Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Night Shift: the prose from Zimbabwe's most anthologised poet

Despite its special place in the Zimbabwean short story canon, Musaemura Zimunya’s ‘Night shift and other stories’ will always need a bold footnote.

Appearing in 1993, it is the only creative prose book by a man who has always written and published mainly poetry since the late 1960’s.

Musaemura Zimunya is clearly Zimbabwe’s leading poet. He is, arguably, the most anthologized of all Zimbabwean poets. He writes poetry both in the English and Shona languages and is also a prominent scholar of Zimbabwean literature. His ‘Those years of Drought and Hunger’ (1982) is considered a pathfinder text on Zimbabwean literature in English.

He broke into print gradually in the ealry 1970’s in periodicals like Two-Tone and Chirimo. Later, he appeared more emphatically in group anthologies like Gwenyambira (1979) and Kizito Muchemwa’s Zimbabwean Poetry in English (1978).

Afterwards the floodgates opened in such a record breaking way for Zimunya. He published the following books of poetry: And Now The Poets Speak (1981), Thought Tracks (1982), Kingfisher, Jikinya and other Poems (1982), Country Dawns and City Lights (1985), Samora! (co-authored in 1987), Chakarira Chindunduma (co-authored and edited it in 1985), Birthright (1989), The fate of Vultures (1989), Perfect Poise (1994), Selected Poems of Zimunya (published in a Serbian language and in English in 1995).

In an ‘afterword’ to the Serbian/English version of his collected poems in 1995, Zimunya describes his poetry thus: “When you read these poems, it is my cherished hope that you will gain some insight… into the brutality of colonialism, the vagaries of growing up permanently dispossessed in a racially structured society, the tortuous quest for reconciliation of a shattered old culture with a hostile and spiritless new world cultivated to disadvantage the African and… the undying quest for harmony with nature… And then also you may wonder about the chaos artistic rhythms and traditions forever tussling for my creative attention.”

Indeed’ Zimunya’s poems over the past three decades reflect on the physical beauty of his country, his people’s struggles against settler occupation and racism, the meaning of African myths and traditions and the meaning of freedom to the individual.

Maybe his most enduring poems include ‘The Valley of Mawewe’, ‘Zimbabwe (after the ruins)’, ‘Zimbabwe bird’, ‘The Mountain’, ‘To be young’, ‘Kisimiso’ and ‘No songs.’ One of these has been adopted by the curio shop at the Great Zimbabwe monument as a theme poem. It must be to do with the poem’s evocation of the spirit in rock and the seeming silence of traditions that have deep roots.

It is important to remember that Zimunya, like Henry Pote, Kizito Muchemwa and others, emerged at a time when the challenge was to forge a believable black African poetic sensibility in an environment that often persuaded the black poet to imitate wholesomely the poets of empire. Zimunya refers to this in an essay as ‘the jacaranda-piccaniny-musasa-culture’.

So after a compact and long poetic stretch, Zimunya broke into short story in 1993 with ‘Nightshift and Other stories’.

Although this book might never win the war against the books of poetry by the same author, it breathed and still breathes fresh air into the Zimbabwean short story.

Dominated, until very recently, by Stanley Nyamfukudza and Charles Mungoshi, the Zimbabwean short story tends to be an exercise in the use of the technique of understatement. It tends also to be about the underdog against the ‘bigger’ society. The narrative tends to alternate conversation with description of action. There is almost always the use of realism – man in the everyday tangible environment. There is also the twist in/of tale that recalls the works of foreign masters like Hemingway, Poe and others.

Zimunya’s short stories, especially the more endearing ones, tend to explore reality as it relates with the vast underworld. There is also exploration of the functions and sometimes dysfunction of myths and traditions. Zimunya goes for what is generally not visible in men and women, their other deep-seated realities much more than any other writer has done with the Zimbabwean short story. Thankfully, he does that to show the link between the spiritual and the physical and not as an exercise in dabbling with empty superstition.

In the ‘Mbira Player’, Hakuna’s relations and conversations with his father and his totem, the monkey/baboon, is real. As he plays the mbira in an auditorium in wintry London, Hakuna sees ‘the moving shadow of a baboon ambling with that superior grace and defiant air which only baboons are capable of. As it did so, it turned and cast one long gaze at him and then suddenly began to run towards Murehwa mountains.’

