Friday, January 27, 2012

Charles Mungoshi: How I came to write Waiting For The Rain

One of the worst things that can happen and often happens - to a writer is to fall into the doldrums, that scary place where nothing happens at all, yet you are screaming at the top of your voice, “I want to get out!” I have since heard it called a writer’s block, mental block or a creative block. The same thing, really. I didn’t know its name when I first came to it. (Now we are familiars!) I was so scared I sweated. I thought I would never write again.

Ndiko Kupindana Kwemazuva had just been published. And then I found myself completely dry. Each time I wrote something down, I quickly destroyed it in disgust. Anything I wrote looked like the worst thing I had done in my life. I became depressed. I was scared of my writing desk.

I would welcome any excuse to be away from that desk: trips away from home, a wedding party or an interesting movie, trips to the beer garden, anything that would get me away from that damned desk, I accepted with both hands. And to compound it all, there were people who said they liked my work. It seemed they were in cahoots to torture me. “What’s in the frying pan these days?” they would ask. Some people think that to a fiction writer lying is child’s play. I have found that it isn’t so, I answer, best as I can, “Myself!” They laugh, thinking: It’s one of his jokes again. It is not a joke but it is a relief to say this because it elicits some benevolent responses like, “It can’t be that bad!” or “Come on, we are waiting” from the audience.

The sympathetic remark may be quite welcome and will probably raise your morale/spirits but it won’t drag you to your office/house and force you to sit at that desk to face what you have to face alone.

What I am driving at is, leaving your desk starts at some point. The thing is not to leave your desk indefinitely. If you can only leave it physically and not psychologically or spiritually. One of the saddest experiences I have had (outside of myself) was to run into a fellow scribbler, who had not been at his desk since his first (and only?) book was published way back. “What’s cooking?” I asked him. He went on to describe this wonderful story which he was about to finish. When he finished, he said, he will be back with wings on. I ran into him again, two years later.“What’s cooking?” I asked. He went on to describe this wonderful story he was about to finish. When he finished, he said, he will be back with wings on. There is probably no medicine for this walking-away-from-your-desk disease, but we have to try our best. And the best we can do, I suppose, is to try and guard against walking away from our desk forever. Walking away from our desk because the story won’t move, or won’t come, because you have hit a black spot, you forced yourself into a cul-de-sac dead-end and you can’t go forward.

I suppose, like in all things, this becomes a very personal issue where the outsider, counsellors, ministers of religion, etc, can only shout from the bank, without throwing any ropes, while you drown. But, finally, the formula is still the same, as in all things: don’t walk away, don’t turn your back. You can take a walk, yes. Go see your grandmother or whoever is good at cheering you up in the family (or any of your friends), go and play a game of whatever you feel good at playing. (I strongly advise against drinking on your own, if you feel a strong despair about your failure to go forward in your writing). Above all, leave your mind alone! (I know only too well how easy that advice is to follow!)

As soon as you are refreshed, come back to your desk and look at your story again. Change a few things. If your story is 200 pages long do not worry. There is more where that came from. (More than you think, in fact!) You do not have to destroy it. (Although some do, including yours sincerely!) You can leave the story as it is for future reference or as a monument. Re-focus and start afresh. (If you can completely abandon a story and start on another one, the better. Unfortunately, some writers get so involved with the one story they are writing, they become so obsessed with it that they cannot do anything else. Please try to be patient and gentle with yourselves. Listen.)

If you feel you want to continue with your story but you just do not know how, then try to see how you have been presenting it all along. Try and see it as a whole. Unfortunately, if it is already 200 pages long, you cannot just graft a new approach into it; it has to grow ‘organically’ as it were. So you really have to begin at the beginning, you may find that you need to change its point of view.

Point of view is, simply, the way your story “interprets the world”. Who is talking? By changing who is talking in your a story, you are, lets hope, forced to see the same story through other eyes, as it were. It may be that the way you were proceeding with your story is getting beclouded, that you need to detach yourself a little, stand back at a distance and take a look at it, that you have got yourself so entangled in it you cannot tell whether one of the characters is not you! Or it is also possible that your enthusiasm in the story has plummeted to rock bottom. Any or all of these things are possible, and, usually, in such situations one of the most desirable things, one of the easiest things to do, is to cop out. Some walk away from their desks – forever. Some become too sensitive and defensive it’s hard to get any help-lines to them. And so on. And so on.

Well, here are some personal experiences.

