Democratising literature – an interview with Samantha Rumbidzai Vazhure

Start exploring contemporary Zimbabwean writing and you will very quickly come across books published by Carnelian Heart. The imprint was established in April 2020 and already has an impressive list of around 30 titles, including fiction, memoir, short stories, and poetry in both English and Shona. It’s a testament to the vision, energy and creative talent of Samantha Rumbidzai Vazhure, Carnelian Heart’s founder and editor. Warm and generous, with a smile that lights up  the space around her, Samantha is a fierce advocate for equality and the welfare of women and children. She is passionate in her support for under-represented voices, and extremely dedicated, often still at work well after midnight.

I asked Samantha to tell me a little about her background and what led her to establish Carnelian Heart.

Samantha: I’m a bilingual poet, novelist, librettist, short story writer, translator, editor, publisher and visual artist based in Wales. I established Carnelian Heart initially to publish my own work, then I decided to use the business to drive my advocacy work through the publication of anthologies, before opening my doors to individual African writers.

“Carnelian” is the name of a brownish-red semi-precious gemstone which is believed to restore vitality and stimulate creativity. It is said to have energy that promotes courage and positive life choices, dispels apathy and motivates for success. It helps in trusting yourself and your perceptions and is useful for overcoming abuse of any kind. These properties are aligned with the original intention of my creativity – advocacy. “Heart” means I am doing this work out of love and from the bottom of my heart. 

Outside of writing and literature, I work in the legal profession as a regulatory consultant

Carnelian Heart focuses primarily (although not exclusively) on Zimbabwean writers. What are some of the challenges that writers in Zimbabwe face, and how do you support them through the creative process? 

Samantha: There are quite a few challenges Marian. A lot of emerging Zimbabwean writers don’t have access to books and the failure to read widely sometimes limits their creativity. I do advise them to make use of resources freely available online, such as Poetry Foundation, Poetry International which features Zimbabwean writers, or e-journals such as Ipikai, Lolwe, Shallow Tales Review, IceFloe Press, to name but a few. There are also many blogs that discuss poetry and poetics, as well as other genres.

Publishing is expensive, and most Zimbabwean writers can’t afford it. My primary reason for offering publishing services at Carnelian Heart was to help Zimbabweans who could write but couldn’t afford to publish their books; I wanted to democratise literature. I have a hybrid publishing model in place, leaning towards traditional publishing. Authors don’t pay me anything upfront for editorial, book production, distribution, marketing and wholesale costs, but I deduct fees from their royalties if their books sell. 

Access to technology is an issue for some writers. I’ve published writers who wrote full manuscripts on WhatsApp because they did not have access to computers or word processors. Despite not having the means to self-edit before submission, their work barely had typos or grammatical errors, and I felt their willpower deserved to be rewarded.  

Some writers can’t afford to be on virtual calls as they’d need to pay for data. Sometimes they are based in remote parts of Zimbabwe, with very poor internet signals. Sometimes the loadshedding is a barrier to virtual communication. In such cases, I’ve had to phone them directly from the UK, which then transfers the expense of communication to me.  

New and upcoming writers often lack understanding of how publishing works. Some assume that they’ll get rich quick and never have to work again. Some have never heard of royalties, or how they are calculated. Some don’t bother to read a publishing agreement, or if they do, they don’t understand the terms. So I make sure I have an introductory meeting with all individually published authors, to handhold them through the contract and to manage their expectations with regards to book sales. This does not necessarily achieve the desired result because there’s also usually a lack of interest in that conversation, until they receive a royalty report and suddenly want to understand why they haven’t received ten times more money than is due to them.  

Most authors have no desire to participate in the selling of their books. They feel once they have written a book, it is down to the publisher to ensure it sells. They don’t realise that when you work with a small press, selling books is a joint effort, especially because they’re not (yet) famous. 

– You are a prolific writer yourself, across several forms – including poetry, short stories, and novels – in both English and Shona. Does the fact that you are bilingual influence your writing, perhaps in subtle ways – for example imagery, sound effects, point of view?

