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Irae: Days of wrath, days of crisis: A report on the current situation
in Zimbabwean creative writing
December 17, 2007 (Presented in a shortened version at the African
Studies Association Annual Meeting, Nov. 17, 2006)
In 2002 Finnish
political scientist and research fellow at the Nordic Africa Institute
Mai Palmberg initiated a series of interviews with Zimbabwean artists
- across the arts - to document "what the crisis
in Zimbabwe does to the arts, and what the arts do about the crisis."
These interviews are available on line through the Nordic African
Institute as The
State of the Arts in Zimbabwe: Some Notes from 2002—
In an appendix I list the 25 people whom I interviewed and the 11
respondents to an emailed questionnaire. A second appendix provides
a partial list of some of the new writing, published in Zimbabwe
in the last decade, which informed my interviews. My group included
mostly fiction writers, mostly anglophone, several scholars of Zimbabwean
literature and 4 publishers in Zimbabwe. I am deeply grateful to
all the Zimbabweans who gave me their time and were willing to participate
in my project. With one exception, at the outset, I have elected
to make the responses anonymous, although I will be giving direct
quotations from the interviews throughout. I also want to thank
the Hartman family in Harare for special assistance with transport
and telecommunications and St. Lawrence University for a faculty
research grant which covered part of my expenses.
I begin with an overview comment from my interview with professor
of literature Kizito Muchemwa. "Much of the current writing
in Zimbabwe reflects an urban dystopia, symptomatic of failures
in both culture and politics. This literature often reflects a breakdown
in the traditional family and the emergence of children in the role
of mothers and fathers, replacing parents lost to AIDS, domestic
abuse, or to grinding, humiliating poverty. There is frequently
a psychic struggle between children and parents for power."1
And I would add that that domestic struggle at times registers by
indirection the on-going power struggle with the state.
Numerous stories reflect this dystopian landscape and the struggle
between generations. One especially powerful story is "Plastics
and Cardboard," by Memory Chirere (No More Plastic Balls),
which opens in an urban wasteland, a rubbish dump area, where a
disabled mother lives with two teenage children, who, in their dreams
and in reality, beat her viciously for her (to them) obscene sexual
encounters with a blind man. Here the children attempt to discipline
and punish the sexuality of their damaged, but more fully human,
parent figures. Two other stories which feature notably hostile,
gargantuan fathers threatening their children are Madanhire's
"The Grim Reaper's Car" and Mungoshi's "Sins
of the Fathers." These two stories, along with Freedom Nyamubaya's
"That Special Place" (all in Writing Still) are cogently
analyzed in a forthcoming essay by Muchemwa, "'Why don't
you tell the children a story?': Father figures in three Zimbabwean
comment illuminates not just themes in contemporary writing but
the situation of younger writers themselves who are locked in an
agon against the "fathers" of the ruling elite and,
with much less hostility, against the established writers in the
Zimbabwean canon. Here are some of their voices. "The younger
generation is looking for a break with the past. Politics is just
about power struggles" and, sounding a different note, "Younger
writers have thrown all caution to the winds and are tackling political
writing face on, whilst the established, for reasons they cannot
be blamed, proceed with caution." "We younger writers
now have something to focus on and identify with. All the earlier
writing seemed to be about white versus black. Now it is a struggle
between Zimbabweans." "We are running away from the
older writers; we are trying to explore new styles." And from
a member of that older generation, "There is a boldness in
the new writers. They take taboo issues on. You can't help
feeling optimistic. They are very inspiring."
Younger writers often reject the idea that their work is "political"
or "national" because these terms are associated with
ZANU-PF, the ruling party. One respondent said, "Younger writers
are actually working against the idea of a national identity and
are exploring different kinds of communities." Specifically,
they are not interested in writing about - or hearing about
- the national liberation struggle, the second chimurenga.
"We didn't ask the old ones to go to the struggle. We
don't want to hear about that. We want to talk about why there
is no food on the table, and about other pressing problems."
