Interesting Times in Zimbabwean Literature
This is an interesting time in Zimbabwean writing. And a voice says, "What time hasn't been interesting?" Granted, all times have been interesting, some too interesting to yield any useful literature. Another voice says: "Useful literature?" Yes, a literature that speaks immediately to the world, with great themes, concerns and thrust. "Say what?"
Zimbabwe's lost decade woke a lot of us up, took us out of a state of comfort. This statement is a lie, of course, because for as long as I can remember, there have always been things--big things--happening in our country. By 1990, I was already writing poetry of serious change:
Zvakauya hamawe takadekara,
Yakauya nahwo uso hwainge chikara
Tikati nako kugwagwadza
Ura kuungana mudumbu mogwadza.
Actually, that was 1992. I was a suffering temporary school teacher, waiting to go to some college or other, but I remember a society waking up to confusion (captured in the stanza above), some unable to believe this was their beautiful Zimbabwe, changing so much. Of course, we experienced long queues, and somehow, I liked to stand in them, to catch up on my reading. But in everything I wrote, which I didn't do much with--lack of knowhow on publishing/marketing--, I was chronicling these hard hours in some carthatic way. These were big themes, although I didn't know it then: economic adjustement programmes were shocking people in many African countries and elsewhere. Perhaps a real sign of the times was how as writers we were seeking empowerment. We formed organizations like Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Women Writers, and Zimbabwe African Language Writers Association, and we attended all kinds of meetings, including those of the main organization, Zimbabwe Writers' Union. We read our works, showing our dissatisification with the state of affairs in our country, in our world. We were doing our best to depict what was happening around us, we were being artists at work. But I doubt that most of us were dreaming big then. I, for instance, pursued my writing as something I ought to do, whether or not I would publish the work. I can say that those writing today, including me of course, have good reason to dream big.
Writing after Zimbabwe's lost decade (a phrase I hate because no amount of time is ever lost...), writers have begun work with high expectation (of success, of fame, of sharing something they have to say); there is, or should be, amped up level of courage, but this is not to say that most know what to do with their writing yet, considering that they often have other more immediate concerns of life. I could safely say, then, that the little we are seeing, that which is emerging in different places of the world, is just a small fraction of the courageous writing going on in Zimbabwe.
Back to the poem above; it is the first stanza of a poem called "Yauya Shanduko", written between 1990 and 1992, and performed in public from 1992-1996. I made a few appearances on ZBC Radio 2, hosted by the courageous writer Aaron Chiundura Moyo, and by then I had written other companion pieces like "VepaSpeed", documenting scenes of police-vendor chases, which would become common again in the troubled decade. I used to produce these poems for performance, and sometimes for recording. I also travelled a lot on writing business, as the national secretary of BWAZ. At each meeting where I was the guest or coordinator, I would perform some of these poems about that decade (the 90s). The poems captured the era:
Zvakauya hamawe takadekara,
Yakauya nahwo uso hwainge chikara
Tikati nako kugwagwadza
Ura kuungana mudumbu mogwadza.
I began the poem by stating that the change caught us by surprise, brought dreadful chaos. And indeed, people were not ready for the changes brought by the structural adjustment programmes. One major event then was the restructuring of companies and the civil service; workers waking up to find out they had no jobs, and failing to understand, even where it was explained, why they had lost their jobs. I observed people seeking to spiritual or religious explanations, going to spiritual healers or prophets to seek solutions, and in most cases, ending up losing the little they had saved, paying for the services rendered by spiritual healers. I was involved with a spiritual church then--1992 being the last year I attended it--, and I saw church members seeking solace in what spiritual advice the church would give, as they were supposed to do; yet there was another level of understanding that these people either avoided or ignored.
Most of us wrote about these changes, but we didn't take the process a step further. Or, being yet unskilled, we did not always produce high-quality work, although my friends and fellow writers swore I was the best at the time. And some important names came out then; we had writers like Yvonne Vera, whom we would sit with at the Book Fair--she had just come out with Nehanda, and Why Don't You Carve Other Animals. She had been in the Diaspora, and some of us thought good writing was connected with living in the Diaspora. Dambudzo Marechera, our idol, was still being published posthumously,and we awaited each work with a huge appetite. It was unclear though, who among us actually Dambudzo Marechera, or any of these writers. Chenjerai Hove, Shimmer Chinodya, Nevanji Madanhire, they were publishing, they were the ones we associated with publishing, and we listened when they talked about writing and publishing, about craft, when they came to run our workshops, when we went to eat chicken at their book launches. We liked that we mixed with them, and we admired that they seemed to always go to conferences overseas. But it was also very easy to observe that some of us did no writing, that they just enjoyed being among the published writers of the nation. We were budding writers, which showed promise, although among us were also spuds, those ineffective fellows with no desire work hard for their craft. Still, there was a balance, that was the balance, and we seemed to enjoy our writing lives as they were. But the writing of now demands that we all dream big; there is a certaining urgency in telling the stories of the lost decade, and of other issues we that resonate with us.