In ‘The Peach Tree’ a sickly grandmother almost manages, rather unwillingly too, to bring her wrath upon her daughter when a branch of a tree that she is lying under falls onto and injures her daughter. She is shocked by what she can cause to happen through her wishful thinking. In that story reality and religion are one and the same thing. Prayer too is portrayed as not always conscious and positive. The electricity within the being is part of the being’s character.

In ‘Tambu’, a village girl is obsessed with water that she is constantly going down to the well to fetch it even when there is lots of it in the home already! She is in touch with njuzu the underwatwer goddess. She provokes fear and sly whispering in the village and nobody wants to marry her. But when Tambu is rapped by an unknown assailant- some suspect that it is by her demented father- the village well dries. The message here, maybe, is to do with the fall of the African people after the great rape at the moment of conquest. The metaphor is monstrous and far reaching.

The magical powers in central characters in stories like ‘Mother’ and ‘Crocodile Bile’ raise the issue of domestic sacrilege that becomes national sacrilege. The killing of fathers and mothers by their sons and daughters point at a people who strike down all connections with history, and begin to worship at the alter of empty anger and pride. Inversely the story points at the fact that elders need to conduct themselves with care so as to safeguard prosperity. If you see a son picking an axe and chasing his mother in order to hack her down, to injure her or to rape her, there must be something going wrong in the universe. The short story called ‘Mother’ makes good reading but it leaves you with genuine fears of the world and of relations that we have often taken for granted.

Zimunya’s short stories, even those that are based on realism, shift from the technique of ‘description and dialogue’ to one where the narrator seems to know something you need to know now-now, telling the story as if it were happening in a dream inside a dream. Therefore Zimunya allows you to fly away from three dimensional reality and see ‘what was’ or ‘what could be’, more like the effect of folk tale.

One hopes that there could be another prose collection from Zimunya before he returns to his beloved poetry.

Musaemura Bonas Zimunya was born in 1949 in Mutare and is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe where he lectures in Literature. He is the current chairperson of the Zimbabwe Writers Association (ZWA)
(Zimunya- emphasising a point while chairing a Zimbabwe Writers Association meeting recently)

+ Essay By Memory Chirere

Monday, June 18, 2012

Zimbabwean gunner and helicopter technician writes fiction on the Congo war

Title: A Fine Madness
Author: Mashingaidze Gomo
Publisher: Ayebia Ckarke Publishing Limited, UK
Isbn; 978-0-9562401-4-9
(a review by Memory Chirere)
When an excited friend brought to me the manuscript of Mashingaidze Gomo’s A Fine Madness, at first I thought that there was something unfinished (and spooky too) about it as the jagged lines ran and ran seemingly incongruous. But I began to sense that the script was deceptive and I could have been fooled into dropping it. I started reading it in the middle of the night and I was alone and I never went to sleep afterwards. I felt that the room was peopled by all the heroes and traitors we read about in African History.

I remembered all the moments when a work of literary art had slowly dragged me to its depths in a similar way. Firts it was with Brathwaite’s The Arrivants. The second time was with Cesaire’s A Notebook of the Return to My Native Land. The third was with Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons. You pick a book, saying to yourself, ‘What do we have here?’ Then – gone!

The act of reading becomes a long and wide dream in which you are taken through the paths of human joy and agony, ending in a whirlpool of emotions. You want to curse. You want to laugh. You want to revenge. You want to walk about the room. You want to go away and be mad. You want to forgive and be forgiven.

Immediately after, I asked to see the author because I had been told that he was a gunner with the Airforce of Zimbabwe. I wanted to see him in order to ascertain that he had indeed written A Fine Madness. Then what I met was a soft spoken gentleman! It was really an anticlimax! Later, I concluded that Mashingaidze Gomo is an interesting case because he doubles up as a man of action and a philosopher. He lives at the cutting edge of history but he is able, meanwhile, to reflect on the African condition, piece by piece.

Then I gave the script to a colleague, a professor of Zimbabwean literature. He threw the script among his old papers saying, ‘We will see.’ He was used to many pretenders over the years that showed him things that they called stories. Things that ended up eating up one’s time for nothing. Then one day the professor came to me in the morning with red eyes and said, ‘I didn’t sleep, last night.’ It was because he had made the mistake of reading the first few pages of A Fine Madness. He was not able to stop!

