Monday, May 15, 2023

KwaChirere reads Austin Kaluba's new stories

Author: Austin Kaluba
Title: Mensah’s London Blues and other Stories
Publisher, Carnelian Heart Publishing in the UK, 2023, 117 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-914287-04-6
Hardback ISBN 978-1-914287-05-3

The exciting Zambian author, Austin Kaluba, who once wrote a letter artistically and impeccably, like Dambudzo Marechera, has published his own collection of short stories with Carnelian Heart Publishing in the UK! It is a book entitled Mensah’s London Blues and other Stories.

Amongst these short stories, of course, is the people’s favourite piece “Dambudzo Marechera’s letter to Samantha” and Kaluba’s fans will be happy to find it here. Until recently, very few people knew that the so called “Dambudzo Marechera’s letter to Samantha” was not written by Marechera himself but by Zambian writer, Austin Kaluba, as part of a broad 2011 project in Marechera’s memory. Kaluba imagined what Marechera would sound like writing to his ex-girlfriend after having expelled from Oxford University.

Kaluba's “Dambudzo Marechera’s letter to Samantha” generated an avalanche of positive responses in Zimbabwe and among Zimbabweans in the diaspora. Because of the very successful imitation of Marechera style and language demonstrated in that piece, many believed it was actually written by Dambudzo himself. The responses even crossed to academics who thought the letter was written by Dambudzo himself. When it was revealed that the letter to Samantha was not written by Marechera himself, many were disappointed to the extent that, for a while, they rejected the revelation itself. Such is the power of art.

When I interviewed Austin Kaluba a few months ago, he had this to say about his "Dambudzo Marechera’s letter to Samantha": “I had read works by the late Zimbabwean writer and tried through extensive reading on his life to understand his troubled upbringing in colonial Zimbabwe, his years in England and his bohemian life that could have qualified him to be some kind of black Oscar Wilde. Yeah, I had to get it right by not leaving any detail that summed up the life of the shamanic writer he was…”

Kaluba continued, “Marechera’s vulgar language and mistrust of any other person who did not share his views about the crooked world had to be crammed into the story. Dambudzo thrived on shocking people using sexual symbolism and other unconventional ways of driving his point home. I had to get all this right. I also ensured the story worked at two levels; Dambudzo representing Africa explaining himself to his white girlfriend who is representing Europe. In short the story is about the damage Europe has done on its former colonies…”

The Marechera letter begins: “Dear Samantha. I think by now you have heard what happened when those hypocrites in administration chased me from their white university giving me an option between being sectioned or expelled. I chose the latter, a decision which shocked them out of their warped wits. I have forgiven them because together with you they thought as an African student from some remote Southern African country I was privileged for receiving tertiary education at Oxford, a learning institution they have overrated as a citadel of knowledge just like Cambridge or Harvard. It is such  academic mad houses that  keep on churning out arrogant, snobbish, hypocritical and pea-minded bastards who enter the world with the superior airs of holier-than-thou, we and them attitude calling themselves Doctors, Professors or any stupid titles to distance themselves from other ordinary folks whom they look down on as dunces…”

The story about Marechera’s troubled stay in England is well known as it appears in many versions in many of his autobiographical narratives and they have now over spilled into Kaluba’s collection.

In Mensah’s London Blues and other Stories, Austin Kaluba writes short stories about characters from across Africa; apartheid South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi and others, sometimes picking snippets of the various mother tongues from each of those countries. It is a collection that shows how the UK has become a melting pot, a cultural confluence even. There is the overpowering sense of how Africans play out their crucial drama away from Africa.

There is an antagonistic relationship between the destination and the home left behind by the one who travels. This is more closely related to the old but constantly resurfacing ‘centre – periphery’ theory.  Generally the western city is the centre and the home of those in the Diaspora is the periphery.

The characters in these short stories are constantly aware that they are in foreign territory. Their activities show that they are constantly looking back at home in the periphery, which in turn is either checkmating them or aiding them down a rebellious path from the culture and norms of home.

However, this collection makes a calculated and laid back take off with a child narrator’s story called "Kippie Goes Home."  It is during apartheid South Africa, a boy is given a suicide note written by a neighbour’s son so that he could read it loudly to two elderly women. After that the letter reader is never the same again. He is transformed. The boy from next door who has slaughtered himself suddenly comes alive. As he reads the letter, the boy is transfigured. He is nolonger reading. he is now living the life of the writer.

The title story itself, "Mensah’s London Blues" begins with the voice of a forlorn Ghanaian man: “I came to England as John Mensah, then I became Kofi Gyan, and later I came to be known as Kwame Ampiah. I was busted for my deception when my real name appeared in all the newspapers. My dark face popped out of the picture sheepishly, as if butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth. The headlines mostly ran along the lines of “Illegal Immigrant Arrested for Drug Trafficking.”

