Tuesday, May 25, 2010

“I am right handed but left footed” : BRIAN CHIKWAVA

The UK based Zimbabwean writer, Brian Chikwava won the Caine Prize for African writing, Africa's highest literary award for his short story "Seventh Street Alchemy". In February 2010 his debut novel, Harare North won the Outstanding First Creative Published Work category in Zimbabwe’s National arts Merit Awards (NAMA). In March 2010 Harare North alongside Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly was among the books selected for the Orwell Prize longlist.

The weaverpress website describes Chikwava’s debut novel: Fearlessly political, laugh-out-aloud funny and with an anti-hero whose voice is impossible to forget… When he lands in ‘Harare North’, our unnamed protagonist carries with him nothing but a cardboard suitcase full of memories and a desire to find his childhood friend, Shingi. In this astonishing debut novel, Caine Prize winner Brian Chikwava tackles head-on the realities of life as an asylum-seeker. This is the story of a stranger in a strange land – one of the thousands of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants seeking a better life in England. But our narrator has a past he is determined to hide. From the first line the language fizzes with energy, humour and not a little menace.

Below is the interview that I did with him. I really wanted to take him to the basics and find out what makes him tick.

Memory Chirere: At the Oxford Harare North launch in May 2009, I asked you from the audience, “What do you anticipate to be the kind of response to your book back in Harare?” You said, “Laughter.” Now, Harare has responded and you have won a NAMA award. Congratulations. I was in the audience during NAMA and there was a huge applause as somebody received the prize on your behalf. I didn’t know you had so many fans and readers in Harare. Any special messages?

Brian Chikwava: Was very pleasantly surprised and must thank the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe for the good work they are doing. Such surprises make writing a bit more bearable.

MC: To the reading public, you first appeared with the short story ‘Seventh Street alchemy’, in Writing Still, 2003. There is no trail of you before that. How were you made?

BC: I started off trying my hand not at fiction but visual art reviews. That was after I joined the short-lived Zimbabwe Art Critics Association. After learning how to write a review, I thought I may as well try the short story and poetry. I had to ditch poetry quickly because I feel shockingly well off what was acceptable.

MC: It is also reported that you were ‘once a member of the now defunct Zimbabwe association of Art Critics’. What was all that about?

BC: The Zimbabwe Art Critics Association had the noble hope of getting more art enthusiasts to engage with art. Those who felt moved to try their hand at art reviews were given a guiding hand and sometimes with the help of Barbara Murray, then editor of Gallery Delta Magazine, ended up with their work in the Herald or the Daily News.

MC: It is said that you collaborated with some of Harare’s upcoming Jazz musicians then. Who are these musicians and what instrument do you play?

BC: Oh yes, we did mess about trying overly ambitious experiments that we had to abandon in exhaustion. A number of the experimentally inclined people who are now scattered across the globe leapt in; the likes of ex-Luck Street Blues Pascal Makonese; Noble Mashawa, briefly of Andy Brown’s Storm; the long-suffering Luka Mukavele who kindly gave us use of his recording studio, and his Mozambiquean compatriot, drummer Suleiman Saide.

MC: You recorded and released Jacaranda Sketches. What is this about?

BC: I sometimes think it was only a platform for trying out new things in the then new London environment. But for a number of reasons, I’m increasingly terrified of even listening to it now since it demonstrates to me how capricious good judgment can be – one year you think you have, and the next you are shocked by the choices you made.

MC: You are a Science major, writer and musician. Is this a mixed quest? Are you ambidextrous?

BC: Unfortunately not. But I am right handed but left footed.

MC: So far I have seen all your stories in group anthologies: Seventh Street Alchemy, Zesa Moto Muzhinji, Fiction, Dancing To The Jazz and His Goblin Rhythm (my favourite) and others. What is your relationship with the short story form and should we expect an anthology?

BC: I’ve been thinking about an anthology but somehow feel terrified of making a start. That’s because I find stories a bit of a tight rope walk. Hopefully I will rediscover the courage.

MC: Harare North, your debut novel has been applauded for ‘experimenting with language’. Ikhide Ikheloa says you use ‘pretend-language’, back in Harare, Irene Staunton says you use ‘patios’. My students wonder what you wanted to achieve because “Zimbabweans are well known for their ability to speak English.” In what circumstances did you decide to abandon the standard English language you used in the short stories?

BC: I tried standard English and it just didn’t work. The manuscript read stilted and the character had inhabit. That’s when I thought of – is it Achebe, I can’t remember? – who talks about bending the English language in order to make it carry the weight of the African experience. The language that I use in Harare North is not a true language in the sense that it is not spoken on the streets of Zimbabwe, but I believe it expresses the Zimbabwean sensibility better than standard English.