We were both agreed that this script should be published because A Fine Madness is a charmed, mad and maddening prose poetry in which an armed man snoops into Africa’s history of deprivation and strife to do the painful arithmetic. Meanwhile, the Congo civil war of the late 1990’s rages on like a monstrous fire, eating and allowing brother and sister to get eaten by the syphilis of the West’s relentless desire to plunder. At the centre of this story is the anger and the question why the West is always at the centre of African conflicts, siding with one side and arming it against the other, as in the 1998 civil war in the Congo.

The narrator who is out at Boende in Congo sometimes reflects on his relationship with Tinyarei, an African beauty back home in Zimbabwe:

"The woman I am missing now is a beautiful woman
An older woman aged in beauty
A beauty that hangs on even as age takes its toll
Lingering on like a summer sunset… reluctant to go
A beauty digging in…making a last stand around the
eyes where her smile is disarming.
I missed Tinyarei with a wretchedness that was like
A very fine and enjoyable madness
And it always feels pleasant to miss a woman
Sometimes it is even better to miss than to be with her
And at Boende, it felt nice to miss Tinyarei..."

But, as you read on, you notice that Tinyarei is a lover, a mother, a trophy to be won and sometimes she stands for mother Africa herself.

Sometimes the narrator watches the Congolese men, women and children dance to Ndombolo and wonders why poverty sucks and stinks and erodes self confidence. The Congo war which pitied brother against brother and neighbor against neighbor, gives Mashingaidze Gomo opportunity to listen to human voices and messages from the Congolese flora and fauna and come up with multifaceted pan African philosophies. He also wonders why we often give in easily, why we think less about our dignity, why we are turned against the real substance and asked to take in abstract values, why we don’t wonder why we are considered ‘the whiteman’s younger brother’… and why… and why?

I agree with Ngugi Wathiongo when he says (in the preface) that this prose poetry book is not only about ‘the horror and loneliness of war; but also the beauty of resistance’ and that Mashingaidze ‘can yoke the most contradictory into a searing insight.’ And yet I do not agree with Ngugi that the emergence of postcolonial dictatorships and their actual relationship to the Western corporate bourgeoisie’ can always be explained better by always taking a class perspective. This book’s forte surely transcends explaining the emergence of postcolonial dictatorship in Africa. A Fine Madness dwells on the varied patterns of the relationship between the North and the South from before colonialism to date.
(the author: Mashingaidze Gomo)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sketches of High-Density Life by Wonder Guchu

‘Sketches of High-Density Life’ by Wonder Guchu
Weaver Press, Harare
Isbn: 77922 031 6
(A review By Memory Chirere)
Wonder Guchu’s first short story collection, ‘Sketches of High Density Life’ is thankfully very experimental and bound to change the meaning of “short story,” at least in Zimbabwe.

I started waiting for something from Wonder Guchu from the first time I saw him way back in the early 1990’s. It was at a writer’s workshop at Bindura’s Chipindura High School. Guchu was in a heavy crimson jacket and a green–green oversize trousers that trailed on the floor. He peered alternately at the resource person at the podium and at something out in the school grounds and seemed disinterested and bewildered. At tea break, he ambled to a corner and cracked a biscuit (they were hard!) On being introduced, much later in the day, the unsuspecting budding writers were pleasantly surprised to be in the company of a popular Sunday Mail magazine short story writer!

Then the Sunday Mail always carried a short story either by Guchu or the late Stephen Alumenda. You searched for The Sunday Mail in order to read a story and it went down well with a Sunday tea and biscuit.

But wonder Guchu was not very happy with his own stories. Sipping his tea and between bites of the stony biscuits at the workshop, he volunteered that he was looking for a “new form”, something that approaches the story “from inside”. I honestly thought he didn’t know what he meant and his stammer didn’t help matters. I thought he would write a long novel-like Dostoevsky because I thought he looked severe, energetic, if not wayward too.

Trailing a long-long way behind current literary traditions, the editors have named Wonder Guchu’s collection “Sketches,” which is slightly unfortunate. Sketches? What sketches? These are deeper and finer narratives than sketches. These are “flash” stories. They are ‘finished’ and ‘complete’ as they are.

