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.

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