The best writers are ones who have honest stories in their hearts and a resolve to pen their thoughts and this stands true for University of Melbourne student Elizabeth Kuiper, whose debut novel Little Stones was recently published by University of Queensland Press. The novel, set in Zimbabwe in the 2000s, finds its narrator in eleven-year-old Hannah. While on the one hand she witnesses the changing political and economic landscape of the country she has adopted, on the other she navigates the tumultuous relationship between her divorced parents.
We had the opportunity to catch up with Lizz Kuiper on a beautiful Melbourne afternoon and get an insight into her experience getting published, the intricacies of writing from the perspective of a young person, and what advice she would give aspiring authors.
What inspired you to write Little Stones?
I grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe before moving to Perth with my mum. Little Stones is inspired by many of my formative childhood experiences. When I first arrived in Australia, I struggled a bit to fit in and definitely felt a disconnect between myself and my peers. But I was still quite young, and I think kids are generally pretty malleable. The longer I spent in Australia, the more I felt I belonged, which was undoubtedly a good thing. The tough part was feeling as though I had lost a little part of myself. My accent became warped, I started calling swimming cozzies ‘bathers’ and flip-flops ‘thongs’, I picked up on all the pop-culture references. I even started very half-heartedly barracking for a football team (Go Freo!)
But there was something missing. There was stuff from my past I couldn’t talk about with my peers because they either didn’t care or didn’t understand. Writing about my childhood was really incredibly cathartic and it was through that process I felt I was able to reconnect with my past.
What was your journey like getting published by UQP?
Little Stones began as a 3000-word short story for a creative writing unit I took in my undergrad. It was published in Voiceworks in 2014, and off the back of that I was asked to read an excerpt at the Wheeler Centre’s ‘The Next Big Thing’.
My current publisher, Aviva Tuffield, sent me an email the following morning to express her interest in my writing and asked me to keep her in mind should I produce anything in the future. Several years later, when I had a rough MS draft of Little Stones, she was the first person I reached out to. And the rest is history. The UQP team, including Aviva, have been incredibly lovely and supportive. It’s evident that they are a group of people with a genuine passion for great storytelling.
How much of the narrative in Little Stones is influenced by your own experience growing up in Zimbabwe?
The descriptions of place come from my own observations and memories. I had already started work on the book when I returned to Zim for a holiday in 2017, so I was able to draw upon my childhood as well as my visit home as an adult to create the world of the novel. The characters in Little Stones are inspired by the types of Zimbabweans I’ve met over the years – friends, family members, fleeting acquaintances. No character is a substitute for a real person, but each of the characters possess certain behaviours or points of view that I’ve been witness to. Many of the experiences detailed in the novel (waiting in petrol queues, rampant power cuts, robberies) are mirrored in my own life, but they certainly aren’t unique to me either.
Why did you choose Hannah, a young girl, as your protagonist? What was it like having to write from the perspective of an eleven-year-old?
I think that the use of a young protagonist allowed for a more powerful and evocative novel. The reader is able to connect with Hannah’s personal story and relive some of the magic of childhood naiveté, while still obtaining insights of the broader socio-political context from things Hannah overhears the adults around her discussing, things she sees on the news, and sometimes from her direct observations.
Sometimes it was tricky because I would feel a desire to insert myself and my opinions into the story. Part of this came from a fear that the reader may take Hannah’s uncritical worldview at face value. I had to remind myself that Hannah is 11 and not yet capable of having a sophisticated and nuanced view of race or gender politics. As tempting as it was to overexplain, or have Hannah indulge in some heavy-handed moral retrospection, I knew I should be giving the reader more credit. We also see Hannah slowly beginning to unpack her privilege and explore some of these ideas as the narrative progresses, but in a way that stays true to her age.
Did you have any rituals for when you were writing Little Stones?
I know some authors have very particular writing habits, but I’m content to work just about anywhere at any time. I started on the manuscript when I was road-tripping with my family in South Africa and would be typing away in the back of the van as a way to pass the time on particularly long journeys. When the final edits came around, I was working as a paralegal and would try sneak in whatever writing I could manage during my lunch break. No discernible rituals here.
Most writers are inspired by the works of other writers. Whose work truly hit home with you?
NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is one of my favourite books and something I came back to when thinking about what I wanted to achieve with Little Stones. I read it years ago, when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The book spoke to me not just because it was about Zimbabwe, but because of the clever writing and Bulawayo’s ability to retain the young protagonist Darling’s innocence whilst also making the reader privy to the realities external to her perspective. As a reader, the clash of both worlds can create a really impactful experience. Bulawayo infused the book with a lot of joy and humour as well, which is what I hoped to do with my own young protagonist and my book. I basically wrote the type of book that I enjoy reading – I’m not sure I could’ve spent three years of my life on it otherwise.
Do you have plans to write more books? Any work possibly inspired by your life?
While there is no work in progress, I’m still writing short stories. It’s how Little Stones started out – so you never know, I may create something that demands to be turned into a book one day.
I tend to draw heavily on various aspects of my life to create believable worlds and people (write what you know!) and I definitely haven’t depleted all the creative resources from my childhood memories just yet, so it’s certainly possible.
What would we catch you doing now?
I’m currently in the second year of my law degree, so studying usually consumes a lot of my time. It’s probably no surprise that I’m a big reader and always have a book on the go (currently Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women). I also have a genuine passion for a breadth of creative arts and like to spend my time making the most of all Melbourne has to offer in that sphere. For example, I’m super excited for Fringe this year and have even booked to see three shows in one night!
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing. Becoming a good writer isn’t some transcendental gift bestowed upon a select few from above. It’s a craft and a skill that you can only get better at by continuing to work on it. Your first drafts will probably be awful and that’s okay. Don’t let it deter you. The first piece I submitted to Voiceworks was not chosen for publication. If I had taken that as a sign to give up, or an indication of my potential, I wouldn’t have submitted a second time, and the piece that morphed into Little Stones wouldn’t have been published.
We’re also thrilled to be able to bring you an excerpt from Little Stones thanks to the University of Queensland Press.
Nana removed the coil of sausage meat from its packaging, made some room in the pan next to the onions, and began to cook it. Boerewors was my most favourite meal ever. I looked forward to farm visits because of all the good food I’d get to eat, as well as the giant helpings of attention Nana and Grandpa gave me as their only grandchild. During dinner, Nana, Grandpa and Mum started talking about the Warvets again. The Warvets were a big family who wanted to steal farms from everyone in Zimbabwe, and these days almost every conversation would end up being about them. Well, either them or petrol. But this conversation across the dining table was the fifth time today the Warvets had come up and I was getting worried.
‘Mum …’ I began, but no-one seemed to hear me.
‘They’ve taken all the land in Norton, now they’re hitting Kadoma,’ Grandpa said.
‘Aren’t Cliff and Sharon in Kadoma?’
‘Mum,’ I insisted. ‘I don’t want us to give our farm away to another family.’
‘Another family?’ Mum sought clarification.
Mum looked around the room, first at Nana, then Grandpa, and let out a sigh. She explained to me that the War Vets were not an extended family. They were a large group of people called the ‘War Veterans’ who mobilised to take back what they saw as their land.
‘What does veteran mean?’ I asked.
‘A veteran is someone who used to fight in an army, so … someone who used to be a soldier, for example.’
‘So the War Veterans are soldiers?’ Some part of me must have wondered how one family alone held the power to demand farmland, but if they were soldiers … well, that made sense.
‘Not quite. Well, some of them are, or were.’
‘Will the War Veterans come here?’ I asked.
‘No, of course not. Of course not,’ Mum said.
‘How do you know?’
‘They won’t come here …’ Mum looked over to Grandpa again. ‘By the way, Dad, wow, this boerewors is delicious. Is this from Rodger’s Butcher’s?’
‘The one and only,’ he replied.
‘Delicious,’ Mum repeated, cutting up some more of the sausage and placing it into her mouth, making an mmm noise of approval.
For the rest of the meal, the only sound was cutlery scraping across plates and Grandpa asking me to pass a jug of water from the other side of the table. And the whole time I wondered what would happen if these soldiers who fought in the war ended up coming to our farm.
This is an extract from Little Stones by Elizabeth Kuiper, published by UQP.
Little Stones is available on the official UQP website and leading bookstores.