Monday, December 17, 2012

“I have flown around the world on the wings of poetry”: Musaemura Zimunya

“I have flown around the world on the wings of poetry”: Musaemura Zimunya (picture: by Batsirai Chigama)

Eddie Zvinonzw(EZ) of the Daily News interviews Zimbabwean poet Musaemura Zimunya (MZ)
EZ: Could you tell readers about yourself in brief? Who is Musaemura Zimunya? I would want to call you a man of many hats an outstanding academician in your own right — having lectured at the University of Zimbabwe since 1981— you are a published writer in both Shona and English and you co-edited And Now the Poets Speak, an anthology of largely liberation poetry from Zimbabwe.

MZ: I was born in Mutare General Hospital, grew up in rural Zimunya, attended Munyarari Primary School.  I do not recall my father being employed and so my mother raised most of the little money that went towards our texts books – mostly second hand – uniforms and food.  She brewed beer or worked in fields of richer neighbours and when we were old enough we would join her. 

But my father was a great mbira and ngoma player, one of the greatest of his time.  I recall him sitting me on his lap and picking the mbira keys against my ears.  The sounds have remained with me ever since and so I am a forever profoundly moved by good mbira sounds. He was also a fantastic story teller with a flair for the dramatic and descriptive – which I believe I inherited from him.

My mother was the second wife of my father and so she bore the brunt of abuse that came with that.  And, as time went by, as her children, we also shared some of that abuse.  But, apart from not doing much to support us, I don’t remember my father being physically or verbally abusive to my mother, though, my mother sometimes did her best to take out her frustrations on him.  I only recall him famously declaring: “Idi, andichayi mukadziba ini.  Mudzimai ishuka.” (I will never assault a woman. A woman is a glorious thing!)

Growing up was mostly about herding cattle in the summer months and playing in the dry season.  We had little teams of rival families playing organized games of “soccer” using tennis or plastic balls on Sundays.  I soon fell in love with music and caught the ear of the church choir master who invited me to join.  That was my route to the enjoyment of the arts as our choir competed in the Manicaland Schools Association Eistedford – a choir competition – and provided music for church services.
Following good Standard Six results, I got a United Methodist scholarship to study at Chikore Secondary School, Craigmore, Chipinge where I studied from Form One to Form Four.

By the end of my Form Two, I was beginning to scribble poems under the guidance of a great master – Tobby Moyana.  My first taste of excitement about my writing came in the same year when I read a valedictory poem in tribute to our respectable master of English, Miss Cousins. I cannot remember exactly what moved the assembly, but the applause was deafening at the end of my performance.  Two years later, in 1970, I submitted a folio of five poems for a national poetry competition open to Rhodesians and South Africans.  I did not do well enough to win the first prize but the quality of my poems moved the judges to recommend the creation of a special prize to accommodate my work.  And so, I won my first national prize for poetry then.
I then proceeded to Goromonzi High School for my ‘A’- Levels following which I joined the University of Rhodesia on a grant in 1973 but immediately fell into trouble for demonstrating against racism on campus, leading to imprisonment for nine months with three months suspended. On release from jail, I got banned for five years from entering Salisbury – effectively rendering it impossible for me to continue further with my education. The banning order was reversed in 1975 following détente – the same time as our political leaders (Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mugabe, Ndabaningi Sithole etc) were released from detention.
I had already made applications to study abroad and duly left for The University of Kent at Canterbury for further studies.  In April, 1980 I returned to the newly independent Zimbabwe as a Research Fellow in the English Department, then successfully interviewed for a permanent lectureship in 1981, becoming senior lecturer in 1985.
I have an abundance of hobbies which keep me away from boredom, such as soccer (Dynamos and Arsenal), music (Mapfumo, Tuku, Macheso, Four Brothers, Franco and TPOK, Soul, jazz, gospecl – the list is very long.), fishing( bream, catfish, bass), reading, natural farming, free-range chicken rearing etc.
EZ: Having gone through the missionary education system what  do you view as the net benefit of learning there?
MZ: It was a privilege to study at a mission school and a government school. In both cases the emphasis was on acquiring some of the culture of the Westerners. But, as Chikore Secondary School was an American mission, predictably, it was more liberal, encouraging the free development of scholarship, social responsibility and creative intuitions, although it was impossible to escape the religious regime.  On the other hand, although Goromonzi High was not strictly governed by religious values, the contemporary authority reflected the oppressive colonial values where the environment itself was a barrier against intellectual freedom. In particular, Goromonzi was notorious for birching, a form of corporal punishment the Principal fondly referred to as “six of the best”. Consequently, therefore, I personally suffered a culture shock and a feeling of torture I had last known during my early childhood.
EZ: You were at university during the latter part of the 1970s liberation war. You have written about and during that period. Has the post-independence era produced the quantity expected of it given there was some semblance of freedom in the country?