MC: Harare North has been referred to as being ‘fearlessly political’ and for being laugh-out-loud funny’. What did it take to maintain the various balances that one finds in this novel?

BC: I think you can properly inhabit a character, a lot of things fall into place and you cast aside the eye that constantly makes judgments and concentrate on only making it a decent piece of art.

MC: This might be too personal, but at how many points, if any, does your path and that of your main character come together?

BC: No, not at all. The story genuinely crystallized after I met an ex-Lord’s Resistance Army guy on the street. We had a chat and he told me how he missed his past life, how he missed holding his AK47. At first I thought it was all a joke but quickly realized he was serious. More than anything I was struck by his stance, knowing how un-pc it is to confess to loving the LRA. So I though, well, why not create a Green Bomber who comes to London and is just as unyielding in his beliefs.

MC: In Harare North the characters go through stubborn pride and ironically, shame and self loathing too. Is this the psychology of exile?

BC: In the right dose, stubborn pride is good if one is an exile, I think. But what I also did not want to do is to fall into representing Africans in exile as objects of pity, which they commonly are in the media. As for self-loathing, I guess that can be the price one pays for a rigid approach to life.

MC: Again the students wondered whether you are saying home is better than exile in spite of the sociopolitical and economic challenges in Zimbabwe? In Harare North, the diasporans are clearly marooned. The kusina amai hakuendwe (foreign land is hostile) message is very clear but the dzoka uyamwe (home is best) message is missing.

BC: Yes, that message is missing because I could not do that without being didactic. But I also think that the question of home vs exile is complex and requires a nuanced approach.

MC: What have you learnt from doing and reading Harare North yourself?

BC: I’ve probably been demoralised to realize how much I’ll have to do before I can write a book that is anywhere near perfect.

MC: What should we expect from you soon?

BC: Ndiriku wunganidza tunhu twangu – miseve, pfumo, nembwa. After that, chamuka inyama. (I am quietly putting together something.)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ruzvidzo Stanley Mupfudza (an Obituary by Memory Chirere)

Ruzvidzo.You cannot go just like that. I only learnt about it a day after when I phoned the guys at BWAZ over an otherwise happy matter. I didn’t know you had been ill in hospital. For over six months you were unreachable. You had suddenly disappeared from the social scene. This was not the first time that you disappeared from the scene.

You took a very quick and solitary exit.

A week before your death, I bumped into Ignatius Mabasa at an Avondale ice cream shop and he said he had seen you! He said you had talked. And as the kids ran around, licking their ice cream and bantering amongst themselves, Ignatius said you said that you felt that most of what you had written in the past was rather bleak and you were reworking some of your unpublished stories and poems (and novels too) because you now realized that, after all, life was a positive thing. We were impressed and were almost certain that one full volume of your work would eventually come out.

And now-this!

Is this the end of the end? Always the more courageous, I hope you faced your end with courage.

We first met in 1991 at the University of Zimbabwe. We went to English, History and Economic History classes together. One afternoon you came to my room NCI F105. Being a day scholar, you wanted somewhere quiet to sit and do some work. I went down to the foyer to pick the 4 pm tea. (To think they served free teas then!) When I came back with two cups, (yours and mine) you said you didn’t take tea!

We were strangers then. As I slowly went through the two cups, you said you had heard from people that I sometimes scribbled some poems and stories. You also wondered why I was reluctant to be referred to as a writer. I am not published yet, I said. You laughed loud and long and I thought you were a proud little fellow.

A writer does not need to publish to be called a writer, you argued. A writer writes, you added. Later, I got to see your point.

Then I asked about your totem and your roots and you argued that totems tended to take us backward. Totems were old things. You said that you were a cosmopolitan man, something like that. I quietly sympathized with you! This is in contrast to recent times when you became a fierce Pan Africanist and an avid follower of African traditions.

It is about this time that you began to say you wanted to be free. You said it regularly and pompously too and it began to overflow into your seminar presentations in class. We laughed at it: Dudziro Nhengu, Nhamu Tamari, Khumbulani Phiri and I. Can anyone in this world be free, we wondered. You even talked about being a ‘free spirit’ and that became your nickname.

