'My stories, those can go out into the world': Chido Muchemwa on overcoming loss and her path back to creativity

October 17, 2022 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

For Chido Muchemwa, the prize money and recognition from winning a national short story contest were appreciated, but it’s the affirmation that she can still write after her father’s death that she cherishes most.

Muchemwa, a PhD candidate in U of T’s Faculty of Information (iSchool) and a graduate student at the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, recently won the University of Lethbridge’s Bridge Prize short story contest, along with $7,500.

The largest short story contest for post-secondary students in Canada, Muchemwa’s was selected among 187 stories submitted by almost 50 students from across the country, If It Wasn’t for the Nights tells the story of Charity, a queer Zimbabwean living in Toronto mourning the death of her father in Africa, alongside her family’s reluctance to accept her sexuality.

The story mirrors Muchemwa’s life, with the passing of her father in 2020. Because of the pandemic she was unable to join her family in Zimbabwe for the funeral and was forced to watch the ceremony online — a heartbreaking experience.

“It’s a bizarre thing to have to grieve someone from the other side of the world,” she says. “We grieve together as a family. So watching my dad's funeral on Facebook, my brain just didn't know how to process it.”

Muchemwa struggled after her father’s death. Frequently haunted by nightmares, she had trouble sleeping — and equally distressing — she lost the ability to write; words abandoned her.

 Since I got that award, I've been able to work on some new things. It's still a very ugly process at the moment, but I’m moving forward. 

“I’ve always been a writer,” she says. “One of the things I never realized was that my dad was part of the process. I write stories about Zimbabwe, and a lot of the time, it's historical, or I'm looking at traditions and culture.

“In the early stages of a story, I would text him at all times of the day and he would tell me what he knew. That was always part of the process. So when he died, every time I came to the page, I would think, ‘I can just text my dad and ask him.’ But I couldn’t. It was all just too painful. It derailed the routine.”

Wanting to help, Muchemwa’s sister, Varaidzo, urged her to write, encouraging her to pen more about characters she had written about in past stories — specifically, Charity and Tino. She threw out suggestions for the plot and tossed around ideas about how music and dancing could play a role.

Grateful for the nudge forward, “I just had to sit and figure out how the characters would play against each other,” says Muchemwa, noting this was the only new story she managed to write in the two years after my father died.

The Bridge Prize provided a much-needed confidence boost and reminded her that her writing process doesn’t have to be perfect to produce powerful stories.

“Since I got that award, I've been able to work on some new things. It's still a very ugly process at the moment, but I’m moving forward.”

In addition to returning to writing, Muchemwa’s forward progress extends to her work with the Queer and Trans Research Lab (QTRL).

The QTRL — part of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies in the Faculty of Arts & Science — brings a uniquely transnational perspective and interdisciplinary approach to scholarship and activism.

It aims to break down the barriers between academic disciplines; institutions and queer, trans, and Black, Indigenous and People of Colour communities; and artists, activists and scholars.

At the QTRL, she’s worked with Jordache Ellapen, an assistant professor of feminist studies in culture and media at U of T Mississauga, providing research for his upcoming book, Against Afronormativity: Afro-Indian Intimacies and the Queer Aesthetics of Race in South Africa.

“Being from Zimbabwe, it was interesting that he was working on South African content. It was literally the first time I've had a professor working in the same geographical area.

At this stage, my doctoral research is still just me and my supervisor and my committee. But with my stories, those can go out into the world. And we can start to build a collection of narratives about queerness in Zimbabwe that are not just about hate.

“And from working with him, I was able to get ideas about how queer archives work, and how queer people are able to express themselves and document their histories in communities that are not as accepting of queerness.”

That experience contributed to Muchemwa’s own dissertation that examines the documenting practices of Indigenous and queer Zimbabweans in the hopes of creating an inclusive National Archives of Zimbabwe that includes queer narratives.

“While social media has opened up a lot of conversations, it's still very difficult to be out in Zimbabwe,” she explains. “You need a certain level of privilege, and most of the people who are out on social media come from backgrounds with at least a bit of money. People who live in regular or poorer neighborhoods are not coming out because the stakes are higher for them.”

As she continues her work, Muchemwa is continually inspired by the network of researchers she’s met at the QTRL.

“Everyone works on very different projects, but everyone is so interested in community,” she says. “And the QTRL isn’t about just academics, it’s also people working in direct-facing community engagement projects. It helps to ground my research, so it isn't just about what's going to make the best argument in my dissertation, but also, how do I make this work have real world impact?”

And it’s wanting to make a tangible impact that also drives Muchemwa to write queer stories like If It Wasn’t for the Nights.

“At this stage, my doctoral research is still just me and my supervisor and my committee. But with my stories, those can go out into the world. And we can start to build a collection of narratives about queerness in Zimbabwe that are not just about hate.”

Chido Muchemwa's winning story If It Wasn't for the Nightscan be found at the 2022 Bridge Prize website. The Bridge Prize, presented by the School of Liberal Education at the University of Lethbridge, is a biennial short story writing competition that awards over $10,000 in prizes to the winner and three finalists.