I think there are now more than a comfortable number of people who have heard (from the horse’s own mouth, no less!) that there is a Shona novel in the pipeline. This must have come out some 15 or so years ago! I have got a manuscript whose ink is fossilling into the colour of a cave painting on page 116. That unfinished story sits there like a lesson to me. It was once a shame, an embarrassment, but it also taught me some things I would not have learned otherwise. Now, it has been absorbed into me, it has become part of me like all the aborted journeys I have ever embarked on, the bad trips I have ever taken, the things that I broke before delivery, I wince when I read part of it today. But I won’t destroy it. It sits there. It exists as a reminder of the attitude I had when I started writing it: With this book, I want to break every record. I want to surprise people, to really show them…Good old vanity!

Be warned writer!

Most of that creative block comes from wanting to be better than you really are. Flying too high, reaching too far, and riding too fast! Just write!Now the embarrassment is out of the way.

Some positive experiences. In Coming of the Dry Season, the opening story “Shadows on the wall” is one story that cured me of something I didn’t even have a name for up to today. I had this image of this couple who gave each other hell everyday. I wrote the story from the omniscient author’s point of view. I gave the story my own interpretation. I found myself sort of screaming at reader: sentimental, melodramatic, and gushy. I tried to let the husband tell the story; I sort of could not get inside his skull. (Maybe this was partly due to the fact that I had never been a husband when I wrote the story!) I just did not have enough – as they say- dope on him. I tried the wife’s angle and I found that no reader would even feel any sympathy for her because she felt sorry for herself so much; the story would be awash in tears before she even told it. I could make no headway. Yet the story kept on tugging at my creative strings. It would not let me go. It wouldn’t let me leave it to write another one. Then one day it happened.

I was sitting in our kitchen – you know the one: round, fireplace in the centre, etc. It was raining outside and the chickens started in out of the rain, feathers wet and gathered round the fireplace, sending the most pitiful squawks into the already depressing atmosphere. And there, perfect image for the story! Not the couples fighting, no. Just the lonely child, alone with the chickens on a desolate wet day:Where is mama and papa? To answer that question, I found the son telling the story. So here, I had found the correct point of view from which to tell the story. And when I wrote it, I did not have to revise it. The pain it held was too vast to be told – yet it had to be told – and those chickens and shadows on the wall told it. That was my very first experience of how a story can be written in another way (or several ways) through a change in point of view.

Waiting for the Rain was another eye opener. This time the point of view was not in characters but the temporal, the tense. I had started off a short story on one of the characters, Betty and her unwanted pregnancy and her understanding brother, Garabha. It was all in a once upon a time tense. There was a girl called Betty, etc, etc. When I brought in the other characters, the story kept on expanding and before I knew I had over 100 pages of script on A4 on my hands. Yet something kept nagging at the back of my head: something is missing here. Yet I kept on writing, putting down everything that happened in the story. And the more I went on writing the more this uneasiness kept growing: Are you sure you are doing the right thing for these people (the characters)?

I had begun to notice a kind of distance, a coldness growing between them and myself. And I seemed to be losing interest in them, little by little, day by day. Then I completely felt disgusted by the whole exercise and I really walked away from my desk. I left the manuscript sitting there for days, meaning to destroy it when I came back to the desk, meaning to start on something else. Then a strange thing happened. I brought a friend home – a fellow writer (although he hadn’t been published yet) may God rest his soul – and we were drinking and I showed him the thing I meant to throw into the fire. (I almost didn’t show it to him. I was that embarrassed and also, I felt, he was a much finer stylist than I was and that added onto the reluctance). He took the manuscript home and the following day – the following day! He came back gushing: “What do you mean you want to throw this away? If you do not like it I will finish it off for you, write your name on the title page and send it people I know.”

I listened to him. Took back the manuscript, but, look at it as I might, I couldn’t see why he was so excited about it. The whole thing just left me cold.

Then one day I went to my local beer hall (masese) and there I watched that Jerusalem drum expert (now the national news signal!) and the people – his group and the sense, the feeling of being family, and all of them each with his or her problems and the drummer trying to assuage these with his unifying drum, and how the drum has been inherited from the past and how these long - gone – ones are present now with us in the drum and it was like a prayer joining people past and present and it can only be in a present continuous tense –urgent, very urgent, no time to dither, seemed to be the message of that drum.

I had meant the chapter in which Garabha plays the drum to open Waiting for the Rain but I felt that would be like pre-empting the story. Anyway, I had found out that this story was as urgent as the message of the drum and the only urgent thing is the present moment.

Another thing, another discovery I made, was that in the present tense, the characters became closer to me. They were like real living people. The landscape, the physical life of the book became much more alive, much more there because I was living it as I was writing it and I have never felt as blessed as I felt writing (or re-writing) Waiting for the Rain (I do not think I revised –not much, any way – this second version.) So, a story that had been destined for the fire was rescued by the writer’s change of point of view: This story didn’t happen in the past. It is a drum. It’s happening, it is playing, now.