Samantha: Absolutely. I am a Karanga from Masvingo and most Shona-speakers will tell you how poetic, charming and dramatic the Karanga language is – full of humour, idioms and ideophones, metaphor, rhyme, etc. Karanga people are detail-oriented and when we tell a story, we call it kurondedzera, which loosely translated means “discourse at length”. As children, we wrote rondedzero (composition) in Shona class and my teachers expected to find the minutest detail in my work, because they too were Karanga. When accounting for any misdemeanours to anyone in authority, they expected the most granular details of what had taken place, including any pollen that may have been floating in the air when the incident happened. This background hugely influences my writing, particularly the concreteness of language in both my poetry and prose (this of course causes problems with editors sometimes, when they say some of my descriptions are superfluous, and I struggle to understand why they’d refuse the detail my teachers would have given me a merit badge for!).

Another important point is that musicianship and spirituality are cornerstones of the Karanga culture – you will find these elements peppered around my writing as well. I read Shona and English through to A-level. I think and dream in Karanga – a dialect of the Shona language, so even when I’m writing in English, that inherent Karanga flair will always show up in my work. That said, the reverse is also true, and I use some English words and concepts when I write in Shona, especially when I’m exploring themes that are foreign to the Shona culture, yet they have become a part of our lives due to migration and colonisation. 

– The National Arts Council of Zimbabwe holds an annual awards ceremony to recognise outstanding achievements in the arts: the National Arts Merits Awards (NAMA). Last year several Carnelian Heart publications featured in the awards. Rudo Manyere’s collection ‘3:15 am and other stories’ made the shortlist, and two books won in their respective categories: David Chasumba’s  ‘The Madman on First Street and Other Short Stories’, and your poetry collection, ‘Starfish Blossoms’. This is an impressive achievement for a relatively unknown independent press! What does this recognition mean, both for Carnelian Heart and for you personally?

Samantha: As a publisher, the recognition was a huge honour and an affirmation that what I am doing at Carnelian Heart is bigger than myself. Some friends in the Zimbabwean literary circles had suggested the submissions as a way of increasing visibility for the press. I submitted all eight books by Zimbabwean authors published in 2022, and three of them were shortlisted for the awards. Interestingly, the visibility has attracted more writers wanting their works published, than readers who want to buy the books.   

For me personally, I had never been bothered by validation until my name was announced as a nominee for the award. I am usually happy to just write without being judged or compared to others. However, it felt great to know that my work had been read by a panel of respectable judges, some of whom are artists, and they thought it was outstanding. It was a truly humbling experience to receive the NAMA award, something I hope will aid the visibility of my past and future works. 

‘Starfish Blossoms’ is a gloriously vibrant collection, layered and complex with a wide-ranging emotional register. Would you like to share a poem or two with us and tell us a little about their significance for you?

Samantha: Certainly. I’ll share a couple of poems to demonstrate contrasting angles of my emotional pendulum. 

‘Punctuating the seasons of grief’ is a poem in memory of my late mother. I was in my mid-twenties when she died, and I struggled to come to terms with her passing, to the extent that at one point, I suspected she might have feigned her own death. This poem reflects that period in my life. Being able to write it and share it with the world in my forties is a sign of my growth, healing and moving away from a dark place I was stuck in for many years. 

Punctuating the seasons of grief

To the forward slash sluggishly slanting/
the grand finale of grief beckons. After years of despair & the sting 
of my mother’s death gradually dying down like winter summoning spring
my mind quelling, I hear the whisper of intuition, quiet as God
                      —She’s not really gone. 

Flashes of her funeral flicker like turn signals 
& I return to the muddle, haunting visions 
of an unbothered mannequin resting 
in a silk-lined wood box despite my pleadings
                             —hellbent on evolving to a higher form. 