I remember talking to a friend who kept on insisting that I should quit short stories and write a novel as soon as possible! Even in Guchu's case, that these are ‘short-short’ stories does not mean that they are not ‘serious’. If a story is short, it does not mean that it is not important. It also does not mean that it is incomplete!

Dwelling on one seemingly insignificant item - a person, a subject… the Guchu short story drills a tiny-tiny hole with a needle in order to make you howl. The intensity of each of these stories pays you dearly and makes up for the physical brevity and “abrupt” departures and arrivals.

They remind you of the rare stories of Lanston Hughes, especially ‘Thank You Mum.’ and Earnest Hemingway’s ‘Up in Michigan’. The short story has fast retreated from being a novella. The short story is fast approaching the intensity of ngano and subtlety of a joke well told.

Guchu has done well to choose particular locale – the city of Harare and its down-trodden ‘fellas.’ Here, as in Laguma, Gordimer, Mphahlele and others, ‘writing’ the high density suburb calls for a “hurrying” style.

People and place are glimpsed and only become whole in their collective bewildering monotone. This is ably executed in Guchu’s “The Wooden Bridge”. There is a realistic sense of place and you are not “reading” but you are there:

"I heard footsteps - four or five pairs-coming behind me. Breaking into a trot… No footsteps approached. The road was deserted. The night was still. A few neon lights flooded the dark streets with an assortment of colours. Streetlights, some choked with dead insects, flickered on and off."

There is a very silent theory here. It is the world being painted that demands a special kind of brush-stroke and a certain texture of canvas. These are not “sketches.” This is how this ‘world’ has to be presented if it has to be true.

If a prize will be given, it should be for Guchu’s ability to ‘hurry’ and create pathos at the same time. Usually narratives about the city as in Laguma’s rarely achieve immediate pathos but Wonder Guchu’s do. Though sneaky and measured, “Fading like a flower” is underlain by very poetic echoes:

"It’s the children. They ask too much. And every time they ask, I force a smile. But I tell them that it’s alright … They believe me. Later, I sneak into the bedroom because I do not want them to see my tears because then they will then know that I’m lying …"

In a very short space and with very few words, the writer manages to peg down the reader, causing almost the equal amount of depth and force which would take Dickens or Dostoevsky acres and acres of print.

The intensity of these short-short stories sometimes comes through the “photographic” style used. “Size 4,” for instance, reads like a film script - the sense of staccato, the deliberate ‘overvisualisation’ and the move towards the twist in the tale…

A shoe is thrown into a room-but you don’t see the man who throws it. You see a man’s feet walking – but you don’t see the full frame of the man. A man dies and the suburb watches the police collecting the carcass and the aura attacks the reader like a sharp adze.

But there is one aspect of a Wonder Guchu short story which I fail to define, however hard I try. It is the idea of “the dead body”. In many of these stories there is a dead body. The urban violence is almost a machine, churning out dead bodies at the rubbish dump, the river, the bridge and even right on the road between the rows of township houses.

I am generally unnerved by dead bodies in a short story or film but each of Wonder Guchu’s dead bodies tends to be metaphorical. Each dead body is a kind of ‘harvest.’ Each dead body is as anonymous as the crowd of onlookers. Always its face is deformed or hidden from the view of the crowd. Looking for lunch, one meets a dead body in the park. These stories dwell on the fragility and the temporariness of the body. Dying is as easy as taking a cup of tea.

These stories tend to challenge a certain blind love for the city that young Africans often have. In these stories, Harare is a giant which man built. Now Harare escapes man’s grip, forcing man and fate to perform a curious art. One senses that there is a sick God on the loose. The pursuer and the pursued dash in a certain madness, doomed to catching or being caught. Even at midnight sleep is pretence and death is next door.

Wonder Guchu achieves a certain description of city people that does not render them visitors or passers-by. These people here trap and are trapped by the city. The brutalities do not make them less human. They still love, listen to music and laugh and one identifies with their fears and desires.

In ‘The dollar’ a man helps strangers look for a dollar coin which one of them has supposedly lost, yards and yards into the tall grasses, until he is mugged. In ‘The Township Fella’ a man turns into a witty beggar-conman and he laughs with pride as he does it.