Thus, most younger writers - and indeed most writers in general
- eschew dealing with "politics" or the government
directly, while remaining fully absorbed in the task of recording
the present moment, particularly the human consequences of governmental
policies and the marked development of class differences among black
Zimbabweans. These concerns are so pervasive that one cannot mention
all the stories that take them up in interesting ways. Christopher
Mlalazi is particularly effective in developing characters and dialogue
which evoke destitute urban communities ("Pay Day Hell"
(Writing Now) and "It's His Who Wakes the Hare"
(Short Writings from Bulawayo II); Rory Kilalea, in his ironically
titled "Unfinished Business," and Edward Chinhanhu,
in "These are the Days of our Lives" (both in Writing
Now) structure their stories as tours around cities which show the
economic breakdown that Mugabe's third chimurenga has wrought.
Mzana Mthimkulu provides a compelling psychological portrait of
an ambitious manager in his "The High Flyer" (Writing
Now), and class distinctions also inform Stanley Mupfudza's
"Mermaid out of the Rain" and Julius Chingono's
"Maria's Interview" (both in Writing Still).
The young writers are among the "born frees," coming
of age after independence and benefiting from the efforts made to
strengthen and extend Zimbabwe's educational system, efforts
which have contributed to the number of active, good writers in
this generation. They are free to address new themes, but they also
express a sense of being unanchored. Mostly urban-raised, without
notable contact with a rural home, they are comfortable with English
as a medium of communication. Having realized their parents'
academic aspirations, they feel they are now being criticized for
losing a sense of cultural norms and values. Politically, almost
all of the younger writers feel that the government (the fathers)
has failed the people by leading Zimbabweans into a disastrous economic
crisis. Culturally, the young writers feel somewhat adrift, searching
for new cultural norms, new forms of community, and new ways of
As the sheer
volume of work published in Zimbabwe in the past decade suggests,
there continues to be, despite huge impediments, great interest
in writing. However, the economic situation is such that everyone's
priority is to put food on the table. Few can afford to buy books,
and libraries and schools have almost no budgets for new purchases.
The market for fiction is essentially confined to school texts,
works adopted by the Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council (ZimSEC)
for the national set syllabus for O-level and A-level literature
courses. Writers themselves say the problem is "money, money,
money." "We lack the tools of the trade: paper, pen,
PC, no books to feed the mind, no outlets to publish, the constant
struggle to survive." "Who can write a novel with so
many power cuts?" Magazines which formerly published good
short fiction, such as Parade, Horizon, and Moto, no longer exist.
Much external funding from international NGO's has been discontinued,
and venues that supported the arts in the mid-1990's, such
as the International Book Fair, no longer thrive.
There is the further issue of censorship. "The majority of
contemporary Zimbabwean writers are steering clear of direct engagement
with the politics of the country. They are assuming the role of
documenting what is happening without commenting or engaging directly
with it in their writing. The few exceptions are one or two playwrights
who are being routinely harassed and detained by the country's
security agents as a result." In public venues such as theater
in the park, street theater, poetry slams, and book launches, "you
always feel monitored and you wonder who is the CIO man in your
audience." "There is always self-censorship, a feeling
of insecurity. I keep my stories at the level of ordinary people
on the ground. I don't write about changing the government.
I'm afraid to." There is this wry consolation: "There
is fear in writing here, but you presume the authorities don't
read your book," said one writer, commenting on what many
said: books are too rare a commodity read by too few people to need
to be censored. Even so, "there is ruthless self-editing,"
a need to avoid any overt critique of government policies or reference
to individuals in government, a need to craft a book that will be
acceptable to the publishers, to ZimSEC, and to the often very conservative
parents of children in the schools.
