Thursday, March 28, 2013

Chinua Achebe: the thinker

Chinua Achebe; the great African author from Nigeria died on 21 March 2013 in Boston, US at the age of 82. His oeuvre is well known throughout the world. I know people who can recite chunks and chunks of Things Fall Apart, his pioneering novel that is also estimated to have sold millions of copies.

It may not be possible to evaluate in one breath all that was written by Chinua Achebe. In the preface to his novel; Arrow of God, Achebe himself says: “Whenever people have asked me which among my novels is my favourite, I have always evaded a direct answer, being strongly of the mind that in sheer invidiousness that question is fully comparable to asking a man to list his children in the order in which he loves them. A parent worth his salt will, if he must, speak about the peculiar attractiveness of each child.”

It is also not possible to agree or disagree with everything Achebe uttered or wrote. However, we all remember certain key passages from the Achebe literature and thought. Passages that are worth underlining with a pen in order to be re-read on a better day. Below here are some of my favourite passages from the Achebe thought.

Achebe on the role of the African writer:

The (African) writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. In fact he should march right in front . . . I for one would not wish to be excused. I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones set in the past: Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God) did no more than teach my readers that their past--with all its imperfections ---was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them. Perhaps what I write is applied art as distinct from pure. But who cares? Art is important but so is education of the kind I have in mind. And I don’t see that the two need be mutually exclusive…

The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer’s duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. There is a saying in Ibo that a man who can’t tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body. The writer can tell the people where the rain began to beat them. After all the novelist’s duty is not to beat this morning’s headline in topicality, it is to explore in depth the human condition. In Africa he cannot perform this task unless he has a proper sense of history." Source: "The Novelist as Teacher," 1965)

Achebe on defining African literature and its appropriate language:

In June 1962, there was a writers' gathering at Makerere, impressively styled: "A Conference of African Writers of English Expression." Despite this sonorous and rather solemn title, it turned out to be a very lively affair and a very exciting and useful experience for many of us. But there was something which we tried to do and failed—that was to define "African literature" satisfactorily. Was it literature produced in Africa or about Africa? Could Af­rican literature be on any subject, or must it have an African theme? Should it embrace the whole continent or south of the Sahara, or just black Africa? And then the question of language. Should it be in indigenous African languages or should it include Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans, and so on? In the end we gave up trying to find an answer, partly—I should admit—on my own instigation. Perhaps we should not have given up so easily... What all this suggests to me is that you cannot cram African literature into a small, neat definition. I do not see African lit­erature as one unit but as a group of associated units—in fact the sum total of all the national and ethnic literatures of Africa… Any attempt to define African literature in terms which over­look the complexities of the African scene at the material time is doomed to failure. On writing in English:

Those of us who have inherited the English language may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance. Or we may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the pos­itive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice, which may yet set the world on fire. But let us not in rejecting the evil throw out the good with it.

One final point remains for me to make. The real question is not whether Africans could write in English but whether they ought to. Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else's? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling.

But, for me, there is no other choice. I have been given this language and I intend to use it… I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but al­tered to suit its new African surroundings. Source: ‘The African writer and the English Language.’ Achebe speech, 1975.


Achebe’s views on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The point of my observations should be quite clear by now, namely that Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked.

Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. They will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives, that the point of the story is to ridicule Europe's civilizing mission in Africa. A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz.

Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot. I do not doubt Conrad's great talents. Even Heart of Darkness has its memorably good passages and moments…. Certainly Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts…. As I said earlier Conrad did not originate the image of Africa which we find in his book. It was and is the dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination and Conrad merely brought the peculiar gifts of his own mind to bear on it…. Source: "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" Massachusetts, 1977

Achebe on association:

“A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.”

Source: Things Fall Apart


Friday, March 22, 2013

Zimbabwe Writers Association (ZWA) mourns Achebe

The Zimbabwe Writers Association (ZWA) board, the entire membership and all our friends and colleagues in the writing fraternity of Zimbabwe are deeply saddened by the sad loss of brother and writer, Chinua Achebe, who is best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart; which is the most widely read and pioneering book in modern African literature. We also remember Arrow of God, No Longer at Ease, Anthills of The Savannah and A Man of The People. We agree with many across the globe that he is indeed ‘the father of African literature.’ As a storyteller and intellectual, he demonstrated rare talent, vision and wit. His desire to see Africa tell her story from an African point of view in a language most African in its imagery and rhythms will continue to inspire us all. People like Achebe do not die!