MZ: My short stay at the University of Rhodesia was not particularly productive because as black students, we were under enormous pressure to fight white racism, and since the university was surrounded so closely by “whites only” suburbs, the feeling of alienation was sometimes horrifying. Black students were outnumbered by white students by a ratio of 3:1 and in classrooms the ratios could even be much bigger.  The real inspiration was outside the campus, in the political environment, in the townships, in the rural areas and across the continent. So, naturally, our writing reflected these tensions. What happens after independence required a new approach to writing because liberation from colonial bondage brought an enormous sense of relief, but as was the slogan, “the struggle continued”.  Sometimes authors pandered to political relevance and that tended to temper the growth of a literature independent of general elections and political programmes – which was the advantage of the ‘70’s. Our writers have been struggling over the years to create a terrain of literary independence where authors did not have to cow-tow to any particular political persuasion in order to remain relevant to society.  In other words, we have not yet created a literary culture whose integrity is untrammeled by moral, political, social and cultural expediency and yet remaining solidly relevant to society.
EZ: I notice of late there has been growing enthusiasm on the Zimbabwe Writers Association (ZWA). I believe this could actually be improved on. What are your plans for ZWA and how do you perceive the organisation maybe years from now?

MZ: ZWA is a new and exciting project.  As you may be aware, it has been running bi-monthly meetings focusing on a variety of subjects such as “How I create,” “How writers maximize on their creative works to reap financial and other rewards” and “Unpacking the COPAC Draft Constitution for authors”.  These sessions have contributed immensely to the mentoring, development and networking of authors.  At the same time, we have made four outreach programmes to introduce ZWA to Bulawayo, Gweru, Mutare and, lately, Masvingo. These outreaches also serve as occasions for writers to share information about their works, sectoral problems and challenges, lessons and solutions.

Both the bi-monthly and outreach programmes are deliberately aimed at carving the space for writers to freely debate issues of particular concern to their industry as well as their emotional anxieties and creative needs. In the process, ZWA has now identified challenges that can be handled by sub-sectoral associations and national organizations.  ZWA is determined to work with other steakholders of the book industry in order to improve the environment and make writers enjoy the national importance that they cherish. In 2013, ZWA will join ZIBF in celebrating 30 years of success, evolution and development in addition to following up on its own projects including the setting up of a website and national secretariat, running writers workshops etc  
EZ: There was interesting discussion at a recent ZWA gathering on the constitution-making process. What is your view on the relationship between artists in general and literary artists in particular and politics?

MZ: Artists and writers do not operate in a vacuum.  Though it is driven by politicians, the constitution making process and its product transcends narrow political boundaries to include civic and natural right. Thus, writers may ignore this to their peril.  However, let me stress, first and foremost, that ZWA is not a political platform for political activism.  The only politics you will experience in ZWA is the politics of writing and publishing.  Notwithstanding this, no writer is excluded from joining the organization on account of their ideological leanings.  As an organization, we believe that the country deserves organizations where differences of opinion do not have to be resolved by physical violence or verbal insults.
EZ: Then comes the disturbing story of artists failing to live off their works. I personally live in Chitungwiza where Charles Mungoshi stays. Going forward, what do you think should be done to avoid such things in the future?

MZ: As you may be aware, one of the principles driving the formation of ZWA was precisely the tragedy of authors who are abandoned by both society and publishers even though their writings made enormous contribution to the education of our citizens and the to the coffers of publishers.  ZWA’s long term objective is to canvass widely for recognition of writers beyond their healthy years.
EZ: Where does your passion for arts in general and poetry in particular come from?

