the story behind my stories
Who is Tanvir Bush?
I am a novelist and film-maker/photographer. Born in London, I moved with my family to Zambia in the early ‘70’s. Although educated back in England from the age of ten, I returned to Zambia whenever I could, fully intending to move there permanently. However, after completing a first degree in English, Theatre and Film, I was given the life-changing diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa (R.P.), a degenerative eye condition, which would eventually cause me to rethink my future. Initially though, the possibility that I might lose my sight did not deter me from training in film production at the Northern School of Film and TV, Leeds.
I returned to Lusaka in 1999 and set up the Willie Mwale Film Foundation, working with minority communities, street-kids and people affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. My feature documentary ‘Choka!- Get Lost!’ was nominated for Most Distinguished Film and the Pare Lorenz Award for social activism in film by the International Documentary Association in 2001.
In 2005, when I could no longer pretend that my deteriorating sight was not making my life in Zambia extremely difficult, I returned to the UK to study, write and explore photography. Becoming severely sight impaired has been tough, frustrating and occasionally frightening but I have also gained so much on this journey, finding insight into my own strengths and weaknesses, witnessing great kindness and unconditional support from family, friends and colleagues and discovering my own unique voice and love of writing, teaching and research.
‘Tanvi’ is short for Tanvir
My first novel Witch Girl was published under the name Tanvi Bush by Modjaji Books, Cape Town in 2015, although I now use my full given name, Tanvir, for all professional purposes. I used Tanvir Bush to publish my second novel Cull via Unbound in January 2019.
In all that I do, I am supported and inspired by two things; my Buddhist practice — I am a Nicherin Buddhist — and my guide dog, Grace. Grace’s arrival in my life in 2009 was a major factor in pulling me out of the creeping isolation visual impairment can cause. Her innate wisdom, steady friendship, and pure enjoyment of life are the inspiration behind the voice of Chris the guide dog in my novel Cull, and “Dogtor Grace Bones” who occasionally shows up on my Holey Vision blog!
Choka! – Get Lost!
This is an original documentary shot in 2000, about a gang of street children in Lusaka, Zambia, most of them HIV/AIDS orphans. With unparalleled access and great sensitivity, the film follows the children through a typical day, as they play, scavenge, beg, survive and dream of a better future.
Shot over five months with the collaboration of the street-children and communities of Lusaka, Zambia, this film was selected by the International Documentary Association (L.A.) for Most Distinguished Film and The Pare Lorenz Award for Social Activism in Film in 2001.
Although Witch Girl and Cull have completely different settings and ethos, reflecting the two very different countries that have nurtured me, there are some clear linking themes. Strong female protagonists, for instance. Also, societal blind spots, the effects of discrimination, prejudice and stigma, resistance, resilience, commitment, loyalty and friendship against all odds. I have also tried, for both stories, to be as meticulous with my research as possible.
My undergraduate thesis on Zambian traditional dance included chapters on trance and shamanistic ritual and led me to research Zambian witchcraft. I met the famous witch doctor and witch finder Dr. Sansakowa and his terrifying entourage. Later, I sourced reportage and witness accounts from journalists, doctors, traditional healers, street children, church groups and others on various claims of HIV/AIDS cures, such as sleeping with virgins, blood transfusions, and cannibalism. There was endless material to draw on for Witch Girl! For more background, see Colorado State University’s Center for Literary Publishing’s Tanvir Bush Interview.
For Cull, a dark satire on the potential state-sponsored euthanasia of disabled and vulnerable people, my research was deeply personal, based in part on my own experience as a disabled “client” of the UK’s social welfare system. I supported this as much as possible with facts, figures, and wider reading on the language of dehumanisation and the escalation of prejudice with regard to the social empowerment or otherwise of the disabled and poor in contemporary England. For the rationale behind the creation of my protagonist for Cull, as well as a list of references, see my research paper on The Writing Platform: Blinding My Hero.
Although I had produced and directed short films and documentaries, it wasn’t until I accepted my retinitis pigmentosa and registered as severely sight-impaired in 2007 that I began developing a photographic voice. Initially, I explored conveying ‘how’ I saw, and how losing sight made me feel. I experimented with photographing through tin foil, bubble wrap, netting and water.
Later, I joined forces with Mexican NGO Ojos que Sienten A.C / Sight of Emotion and UK-based international charity PhotoVoice. I took part in two of their joint projects, ‘Beyond Sight’ and ‘Sights Unseen’. Gaining confidence as a sensory photographer, I began to facilitate workshops with visually impaired people and sighted enthusiasts.
In 2009, I won a bursary from Photovoice and shot the MacGyver Series in Zambia. Angus MacGyver, a resourceful secret agent, was the hero of a US TV series from the 80’s. He found his way out of scrapes through ingenious use of things found, like scrap metal and string, bubble-gum and wood etc. In Zambia, the word ‘MacGyver’ has entered the lexicon. It means ‘resourcefully pulled together’, as in ‘that guy’s car windscreen was cracked, but he macGyvered it with duct tape’, or ‘the wheel came off my bike, but I macGyvered it with a rubber strap and a sweet wrapper.’ To honour the remarkable ‘make do’ attitude in Zambia, my series, MacGyver, revolved around recycled objects like kites made from plastic bags, footballs from condoms, gym kits from scrap metal, etc.
For the last few years, my photography has taken a back seat to my writing, but is still an essential part of the way I communicate and express myself.
To find out more about sensory photography and how to run your own workshop, please visit Photovoice Sensory Photography .
My post-doctoral research interests are informed by my own experience of developing and growing as a creative writer and, through the creative process, as a person.
I am now an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and the designer and facilitator of the Corsham Creative Writing Laboratory initiative. In these roles and in future projects, I intend to deepen my research into the impact of creative writing on wellbeing and on the role of empathy in mitigating prejudice.