You quarreled bitterly with those who taught us ‘Literature and Socialism’ and ‘Theories of Literature’ and we asked you to be careful because that was a sure way of failing. But, strangely, they let you off the hook for things all of us could have been punished. To demonstrate your desire for freedom, you started attending a certain meditative oriental art form somewhere on Pendennis Road. You said your lady instructor taught you self defence, and soul searching. You said you were being taught to see the world ‘from inside one’s soul’. You developed a distant look in your eyes that never left you. The way a bird looks into space after taking a sip of water from the trough.

Then a few months later you suddenly changed and joined the Shorin Ryu Karate club on campus.

We began to take writing more seriously. We joined the writing class conducted by Chenjerai Hove the writer- in- residence then. There were many of us in there: Nhamo Mhiripiri, Ignatius Mabasa, Joyce Mutiti, Emmanuel Sigauke, Zvisinei Sandi, Thabisani Ndlovu, Eresina Hwede and others. Our mentor had just won the Noma Award but behaved like he had just simply sold a goat. Hove listened as we read out our stories. Then he would close his eyes, hold his chest and say: ‘Vapfanha, writing comes from here’. We laughed at that but up until your death; we slowly awakened to the message behind that riddle. You will remember my story in which a writer’s book causes a revolution! I had set the story in South America. Why did I hope to succeed with a story set in unfamiliar lands? Naivety.

Then there was the trip that the three of us; Ignatius Mabasa, you and I made to Bulawayo on the invitation of author Chiedza Musengezi. She was working on a script for a children’s book and she wanted us ‘to tear it apart’. What a weekend! It was our first time in Bulawayo.

For a couple of days we chatted deep into the night, reading out loud and critiquing one another’s works. Then on a Sunday morning Chiedza asked us to ‘just go out and see Bulawayo for yourselves.’ That was good. But as soon as we got to a bar in a semi industrial area near Malindela, you and I (because Ignatius does not drink) had one, two and maybe three each and Ignatius reminded us that we needed to move on.

You refused flatly. You said you wanted to see the soul of Bulawayo because there was much of it in this bar and we should hang around longer. We quarreled bitterly and this is the closest that you and I ever came close to blows.

We dragged you out as you held an unfinished pint. I said nasty things about you and you retaliated. Finally Ignatius intervened when in fact, he had caused the altercation himself by suggesting we move on. He and I went out to explore Bulwayao and you stubbornly walked back into the bar. Later, you said you had walked out too and explored Bulawayo all by yourself. We met again in the evening at Chiedza’s place. Strangely, we were all cheerful and I think to this day, Chiedza has not learnt about this.

After UZ, I went to teach at Chipindura High in Bindura and you went to Oriel Boys High. During one of my visits, I noticed that your students 'worshipped' you. Their teacher was a celebrity. You had written a very powerful article in the Moto magazine about the sticking point of race relations in Zimbabwe. There was uproar in academic circles. You were in the papers and on tv. Judith Todd herself paid you a visit at home to congratulate you.

You allowed your pupils some liberties which other teachers did not. You asked them to think freely. No wonder that some of your former students like Mabasa Sasa later became your workmates. I began to look forward to a novel because I think you had many such scripts.

You were a self confessed admirer of Dambudzo Marechera. In an article in The Herald of 2 May 2001, page 7, you admit that you had ‘once walked in the shadow of Marechera’ before finally finding your own voice. You proceed: ‘Now, I am grown, I have not stopped questing for and exploring new horizons… the roads and the journeys I take are mine and not Marechera’s. Whereas he would balk at the thought of being leveled ‘an African writer', I have become a fierce Pan Africanist.'

From Marechera, you adopted a hypnotic and intense writing style. But as evident in your stories like ‘The eyes of a walk’ and ‘Mermaid out of the rain’, you adopted a fusion of Marechera with the charmed realism of Allende and Marquez. There is a suggestion that you felt that while Marechera was brilliant, he needed to dig deeper and benefit more from African folk, myth and wisdom.

I think your days at the Ibbo Mandaza's Mirror Group of papers will always stand out. You were the Acting Editor of the Sunday Mirror for a long time. You wrote lengthy articles under the title 'Muhera Wekwa Pfumojena'.You wrote about the return to Guruuswa, the return to Gomba rekwaNyashanu. This was no simple mythical quest.

You wanted to say, I think, that we need to return to the source. Not to go back to matehwe and nhembe, but to go back and reconnect with our upward thrust in history. To go back and pick again those values and qualities which are enduring and timeless, in order to face the present.

For me this was the most dramatic stretch in your life. The Sunday Mirror was something to look forward to. With a crop writers like Mabasa Sasa, Laura Chiweshe, Phillip Chidavaenzi, Trust Khosa and others, you were destined for great heights. Yes, there was also the Scrutator! You gave more space to the Arts and features in a way that has no comparison to this day in Zimbabwe.