-Tinashe Muchuri- 
Secretary General, Zimbabwe Writers Association, 22 March 2013
+263733 843 455/

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Issues in 'the Zimbabwean short story.'

The sole place of the short story as a technique in Zimbabwean fiction is still in the blind spot. Those who have written extensively on Zimbabwean literature lump the short story together with the longer fiction without any sense of trepidation. Even then, their concern is limited to how literary texts from Zimbabwe respond to the colonial forces and the subsequent Independence.

There is not much concern with form and even the 'content of form.'  

Meanwhile, there has been a fierce and unprecedented upsurge of short story writing in Zimbabwe since about 1997 (specifically at the turn of the century), virtually drowning out all other literary forms.

As a result it is difficult to discuss ‘new literature’ in Zimbabwe without first acknowledging the predominance of the short story form in Zimbabwe for the past decade.

These lists below are useful but by no means exhaustive:

Multiple authored short story anthologies are: A Roof to Repair (2001: College Press, Harare), No more Plastic Balls (2000: Robert Muponde and Clement Chihota (eds), College Press, Harare), Writing Still (2003: Irene Staunton (ed), Weaver Press, Harare), Writing Now (2005: Irene Staunton, Weaver Press, Harare), Short writings from Bulawayo (2003), Short Writings from Bulawayo II (2005), Short Writings from Bulawayo III (2006) all three edited by Jane Moris of a’mabooks, Bulawayo Creatures Great and Small (2006: Jairos Kangira (ed), Mambo Press, Gweru), Light a Candle (2006: Eresina Wede (ed) Zimbabwe Women Writers, Harare), Women writing Zimbabwe (2008: Irene Staunton (ed) Weaver Press, Harare) and Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe(2009: Jane Moris (ed) a’mabooks, Bulawayo) and others.

Individual authored short story anthologies are: Wonder Guchu’s Sketches of High Density Suburb (2004) and My Children: My Home (2008) Kawengo Samachai’s The Job That Ner Was (2004), Julius Chingono’s Not Another Day (2006), Memory Chirere’s Somewhere in this Country (2006), Christopher Mlalazi’s Dancing with Life; Tales From The Township (2008) Lawrence Hoba’s The Trek and other Stories (2009), Daniel Mandishona’s White Gods Black Demons (2009), Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly(2009), Monica Cheru’s Chivi Sunsets: Not For Scientists (2012) and others.

What could be the reasons for such a proliferation of the short story within such a short time? Is this proliferation separate from what the stories are meant to achieve by both their writers and publishers? And why do they want to achieve their goals through the short story? Has this phenomenon ever occurred elsewhere in Africa?

Maybe under Zimbabwe’s economic challenges at the turn of the century, it appeared convenient for any conscientious publisher to capture various voices in one multi authored book. Each of these books tends to carry, on average, no less than fifteen authors. Besides, there is happily the ‘pretence’ towards democratising space through having dialoguing voices. Maybe the short story form offers the writer the opportunity to practice and experiment in preparation for longer narratives.

But Zimbabwe may have just been ‘a short story country’ all along. Nearly all Zimbabwean writers who have become prominent today started with short stories or have a short story book along their career. Here we go: Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, Charles Mungoshi’s Coming of the Dry Season, David Mungoshi’s Broken Dream and Other stories, Yvonne Vera’s Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals, Stanley Nyamfukudza’s Aftermaths, Chenjerai Hove’s Matende Mashava…

Even the so called novels from Zimbabwe tend to be merely long-short stories sometimes called novellas. There are various reasons for this and please get in touch with me if you are anxious to know more.

In Zimbabwe the history of the short story anthologies in English by black writers can be traced back to three representative writers; Charles Mungoshi with Coming of The Dry Season, Dambudzo Marechera with The House of Hunger and Stanley Nyamfukudza with Aftermaths, in that order. Mungoshi, Marechera and Nyamfukudza are the fore-bearers of the short story genre in black Zimbabwean fiction in English. The three writers represent a watershed in the development of the short story from 1972 to 1978 to 1983.

Each of the three writers proceeded to write more short story books and some novels, becoming by 1983, the major black Zimbabwean writers writing in English.

