Below, Phillip Chidavaenzi (PC) interviews award-winning author and journalist Stanley Mushava (SM) about Mushava’s creative methods and about his forthcoming poetry collection called Rhyme and Resistance. His first poetry collection, Survivors Café won The Outstanding Fiction NAMA award in 2018.
PC: How does you creative process work?
SM: I start with a feeling. Let's say love, sadness or settling scores with the system. Once I am aware of the feeling I want in ink, I become restless until it's captured. I am picturing Genesis 1:2. All the elements are in place but out of alignment and the Spirit of God is sweeping over the chaos, gathering beauty and order out the mess. That chaos, that's the cultural energy spread across my head which I must channel into a creation.
PC: So, this pushes you into a creative mode?
SM: Writing becomes a state of unrest until I have brought out this allusion, that double entendre, this rhyme, that metaphor to capture the feeling. Only then can my mind enter its Sabbath. These days, I take a meditative walk. By the time I sit down, I am no longer writing but just typing the poem or essay.
PC: You blend music and literature a lot. Where is the connection?
SM: Literature is state of mind; music is soundtrack of life. When I was in university, this brother at the house where I was renting would take a speaker with him into the garden and blast away as he worked all day in the sun. I wanted to know why he was such a loud neighbour and he answered that music was his way of taking his mind off unfulfilled dreams.
PC: You were tempted to try that out?
SM: Well, I had mine all figured out and I would be happy to be left out of his theory. Till I had to rummage through Gramma Records and YouTube for jit and sungura to help me cope with underemployment and alienation three years later.
PC: So that's how music ended up a part of your literary staple?
SM: My attachment to music could be habit-forming already, though I am still a good neighbour. When you look at my poetry, alienation is a sprawling theme and music is a sort of anti-depressant and also the underdog's reply to the system's post-truth stories.
PC: One also sees this thread in your latest publication...
SM: My new book, Rhyme and Resistance, is densely allusive to Zimbabwean music, Tembo, Mapfumo, Lannas, Skuza, Majaivana, Zakaria, Chimbetu, Zhakata, basically most genres from 1970s Chimurenga to 2019 Zimdancehall. That's because they are dope and I am celebrating them but this right here is a pun. The great Zimbabwean songwriters have much to say that connects with the alienated millennial condition. We need the music so that we don't feel the weight of the stones on our backs. More importantly, we need the music as we roll back the stones to the slavemasters.
PC: How do the two art forms relate in your works?
SM: I am into concept poems that I solidify by soaking up all the cultural materials available to me. When I wrote 'Oliver Mtukudzi', for example, I was waiting for my cousin in a beer garden, and the bartender was playing classic after classic by the legend as he had just died. So the scene spreads out in my head. Tuku isn't born yet. He is in Havilah, a heavenly city of the unborn, waiting to choose a country to get born in, and Masuku, Mapfumo, Madzikatire, Chimombe and Tembo are weaving in and out of the story as he decides. In a moment, I have typed out the story on my phone but it's actually nothing new. It's my pastiche of Tuku music, Mr. Nobody, the fantasy movie, Zimbabwean history and the Bible.
SM: Zimbabwean music is important to my literature because I am looking for something I got that the rest of the world doesn't. Something to flaunt as my unique cultural ID. The Bible, critical theory, the English language, the Olympian Twelve, the Romantics, the internet, global entertainment, that's priceless and you can put a finger on my poem and trace samples back to all that...
PC: And you believe that gives you a unique cutting edge?
SM: Well, that wouldn't make my work different from say a post-modernist, Marxist or Christian writing in Europe or America. I have to foreground my own heritage which is why Sungura and Chimurenga are in your face when I am in my element. Also the reason why I have started reading African, but mostly Zimbabwean, histories, romances and oratures lately. With sungura, it's really effortless. I hardly got any memories outside sungura, from infancy to young love and broke days.
PC: From what you are saying, one can rightly say music has played an essential role in your development as a writer?
SM: I owe much of my development as a writer to music – my idea of when a line sounds just right, breaking down sizeable ideas into pop consumables, speaking to the powerful on behalf of the poor. All that my literature represents today.
PC: In your latest, 87-page collection of 37 poems, Rhyme and Resistance, you have several pieces that speak to Zimbabwe’s so-called “new dispensation”. Can the artist be politically neutral?
SM: That's the format I put out to protest State brutality during the events of January. I have since expanded and newly released the book. I am a devotee of politics but not of politicians. I can't see why an artist has to be politically neutral. I am biased towards the poor against the rich, towards the weak against the strong, towards the outnumbered against the privileged. In a world where the institutions that are supposed to be neutral are bloated with the excesses of power, I can't afford the luxury of being neutral, especially since I am poor myself. If I make heaven, though, this will be a different interview. I am sure there will be no Uncle Sam, New Dispensation, Silicon Valley, employers, puppetmasters, eunuchs, automatons, snitches, devil-kissers and uniformed murderers in heaven. So there will be no one to be biased against.
PC: You trace your passion for creative writing to primary school. What were your beginnings like? What and who were the influences?
SM: In primary school, I am the mission-bred introvert who would rather watch TV, make cuttings from the sports pages, read a novel or hire a movie than go out to play. I am terrible at chikweshe so I am mostly indoors. I like to micromanage content, buy notebooks with money for sweets and try books that I am not supposed to read yet. So I start soaking up culture, getting 'secondary' spellings right and thinking in English much earlier than my peers. In the house, there is a sizeable collection of novels and plays.
PC: What and who were the influences?
