"Poet Sheers . . . lustrously re-creates the life of Reverend Arthur Cripps: poet, African missionary, thwarted father, a man about six leagues ahead of his European contemporaries . . . A neat piece of creative nonfiction." Kirkus Reviews
"Sheers has done a wonderful job of bringing to life this maverick missionary . . . For anyone who has fallen in love with the beauty of Zimbabwe and seen its rich fields set afire in the last few years, this is a poignant and compelling book." Sunday Times (London)
"A slow-burning, mesmerising book that snags the heart with a telling detail or a murmured regret then opens its gaze to reveal a wider, bolder view of time and place and history, like a camera lens taking in a shimmering veldt." The Independent (London)
Africa has long been a place that attracts outsiders. Today, many are relief workers or
volunteers drawn to help combat political and social strife. A century ago, visitors to the continent were a different sort: missionaries, explorers, and opportunists seeking to leave their mark in the colonies while in some cases running from their lives back home. In The Dust Diaries, his remarkable exploration of the life and legacy of his great-great-uncle Arthur Cripps, Owen Sheers tells the provocative story of a man whose escape to Zimbabwe from a mysterious past in England led him to a life devoted to fighting the devastating effects of colonialism. A potent mix of poetry, travel adventure, mystery, and historical biography, The Dust Diaries uncovers the origins of the tumult in today’s Zimbabwe, a situation his ancestor predicted and worked to avoid nearly a century ago.
Sheers, an acclaimed young poet and broadcaster, first heard of Arthur Shearly Cripps at a family party several years ago. Intrigued by the similarities between himself and his ancestor Cripps published volumes of poetry and, like Sheers, was an avid runner he set out to piece together the disparate pieces of Cripps's life and to solve the mystery of what led him to forsake Europe for a life in the veldt. Journeying from the libraries of Oxford to the bustle of urban Zimbabwe to the dusty villages of Mashonaland, Sheers uncovered a startling and remarkable story of self-exile, intrigue, and grace that rivals both Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Beryl Markham's West with the Night.
Driven from England by a haunting secret, Arthur Cripps arrived in Southern Rhodesia in 1901, eager to begin his missionary work. His fascination with the indigenous culture soon ostracized him from the white community and the Anglican Church, but his outspoken support for native rights made him a hero to his parishioners. His legacy, in the form of his 1927 work An Africa for Africans which predicted many of Zimbabwe's current problems and an orphanage named for him in Harare, lives on, and an annual festival in his honor is celebrated in the countryside where he ministered.
Alternating between an in situ narrative drawn from Cripps’s own writings and Sheers’s contemporary account of his all-consuming search for the truth of the man’s life, The Dust Diaries is both a fascinating look at the origins of Zimbabwe’s current tumult and the touching personal history of a man driven to greatness by personal tragedy.
Born in Fiji in 1974, Owen Sheers grew up in London and Wales and attended Oxford and the University of East Anglia. His first collection of poetry, The Blue Book, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize Best First Collection and the Welsh Book of the Year. Named by the U.K. poet laureate Andrew Motion in the London Times Magazine as "the Poet to Watch in the New Millennium," Sheers was also selected as one of the Independent on Sunday's top thirty young British writers and won both an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors and the Vogue Talent Contest for Young Writers.
Widely published in magazines, Sheers's poetry has also been broadcast on the BBC. He currently lives in London, where he works as a freelance writer and broadcaster. The Dust Diaries is his first work of nonfiction.
A conversation with Owen Sheers about The Dust Diaries
Q) How did you come to write The Dust Diaries?
A) The genesis of this book was very organic. I learned about the existence of my great-great-uncle Arthur Cripps when I was twenty-three or twenty-four. All I knew was that he was a poet and a missionary who went to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1901, originally for two years, but that he ended up staying there for the rest of his life. Those few facts were enough to spark an interest, and I soon found myself researching his life to find out more. I went to Rhodes House Library in Oxford and found seven boxes of his letters and manuscripts. I spent a week there reading this material, and an incredible story of an incredible man unfolded before me. At that point I still didn’t know I was going to write a book about Arthur, and I’m pleased that’s the case. It meant that although his presence was becoming increasingly tangible to me, my interest wasn’t being directed by any overbearing thoughts of how I'd handle the story of his life.