I wasn't there to see the decade losing itself, but I felt the tremors, in a big way, whether it was by constantly sending money back home to many members of the extended family, or losing money to people who were supposed to be helping me do this or that project; or it was through the loss of a relative because of lack of medication and timely care. And when you are away in another country and your country is always on the news, you don't always have good days; you are asked questions you can't answer, partly because you are not there, or just because you figure it's not their business; but then it is, because they are also players on the global playing field, so explaining becomes not only your responsibility, but an imperative, in some cases a form of carthasis. I told people that the writing about the decade hadn't started coming out yet, wait until the writers and poets catch up with the era and you will get a sense of the complexity of the decade.
And now, this is the time. In the next few years we will see big works from Zimbabwe. Some will emerge on location in the country, others in places like the USA and Britain. This is already happening: we have seen Petina Gappah, Irene Sabatini, Brian Chikwava, Valeria Tagwira, Tendai Huchu, Christopher Mlalazi...but this is just the beginning (and beginnings can be infinite); in a few months we will see more works. I am quite appreciative of NoViolet Bulawayo breaking into the U.S. market. We will get a sense of how the US market reads Zimbabwean literature. We have seen the influence this market had on Latin American, Asian (especially Indian), Afghan, and other literature. It's a huge market, and it can mean a lot for the Zimbabwean writer.
The story that the world tends to associate with Zimbabwe is too simplistic; one version being that the presidentof that country woke up one day and chased white people from their farms; then he started to kill his own people...and ZANU PF is bad, MDC is good. Other versions focus on how grim life is in Zimbabwe, how everyone is unemployed and starving, and so on. While that's how the media works, it barely is how literature works. If you are seeking entertainment, go to the media, if you are looking for complex coverage of life, go to literature. But some writers try to imitate the media, and focus, in very simplistic terms, on the same perspectives covered by the papers, televisions, and the internets... Perhaps there is a lasting audience for such material, but the material itself is never satisfactory to an incisive reader . This is the reason literature tends to lag behind the newspapers in covering events. In fact, literature does not cover events; it captures life.
The short story in Zimbabwe has played a major role in depicting the interesting decade. The only weakness so far that some of the collections were agenda anthologies, driven by need to cover certain, timely themes, and when you read some of the stories, they tend to repeat that which has been covered by CNN or BBC, with the only difference being that in most cases the writer of the short story lived the situation, and hence related to it in a deeper sense than the BBC journalist reporting Zimbabwe from South Africa. You find that the act of a journalist report one country while based in another is itself better literature.
Now back to the stories that have reported what the author experienced, or saw. Some of them would work best as memoirs not as fiction. One thing to understand about literature is that the writing experience filters that which communicates with the human soul and has a durable impact. Even in memoir, the fact that something horrible happened to you doesn't mean that it's important to the reader. A quick example is that of a story of a young man who lost his virginity at the age of twenty; and the writer presented this story as the greatest on earth, a story that every reader would find intriguing. Losing virginity was so important to the narrator that he spent inordinate amounts of time talking about it; and the effect of reading that story was boredom. Was there a seed of a story in that piece? Yes. Is losing virginity important? Yes. But does that subject alone--experiencing sex for the first time--interest everyone? Not always, or not at all, except to elicit a weak, "Good for you." So then what should the writer do here? Look at the material for your story and think hard about why you should tell it to me. What is in the story that makes it worth sharing with the reader? Did it transform you in some unusual way? Did the narrator discover something in the act that could not be obvious to the reader? But most importantly, how will the story transform and reward the reader?
Because it all boils down to technique in whatever genre you are exploring, I say to Zimbabwean writers you have lots of stories to tell the world, and please tell them, but work on technique. And some of you are already damn good with technique, you have learned it all, and you are unique innovators. So perhaps let's spread the influence, have those with technique teach those without. Yes, technique is something you can acquire, creativity is someting you can already have within you. Often then, there are these writers walking around with seeds for stories but lacking in technique. Learn. Read. And read. You will see how others have handled technique, and you might even discover that you can writer about anything and make it interest readers (the understanding here is that you are not going to satisfy all readers, but those you can satisfy, satify them well; make the experience memorable). Soon, you may be recognized by your signature style, and your readership will grow, yet you never finish learning, which is why you have to continue reading, writing, and teaching others.
With the proper training and support systems, plus resources for publication, Zimbabwean writers are in a good place and time to shine.