SM: I read Jekanyika, Sungai Mbabvu and Nhetembo in Grade 2 and never stop from there. Chine Manenji Hachifambisi, Kuridza Ngoma neDemo, Pfumoreropa, Rovambira, Tambaoga, Rurimi Inyoka, Ndinofa Ndaedza, the plays of Willie Chigidi and my uncle Janfeck Chekure's Rudo NdiMashingise are some of my earliest exposures so you can say I get my orientation mostly from crime fiction and old-world novels. And then the children's books, the folktales, the music, the Holy Childhood books from the Catholic Church, the crazy appetite for sports pages, the recitation of Ignatius Mabasa on closing day, the reverence for Renias Mashiri as I am starting to get serious with poetry. Whenever my father gets to drink a little, he likes to tell melancholic stories about how he overcame impossible poverty to become the first teacher in the family, how he got fined by the headman for flashing him with the village's first zinc roof. My mother is the neighbouring headman's daughter who got to witness stonings of puruvheyas during Second Chimurenga pungwes hosted by my grandfather and the persecution of her parents by Rhodesian soldiers.
PC: I can see the creative leanings began so early...
SM: Yes, and then it's still a thing for the sisters on the nurse-aide block to exchange Pacesetters and Shona novels and most get passed down to me. So I grow up overwhelmed by stories. From there my sister starts brings her Shona and Literature in English setbooks to holidays. In Grade 7 I start writing uncommissioned compositions, one rearranged off her copies of I Will Marry When I Want and Waiting for the Rain, one off Alexander Kanengoni's short story, 'The Loneliness of the No. 11 Player', and Zimbabwean refixes of newly imperial Nollywood. My composition book is taken to high school so that I am always meeting someone in disbelief of my age. From 2003 to date, I am always in anthology mode.
PC: Some readers feel sometimes your writing is not so easy to penetrate. Are you a "Marecheraen", so to speak?
SM: You know I could also write an essay called 'Me and Dambudzo', no homo. That's a defining influence on my work and, as with a number of fellow writers, I guess, my high school nickname. In 2004, my first year in high school, I am restless till I get my hands on a magazine I haven't read so that my father is always finding his things upside down. My biggest find is a prose poem extracted from The Black Insider by Moto, and the 'Dambudzo Marechera Was Bad' and 'Dambudzo Marechera Was Mad' columns by Chigango Musandireve (David Mungoshi) and Leonard Murwisi (I hope I remember the name right). That extract is photographically framed in my head and, along with Ikem's prose poem in Anthills of the Savannah, forms my bible of esoteric writing. It doesn't help that I soon meet more Marechera, Hove, Joyce, Eliot, poetry-writing Soyinka and other writers who tend to leave the reader out of their calculations at the Dewure High library. I love the cultural and philosophical intelligence in Marechera's work. He is the first writer from whom I branch out to other writers. In that regard, you could say I am 'Marecheran.'
PC: I love the way you use rhyme in your poetry, and still put across your theme strongly. Does this happen automatically or it’s something you have trained yourself to do?
SM: I started using rhyme in Form 3 as I was reading the Romantic and the Metaphysical poets. I was hearing that it's an English form that African writers had outgrown but all I cared for was the beauty and cadence it gave my poetry. My earliest surviving poems are Christian poems from A Level where I was, I think, comfortably using different rhyme schemes. I only resumed using rhyme in 2017 when I stumbled into the DAMN. album and became a rap initiate. I have tried originally patterning my own rhyme schemes, though I can't be too sure it's not something out there already.
PC: You have a publication titled Survivors Café? Why that title? What was the inspiration?
SM: My response to that keeps changing so I am probably not sure. It could be that I was surviving hard times when I wrote the book or maybe that just sounded nice to me. My most recent claim was that Survivors Café is a ghetto public sphere, which gels well with the Chitungwiza poems in the book and the vision behind my Underclass Books and Films label. Whichever way, I feel there is still something to retrieve from the title. Readers will probably do a better job.
PC: Is there a chance that we will see a novel from you, beyond the poetry and other short pieces?
SM: I try to write every now and then. Chapter 1 becomes a prose poem; Chapter 2 comes out weaker; Chapter 3 never happens. Since 2016, though, I have been sitting on a story outline that I hope to turn into a novel this year.
PC: You had a project planned with the comeback kid of local music, Michael Lannas. What became of it?
SM: We are working on something.
PC: Do you suppose projects of such kind, where writers and musicians come together to produce something, are feasible?
SM: Certainly. Some of the world's most influential literature is performance in transcript. Homer, Shakespeare, Tagore, Dylan... A case has been made about Illmatic and good kid m.A.A.d city being great American novels. When I listen to Lannas, Leonard Zhakata or Biggie Tembo, those are great Zimbabwean poets who happen to sing. There could just as easily write poems; and poets could just as easily write songs.
PC: Which artistes or writers have inspired you the most, and in what ways?
SM: That would be mostly writers and musicians. I can easily think of Alain Mabanckou for the sardonic tone in my political poems, Guy Debord for disaffection with the unreality of modern life, Leonard Zhakata for sustained opposition to the control system, Tocky Vibes as an example of hard work and original artistic vision, Bertolt Brecht for trenchant critiques of power that come across deceptively mythic. I can't forget my spiritual father, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, how he navigates conviction in a sea of complicated information. I guess it's the same reason why I got to be a K Dot stan.
PC: You describe your journalism as cultural. What does that mean?
SM: I decode culture and the transactions of power within it. My latest NewsDay piece, for example, marshals Marxism to analyse Zimbabwean love songs.
PC: What’s your take on the future of writing in Zimbabwe?
SM: The future is dope. Younger writers are naturally coming from a wider cultural base and have a lot to say about our condition. It's a pity our stagnant book industry and unrewarding economy suffocate new talent but we are pressing on. It's game on in the survivors café.
PC: Thank you, Stan. This has really been wonderful! All the best in your future artistic endeavours.
© Phillip Chidavaenzi (2019)