And my late friend, the one who had forced me to look again at my story, even liked the final version better.

What I am saying is: you need not get stuck in a story. I do quite understand (and appreciate) the pain one feels in abandoning or re-adjusting, the story. Some writers even refer to their stories, “children” – there is danger, to the writer – in that. Well, if you feel they are your children, then be a surgeon and carry out this brain tumour operation on them!

For exercise, try to see in how many ways you can write a particular story. Dance around with this “point of view” thing. It is quite creative and it actually relieves your mind from a lot of unnecessary strain. Sorry about having to abandon a story on page 300, but this comes with the territory and, anyway, put it down to growing up, the necessary experience to be able to survive, to continue.
Hope this helps a bit.But write, write, write.
+ From the Writers Scroll, the newsletter of the Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe, No.2, pp29-32, 2002.

Monday, January 23, 2012

O, save me from this story here!

You Lazy (Intellectual) African Scum!

“It’s amazing how you all sit there and watch yourselves die,” the man next to me said. “Get up and do something about it.”
Brawny, fully bald-headed, with intense, steely eyes, he was as cold as they come. When I first discovered I was going to spend my New Year’s Eve next to him on a non-stop JetBlue flight from Los Angeles to Boston I was angst-ridden. I associate marble-shaven Caucasians with iconoclastic skin-heads, most of who are racist.
“My name is Walter,” he extended his hand as soon as I settled in my seat.
I told him mine with a precautious smile.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Zambia!” he exclaimed, “Kaunda’s country.”
“Yes,” I said, “Now Sata’s.”
“But of course,” he responded. “You just elected King Cobra as your president.”
My face lit up at the mention of Sata’s moniker. Walter smiled, and in those cold eyes I saw an amenable fellow, one of those American highbrows who shuttle between Africa and the U.S.
“I spent three years in Zambia in the 1980s,” he continued. “I wined and dined with Luke Mwananshiku, Willa Mungomba, Dr. Siteke Mwale, and many other highly intelligent Zambians.” He lowered his voice. “I was part of the IMF group that came to rip you guys off.” He smirked. “Your government put me in a million dollar mansion overlooking a shanty called Kalingalinga. From my patio I saw it all—the rich and the poor, the ailing, the dead, and the healthy.”
“Are you still with the IMF?” I asked.
“I have since moved to yet another group with similar intentions. In the next few months my colleagues and I will be in Lusaka to hypnotize the cobra. I work for the broker that has acquired a chunk of your debt. Your government owes not the World Bank, but us millions of dollars. We’ll be in Lusaka to offer your president a couple of millions and fly back with a check twenty times greater.”
“No, you won’t,” I said. “King Cobra is incorruptible. He is …”
He was laughing. “Says who? Give me an African president, just one, who has not fallen for the carrot and stick.”
Quett Masire’s name popped up.
“Oh, him, well, we never got to him because he turned down the IMF and the World Bank. It was perhaps the smartest thing for him to do.”
At midnight we were airborne. The captain wished us a happy 2012 and urged us to watch the fireworks across Los Angeles.
“Isn’t that beautiful,” Walter said looking down.
From my middle seat, I took a glance and nodded admirably.
“That’s white man’s country,” he said. “We came here on Mayflower and turned Indian land into a paradise and now the most powerful nation on earth. We discovered the bulb, and built this aircraft to fly us to pleasure resorts like Lake Zambia.”
I grinned. “There is no Lake Zambia.”
He curled his lips into a smug smile. “That’s what we call your country. You guys are as stagnant as the water in the lake. We come in with our large boats and fish your minerals and your wildlife and leave morsels—crumbs. That’s your staple food, crumbs. That corn-meal you eat, that’s crumbs, the small Tilapia fish you call Kapenta is crumbs. We the Bwanas (whites) take the cat fish. I am the Bwana and you are the Muntu. I get what I want and you get what you deserve, crumbs. That’s what lazy people get—Zambians, Africans, the entire Third World.”
The smile vanished from my face.
“I see you are getting pissed off,” Walter said and lowered his voice. “You are thinking this Bwana is a racist. That’s how most Zambians respond when I tell them the truth. They go ballistic. Okay. Let’s for a moment put our skin pigmentations, this black and white crap, aside. Tell me, my friend, what is the difference between you and me?”
“There’s no difference.”
“Absolutely none,” he exclaimed. “Scientists in the Human Genome Project have proved that. It took them thirteen years to determine the complete sequence of the three billion DNA subunits. After they
were all done it was clear that 99.9% nucleotide bases were exactly the same in you and me. We are the same people. All white, Asian, Latino, and black people on this aircraft are the same.”
I gladly nodded.
“And yet I feel superior,” he smiled fatalistically. “Every white person on this plane feels superior to a black person. The white guy who picks up garbage, the homeless white trash on drugs, feels superior to you no matter his status or education. I can pick up a nincompoop from the New York streets, clean him up, and take him to Lusaka and you all be crowding around him chanting muzungu, muzungu and yet he’s a riffraff. Tell me why my angry friend.”
For a moment I was wordless.
“Please don’t blame it on slavery like the African Americans do, or colonialism, or some psychological impact or some kind of stigmatization. And don’t give me the brainwash poppycock. Give me a better answer.”
I was thinking.
He continued. “Excuse what I am about to say. Please do not take offense.”
I felt a slap of blood rush to my head and prepared for the worst.
“You my friend flying with me and all your kind are lazy,” he said. “When you rest your head on the pillow you don’t dream big. You and other so-called African intellectuals are damn lazy, each one of you. It is you, and not those poor starving people, who is the reason Africa is in such a deplorable state.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say,” I protested.
