah.
EC: Yeah, and you can see those generational opinions really changing.
EK: Of course, and, you know, it’s, it’s generational, but there were people who would have been Jane, Hannah’s mother’s age, who were not as…as liberal thinking as she was, and she was quite a unique character, she has a circle of gay friends who do musical theatre, but just that fact alone sort of puts her at the fringes of a rather conservative society.
EC: Mmm, definitely. Who were some authors who informed you, informed your writing for this book?
EK: So NoViolet Bulawayo, she wrote this incredible book called We need new names, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker in, I think it was 2014, and she also has a child protagonist, set in Zimbabwe, and I remember reading that and really connecting with her, the character, Darling, and thinking, if I write a book, this is, this is what I want it to be. I want it to feel like this, I want it to be this sort of… You know, when I was reading it, I felt like I was there, I felt like I was back in Zimbabwe, and yeah, I think the biggest compliment that I’ve received from Zimbabweans has been that it’s evoked that sense of the country, so, yeah, books like that.
EC: What other sort of feedback have you had from Zimbabweans about this book?
EK: Yeah, it’s been mixed – a lot of people have found it quite emotional.
EK: I think particularly Zimbabweans who have left the country, it’s brought back a lot of potentially trauma, particularly when there are scenes that, yeah, that are more confronting, I don’t want to spoil it…
EC: Yes, yes there are some quite, you know, there’s a lot of tension in some of the scenes, definitely.
EK: Yeah, and I think as much as it can bring back painful memories, I’ve also heard that, you know, some of the more evocative scenes of, you know, going camping at Mana Pools and Victoria Falls, that also brings back a longing, and a heartbreak as well.
EC: Because you do balance those scenes of really great natural beauty with the scenes of this really intense political turmoil, which gives a really interesting image of a country at that particular time.
EK: Yeah, and it’s such a, it’s such a beautiful country, and I mean, it still is, but it’s, yeah, I think the contrast of these, like, areas of natural beauty, and then, you know, in the city where people are having their, like, earthen and clay wares smashed to bits and pieces because the government is wanting to drive people out of the city and into rural areas so they don’t vote, it’s just this clash of worlds.
EC: Yeah, it’s really horrible. So my colleague Elke Power reviewed your book for the Readings Monthly, which is over there, you can all collect one after the interview, and described it as ‘a portrait from an explicitly defined perspective, of a country at a moment in its long history,’ which I thought was a really wonderful little sentence, because it is just a tiny moment in a very long history. So how do you approach writing about such a specific period of time, and such a specific experience, when it is a country that you have a love for, and more than just that time, and just that perspective?
EK: I think I really, you know, I was careful with what I wrote because I thought, I…can only write what I know, and I would never for a moment profess to know what life was like for a black Zimbabwean or even, you know, maybe a poor white Zimbabwean, things were so disparate – I only felt that I could write what I knew, and I think that’s why I stuck to that narrow point in time.
EC: Yeah, I think that’s a really good approach, especially for something like this, writing what you know. Were there some things, though, that you wanted to communicate or put in the book that just sort of didn’t fit with that particular view that you were expressing, which is of an 11-year-old girl?
EK: Yeah, I think we spoke about putting in different political ideologies, you know, I thought, oh, there’s so much I could explore and I wanted to talk about, like, there was a thriving, sort of, queer community that was quite rebellious in Zimbabwe, and like, counterculture, and I’m like, I mean, that would be amazing, but the book I wrote wasn’t the space for that. But, you know, maybe another book, and there’s only so much you can do with a few hundred pages.
EC: Oh, certainly. And there are some mysteries that are – not mysteries, but there are some things that do kind of become apparent throughout the book, like the passage you just read, the neighbour who’s had, who lost his fingers in an industrial accident, we find out that it wasn’t that.
EK: No, we find out that that’s something that Hannah has been fed, but in fact he has had his fingers chopped off because he was, he was aligned with the Movement for Democratic Change, um, and so I think the reader becomes privy to some of that political violence, but you’re shielded, because…
EC: Because she’s shielded.
EK: Because she’s 11.
EC: Yeah, exactly. What was the journey to publication like for this book, from its first moments in your brain to how it is today with this beautiful cover?
EK: So I think, I think I got quite lucky, I don’t think my story is the usual story of submitting lots of manuscripts and getting rejections and trying again, I think… I think some writers would be a little annoyed to hear how relatively easy it was…
So I wrote the short story, I wrote a short story for a Creative Writing elective I did in my undergrad, and the tutor was very encouraging and suggested I submit it to Voiceworks, which is, fantastic magazine…
EC: Very good magazine.