A year after going to Rhodes House Library, I won a poetry award that enabled me to travel to Zimbabwe and follow Arthur's story in the country where he lived and died. Again, even at this stage I had no intentions for a book perhaps an idea for a sequence of poems, but not a book of prose. What was overwhelmingly important to me, for some reason, was to see where he lived and meet the people (or at least their descendants) whom he lived with and served in Africa.
It was only when I was in Zimbabwe, where Arthur became "fleshed out" for me in the memories of the Zimbabweans, that I began to make notes for a book. These began as "letters" written to Arthur across the hundred years that divided us, inspired, I suppose, by the shared country and people that now connected us. Those letters went on to form the contemporary spine of the book, but on returning I soon realized that I wanted to tell his story too, especially as his experience in colonial Southern Rhodesia had so much relevance to what was happening in contemporary Zimbabwe.
Q) What, would you say, is The Dust Diaries about?
A) It's always hard to pin down one meaning in a book, and The Dust Diaries is no exception. If I had to try to summarize it, I'd bring it down to three central elements. First, it is a book about the resonance of lives and love, about how we live on in the memories and love of those who survive us. Then it is also the story of one man's incredible life of courage and conviction in the face of prejudice and against the ideas of the day. Last, it is a book about connections across history, both between people and countries and specifically between Arthur and me, and about how I try to complete that connection during my "search" for his real story. On a more theoretical level, I guess it's also involved with a discussion about the nature of life writing the necessity to colonize a life in order to bring it to life, and the tendency for the imagination to in turn colonize the story.
Q) The story of Arthur and your journey in his footsteps is told through a series of layered narratives. Why did you decide on this structure for the book?
A) As I've already said, the contemporary narrative found itself, starting with my notes in Zimbabwe. I kept this vocative voice, as it seemed to make sense. That part of the book is, after all, very much a dialogue between me and what remains of Arthur.
I chose to write about Arthur's life in Africa in a more conventional, "novelized" third-person style, as although these scenes are based on real events and people I very much wanted to make them live. I didn’t want them to feel dry, and the more "fictionalized" voice allowed me to inject pace and variety in the narrative and to move between minds, enabling Arthur to be seen through the eyes of his contemporaries as well as through mine. The last narrative voice is a very close, "on the shoulder" third-person account from Arthur's point of view that moves over the space of just one day. I felt this narrative was crucial, first to give Arthur's emotions and ideas a voice and to lend the book moments of more lyrical, reflective prose. Although it’s close enough to feel like first-person at times, it never quite makes that leap but I hope it is still intimate enough to lend an emotional charge to the love story and the other personal elements of Arthur's life. The tricky bit was ordering and layering these three voices so that a complete story grew from the sum of their parts. What I was after, I suppose, was a montage effect that builds into a panoramic, layered perspective.
Q) The Dust Diaries is based on true events, yet it often reads like a more imaginative piece of writing. Is it actually a novel or a piece of nonfiction?
A) It's a story. Stories are at the core of all writing and draw equally from life and from the imagination. So yes, The Dust Diaries is about a real man and real events, and certainly the contemporary travel narrative is all true, but there were still gaps in the skeleton of facts I had, and it was these I filled with imagination. So, for example, I have placed thoughts and ideas in Arthur's head that may not have been there, but I have also read his letters and poems closely, so I tried to base these thoughts and feelings on what I found in that material. Similarly, while most of the characters existed, I have sometimes made them do things to drive the story forward that I cannot be sure they would have done. Some of the characters, however, are completely fictional, such as Mrs. Cole and Jack Beardsley, for example. Yet both of them represent a type of person alive and around in Southern Rhodesia at that time, and both have been based on the large number of personal accounts I read in my research. As I say in the prologue, the book “may not always be true to historical fact, but I hope it is true to the essence of Arthur’s story, and to the essence of the man I found buried in the nave of a ruined church far out in the Zimbabwean veld.”