In this climate two private presses, Weaver
Press in Harare and ‘amaBooks
in Bulawayo, have become very important for creative writers. Since
novels are costly to write as well as to market, these two houses
have recently published anthologies of fiction in which numbers
of new and established writers are included: Weaver has produced
Writing Still in 2003, Writing Now in 2005, and ‘amaBooks
the three volumes of Short Writings from Bulawayo (in 2003, 2005,
and 2006). While it continues to make marketing sense to aim for
the school textbook market (and Writing Still was recently adopted
to become a set text in the schools), both these presses have largely
eschewed profits in order to publish work of high literary quality.
In some cases they have been supported by NGO's, in particular
the Dutch group HIVOS. Another way in which younger writers have
received support has been through the British Council's program
called "Crossing Borders," which uses the internet to
link up aspiring writers in several African countries, including
Zimbabwe, with writing mentors.
Even to characterize, publicly, the present situation in Zimbabwe
as a "crisis" is considered daring and happens infrequently.
I asked writers if they considered the current situation a crisis
and whether they found Mugabe's term for this period, the
third chimurenga, helpful. There was absolute unanimity about the
crisis: an older writer of broad experience commented, "Everyone
agrees there has to be a change. There must be change. I have never
seen a consensus of this magnitude." Another wrote: "Each
day you see around you people trying to eke out a living, lamenting
about the rising costs of basic commodities. You are aware of a
centre that simply will not hold anymore. What matters the term
used to name it? The term can be as hollow as the politicians who
coined. it. The term is meaningless, but the condition is inescapable."
Many found the term "third chimurenga" an "empty
slogan," "just propaganda," "nonsense. Revolution
comes from the people and not from the leader, top down. The first
and 2nd chimurengas had the backing of spiritual forces and the
people supported it. It's nothing like that now." "The
third chimurenga is the President's psychological war against
home-grown opposition politics." "Chimurenga means war.
That's what we have. We are in a crisis that is like a war.
We all agreed there needs to be land distribution, but we didn't
think it would have these economic consequences." A number
of other responders were more open to the term: "Land reform
is a beautiful idea, and Mugabe unleashed this revolution, but it
is true that he has failed to tame it." "The third chimurenga
has brought in a new era, it is the ending of a period of drought
in creative writing. It means a lot in terms of change of ownership
and also in writing. New voices are being heard. It represents a
new generation of those who didn't see the war, who aren't
concerned with the second chimurenga."
To respond to the situation in which writers feel urgency to represent
a crisis and yet are cautious about how explicit they can be, some
are turning to alternative forms to the dominant mode of realism
(still well represented in the anthologies) - most notably
the use of satirical and post-realist modes. "Writers may
fear censorship but subtlety in writing gets around the censor and
it is better writing. If you want to say something, you look for
indirect ways." Brian
Chikwava's story "Seventh Street Alchemy"
(in Writing Still) combines gritty realism showing the life of an
aging prostitute living on Harare streets with a darkly comic, Kafka-esque
confrontation with a faceless bureaucracy which denies her an identity
because she doesn't have her papers in order. This won the
Caine Prize in 2004. Chris Mlalazi's "id i" (in
Short Writings from Bulawayo III) is a bold engagement with the
violence of the dissident crackdown in Matabeleland, material treated
in a mode of domestic realism which merges into the paranoid, hallucinatory
experience of "the street" in which an outspoken writer
is, or imagines himself to be, threatened by a head of state accompanied
by an old crone. The delirium suggests Joyce's "Nighttown,"and
the crone figures the nation just as Ireland is figured as "the
old sow that eats her farrow." Ignatius Mabasa uses dreamlike
"modern folk tales" as in "Delicious Monstalia"
(Writing Now) to deal with the issue of incest. In Yvonne Vera's
novel about the Gukurahundi in Matabeleland, The Stone Virgins,
her lyrical, poetic prose style functions as a kind of veil over
the violence of the period she addresses. Julius Chingono, a respected
poet, has recently turned to short stories which are basically realistic
but often have a satirical edge. In "Are We Together?"
he depicts youth militia rousting out voters for a ZANU rally, their
bullyingly insistent question "are we together?" serving
as an ironic title which questions the coerced political consensus.
