Harare’s Book Café meets Amherst Books meets Jericho Brown meets hundreds of writers

Jericho Brown at Amherst Books, Amherst

I find myself starting afresh in a valley full of writers; The Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. To think this will be home for at least a few years. Starting afresh. Rebuilding. Recollecting. Re-membering.

It’s challenging. It’s humbling.

There’s a story I must tell you. It’s a story about how we unconsciously look for some sort of North Pole wherever we go and how sometimes it hits us when we are looking for answers facing South. But when we do find it, we find our grounding and things start to move forward.

For many years, in Harare, the city where I’ve lived for most of my adult life, there was a place called The Book Café. It was a bookshop, coffee shop, restaurant, performance venue and center of artistic nurture located on the rooftop of a shopping mall on the outskirts of the CBD. It was the default meeting place for many of Harare’s musicians, poets, writers and art lovers.

The Book Café had live performances every evening of the week (everything from traditional Zimbabwean music to Hip Hop), hosted international acts and held book launches, debates about current socio-political issues and held other events that helped keep the artistic pulse of Harare going.

I spent a lot of time there; photographing events, taking part in them, hanging out and taking in the creative energy of the space.

Sometime last year, I was at a poetry reading, thousands of miles away, at Amherst Books in Amherst, Massachusetts, my new home. The place was packed. Jericho Brown was the poet we had all come to hear. Amherst College had invited him to town for a series of events, including this one. There we were, over 50 people crammed into a part of the bookshop that is organized into a little performance area for events like this.  Brown had everyone’s rapt attention. At some point as he read and as people laughed or hummed their approval of hard-hitting lines, it struck me; that same feeling from The Book Cafe. The buzz of creative energy in the air, of something pregnant about to give birth to a new form of life.

And right here, in this place where I often feel lost and unsure, I felt a deep sense of home.

North Pole.

It’s normal to feel lost, unwelcome and uncertain of oneself when you move from your home country, where you’ve lived for most of four decades, where your friends are, where you bump into people who know your name on the streets and where you know the culture. But I have determined I will find my way here. If this is to be my home for some time, I will not stumble around. I will find my bearings as quickly as possible and turn my lights on again.

Finding the first few of those bearings hasn’t been too hard. There are lots of clues that I am in the right place for what I need to be doing now. Big ones. This valley is full of creatives. Painters, poets and writers seem to be drawn to this place by some invisible artistic force. Specifically, the number of writers here is crazy.  There are hundreds of them.

As I was trying to find out how big a thing this is – that there are so many writers here, I came across a 2007 New York Times article by Roger Mummert, that talks about this very thing. “The Pioneer Valley is arguably the most author-saturated, book-cherishing, literature-celebrating place in the nation,” he wrote. No kidding Roger.

An adventure of epic proportions awaits.

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