I remember that you bought various sets of mbiras and placed them along your guitar in your study and learnt to play both at the same time. You started to draw too, having felt that maybe the written word was inadequate on its own.

You bought an expensive walking stick and appeared with it in public. One day at the Throgmorton internet café (Coner Julius Nyerere and Samora Machel), you cut a sharp figure; dreadlocked, brandishing the walking stick, clad in a three piece suit and a long snuff horn protruding from your pocket. After the usual greetings you went across the intersections and walked straight to the Mirror. I really felt that you had arrived.

You were against one super way of viewing the spiritual. You also liked the bible, particularly the Old Testament. I remember finding you reading it in your office, explaining to a charmed colleague that God is manifest in all cultures and that the devil of the Christians is not necessarily the devil of all the non christians.

You wrote about biras that you had attended in Mhondoro, Nyashanu and Guruve and even Mbare itself! In one BWAZ workshop that you conducted, it is said you knelt down and prayed to the ancestors for guidance with the workshop. All were stunned. Now people called you by your totem, ‘Mhofu’. Your new found quest opened you up and gone was my ‘antitotem’ boy of the early 1990’s. You apologized for what you had said about totems way back in 1991. I forgave you.

Then we went to Bindura to attend a Marechera commemoration one August day in 2004. It was arranged by one Ngoma of Shimmer, a policeman and a member of the BWAZ. There were a lot of readings. There was a lot of sunshine and inspiration.

But when we decided to return to Harare that evening, a curse fell on us. It took us over seven hours to travel the 88kms between Harare and Bindura. For over four hours, we did not get a lift to Harare. We decided to hitch hike to Glandale. We hoped to get better chances because Glendale connects Harare and Bindura and Harare and Chiweshe. We got a few beers from the nearby shopping centre and came back to the main road. For hours on end there was not lift for Harare! We decided to light a fire. We even went back to buy more beers and came back and rekindled our fire.

Past midnight and all the songs we had sung were exhausted. From nowhere, a spooky truck carrying cattle came along and we jumped in among the calves and the cows.

As we drove away, you looked back at our lone midnight fire and said, ‘I am sure he is now alone by the fire, poor man.” Without asking, I knew you were referring to Marechera. Most Marechera events have a tendency to be accompanied by some mishaps, you said. I remember that when I got down at Second street shops, you continued to the city centre. You phoned an hour later saying you had got a kombi to Southerton but picked a quarrel with somebody inside there and ended up getting down and walking all the way to Southerton and now you were not in bed but perched on a bar stool, drinking in good familiar company. I laughed and switched off.

Ruzvidzo, Free Spirit, you know too well that I have lots of respect for you.

Friday, May 7, 2010

a Ruzvidzo Mupfudza poem

In 2006 the late Ruzvidzo Mupfudza (in picture) gave me about ten poems for an anthology that I was building. Now, here is one of them:

Hard Choices
(By Ruzvidzo Mupfudza)
When you've come face to face with Death unmasked
Or, at least, what in your terrified mind approximates
The visage of the Grim Slayer
You think of all the chances you've had
But foolishly watched as they slipped away

You hear again the call:
Seize the moment! Seize the moment! Seize the moment!
Yet you did not, you preferred instead
To slowly adjust your mental microscope
And analyse the moment in minute detail

Well, while you adjusted the lense, the moment vanished
Now as the Grim Reaper leaves, he scars your face and heart
Sunken cheeks, bloodshot eyes, ashen face
You realise and resolve never to laugh away
Chances and opportunities, half or otherwise
Never again to sneer at the open window
In favour of the brick wall

Ruzvidzo Mupfudza... a picture to remember

I will soon do an obituary for my friend, writer Ruzvidzo Mupfudza who sadly passed on on 3 May 2010. In the picture above, it is a July weekend of 1993 and we are in Chiedza Musengezi's house in Malindela, Bulawayo.We are downing some wine after a good supper. The late Ruzvidzo Mupfudza is the dreadlocked man. I am in a UZ track top. Ignatius Mabasa is holding his chin.Our host has a white head scarf. We have taken time off from UZ where we are reading for our first degrees. Chiedza wants us to evaluate her new scripts and (as she says) 'tear them apart'. For the three of us, this is our first time in Bulawayo. We, who are living will not forget this weekend out in Bulawayo.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Isa maoko kumusana
uve munhu kwaye.



chiburitsa rurimi

(naMemory Chirere)