By pushing into the realm of the grotesque, satire offers what one
writer called "deniability." A recently hailed novel
in Shona by Mabasa, Mapenzi ("Fools") makes use of a
madman to tell truths that his fellow fools find plain crazy. Poetry
and metaphor can provide a similar kind of protection. As one writer
said, "You count on the security people being too dumb to
get the point."
Laughter has become a vital way of coping with the daily news. "As
soon as a new policy is announced, you will see a joke about it
on the internet in a hour or two." When I mentioned once that
forming queues has become a regular occupation in Harare, my respondent
told me an ironically self-deprecating joke that was circulating:
"We Zimbabweans have a high "I queue." Humor is
one way of creating and maintaining those alternative communities
that younger writers are seeking. Other micro-communities are developing
in other ways. Some Bulawayo writers have a sense of regional identity
deriving from the different history of Matabeleland since 1980.
Among those most effective in capturing the sense of a community
with its own history is the poet and fiction writer John Eppel.
Despite what I said above about greatly reduced economic resources,
several arts-supporting institutions remain active and foster communities
among their patrons: among them the Book Café on Fife Street,
hosting many arts events, including a monthly poetry slam mentored
by the well-known poet Chirikure Chirikure and the young artist
and arts-manager Victor Mavedzenge; Zimbabwe Women Writers; the
Pamberi Trust; the Harare International Festival of the Arts, or
HIFA, operating since 1999 with an annual week-long festival in
April; and the Intwasa arts festival in Bulawayo, operating since
2005. The two private publishing houses, Weaver and ‘amaBooks,
have also fostered a sense of writers'communities. Added to
these should be various on-line groups which allow Zimbabwean artists,
both in the country and in the diaspora, to stay in touch and to
feel connected to a global community of the arts. All of these micro-communities
support individuals who feel disaffected from the state.
I asked participants what they considered to be the hallmark themes,
tropes, and metaphors of contemporary writing. One response reminded
me of the purchase which certain titles continue to have on the
Zimbabwean literary imagination; his list included house of hunger,
house of stone, drought, rain, wounds, thorns, the dry season, fools
and nervous conditions. Shona writer Ignatius Mabasa's next
novel will be titled "Corpses," a likely addition to
this list. Most respondents included among frequent themes poverty,
despair, dysfunctional families, AIDS, domestic violence, the vulnerability
of women and children, power and powerlessness. A few mentioned
land, the farm invasions, urban spaces, the diaspora and the effects
of migration on those who travel and those staying behind. White
writers frequently mentioned loss, pain, change, "you don't
always know where you belong and you need to belong somewhere."
Another commented: "This period is distinctive because the
woes of the masses now, to a certain extent, are home-grown. We
are our own enemies. Shifting the mind to realize this takes time
because we were conditioned by colonialism to look for an external
enemy, the white man to be specific. Bold current writing seeks
to throw light on the high-level lies that have become the food
of the disadvantaged." The trope of the queue shows up quite
often, in the joke I mentioned, in a Chinodya short story "Queues"
(Writing Still), as the central action in Edward Chinhanhu's
"These are the Days of our Lives" (Writing Now) and
as the organizing element in a film that Dangarembga would like
to produce. For me this is a particularly revealing contemporary
trope, arising from fuel and food shortages which have given virtually
all Zimbabweans the experience of being in a queue, where one feels,
on the one hand, a loss of agency and futility, and on the other
hand a sense of a community that forms spontaneously to assist each
other, without much regard for skin color, class, sex, or other
I also asked how current writing is treating rural versus urban
spaces. "Rural space used to be equated with ‘home,'
the kumusha, the repository of positive values and urban space was
seen as alien and oppressive. Now the rural is as likely to be a
place of poverty and disease where one returns to die." "Urban
space is sometimes associated with opposition politics and with
a rejection of indigenous values which are sometimes regarded as
being "sold" by ZANU-PF. Murambatsvina was the erasure,
the bull-dozing of new urban communities that had formed to challenge
the ownership of the city by the nouveau riche ruling elite."