Charles Mungoshi became the first black writer from Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) to publish a short story collection, Coming of the Dry Season, in 1972. With Mungoshi, the Zimbabwean short story in English germinated in the form of anecdotes drawn from colonial experiences. The Rhodesian Censorship Board subsequently banned Mungoshi’s book in 1975 because one of the stories, ‘The Accident’, had subtle attacks on the political order of the day. Technically, the Mungoshi short story is brief. It is laid back, beginning rather abruptly and with characters already steeped into the crisis of being who they are. It also employs very simple English language.

With his collection, The House of Hunger (1978), Marechera uses the short story as a literary vehicle for a more individual expression of personal experience. As in the long short story ‘House of Hunger,’ Marechera is able to employ a young central character  who looks at colonial Rhodesia from a very intense and personal point of view that the process of reading it takes one into the bosom of the narrator. The world is described from a very subjective and personal point of view:

"I got my things and left…I couldn’t think where to go. I wandered towards the beerhall… where I bought a beer… I sat beneath the tall msasa tree…I was trying not to think about where I was going. I didn’t feel bitter. I was glad things had happened the way they had..."

The Stanley Nyamfukudza short story, like the case with Mungoshi, uses simple English language but it is elaborate in its descriptions almost approximating painting:

 "Sometimes, in the morning, standing there with his pick, shovel and axe on his shoulders, it seemed pointless, mad even. How could one man and woman fight against all this thick forest, sustained only by the dream that if they kept at it, they would in the end claim some room…"

Elaborate Aftermaths deals with the mental and physical implications of characters in newly independent Zimbabwe. The Nyamfukudza short story itself as in Mungoshi is very brief.

Immediately beyond these three, the other major voices in short story includes, but not limited to, David Mungoshi with Broken Dream and Other stories Shimmer Chinodya with Can We Talk, Alexander Kanengoni with Effortless Tears and Yvonne Vera’s Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals.


However, it has not yet been fully enquired if we could, in matters of compositional technique, talk about the Zimbabwean short story as we do about for example the American short story. Sometimes one is inclined to think in terms of ‘short stories in Zimbabwe.’ But, do we have a Zimbabwean short story or we have various individual short story writers who happen only to be domiciled in Zimbabwe? Is the short story in Zimbabwe able to stand by itself as a tradition or it is seen as part of the prose tradition in Zimbabwe?


In considering a Bibliography of Zimbabwean fiction published in 1986, Dieter Riemenschneider indicates that it lumps up the short story with the novel. He further observes that all these facts and figures, tell us little about the growth of the short story genre, and its popularity with writers, readers, and little also about the Zimbabwean short story’s literary quality. For Riemenschneider, ‘the more interesting question would be whether writers of short fiction from Zimbabwe have contributed to the form. How have they handled the genre? Are all of their short pieces of prose fiction short stories in the narrow sense of the term, or have they stretched it, modified it?’

A cross sectional glance will show that the typical Zimbabwean short story tends to be of a relatively shorter length when compared to short stories from other parts of the world.  For instance, Wonder Guchu’s ‘The Wooden Bridge’ or ‘The Hen’ from Sketches of High Density suburb is just about three pages long but the burden and depth of that story is infinite. The author is under some pressure to tell his story in as short a space as possible. The narrator in this kind of short story is usually a child. The child’s perspective in these short stories is a clever technique to suggest a certain innocence when, in fact, this child leads the reader to very important issues. As a result, it is also not a coincidence that most of these short stories tend to end in an inconclusive way. They merely hazard a suggestion or just wander into a kind of poetic haziness. The narrative tends to disappear into the matter or vegetation like some skilled guerilla fighter.


In No more Plastic Balls a collection of short stories by five young authors then, Robert Muponde’s work is probably the most outstanding. In Muponde’s stories you come across the Marecherean God–forsake-us attitude but the wit and the sting belongs to Muponde himself.


Writing Still  and Writing Now and their sequel volumes edited and published by Irene Staunton (Weaver Press) have stories from a cross section of Zimbabwean writing; from the voices of experience such as John Eppel, William Saidi and Shimmer Chinodya, to the new voices like Brian Chikwava, Lawrence Hoba, Adrian Ashley and Ethel Kabwato, among others. Most of these stories use known events and incidents from the Zimbabwean crisis as a backdrop.But from Hoba’s discerning child-narrator, Chinodya’s ‘fallen’ man, Chingono’s kachasu drinkers, to Mungoshi’s lonely Chizuva, these stories are either blessed with humour or surreal hope.