Keen to show mother so much has changed, I watch 
the bouquet bigger than her coffin spray, orphaned & dramatic 
on the porch fringed with her pink petunias & apricot tulips. 
Charged with the fragrance of life, I observe from a distance 
mother’s neighbourhood carrying on as if nothing has changed
                        —well of course nothing has changed. 

Her neighbours trim their bushes in summer splendour 
’til Everhard & Farkel turn up unannounced in black suits to chat 
about suffering. Unlike my ailing mother who would’ve parleyed with them
about Jehovah over cream teas, her muted neighbours pass from sight
’til scriptural literature drops through their doors with no power of thought
                       —like unbothered mannequins.

To perceive colour again, the em dash takes a leap—

‘You gotta keep ’em happy’, on the other hand, is a more jovial piece about reciprocity. I really enjoyed writing this poem because I tapped into my love for nature and music to paint an image of the African landscape as the vehicle for my missive.

You gotta keep ’em happy

– Over the past few months, you and I have been working together on a very special and exciting poetry project. Tell us about ‘Tesserae’!

Samantha: Oh Marian, I don’t think words can aptly describe my excitement and gratitude towards you as co-editor, and the 35 amazing women poets who agreed to be part of this project – a women-only anthology of poems by Zimbabweans! The book starts with an insightful introduction by Tsitsi Ella Jaji, followed by over 170 poems by 37 women, and ends with an astute essay on “disobedient poetics” by Tariro Ndoro. It comes in paperback and hardback, with beautiful artworks by Lin Barrie on both covers and inside the book. All three women also contributed poems to the anthology.  

The full title of the book is, ‘Tesserae: A mosaic of poems by Zimbabwean women. Zimbabwe, being ‘the house of stone’, is a mosaic in its own right, and we felt the voices in this anthology together are ‘tesserae’, mosaic pieces crafting the panorama of Zimbabwean womanhood. In the book, we have  traditional page poets and underground poets, students and grandmothers, visual poets and spoken word artists, established writers and emerging talents, from within Zimbabwe and from the diaspora. They explore wide-ranging themes, from domestic abuse, xenophobia, queerness, illicit relationships, sexual fantasy, menstruation, and suicidal ideation. There are tender portrayals of family, friendships and parenthood; narratives of loss and despair; humorous poems; socio-political commentaries; transcendent allegories and lyrical descriptions. I’m not sure we’ve had anything like Tesserae before, in the history of Zimbabwean literature. 

– Collaborating with you on this project made me appreciate your extraordinary work ethic.  Publishing is a tough business, particularly in the present economic climate. We have seen several small independent presses closing down recently. How do you cope with the demands of running the press more or less single-handedly? And how do you envisage Carnelian Heart evolving in the future?

Samantha: Thank you, Marian. Carnelian Heart has always been a passion project, something I started out of my blind love for African literature, and the desire to give Zimbabweans a platform for their voices to be heard. I never had a budget for it, or business plan, or strategy – my energy, some transferable skills from my corporate legal background and a small pot of savings were all I had when I started – perhaps the first symptom of a midlife crisis! It is a business that doesn’t make any commercial sense, because it has a myriad suppliers but only very limited demand for its product. There are so many writers wanting to tell their stories, but their books are not being bought, and that makes it difficult to sustain a publishing business. Zimbabweans back home can’t afford the luxury of buying books, plus the reading culture there is not strong enough. As Zimbabwean author Stanley Nyamufukudza  observed, “…one of the best ways to hide information in Zimbabwe is to publish it in a book.” – one of the reasons why at Carnelian Heart, I don’t censor artistic expression. 1

How do I cope? Well, I’ve made some sacrifices in my personal life, to be able to run Carnelian Heart. I’ve practically stopped working and earning, in order to free up my time to publish books. Not earning has had a significant impact on my lifestyle and my family – amongst other things, I’ve had to liquidate some assets in order to cover living expenses and to invest in book making. On the production side of things, I outsource a fair bit of work to freelance providers, and I’ve collaborated with many Zimbabwean creatives to make things happen, Tesserae being a perfect example of that.     