And for some of us who are Guchu’s contemporaries, Sketches of High Density Life is the mouth of a creative river, stretching from here and branching towards a broad green valley whose grasses need to be watered constantly….

Monday, June 4, 2012

Maurice Vambe tries to end 'the poverty of literary criticism in Zimbabwe.'

(veteran literary critic, George Kahari, standing (with the book) between Maurice Vambe (left) and I)

African Oral Story-Telling Tradition and The Zimbabwean Novel in English, By Maurice Vambe, Unisa Press, 140 pages, ISBN 9781868883042
Reviewed by Memory Chirere
It is a fact that there are very few complete books that discuss Zimbabwean literature in English alone. Therefore, the very few names of George Kahari, Musaemura Zimunya, Flora Veit Wild and Rino Zhuwarara constantly recur in virtually all essays on Zimbabwean literature in English,the world over.

Scattered in world journals, the rather sparse scholarship on Zimbabwean literature is drowned and overshadowed by the scholarship on literatures from more populous African nations like Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa. This is so when, in fact, works from Zimbabwe by the likes of Musaemura Zimunya, Charles Mungoshi, Dambudzo Marechera, Shimmer Chinodya, Chenjerai Hove,Yvonne Vera and others compare very favourably to other works in the African region.

There is a glaring poverty of written critical works on Zimbabwean literature. In that regard, Maurice Vambe’s new book “African Oral Storytelling Tradition and the Zimbabwean Novel in English” automatically becomes a very welcome publication in numerous ways.

Vambe introduces a special way of reading the creative writing of Zimbabwe in English by showing how the otherwise “modern” works of Marechera or Mungoshi or Vera are very well informed by the rich oral forms of Zimbabwe. Here is a very deliberate radical revision, and sometimes, fierce contestation of what the very few critics before him had tentatively established.

Yet, Vambe’s biggest claim remains that the Zimbabwean novel in English is hugely permeated by oral forms which gives this novel both some novelty and semantic instabilities. Vambe also asserts that many a critic have agonised over this matter with very controversial levels of success. Previous critical works from Zimbabwe and abroad “vilified orality in an attempt to understand the interface between orality and the black Zimbabwean novel”. More importantly, “orality was seen as an art form incapacitated from within, hence unable to handle themes of history, culture and the politics of resistance to colonial values and its legacies”.

A few names and their “crimes” are identified. George Kahari in his work of 1990 called “The Rise of the Shona Novel”, is blamed for being convinced that orature “contaminates” the novel form. Emmanuel Chiwome in his 1998 essay is considered to have “merely detailed instances of orality within (the Zimbabwean) novel without evaluating the contradictions generated by the interface between orality and literacy in the novels he considers”. Matshakayile-Ndlovu in his M.Phil thesis (1994) “seeks to show how orality is reflected in the novels, thereby suggesting that the novels in question are simply mirroring orality”. Flora Veit Wild in her 1993 book, “Teachers, Preachers and Non-Believers” is considered to have “underestimated” the relationship of orality to the novel in English as she claims that Zimbabwean writers are not “significantly influenced” by orality.

The danger, as Vambe points out, is the failure by critical writers to see even “the contradictions within orality as a volatile cultural space”. Accepting the good work of Alec Pongweni in his celebrated book “Songs that Won the Liberation War”, Vambe, however, thinks that there is often a silence on cases “where popular songs were appropriated by colonialism for its own goals.” Maybe, outside debating the various fine ways in which modern Zimbabwean writing is informed by orature, Vambe’s book is more useful as it revises (sometimes radically) the path-finding critical books on Zimbabwean literature.

To date, some of the major complete one-author texts on Zimbabwean literature in English are Kahari’s “The Search for Zimbabwean Identity” (1980), Zimunya’s “Those Years of Drought and Hunger” (1982), Wild’s “Teachers, Preachers and Non-Believers” (1993), and Zhuwarara’s “Introduction to Zimbabwean Literature in English” (2001.) These are books of remarkable insight which insist on a very historically conscious reading of the major texts in Zimbabwean literature. Vambe’s book is amazing in that it criss-crosses these founding books, pointing at some glaring lapses, but always with the wisdom to uphold fundamentals assertions.