Brian Chikwava’s kaleidoscopic story in Writing Still, 'Seventh Street Alchemy' won him the prestigious Caine Prize in 2004. This story is about a day in the individual lives of the down and outs of Harare.  Petina Gappah’s short story book, An Elegy for Easterly won the Guardian First book Award 2009. US-based Zimbabwean author, NoViolet Bulawayo has won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing beating over 120 writers with her short story Hitting Budapest. In Bulawayo’s story, a bevy of township kids set out to steal guavas from an affluent section of town. The three cases, among many give credence to the fact that the Zimbabwean short story has become a force to reckon with in the whole African region.
+ By Memory Chirere



Tuesday, March 19, 2013

My favourite love poem is from Pablo Neruda

Tonight I can write the saddest lines

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example,'The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes?

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her?
The night is shattered and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. Like my kisses before.
Her voice. Her bright body. Her inifinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.
By Pablo Neruda


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A new Zimbabwean book that may cause a whole conference

Zvinoda Kutangira Pasi, a play by Willie Lungisani Chigidi
Published in 2011 by Zimbabwe Publishing House, Harare
ISBN: 9780797446434, 64 pages
Reviewed by Memory Chirere
Although I am yet to see it on stage, veteran Shona playwright, Willie L Chigidi’s latest and sixth play, Zvinoda Kutangira Pasi, shakes the faith of some of us who have not had opportunity to think deeply about the real lives of actors and how acting itself may relate with their lives on and off the set.

As a result, this is a play with potential to cause a whole conference among those in the fields of theories of literature and drama.

Although we may know that acting is imitation, would you stand it, if as in Zvinoda Kutangira Pasi, your wife appears in a local tv drama as somebody’s girl friend?

Where would you put your eyes when your wife’s tv drama lover gives her a lingering kiss in front of the whole nation? Would you simply watch from the couch in the sitting room? If you are in the bar with some dear friends, would you dismiss it and say: “Well, they are just acting”?

After all that, how would you feel when strangers point you out in public, saying: “There goes the real husband to that mischievous tv drama woman.”?

Just where do we draw the line between life on stage and the real life of an actor? And; can actors claim that they are not affected (positively or negatively) by what they play on stage? Is our society ready yet to accept that the killer on stage could actually be a loving father and husband in real life? Although these matters appear simple, Chigidi seems to insist through his play that they are not.

Johannes Mabhechu cannot believe his eyes when his wed wife, Geraldine acts girlfriend to a local tycoon and serial bed-hopper called Justice. Whenever the sensational tv drama begins, Johannes either walks out of his friends in the bar or sits there, sulking. If he is in the home, he either rushes to switch off the tv or sits there scowling and muttering to himself. He does not know how to face his half grown daughters who encourage their mother. He also does not know how to face in real life the man who is playing tycoon and lover of his wife.

He wants to know why his wife, of all the women in the regional town, was picked to play this “dirty” part in this drama. He also wants to know why the director and those responsible for casting did not pick their spouses to play this troublesome part.

Besides being a play within a play, Zvinoda Kutangira Pasi belongs to the theatre of ideas. Here the dramatic action is largely played out in ways that parade sharply conflicting ideas. There is very limited emotional and physical action. Only once do things become physical and somebody receives a slap across the face.

As the title 'Zvinotangira Pasi' suggests, this play invites you to go back to bare basics: Does drama mean the same for both African and western audiences? Do you become what you act? As usual, Willie Chigidi is keen on churning out plays that ask fundamental questions just as in; Mhosva Ndeyako, Mufaro Mwena and Imwe Chanzi Ichabvepi? and others.

However, Chigidi could have done better with the three Mabhechu sisters by making them more distinct. They tend to speak like one another and their opinions coalesce. This is a play that could be relevant across Africa and may be worth translating.

Born and bred in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe, Willie Chigidi is a Professor of African languages and literature at the Midlands State University, Gweru.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Stephen Mpofu's 'Creatures At The Top'

Title: 'Creatures At The Top' published in 2012, by Spiderwize,
259pages, isbn:978-1-908128-39-3
Authour: Stephen Mpofu

Stephen Mpofu has done justice to his memories. His new book, Creatures At The Top will speak for Mpofu long after he is gone. His grandchildren and their children’s children will be able to see Rhodesia and newly independent Zimbabwe through his eyes and not through the eyes of Mpofu’s enemies or even that of his friends!