This contest is at the center of Chikwava's story "ZESA
Moto Muzhingji" (Writing Now) in which the protagonist, after
being treated with contempt by his elite employers, returns at day's
end to the community in Chitungwiza which welcomes back home his
eccentric self. The atmosphere of urban dystopia, to recall Muchemwa's
phrase, the presentation of the city as a nightmare scape, is evoked
in many stories and is the focus of Wonder Guchu's Sketches
of High Density Life. Prison space is captured in Chiedza Musengezi's
"Space" (Writing Now), which explores the physical and
psychological confines of women's lives. One respondent commented
that "the new space to be transited and understood is Harare/London,
There is not as yet much writing dealing with the national trauma
of the farm invasions, beginning in 1998-99. This is an extraordinarily
sensitive topic, politically and humanly. The fast-track land reform
policy, in the manner in which it has been conducted, has caused
enormous pain, violence, and dislocation to white farmers and black
farm-workers. A great many Zimbabweans believe land redistribution
was long overdue and necessary. Some, both black and white, question
even this, affirming that the Zimbabwean economy needed to be developed
through industry rather than agriculture, and that the land issue
was purely a political ploy to manipulate the ruling party base.
Two stories, both by young black Zimbabwean writers, catch different
angles on the experience. In "Maize" by Memory Chirere
(Writing Still and republished in hiscollection Somewhere in this
Country) a woman farmer who has been granted more land than she
can till is wooed, in an unorthodox way, by a wandering stranger
who would like to take up with her and her land. In "The Trek"
(Writing Now) Lawrence Hoba shows through a child's eyes how
a black farming family with few resources is overwhelmed, in the
absence of any meaningful community or structural support, when
it attempts to lay claim to a formerly white-owned farm. Alexander
Kanengoni, whose Echoing Silences is among the finest novels about
the liberation struggle, is currently at work on a novel about the
farm invasions. His short story "The Ugly Reflection in the
Mirror" (Writing Still) has already occasioned a good deal
of debate; it portrays a meeting between a white and black farmer,
now neighbors, whose mutual commitment to the land creates common
ground for a new kind of exchange.
I conclude with a comment on Shimmer Chinodya's new novel
Strife. Its themes will, I believe, resonate with many of the younger
writers with whom I spoke. Focusing on one family -- the children,
now grown up, of the Dew in the Morning stories - it explores
the world of the well-educated, urbanized black middle class in
Zimbabwe. It traces these characters' roots, their ancestral
father and mother figures going back 150 years, and the extended
family network which includes rural branches in which indigenous
belief systems have remained strong. In speaking about this novel,
Chinodya said, "I want to start a debate about what it means
to be black and middle class in Zimbabwe, about children who succeed,
who get education and who become Christian, but what does their
success do to them as people? What do we believe in? What is there
beside material pursuits? And at the same time, I want to show that
people 150 years ago faced the same issues as we do today. They
too asked, ‘What do I believe?'"
To return to Professor Muchemwa's comment with which I began
this paper, I note that Chinodya's novel carefully eschews
dealing with contemporary political failures but does focus on the
"failure of culture" which is tied to the "breakdown
in the traditional family" and the "psychic struggle
between children and parents." It would be gratifying to see
an established writer explicitly explore the connections between
failures in the family and failures in the state, something similar
to Nuruddin Farah's trilogy "Variations on a theme of
African Dictatorship." However, I anticipate that the concerns
Chinodya raises will be poignant for many Zimbabweans. Perhaps the
day will come soon when the current political crisis has been resolved
and the cultural and class issues explored in Strife will command
the attention of future generations of readers and writers.