Q) How has the research and writing of The Dust Diaries affected you personally?
A) Writing this book has certainly been a personal as well as a literary journey. It's impossible not to follow in the footsteps of someone like Arthur Cripps and remain unaffected. One of the most important elements for me was the people I met along the way as I followed Arthur's story. Many of them appear in the book, and I hope I've managed to impart some of their qualities that affected me so much. Paramount among them are people like Canon Holderness, whose generosity of spirit and genuine love for humanity were of the kind to pull my perspective of the world into sharp focus, and of course Leonard Mamvura, whose enthusiasm, humor, and kindness were infectious and through whom I finally felt I really met Arthur.
Q) You began your writing life as a poet. How difficult was it for you to turn to prose for this book?
A) Writing a long prose narrative certainly uses a different part of the literary brain from that employed in writing poetry, but once that shift had been made I didn't find the change of genre too much trouble. My background in poetry did, if anything, help me, I think. I often found myself speaking paragraphs or sentences out loud, listening for the meter and rhythm of the language as much as for its sense. I was always keen to build the book's wider perspective from a number of tightly focused scenes anyway, and as such these often found their movement as a poem might following a certain arc and enacting a connectedness of image and meaning.
Q) What relevance does Arthur’s story have for modern Zimbabwe?
A) There is, I suppose a third story in The Dust Diaries, and that is of Zimbabwe itself. Every country's present has its character firmly rooted in its past, and Zimbabwe is no exception. Although the current situation there is fueled as much by issues of dictatorship and simple power struggles as anything else, Arthur's awareness of the centrality of land to the future well-being of the country is very relevant to Zimbabwe’s recent and contemporary history. His realization that a country will only be peaceful and productive on a foundation of equality and fairness may have been formed against the racism of the colonial period, but that message is certainly just as relevant in an African-ruled Zimbabwe as it was in a white-ruled Rhodesia.
1 August 1952, Maronda Mashanu, Mashonaland, Southern Rhodesia
He thinks again of the half-waking dream of his arrival in Africa fifty years before. But he knows it is not a dream. It all happened, this, his life, and now it is passing before his eyes . . . what sort of man was he then? An innocent. And yet not an innocent. But certainly adrift, washed up on the shores of Africa, the 'Dark Continent' which he had read about, heard about, spoken about so often. A continent of dreams or nightmares depending on who you spoke to. Of opportunities and destinies. [Zimbabwe] was a landlocked country of heat and veld and thorn trees, a ridge of mountains bulking out its eastern flank, the torrent of the Zambesi running along its northern border. A country only years young, and still healing from its forming, the blood of the '96 chimurenga still seeping into her soil. An ancient country with a history that was no history, living in the minds and memories of the people, not on paper. An unknown history. And above all, then, in 1901, it was a country stunned by the influx of white men rifling her pockets for gold and diamonds, digging in her earth, sifting in her river-veins and herding her people like cattle into reservations. But then, waiting for the train to take him through Portuguese Mozambique to Umtali, he knew almost nothing of this.
30 July 2000, Harare, Zimbabwe
A few hours later and everyone is kicking up the dust with their feet, dancing in the clearing around your church. Night has taken hold again, with its deep, absolute blackness and its shocking stars that send a plumb line to the centre of the soul. The clearing is packed with people and the drummers have whipped the crowd into a frenzy, women, men, and children dancing in the African way: leant over at the waist, elbows out, knees bent, shaking their pushed-out bottoms in time to the drums, like bees performing a directional dance.
It is here, now, as I am carried along by the push and tide of the crowd, as we move as one towards your grave, as the singing swells and falls like waves, like a voltage passed through the hundreds of bodies. This is when I am closest to you. I don't think I have ever really known why I have been following you. Maybe to fill a hole in me with another man's life, maybe natural curiosity, or perhaps just to feel the proximity of history, touching the same paper, stones, hands that you touched. I thought I would never know the true stories, because true stories pass away with the moment. But here, I think I have finally got close to the true story and whatever the reason I came looking, I think I have found you.