He was implacable. “Oh yes it is and I will say it again, you are lazy. Poor and uneducated Africans are the most hardworking people on earth. I saw them in the Lusaka markets and on the street selling merchandise. I saw them in villages toiling away. I saw women on Kafue Road crushing stones for sell and I wept. I said to myself where are the Zambian intellectuals? Are the Zambian engineers so imperceptive they cannot invent a simple stone crusher, or a simple water filter to purify well water for those poor villagers? Are you telling me that after thirty-seven years of independence your university school of engineering has not produced a scientist or an engineer who can make simple small machines for mass use? What is the school there for?”
I held my breath.
“Do you know where I found your intellectuals? They were in bars quaffing. They were at the Lusaka Golf Club, Lusaka Central Club, Lusaka Playhouse, and Lusaka Flying Club. I saw with my own eyes a bunch of alcoholic graduates. Zambian intellectuals work from eight to five and spend the evening drinking. We don’t. We reserve the evening for brainstorming.”
He looked me in the eye.
“And you flying to Boston and all of you Zambians in the Diaspora are just as lazy and apathetic to your country. You don’t care about your country and yet your very own parents, brothers and sisters are in Mtendere, Chawama, and in villages, all of them living in squalor. Many have died or are dying of neglect by you. They are dying of AIDS because you cannot come up with your own cure. You are here calling yourselves graduates, researchers and scientists and are fast at articulating your credentials once asked—oh, I have a PhD in this and that—PhD my foot!”
I was deflated.
“Wake up you all!” he exclaimed, attracting the attention of nearby passengers. “You should be busy lifting ideas, formulae, recipes, and diagrams from American manufacturing factories and sending them to your own factories. All those research findings and dissertation papers you compile should be your country’s treasure. Why do you think the Asians are a force to reckon with? They stole our ideas and turned them into their own. Look at Japan, China, India, just look at them.”
He paused. “The Bwana has spoken,” he said and grinned. “As long as you are dependent on my plane, I shall feel superior and you my friend shall remain inferior, how about that? The Chinese, Japanese, Indians, even Latinos are a notch better. You Africans are at the bottom of the totem pole.”
He tempered his voice. “Get over this white skin syndrome and begin to feel confident. Become innovative and make your own stuff for god’s sake.”
At 8 a.m. the plane touched down at Boston’s Logan International Airport. Walter reached for my hand.
“I know I was too strong, but I don’t give it a damn. I have been to Zambia and have seen too much poverty.” He pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled something. “Here, read this. It was written by a friend.”
He had written only the title: “Lords of Poverty.”
Thunderstruck, I had a sinking feeling. I watched Walter walk through the airport doors to a waiting car. He had left a huge dust devil twirling in my mind, stirring up sad memories of home. I could see Zambia’s literati—the cognoscente, intelligentsia, academics, highbrows, and scholars in the places he had mentioned guzzling and talking irrelevancies. I remembered some who have since passed—how they got the highest grades in mathematics and the sciences and attained the highest education on the planet. They had been to Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), only to leave us with not a single invention or discovery. I knew some by name and drunk with them at the Lusaka Playhouse and Central Sports.
Walter is right. It is true that since independence we have failed to nurture creativity and collective orientations. We as a nation lack a workhorse mentality and behave like 13 million civil servants dependent on a government pay cheque. We believe that development is generated 8-to-5 behind a desk wearing a tie with our degrees hanging on the wall. Such a working environment does not offer the opportunity for fellowship, the excitement of competition, and the spectacle of innovative rituals.
But the intelligentsia is not solely, or even mainly, to blame. The larger failure is due to political circumstances over which they have had little control. The past governments failed to create an environment of possibility that fosters camaraderie, rewards innovative ideas and encourages resilience. KK, Chiluba, Mwanawasa, and Banda embraced orthodox ideas and therefore failed to offer many opportunities for drawing outside the line.
I believe King Cobra’s reset has been cast in the same faculties as those of his predecessors. If today I told him that we can build our own car, he would throw me out.
“Naupena? Fuma apa.” (Are you mad? Get out of here)
Knowing well that King Cobra will not embody innovation at Walter’s level let’s begin to look for a technologically active-positive leader who can succeed him after a term or two. That way we can make our own stone crushers, water filters, water pumps, razor blades, and harvesters. Let’s dream big and make tractors, cars, and planes, or, like Walter said, forever remain inferior.
A fundamental transformation of our country from what is essentially non-innovative to a strategic superior African country requires a bold risk-taking educated leader with a triumphalist attitude and we have one in YOU. Don’t be highly strung and feel insulted by Walter. Take a moment and think about our country. Our journey from 1964 has been marked by tears. It has been an emotionally overwhelming experience. Each one of us has lost a loved one to poverty, hunger, and disease. The number of graves is catching up with the population. It’s time to change our political culture. It’s time for Zambian intellectuals to cultivate an active-positive progressive movement that will change our lives forever. Don’t be afraid or dispirited, rise to the challenge and salvage the remaining few of your beloved ones.