Vambe works vigorously on the use of allegory, folk-tale and spirit possession in Solomon Mutsvairo’s “Feso”, Geoffrey Ndhlala’s “Jikinya” and Mutsvairo’s “Chaminuka Prophet of Zimbabwe”, respectively. He opens up new ways of reading these seminal texts. With “Feso”, Vambe insists that Mutsvairo went for a “folktale” with elasticity and intertextuality that “imagine( s) different kinds of audiences ranging from the lone reader in his isolated room and the performer at the political rally”. “Feso” could be a bourgeois, peasant, and radical cultural nationalist novel in one. It has, too, capacity for what Vambe calls “generic self-criticism and self-interruption”.

In “Jikinya”, Vambe discovers “an internal self deconstructive strategy that ensures that no single meaning of the text ever settles or establishes itself as the dominant one”. Maybe Chapter Five is the most exciting one in this book as it works with text preoccupied with Zimbabwe’s period of active and visible cultural nationalism. Stanlake Samkange’s “On Trial For My Country” (1966) and Wilson Katiyo’s “A Son of the Soil” (1976) seem to search through fantasy and realism for “a unified discourse of national resistance” which is more often faulty and simplistic. The sense of black nationhood in these two texts is inorganic and not clearly plausible.

However, Vambe discovers depths in Mungoshi’s “Waiting for the Rain” (1975), which portrays nationalism as a space for new African identities which are constantly in the making. What Vambe celebrates in this Mungoshi novel — which has fast become a classic — is the ability of the author to show two contradictory African narratives: one of resistance and the other of complicity. Veit Wild had deduced pessimism in this novel, but Vambe thinks it is all because she fails to unbundle the mythic legend underlying the story in Mungoshi’s book. The legend can carry the reader for distances in any direction because it is crafty and fluid. It has both adequate spaces for Lucifer (collaborator) and Garabha (culturalist) and none of them ever waits in the direction that he takes.

Vambe’s book demonstrates a remarkable amount of bravery by assigning passages to Marechera’s “Black-Sunlight”, a book most scholars of Zimbabwean literature would choose to refer to only in passing because of its density, obscurity and outrage. And as Vambe admits, “Black- Sunlight” is “a novel about many things” and about multiple rejections, too.

However, Vambe, in contrast with Mbulelo Mzamane, goes for “cultural resources of allegory that act as an interceptive grid” in “Black- Sunlight”. Indeed, this “novel” is a critique of the process of narrating resistance as Marechera invents new ways of oralising history and resistance . In a move that will definitely challenge most Zimbabwean readers, Vambe makes a very subtle analysis of Yvonne Vera’s “The Stone Virgins”, to date the only book based on the “disturbances" in Matabeleland just after Zimbabwe’s independence.

Vambe works on Vera’s “politics of remembering” and “illicit versions and war”. According to Vambe, Vera refuses to dwell on the historical causes of the “disturbances”, thereby running the risk of dehistoricising this war between the Government and “dissidents”. More revealing is the observation that Vera “twists the knife” too because even individual stories by “dissidents” such as Sibaso cannot be accepted at face value. “They have inherent internal instabilities . . . and are influenced by social ideologies meant to satisfy certain aims,” opines Vambe. Vera’s book is, therefore, a narrative that stands outside cause and effects but sustaining its claims.

Of all the critical works on Zimbabwean literature in English, Vambe’s book will be very outstanding for going for a method that loudly goes against one way of perceiving and reading. It, however, borrows very heavily from the language and attitudes of both Nationalism and postcoloniality. There is a way in which Vambe has got “the best of both worlds”. That is not accidental seeing that this book is a development from Vambe’s D.Phil. thesis which was supervised by both Rino Zhuwarara and Anthony Chennells.

One imagines it being used across high schools, but much more effectively in tertiary institutions. The only sad thing here is the cover which is rather plain. It needed some deeper imagination to dramatise the sense of orature that occupies the book. A more naturalistic picture reflecting dance or song or carving or the trance of spirit possession can do. Maurice Vambe is a Professor of African literature at the University of South Africa (UNISA). He is a graduate of the University of Zimbabwe's Department of English where he also taught for close to a decade.