MZ: As mentioned earlier, I was extremely fortunate to grow up in a family where my father was a great mbira player, traditional drummer and story teller.  My mother had a powerful singing voice and a gift for adapting to new forms of singing.  My entire immediate family is so capable of singing that at any given get together; no opportunity to combine voices in acapella sounds is ever missed.  Besides, I play guitar, sing and compose. I am a former member of the The National Arts Council and ZIWU.  I have done much research on Zimbabwean music and am privileged to have been a co-manger of Thomas Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited.  This is over and above the fact that I am a well-established poet and short story writer.  The arts, you can say, are in me and I am in the arts.
EZ: A study of your early poetry shows you sound so passionate and critical of the movement of people from rural to urban centres. In the latter years of our history new have seen government trying to come up with the concept of growth points to try and decongest the towns and cities. What would be your opinion of this reverse movement?

MZ: Having been raised in the rural areas and suffered the culture shock of city life myself, it was only natural that I would benefit creatively from the conflict and tension of  that experience. My first impressions of the city and city life were actually very divided, being attractive to the bright lights and repelled by the immorality and the ugliness of racism.  As for growth points, I see them as a shaky bridge between the rural and the urban, combining the worst forms of cultural assimilation.  The majority of these are degraded by a culture that is highly conscious of its inferiority to the urban, where aping is the natural inclination of the community.
EZ: How do you balance your day-to-day occupation with writing?

MZ: The experience of writing is powerful enough to penetrate every activity to the point where the division implied in your question is not an issue.  I do not know how many times I have been reminded by my audience that I was practicing my poetry on them even though I might have been engaging in serious discussion and conversation with them without even caring about poetry.  Many a time I have said something and wondered if I could not have turned the phrase into an opening sentence in a short story or poem.  Most good writers are always practicing their ideas on their unsuspecting audiences, therefore.
EZ: Are you working on anything at the moment or how early can we expect your next gem?
MZ: Yes, I am, but for fear of miscarriage, I may not reveal the date of delivery.
EZ: What were your biggest influences?
MZ: This is not an easy question to do justice in a short interview.  Suffice to say, I have been touched by my parents, my late brother, Abel, individuals, lecturers and even passers-by whose verbal skills made me see the world anew.  I do not need to mention the vast number of writers whose works I have had the privilege to read and enjoy.
 EZ: What recognition have you had for your  writing?
MZ: Very often, I tell my students that “I have flown around the world on the wings of poetry”.  Which sounds arrogant, but is true.  I have been invited to participate in poetry festivals in South Africa, Ethiopia, Italy, Yugoslavia, Germany, France, U.K., USA and Colombia.  I have enjoyed many fellowships and visiting professorships based on my combined literary and academic reputation.  You can always google me under Musaemura or Musa Zimunya and check out for yourself just to sample what the world has said about me.
EZ: Any remarks to young writers in general?
MZ: I would prefer to address individual aspiring authors rather than society at large because each individual has challenges specific to them – for the most part.  However, the one omission that I urge all young writers to address is READING!  No one has yet become a famous author who has no respect for READING.  Above all, most young writers believe they have a masterpiece in their drawers.  This is called arrogance.  Make sure somebody else who is not your father or brother or uncle gives your manuscript that kind of judgement.
 EZ: Any comments on the future of Zimbabwean writing.
MZ: Given the size of our population and country, I am profoundly humbled by the awesome talent of our writers.  And even when our country seemed down on its knees, there was always some cute talent popping up somewhere, at home and abroad.  My only apprehension is the state of our publishing that has pushed our writers to publish abroad, even though our system cannot make the writings easily accessible at home.  Consequently, we have an increasing body of Zimbabwean literature stuck in the vaults of foreign publishers.
EZ: You could add anything you feel would be relevant.
MZ: I wish our writers and the nation a Safe and Happy Xmas and a Prosperous and Blessed 2013.
++ a version of this interview appeared in the Daily News of 10 December 2012
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