+Field Ruwe is a US-based Zambian media practitioner and author. He is a PhD candidate with a B.A. in Mass Communication and Journalism, and an M.A. in History.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A long and entertaining review of Peter Godwin's latest offering

Title: The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe
Author: Peter Godwin
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Year: 2010
Reviewer: Emmanuel Sigauke, (adopted with full permission from his blog:
N.B. This is probably the best review that i have read in the past decade. You will understand.

I first bought a Peter Godwin book, 'Mukiwa', on June 21, 1997, in Sacramento, California. I was an employee at Borders, and I remember bragging to co-workers about how I had just discovered yet another African writer in the store's stock. Those were the days when you had to scour shelves for months, looking for African books that never seemed to show up, so you were then tempted to buy a second copy of 'Things Fall Apart' (we got an employee discount). Long story short, I was happy to discover 'Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa'. From the start, I have read Peter Godwin as a fellow African, for the power of his prose and his panoramic coverage of the Zimbabwean landscape. His narrative persona loves to describe Zimbabwe, the Eastern highlands, particularly Chimanimani. I liked this because the year before, 1996, I had discovered Chimanimani and had thought it paradise. I sipped every detail about the landscape that Godwin rendered. He gets panoramic, he gets epiphanic, recalling Rudolfo Anaya's essay "Landscape and the Writer's Epiphany". So, two traits in Godwin's writing, prose and landscape, but I have never quite broken into his political commentary; I have not been so drawn by his journalistic maneuvers...until now, while reading 'The Fear'.

Before I review 'The Fear', let me repeat that I enjoyed 'Mukiwa'. My 1997 copy is heavily annotated and I even began to write notes of my own Chimanimani memoir. I lived in Chimanimani for four months, four busy months of teaching English to Ndau kids. I was also busy learning to belong because everyone there argued that I should be from there, given my last name. Even the Mutare education officer who had deployed me to Chimanimani told me, "Welcome home". And my protests regarding how I was actually from Zvishavane were all in vein. He couldn't even listen to my request to teach in the city, perhaps Mutare Girls High, or even somewhere in Dangamvura. Finally, I ended up in Chimanimani, and fell in love with it, but my attachment to that landscape was not as deep as that Peter Godwin shows in his books. It is the kind of love that rubs off on you, because now you want to write about your own homeland too. Homeland and boyhood. By the end of 'Mukiwa', Peter Godwin had already attained his signature fearless critique of black leadership in Zimbabwe. It is this critical voice that has sustained his journalism, and earned him the label of courageous journalist, one who goes where no other journalist can. Certainly, 'The Fear' takes the reader to the inside machinations of a failing Zimbabwe.

Just as I was preparing to get a copy of 'The Fear', a colleague bought me 'When the Crocodile Eats the Sun' for my birthday; I could have read it first, but a journal peer review request compelled me to read 'The Fear' first. Now, we can get into my thoughts about it.