EK: And off the back of that I was invited to a Wheeler Centre event, the next big thing, where I felt very ill prepared and had this horrible imposter syndrome, and Emily Bitto was there, and yeah. But I wrote, I read a piece of the story, and in the audience was Aviva, who is my current publisher now – and I have still have the email, the morning after the event she reached out to me, and she said, ‘I really liked your piece, keep me in mind if you ever have any, you know, something like a manuscript, something longer.’ and I worked on it, and when I did have that longer piece I sent it to her and, yeah, she’s my publisher today so…
EC: So you’ve got a publishing fairy godmother!
EC: That’s very good! Oh, that’s so nice. But yes, you’re right, I don’t think I’ve heard that story before, I do like, I like to ask all of our KYD authors how it was getting the book to where it is at the time that I’m sitting next to them, but that’s not what I’ve heard before.
EK: Yeah I know, very lucky, fairy godmother.
EC: I sort of took this as much as a novel about race as a novel about class, would you kind of agree with that? As the author of the book.
EK: Excellent point. Yeah, I think it is about class as well, and I think Hannah’s friend Diana is a young black girl, who is by all accounts identical to Hannah, they go to the same school, Bishopslea, and they both live in, you know, big nice houses and have enough to eat, and they’re very smart, and I think that shows the, it shows the economic divide in the country as well, because you do have wealthy black Zimbabweans – you do have, you know, black lawyers and magistrates and politicians, but then you also have black people who are doing hard manual labour, who are impoverished, who are really facing the brunt of the Mugabe regime. So yeah, I wanted to show that side of the country as well.
EC: Yeah, and something I really appreciated about this book is that it doesn’t… it sort of doesn’t try to hide, like it doesn’t try to pull the rug over anything, it’s really like, this, this is what happened, and you, the author doesn’t agree with it necessarily, the reader doesn’t agree with it necessarily, but there’s no effort to be like, ‘everything was actually fantastic,’ and it was really clearly defined in like what we in Melbourne in 2019 would think is a ‘fair system.’
EK: Yeah, and I think it was important for me that I didn’t try and explain it away, or provide justifications, or, you know, say oh, that’s just the way it was, or actually, you know, some people benefited, you know, none of that. No rationalisations, just – that’s the way it was.
EC: Yeah, yeah. Do you think that this, writing this book and, as you say, revisiting just before you did start writing it, do you think it changed your relationship to Australia, and to, like, how you feel as an Australian, if you do feel like an Australian?
EK: Yeah, I think I do realise how incredibly, incredibly lucky I am to be here, and how safe it feels – but I also realised, you know, reflecting back on, back on my experiences in Zimbabwe, like – I learned Shona growing up. We used to sing the national anthem in Shona almost every day at school. As you can probably remember. We used to learn how to play the marimbas and, I know this comes in part because, you know, the majority of Zimbabweans were black Zimbabweans, and so you couldn’t help but be immersed in the amazing culture. And then I was sort of wondering, you know, I went to high school in Perth… I feel like the disconnect white Australians with Indigenous Australians was actually quite confronting. I remember going to school and just thinking, like, where, like, where are the Indigenous people? And why aren’t we learning more about their culture? And for all that Zimbabwe has done wrong, at least I was able to appreciate the culture of the people in the country that I was living in, and learn their language. And I found it quite sad that we didn’t have that as much in Australia.
EC: Mmm, it’s a, it’s a very different kind of racism that we have in Australia to the kind you’re depicting in the novel, and that you remember in Zimbabwe, for sure.
EK: Yeah, it’s complicated.
EC: Yeah, it always is. Do we have any more questions at all? Well I’ve got one more question. So I said before that I went on a Wikipedia spiral after reading your book about Zimbabwe – what are some books apart from the one you recommended before, for people like me who do want to learn more about Zimbabwe, through fiction or nonfiction or, you know, through any kind of lens.
EK: Well, Don’t let’s go to the dogs Tonight, if you wanted to read a nonfiction book, David Coltart, who was a member of the Movement for Democratic Change, opposition leader, he wrote this book called 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe, and I think it’s quite – it’s about his life, but it also takes you through the political landscape and the changes in the country, starting from, starting from the very – even before white settlers came to the country. I think, it’s also very thick, you could kill a man with it.
So if you want a really comprehensive look at Zimbabwe, I think I would offer that up.
EC: Yeah, that’s great. Well, thank you so much for coming and talking to me tonight, thank you all for coming.
EK: Thank you for having me!
MD: That was Elizabeth Kuiper, discussing her first novel little stones. Little stones is available now from all good libraries and bookstores. This month’s Kill Your Darlings First Book Club was presented in partnership with Yarra Libraries. We’d love to see you at our next First Book Club event, at Readings State Library Victoria on 18 July. We’ll be joined by Alice Bishop who’ll discuss her short story collection A Constant Hum. It’s out now, so you can have a read before then, or come along and grab a copy on the night. Until then, remember to visit the website for more fiction, criticism, commentary, memoir and more. I’m Meaghan Dew, and you’ve been listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. See you next time!