It wasn’t until 2006 that Elizabeth Tshele began to take her writing seriously. Tshele came to SMU’s English department as an M.A. candidate and was awarded that degree in 2007, but credits Professors Beth Newman and David Haynes for “getting her in line” as a student and giving her “the courage to go for it.” Prof. Rajani Sudan encouraged her to apply to Cornell’s creative writing program, where she is now working on an MFA. “You don’t necessarily appreciate things until you move on,” Tshele says. “And then you think, ‘those guys were amazing.’”
Tshele was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing in July 2011 for the short story “Hitting Budapest,” published in The Boston Review under Tshele’s pen name NoViolet Bulawayo. Hitting Budapest is the tale of a group of impoverished children stealing guavas. It was called “a story of moral power and weight” by one Caine Prize jurist.
The prize will come as no surprise to Tsehele’s former SMU creative writing classmates. Her talent, even then, was obvious. Catching up with Tshele by phone in late September, I congratulated her and asked about the pseudonym. “NoViolet,” she says, is like Godknows and Fraction (names of characters in her story), and is typical of names translated from Shona, the language spoken by the vast majority of Zimbabweans. “Bulawayo” is her hometown in Zimbabwe, which she hasn’t visited in twelve years. She misses home but wonders, after so much time, if returning to Zimbabwe would cause her to long for the US and her home here.
Tshele wrote her first story while in third grade, she believes. After high school, she and her sister moved to Michigan to live with an uncle and attend community college. It was there a creative writing instructor suggested that she become a writer. “I didn’t understand,” she says. “I didn’t know any writers.
I couldn’t afford to study writing. I came to America to study law.” Tshele’s change in career is being celebrated and rewarded. In addition to the Caine Prize, Tshele’s stories have been shortlisted for the 2009 SA PEN Studzinski Award, and her work has either appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Warwick Review, Callaloo, and also anthologies in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and the UK.
This semester, she is teaching creative writing and human rights literature classes at Cornell, which gives her an opportunity to “connect with students in a way that helps them write true and stronger stories.” Between classes, Tshele is “fine-tuning a novel,” completing her memoir, and working on a film project. And she is preparing for another winter in Ithaca. In winter, at least, she misses Dallas.
-Shelley Strock, SMU English ’07, Freelance Writer