Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire (BM): You wrote for Forbes magazine and you were a TV journalist for CNBC Africa. Did you train as a journalist?
Panashe Chigumadzi (PC): I studied accounting as my undergraduate degree. In my third year, when I decided I would not become a chartered accountant, I decided that the way to become a fiction writer was to start in journalism, specifically financial journalism. It worked because I had a degree in accounting. The Africa Business News Group, which owns CNBC and Forbes Africa, is where I started, working as a reporter for a year. Thereafter I decided that I wanted to understand the business of media, so I moved to the corporate side of the company and worked in the office of the managing director of the group. That was when I wrote a column for Forbes Woman Africa.
All my journalistic training was on the job – sometimes that is what makes you a better journalist. If you understand the subject matter, you can learn the skill of writing on the job. Understanding the subject matter is what distinguishes a great journalist. You can have the form and the skills to conduct an interview, but you would be unable to challenge your interviewee or have a robust discussion if you lacked knowledge of the subject matter. Journalists whose only background is in journalism sometimes struggle when they have to interview people who are experts, particularly in a specialized field like financial journalism. If you are speaking to a CEO about their financial statements and you have had zero exposure to financial statements, you can’t do an in-depth interview. The people who read your work have that knowledge, of course, and it won’t serve them if you are just asking surface-level questions.
BM: Did you start the Vanguard group while you were working with the Africa Business News Group or was that something that came later?
PC: I had worked in media because I was interested in the idea of changing mind-sets and really understanding how we could use media particularly for us as Africans and as black people. When I began to work on the corporate side, I understood that it was not good enough simply to have black people writing. I saw the terrible situation in cultural production where black people were on the screen, the stories were about Africa, about black people, written by Africans, but ultimately the editors, the managers and, most importantly, the owners of the companies tended not to be black Africans or people from the continent.
I decided I wanted to start my own media business; my own empire. I wanted to test out my hypothesis about a particular kind of market for young black people like myself and I thought I would start with the web edition. I began with that while working for CNBC and it took three months before I finally left CNBC.
BM: Your debut novel Sweet Medicine was published shortly after you started Vanguard. So, on one hand, there is Panashe, the media owner, and on the other hand there is the creative one; the writer. But there is a third side too: You are one of the eight founder members of the Feminist Stokvel. How do you explain these three sides: the work that you do as a feminist activist, your creative work as a novelist and your presence as a corporate media owner?
PC: I am no longer a member of the Feminist Stokvel but I was part of that for a year. I would not put that as a complete side of me, as such. I say that because I was just doing what I already did. It was just combining efforts with other black women who were doing similar work, creating platforms for us to meet. All of it has to do with writing and media. It is ultimately all about black narratives, particularly the narratives of black women.
If we had to look for three different aspects, they would be, one, nonfiction writing, and of course Vanguard is one avenue for that. I’ve also written a number of newspaper columns and contributions and I’ll continue doing that. The fiction side is the second aspect. Sweet Medicine is my first novel and I am working on my second book. The third side would be me in an academic space. Then there is a fourth side: activism. Being a student has been one of the most influential spaces for me and it feeds into all the other aspects of my life. Being involved in the Fallist movements was particularly important because all my work as a writer has to do specifically with the black condition, the black woman’s condition and theorising about and speaking to black liberation; black revolution.
That said, I am starting to think less about bifurcation and dichotomies; the idea of me as Vanguard, me as fiction writer, me as essayist. There are many people who do that; many writers who go across genres. Look at someone like Audre Lorde, who wrote academically but was also a poet and, of course, an activist, doing really amazing work. Think of someone like James Baldwin: His fiction, activism and essay writing were all amazing. Ultimately, I am interested in the black condition, the black woman’s condition in particular, and I use whatever medium happens to speak to me as the best vehicle at that time. It might be that we want to produce a video series and that is what I am going to work on; at another time I might want to write an essay or explore a topic or issue through a fictional narrative. It is really about form being used to serve the message and content that I want to get across.