It is a story about the life of many migrants to the UK. It recalls the writings of Brian Chikwava, Andrew Chatora, Leila Aboulela and others. The current migration of young Africans from Africa to the West for economic reasons has given birth to a rich literary tradition that tries to open up the challenges and even the opportunities brought in by this mass movement. In these stories, western space causes a lot of havoc on the body and mind of the traveller.

Maybe my favourite story in this collection is "Mrs Skerman." It shook me to the core. Because his visa in the UK is running out, Kofi plans to find just any female British citizen to marry and be allowed to stay. In this tragic-comic story, the hunter becomes the hunted! Kofi meets Mrs Skerman through a dating agency. She is 20 years older than him! His first description of her is something to recall as it reveals Austin Kaluba’s power of description which also runs through this collection:

“The first thing I noticed was her pronounced ugliness. The skin on her face was thick and leathery, making her resemble a walrus. She had wrinkles around her eyes and a deep frown line in between her brows, as though a small axe had made its mark. She had a fleshy double chin with a beard sprouting from it, and though she shaved every morning, it never helped to smoothher complexion. The blade left ugly red marks which were worse than the beard. She was also unusually tall for a woman and walked with a shuffling gait, her meaty hips moving piston-like. She spoke in a halting voice that fell somewhere between a whisper and a growl…”

And their first dance in the seedy bar is described thus:

“With so many beers in my belly, when she suggested dancing, I jumped up and led her to the dance floor. It was a slow beat. She held me close in a bear hug, our movements closer to body combat than ball dance. I repeatedly stepped on her shoes, but she didn’t seem to notice. I felt we really looked funny, but the other people were too drunk to see…”

What follows in this story is a huge lesson to all young African men who think that they can take advantage of elderly white women to win what may look like easy pickings. The final twist to this tale left me wanting to laugh and cry at the same time.

“Auntie Agatha’s Quest” is a story about a Zambian woman whose imitation of whiteness goes overboard. She is always constantly writing her O level English and failing. The harder she tries, the harder she falls. When she crosses over to settle in England with her husband, her drive for white things is still unstoppable and this leads to one tragic moment after another. Only when she is ill does she resign and loudly break into perfect ChiBemba, “Ntwaleni kumwesu eko nkaye fwila. Teti mfwile mwanabene. We chalo uli mukali.” – Take me home to die. I don’t want to die in a foreign land. Oh, what a cruel world.

“Maria’s Vision” is a story about two Zimbabweans in the diaspora who are drifting apart. They are coming from a tumultuous Zimbabwe but as soon as they get to England, that change of zone helps them realise that they are just a terrible mismatch.

The more Tapiwa watches tv the more they re-enact what is on tv: “Tapiwa finished his meal and switched on the TV. He changed channel after channel till he settled on a repeat boxing match between Daryl Harrison and Danny Williams. He moved his head at the landing of each punch from the two boxers. Maria hated finding herself with such a difficult man. She had thought long and hard about how she could end her miserable marriage, especially now that she was in Britain where divorce was easier than back home. But something always held her back, not least of all the fear of shaming her family and acting contrary to her Christian faith…”

Then there is the Nigerian, Obi Akwari who is always writing essays about why the Igbos of Eastern Nigeria ought to secede from the rest of the country. In his work, he is not only targeting Nigerians, but the Western world as his audience, especially the Britons and the French, who were responsible for the genocide against the Igbos during the Biafra civil war during the late '60s and early '70s. He believes in his work so much so that he sometimes faints with emotion in the middle of his sentences!

Austin Kaluba’s best stories have a psychological realism and concision seldom matched by other writers.

About his own life as a writer Austin Kaluba once said to me: “I am an introvert who is highly opinionated and bohemian. I write poetry, short stories and do translations. One of my translations Frown of the Great in English was previously published as Pano Calo in ci-Bemba (the commonest language in Zambia). It has been re-published in Zimbawe by Mwanaka Media and Publishers as a bilingual collection.  I am also working on a collection of short stories Mensah’s London Blues and Other Stories to be published in England. The collection has two stories with Zimbabwean characters A Dream Deferred and Maria’s Vision. The latter has been made into a movie by Tendai Mudhliwa, a UK-based Zimbabwean film maker. The movie stars Memory Savanhu and a cast of UK-based Zimbabwean actors like Goodwin Ngulube, Lydia Nakwakilo,Ashley Majaya ,Belinda Majego and Kudzai Manyeku. So you see Memory, my love for Zimbabwe has not ended with writing about Dambudzo but contributing a movie to Zollywood. I have also translated John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress into ci-Bemba…”

+Memory Chirere