An interview with our other Best American Essays notable writer, Kimberly L. Rogers. Kim completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Iowa State and her essay “Know When to Walk Away: Returning to Zimbabwe by Greyhound” appeared in Flyway after winning the Home Voices contest–a contest only open to Iowa State MFA students.
What inspired you to write “Know When to Walk Away: Returning to Zimbabwe by Greyhound?”
In the fall of 2007 I went back to Zimbabwe after six years away. The country was facing its worst economic crisis since Independence in 1980. Inflation was skyrocketing, there were food shortages, and infrastructure like schools, roads, water and electricity were breaking down. I went back to see what that kind of rapid breakdown was like. But it had been so long since I’d been there (I’d been visiting there since 1998 and lived there for the whole of 2000). I couldn’t imagine flying from Des Moines airport to Harare airport and suddenly stepping off the plane into Zimbabwe again. Also, I wanted to see the borderpost between South Africa and Zimbabwe that had become so important for the movement of people and goods as conditions worsened in Zimbabwe. So, I decided to fly into Johannesburg and take the Greyhound bus. The strange experience of that 18 hour bus ride across the South African border and into Zimbabwe as I tried to grabble with my new surroundings inspired “Know When to Walk Away.”
What lingering concerns, if any, did you have when you submitted this for publication?
The piece was solicited otherwise I would never have submitted it. It was a mess. Way too long. The central issues still needed to be woven more evenly and developed throughout the piece. The essay is part of a book-length memoir, Hyper-Inflated: Returning to Zimbabwe, about that 2007 trip back to Zimbabwe that I’m working on. “Know When to Walk Away” was one of the earlier essays in that memoir and its reflects my own struggle with finding the structure for the overall book. Is it a travelogue where I chronicle what happened (this happened, then this, then that. . .) or is it a collection of crafted essays strung artfully around central metaphors? Or is it more novelistic in form, with each chapter introducing new conflicts and developing characters? Is it about me? Is it about Zimbabwe? All of those issues were unresolved in “Know When to Walk Away” and I still feel, despite being an Notable Essay in the 2010 Best American Essays, that “Know When to Walk Away” needs another round of revisions. Actually in the book manuscript, this essay has become nearly unrecognizable. . . Though, I’m not sure that is an improvement either. . .
What image from “Know When to Walk Away: Returning to Zimbabwe by Greyhound?” sticks with you the most?
Hmm. . . My memory is terrible. Having worked on the larger book manuscript that the essay is in, I can no longer separate this essay out in my mind from the rest. I think I wrote in “Know When to Walk Away” about the balancing rocks in Zimbabwe? If so, then it is an image of the sun hitting those granite boulders balanced so precariously on one another that is most memorable. But then again, with nonfiction its unclear– maybe I am just remembering my own memory of those rocks and how beautiful they were, how resonant with the beauty, and strangeness of Zimbabwe during that difficult time period.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about this essay or your writing?
Yes. Writing the book that this essay is part of is probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. I love it, but I can’t wait for it to end. Also, I learned I was listed as a Notable Essayist on facebook. Colin Rafferty wrote on my Facebook wall: ‘What’s up Notable Essayist” and then attached the link. That was the first I’d heard of it. It took me like an hour to find out what he meant because the ‘notables’ were listed online in alphabetical order according to first name. Facebook.
Also, when I told my mom about the ‘mention,’ she asked me, “Is that like bowling a 300?”