Carnelian Heart is my contribution towards the legacy of Zimbabwean literature; just my small way of giving back to my country in a form that will outlive me – but because it is a passion project, it will end. I would love to see Carnelian Heart growing, but it currently isn’t generating enough income to grow, and I can no longer invest more money than I’ve already done. Despite the financial challenges and other frustrations of running the press on my own, I’ve found the experience very fulfilling and I’m very proud of the impact I’ve made on the history of Zimbabwean literature. And I have to say, it’s not just books that have resulted from this venture, I’ve made new friends through collaborations and networking with writers and other creatives.  

My hope is that Zimbabweans (and indeed non-Zimbabweans!) all over the world, with disposable income, will begin to support this venture by buying the beautiful books I’ve published. Upcoming Zimbabwean writers need this. At some point in the near future, I too will stop book production, but rather than closing down completely, I hope to continue selling the books I have already published. So much energy from me, the authors and other creatives involved, has gone into publishing them. I owe it to the artists who entrusted their art to me, to keep it alive for as long as I can. 

When my book production hiatus begins, one of the things I’ll work on is a more robust marketing and distribution plan for Carnelian Heart books. 

– As a UK-based publisher of African writing, what obstacles do you encounter in the areas of marketing and distribution? How have you sought to mitigate or overcome these obstacles?

Samantha: Marketing is expensive, and it’s very difficult for a small press to invest the amounts of money required to reach the target audience. Sometimes you don’t even know who the target audience is, and paying for marketing becomes a wasted effort, if the wrong people are targeted. I therefore rely on social media to advertise the business, and that works to a certain extent. Social media requires a collective effort between the authors and publisher in order to be more effective, but most Zimbabwean authors are not interested in book marketing. Some of them are not even on social media. I’ve established great relationships with book reviewers and promoters of African literature, and their work goes a long way in attracting the right audience for the books.  

It’s great to make literature written by Africans accessible to Africans, but I’ve found it challenging to distribute the books in Africa. Sometimes shipments are lost or stolen in transit, even when I use reliable couriers. I obviously pay for insurance to mitigate this risk, and this only makes the retail prices of books higher. I have only a handful of working relationships with African retailers I trust. 

Because so few people buy books, retailers generally take books on consignment and pay when or if they are sold – I have a lot of books, printed and shipped expensively, that are sitting in African bookstores unsold. There is usually no way of tracking whether the books are selling or not, and I have to rely on the book sellers’ word. Even if the books sell, there is no way of guaranteeing that payments are made on time, or ever. And I’m not physically in Africa to chase or make payment demands.   

Most book sellers sell the books in their local currency, which could decline any time. Exchange rate fluctuations are a real risk to this business, so I try to work with book retailers who can pay for the books in US dollars.  

The easiest way to mitigate these issues is to stick to print on demand with the likes of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other global online retailers who ship a book at a time, as and when it is ordered by a customer. However, it doesn’t make sense to publish books by Africans without making those books accessible to Africans. I have considered printing the books locally, but that requires a lot of due diligence, because the quality of printing and binding is not always great. There is also a higher risk of piracy when books are printed locally – intellectual property law is not yet taken seriously, especially in Zimbabwe, and this is one of the reasons why a lot of artists suffer financially.  

– Thank you, Samantha, for taking the time to answer my questions, and for all the exceptional work you are doing to promote emerging Zimbabwean writers.


Carnelian Heart books can be purchased via links on this page: 

Samantha’s personal website:

Tesserae: A mosaic of poems by Zimbabwean women is available for pre-order via Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

  1. For more on this topic, see Gibson Ncube’s thought-provoking article on The Conversation website, Zimbabwe’s rulers won’t tolerate opposing voices – but its writers refuse to be silenced. ↩︎

1 thought on “Democratising literature – an interview with Samantha Rumbidzai Vazhure

  1. Pingback: Poetry Blog Digest 2023, Week 32 – Via Negativa

Comments are closed.