Appendix 1 - Persons Interviewed (25) and Respondents
to an emailed Questionnaire (11)
‘amabooks (Jane Morris and Brian Jones)
College Press - Hloniphani Ndlovu
Weaver Press (Irene Staunton and Murray McCartney)
Zimbabwe Publishing House (Molly Nyanguru)
Appendix 2 -Partial List of Zimbabwean Literature
and Criticism, 1997-2006
Short Story Anthologies
A Roof to Repair. College Press, 2001.
Light a Candle: A collection of Short Stories by Zimbabwe Women
ed. Eresina Hwede. Zimbabwe Women Writers, 2006.
No More Plastic Balls: New Voices in the Zimbabwean Short Story
eds. Robert Muponde and Clement Chihota. College Press, 2000
Short Writings from Bulawayo - ed. Jane Morris. ‘amaBooks,
Short Writings from Bulawayo II - ed. Jane Morris. ‘amaBooks,
Short Writings from Bulawayo III - ed. Jane Morris. ‘amaBooks,
Writing Still: New Stories from Zimbabwe - ed. Irene Staunton.
Weaver Press, 2003.
Writing Now: More Stories from Zimbabwe - ed. Irene Staunton.
Weaver Press, 2003.
Single Author Collections of Short Stories and Poetry
Chihota, Clement. Before the Next Song. Mambo, 1999.
Chingono, Julius. Not Another Day. Weaver, 2006.
Chinodya, Shimmer. Can We Talk and Other Stories. Baobab, 1998.
Chirere, Memory. Somewhere in This Country: Short Stories.
University of South Africa Press, 2006
Chirikure, Chirikure. Hakurarwi (We shall not sleep). Baobab, 1998.
Napukeni. Samayanga Records, 2002.
Eppel, John. Songs My Country Taught Me. Weaver, 2005.
Hove, Chenjerai. Blind Moon. Weaver, 2003
Mungoshi, Charles. Walking Still. Baobab Books, 1997.
Guchu, Wonder. Sketches of High Density Life. Weaver, 2004.
Huggins, Derek. Stained Earth: A Collection of Short Stories. Weaver,
Chinodya, Shimmer. Chairman of Fools Weaver, 2005.
Strife Weaver, forthcoming in 2006.
Dangarembga, Tsitsi. The Book of Not. Ayebia Press, 2006.
Eppel, John. Hatchings. ‘amaBooks, 2006, Carrefour, 1993.
Mabasa, Ignatius. Mapenzi. 1998.
Musariri, Blessing. Going Home: A Tree's Story. Weaver, 2005
Mufuka, Kenneth. Matters of Conscience. Mambo, 1999.
Critical Books and Essays
Hove, Chenjerai. Palaver Finish. Weaver, 2002.
Muchemwa, Kizito and Robert Muponde, eds. Manning the Nation: Father
Figures in Zimbabwean Literature and Society. Harare and Johannesburg:
Weaver Press and Jacana Press, 2007.
Muponde, Robert and M. Taruvinga, eds. Sign and Taboo: Perspectives
on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera. Weaver, 2002.
Muponde, Robert and Ranka Primorac. Versions of Zimbabwe: New Approaches
to Literature and Culture Weaver, 2005.
Mguni, Z, M. Furusa, R. Magosvongwe. African Womanhood in Zimbabwean
Literature: New Critical Perspectives on Women's Literature
in African Languages.
Primorac, Ranka. The Place of Tears: The Novel and Politics in Modern
Zimbabwe. Tauris and Weaver, 2006.
Vambe, Maurice T. and Memory Chirere. Charles Mungoshi: A Critical
Reader. Prestige Books, 2006.
Veit-Wild, Flora. Writing Madness: Borderlines of the Body in African
Literature. James Currey, Weaver, and Jacana Media, 2006.
1. This quotation
is from an earlier version of an essay by Kizito Muchemwa, "'Why
don't you tell the children a story?': Father figures
in the Zimbabwean short story," in Manning the Nation: Father
Figures in Zimbabwean Literature and Society, Kizito Muchemwa and
Robert Muponde, eds. Harare and Johannesburg: Weaver Press and Jacana
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