As I write this, 'The Fear' sits on at least one American Best 100 Books of 2011 list. I can see why. Characteristic of Godwin's works, this one is highly readable. And disturbing. Unbelievable. Some things I don't want to believe, like how I don't feel willing to believe all that CNN, or BBC has to say. The atrocities covered, the torture, the deaths...these are dizzying accounts of human suffering. We get a close-up of what was happening in Zimbabwe, especially during and after the last elections that led to the unity government with the MDC. The book is very informative to the point of failing as a book. Let's put this another way: The memoir element suffers, but the human catalogue element succeeds, making this a deeply felt, a heart-rending mix of observed, heard, and rumoured suffering. The book works effectively at an emotional level; the book fights through its words, it takes sides (which is what it intends to do) and becomes unashamedly subjective and biased, which again is one of the author's goals. I am one of the readers who, without first hand information about much of the experiences the author depicts, have to decide to believe it all; and being aware that the author wants it all believed, I suspend disbelief, so I believe.

This kind of writing reminds me of the days I worked as a temporary teacher in Glen View, teaching English and Science. Once in a while an essay would come which would start with a first sentence you had to connect to emotionally: "When I was in Grade 3, my mother died." It's the kind of emotional hook that you would find unreasonable to fend off; it's what they experienced, and there is nothing you can do about it; in short, you are bound to read the whole story with a certain emotional guarantee: empathy. 'The Fear' has that quality of hitting at the core: it pulls your heartstrings; but this is not a cheap emotional gimmick; you trek with the author as he witnesses endless acts of brutality, and he puts a face to many of the accounts; you were not there, but he was; and he heard it, and you didn't, and he is the reporter and you are not. You read on; you don't want to believe but you do. You notice what seem like unfair emotional maneuvers but you don't have the time to make a fuss; you are the reader and you are reading, you want to finish the book, you want to hope that there is actually hope at the end of the book. And there is; the book ends with victims of torture planting trees to forget and, perhaps, forgive. Planting trees, that's good; Wangari Maathai did it in Kenya; my Rwanda commemorative poem, which I read every April, is about a tree growing in Rwanda, one tree, then many trees. That's hope; and in 'The Fear', that's a good place to end a book.

It's hard to call this a memoir, especially of Zimbabwe. I might have to revisit the definition of the genre. But it is many other things, definitely. For one, the book is an attack on Mugabe and ZANU PF; the kind of attack a writer can make from a distance (in the sense that the book was written from a distance and published in America, to be read first from a distance, but not immediately reaching the people whose lives it chronicles; that's the nature of African publishing, of course, that the audience is not primarily African although the lives, or lack thereof, are African). The book is also a chronicle of the suffering of the victims the author came in contact with as he was traveling across Zimbabwe interviewing people and observing acts of atrocity. The very act of getting into places he was forbidden shows the author as heroic; perhaps that's the true memoir aspect of the book. Again, given its extreme subjectivity, you don't know what to believe, and it almost seems unreasonable to think about deciding what to believe; the author observed it, he talked to people, he witnessed suffering, he took notes, he catalogued the information, he wrote about the experiences; so you leave it at that: the writing is representational, utilizing the voice of witness, and reaching deep into our emotions, showing the injustice of it all.

The memoir genre in Zimbabwe could easily flourish. The people have experienced the kinds of hardships that would be of great interest to readers everywhere. The country has gone through rapid changes. But the true therapy of writing is in the victim being able to write his or her own memoir. We can't all be writers, but we can tell our stories in one form or another. Books like 'The Fear', though mouthpieces of their authors, and not necessarily of the victims, point to a need for real memoirs by the people who experienced the hardships. Subjectivity rings true and engaging if it's the subjectivity of the victim, not when it's streamed through the subjectivity of another being. Look at the disasterous third-party memoirs written in America on behalf of Sudanese child soldiers, or Rwandese genocide victims. The stories lose something in the filtering. Fiction is another matter; any writer with a shred of empathy and the impulse to engage injustice can learn and write about anyone's experience; but to write someone's memoir creates challenges and dangers of distortion. Yet in the absence of opportunities for victims to tell their stories, a third party account is better than nothing.

When the Zimbabwe memoir phase flourishes, we would be interested in reading both victim memoirs and confessional ones. We see them everyday in America, Europe and so on, those inside stories that always come at the end of a regime. In Zimbabwe, such accounts should have started in 1980, at the end of the Smith regime. I remember there was a flowering of one-sided Chimurenga stories published in Zimbabwe, the ones we had to read in school, and there was a total absence of stories from the white side; then when the white stories started pouring in, they had skipped, or ignored, whole generations of stories, or when some came out they were family accounts published as memoirs, marketed to an outside audience. The rich literary landscape of Zimbabwe needs a balance of stories coming from all sides, showing the complexity of life, getting to the core of what it means to be Zimbabwean. That story is certainly not just a ZANU-PF story proclaiming the victimshood of Zimbabwe in the face of European imperial interests, nor is it only of suffering opposition members; neither only that of landless black Zimbabweans tilling the dry soil of Mazvihwa and Chivi, nor only that of white farmers victimized on their farms; this story seeks a balance; this story seeks to plant a new tree that bursts with life.

