by Owen Sheers
Category: Biographies / General
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication date: 5 February 2004
Number of pages: 320
When Owen Sheers discovers a book in his father's study he stumbles upon the life of an obscure relative: Arthur Cripps, lyric poet and maverick missionary to Southern Rhodesia. Compelled by the description of Cripps' extraordinary life in Africa, Sheers embarks on a journey through contemporary Zimbabwe and into the secrets of the past in an attempt to better understand his ancestor's devotion to the country and its people and the dramatic, often bloody, differences that echo across the years. Arriving in Africa at the turn of the last century, Cripps leaves behind him a past he hopes to extinguish in the crucible of his self-sacrificial missionary work. After he establishes his own mission at Maronda Mashanu, Southern Rhodesia, the neighbouring European community soon grow suspicious of Cripps' unorthodox methods, and conflict with the British South Africa Company ensues - especially over the perennially contentious issue of land reform. Better understood by the Africans he lives with, Cripps devotes his life to defending their interests, walking and running for miles across the veld between settlements and serving as a chaplain in East Africa in the First World War. The Shona community name him Mpandi, 'The man who walks like thunder', and when Cripps dies, fifty years after his arrival in his adopted country, he is honoured at his funeral with the burial songs of a Shona Chief. The incredible story of Cripps' African legacy, Owen's travels in his footsteps and the volatile history of a nation are all told in a series of layered narratives that distort the boundaries between biography and fiction. Ranging from the dawn of the twentieth century to its close, "The Dust Diaries" is a richly peopled, bold and beautiful testimony - an investigation into the nature of love, loss, family and belonging, and the story of how one man's life can resonate down the years in the lives of others.
Owen Sheers was born in Fiji in 1974 and brought up in Abergavenny, South Wales. The winner of an Eric Gregory Award and the 1999 Vogue Young Writer's Award, his first collection of poetry, The Blue Book (Seren, 2000) was short-listed for the Welsh Book of the Year and the Forward Prize Best First Collection 2001. His debut prose work The Dust Diaries (Faber, 2004), a non-fiction narrative set in Zimbabwe, was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize and won the Welsh Book of the Year 2005. In 2004 he was Writer in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust and was selected as one of the Poetry Book Society's 'Twenty Next Generation Poets'. Owen's second collection of poetry, Skirrid Hill (Seren, 2005) won a 2006 Somerset Maugham Award and is a WJEC and AQA A level set text. Unicorns, almost his one man play based on the life and poetry of the WWII poet Keith Douglas was developed by Old Vic, New Voices. Owen's first novel, Resistance, has been translated into eight languages. His recent collaboration with composer Rachel Portman, The Water Diviner's Tale, an oratorio for children, was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms 2007. His essay Bomb Gone, about Britain's Christmas Island thermonuclear tests, appears in Granta 101. Owen is currently a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library.
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