He does not claim that he was right in whatever he did or omitted but he leaves you with a feeling that life is a journey with a twisting path and one’s enemies and friends are just sign posts on that road. What matters is one’s own indefatigable ideals and principles and to know that at least one has them.

Using a pen name, Sam, Stephen Mpofu writes about a black boy from Mberengwa in Rhodesia of the 1960s who embarks on the archetypal journey crossing into Zambia to train as a journalist, only coming back to an independent country after two decades, serving in the media during a critical period and eventually being forced to quit when the heat became too much.

This is a book that takes a cross sectional view of Zambia and Zimbabwe, two nations in transition. The point of view here is that of a humanist nationalist journalist. He wants justice and prosperity and he knows and sometimes is even happy that this may bring him down.

It is a story about exile and consequently about Zambia and its hate-love relationship with exiles and war combatants from across the region. This is a story about; the Copperbelt, Chimwemwe Township, the Northern Star, Sam Nujoma, Kenneth Kaunda, the Times of Zambia, Tererai Gapa, Philemon Ngandu, Vernon Mwaanga William Saidi and others. “In their rather harsh and but well intentioned exhortations, the Zambians however failed to acknowledge the role played by Zimbabweans whose votes had contributed to UNIP’s sweet electoral victory.”

Later on, this becomes a no holds barred story about; the power games and the relentless dynamics at the Zimpapers, Elias Rusike, Willie Musarurwa, Tommy Sithole, Charles Chikerema, Moeletsi Mbeki, Henry Muradzikwa, Tonic Sakaike, Davison Maruziva, Gareth Willard, Geoffrey Nyarota and others.

In the new Zambia, Sam had noticed that “there is a tendency among some aides (of the leader) to ingratiate themselves with a leader by telling him only those things that they think will please and pacify the boss. Such aides always want to think for the leader as though he were in that position by default and not on account of a demonstrated capacity to think for his nation and himself.”

His return after nearly twenty years of exile leaves Sam in a dilemma. He had long experienced freedom in Zambia and coming to back to one’s newly independent country was like ‘stepping back in time.’ And seeing people repeating the errors one had seen committed in newly independent Zambia became an excruciating experience.

 This is a book about what Stephen Mpofu thinks about the role of journalists in national development. For instance, editors within the public media must be strategic thinkers who provide input towards national problem solving, Stephen argues through Sam. Where editors blindly kow tow pressures from outside the newsroom, their crucial advisory role is compromised and moral decay sets in. For instance, the Zambian scenario had demonstrated to Sam that errant individual ministries may intimidate newsmen not to expose them, claiming that any publicity would be an attack on the government.

In this book Stephen Mpofu does not claim any heroics. He had gone to Zambia in the early 1960’s clearly to seek an education and a good job in a free environment. It never occurred to him to go for military training alongside the many young people who came from troubled Rhodesia. He however never lost touch with the main characters in the liberation movement whom he openly supported in real life and in his writings. In fact, they counted him as one of their own.

In the final analysis, Stephen Mpofu is unique in that despite what he sees as his eventual sidelining in independent Zimbabwe, he does not break ranks with nationalist ethos. He remains positively within the ideals of self rule.

Stephen Mpofu was born in Mberengwa District. He trained at Africa Literature Centre, Zambia in 1963 and lived in exile in the neighbouring country for 17 years. From 1965 to 1980, he worked for The Times in Lusaka where he rose through the ranks to become Assistant Editor.He returned to Zimbabwe to become the first black News Editor of The Herald in 1981.He rose to become Senior Assistant Editor until 1987 when he became Sunday Mail Editor for two years.Mpofu was then moved to the Chronicle in Bulawayo where he headed the paper for 12 years until his retirement in 2001.He taught briefly in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the National University of Science and Technology and later left to concentrate on writing his latest book.He remains a writer, as he is a columnist at Chronicle while he is also a member of the Board of Directors at New Ziana. Creature at The Top is his third book after Shadows on the Horizon (1984) and Zambezi Waters run Still, a sociological novel published in 1996.

 +Reviewed by Memory Chirere