As usual, I enjoyed the landscape descriptions in 'The Fear'. The Eastern highlands feature prominently. Look at this: "Once we gain height the view opens out into a primordial topography of jagged mountains, furrowed with ridges like mastiff brows, thickly vegetated with gurugushi bird bush and mupangara thorn trees, and, in the Nyadokwe Rivere valley, wide-girthed baobabs silvered in the sky. From across the coulee, baboons barked" (263). Here Godwin was in the Bvumba mountain area near Zimunya, a place I know. Elsewhere in the book, he takes us back to Chimanimani and describes the rivers, the valleys and the mountains ranges that undulate into Mozambique. But he does not stop here; he will also take you from Mutare to Bulawayo, then to Kezi. While chronicling the terror, he will still manage to throw in a few epiphanies about the landscape, shocking us even with one of female friends confessing that she had sex on Rhodes's grave in the Matopos. But when he gets to Bhalagwe, the prose has slowed down to an elegy, as he connects current experiences to Gukurahundi. The book covers all the provinces of Zimbabwe, following all the journeys Godwin made as he researched and witnessed the troubles in the country, often endangering his life, but also finding time to reminisce about the old good days. He has connections in Harare and is invited to tea and braai a lot.

I enjoyed the prose too. Godwin manages to make his sentences sing even as they portray horror. It is this craft element that enables readers to keep reading long after they can't stand the emotional weight. The book is repetitive, but you keep reading for that next sentence. However, Godwin has no excuse to continue misusing the few Shona phrases he includes in his writings. He repeatedly mispells words, offers unreliable translations, and has the foreigner's understanding of the language he grew up hearing or speaking.

A few other Zimbabwean writers have this problem too when writing in English; one, they italicize the Shona or Ndebele (that is, they apologize for using it) in the name of...communication; two, they mispell the words or phrases they co-opt; then, three, they offend with their use of parenthetical translations. This was the main off-putting element of 'The Fear', but again, the book is a work of journalism, reporting to an outside audience, so it may be excused, but the Shona words could have been double-checked for correctness.

For instance, I would just remind Godwin that they are called n'angas, not ngangas; and italicizing the word is not linquistically appealing. There is this one too: "Manjeni, kuona ingwe ichitamba nembudzi", which Godwin aptly translates as: "It's astonshing to see a leopard playing with a goat." My two concerns are: he italicized the Shona proverb, and wrote manjeni instead of manenji. Again, an occasional error here and there would not be a cause for concern, but turning such infelicities into fashions of error from memoir to memoir is inexcusable.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Good and the Bad of Zimbabwean literature in 2011

(NoViolet Bulawayo)

Year-2011, which opened with the death of veteran author Julius Chingono, had both the good and the bad for Zimbabwean literature.

The new and established writers around me continued to moan about the lack of publishers and the song is getting louder and louder. No wonder for the past two or three installments of NAMA, nearly all the literary categories have been won by Zimbabwean books published abroad. In some categories, there were no nominees from locally published books! This means that Zimbabwe is fast depending on either its writers abroad or publishers who know little or nothing about Zimbabwe.

In one heated literary discussion, a local author took the panel of local publishers to task. She asked: ‘What exactly do you mean by a good book?’ And the answer came from one of the publishers: ‘A good book must be able to be prescribed by Zimsec.’ It was the most heartrending remark that I heard in 2011. You either write for the syllabus or perish. We have narrowed down viciously in all respects. Are we still the nation that produced the likes of Marechera, Vera, Sigogo, Mutsvairo and Chakaipa?

The local publishers say they do not have the funds and a suitable economic environment in which to publish. There are indications that even the UNESCO book per child fund has impoverished publishers because the books were bought at a paltry 95 cents a copy! And since a normal school book takes three to four years to disintegrate and be replaced, local publishers may just send home some of their workers. The books are also not being printed locally, pushing local printers out of business!

Zimcopy (a Harare based copyright watchdog) reported in 2011 that truckloads of photocopied books were impounded on our highways. In my case, an anonymous but happy caller phoned from a sister university telling me that since my book was now on their syllabus, could I kindly send him my very own copy so that he could photocopy for the cash strapped students? He was certain that just being read was enough for me. Did he know that I have a family to look after? He hung up.

The Book Fair, however continues to recover tremendously, bringing us great expectations. The 2011 Book fair theme was ‘Books For Africa’s Development.’ The deliberations were based on how books could save Africa and how Africa herself could realise more from her books and lots of information that could be kept in the written form.

The book stands were wonderful. The Indaba was well attended by writers, publishers, school children, readers, scholars and even government ministers! In a country where reading events and literary discussions are still painfully few and far apart, it was encouraging to listen to the various presentations at the Indaba and the subsequent Young People’s Indaba.

One hopes that the national book awards, which have been known to be the climax to the fair, return to their former glory. People do not write for prizes but good book competitions bring attention to books and the writers. At the 2011 Book Fair, we witnessed a pseudo competition that sent us hiding under the tables. All the awards were shared by writers from only two publishers! It is as if they were tossing a coin to decide who wins in which category. This is very damaging to the book fair, publishers, writers and the adjudicators themselves.

Except for NAMA, which has only three literary categories because they also have to look after music, dance, sculpture, drama and others, we still do not have a credible national annual literary competition.

However, some very good things have happened to our literature this year. Alpha Media Holdings, which publishes a local daily and weeklies, have continued with their Cover to Cover Schools annual short story competition.

Stephen Chifunyise has won the granddad of Zimbabwean Theatre tag in 2011 through his plays that continue to feature at the Theatre in The Park in Harare. He has quietly noticed that to publish is not always to do a book.

Zimbabwean author, Elizabeth Tshele, more commonly known as NoViolet Bulawayo, did us proud. She won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, beating over 120 writers with her short story ‘Hitting Budapest’ previously published in The Boston Review Vol. 35, no. 6- Nov/Dec 2010. She received the £10,000 prize at a celebratory dinner held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford on July 11.The Caine Prize, widely known as the African Booker is regarded as Africa’s leading literary award. ‘Hitting Budapest’ is a story about children from a ghetto who set out to steal guavas from a very affluent suburb.

Wellingtone Kusema made history in 2011 by publishing the longest novel in the Shona language to date at 108 264 words! Dzimbabwedande, published by Heritage Press is a gigantic 348 paged old world novel about Dumbetumbe’s heroic exploits. This is a very important novel about the evil machinations of the Portuguese during the Mutapa Empire, stretching from the Highvelds down to the Indian and the Atlantic oceans. Here you read about the slave trade, power struggles, love and betrayal. This is a massive show of confidence in the Shona language and for me, Dzimbabwedande could easily pass as the greatest novel by a Zimbabwean in 2011.

Another very amazing new book which has set tongues wagging this year is Watch Ruparanganda’s Genitals Are Assets. It explores the sexual and economic relations amongst the street youths of Harare. The author spent over fifteen months on the streets of Harare and the adjacent areas, slowly and carefully stalking, watching and listening to the street youths in order to understand their life styles and sexual behaviour and also to get to their individual life stories. This book can be read either as an academic or fictional work and that is a great strength.

A new company, Diaspora Publishers in the UK has also come up with new and interesting titles like Monica Cheru’s Chivi Sunsets. This is a collection of short stories exploring the African underworld. In one of the stories a man sees his own two boots walking across the room on their own accord! Diaspora Publishers have also brought together the poems performed by local poet, Mbizo Chirasha into one well bound and designed volume entitled Good Morning President.

Prominent Zimbabwean writer Shimmer Chinodya continued to shine in 2011. He launched the German translation of his 2007 Noma Award winning novel, Strife. The German version is called Zwietracht and was translated from English by Dr Manfred Loimeier. Chinodya has also published yet another scintillating novel for young people, entitled Tindo’s Quest. In this story, a twelve year old boy slowly realises that perhaps the woman whom he calls mother is not his real mother!

Some of the books launched this year were by high profile people. They include Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s memoirs entitled Tsvangirai at the Deep End, Deputy Prime Minister Mutambara’s uncle’s book called Nziramasanga and Wilfred Mhanda’s liberation war memoirs called Memories of a Freedom Fighter.

The Zimbabwean writers’ long standing resolve to form a national umbrella organisation representing their rights and welfare was eventually realised with the election of the first seven member committee of the Zimbabwe Writers Association (ZWA) on June 4. It is chaired by Veteran Poet, Musaemura Zimunya who is deputised by Eresina Hwede. Performing poet, Tinashe Muchuri is the Secretary General. The job ahead is monstrous as they should, among other things, set out to unite the various writer associations in one voice where their welfare is concerned.
By Memory Chirere
(*a version of this article appeared in The Herald of 4 January 2012, page E4.)