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for literature's last laugh
May 03, 2007
There is no
"fast track" when it comes to producing literature. Creative writing
takes time to produce, and an even longer time to be culturally
processed to become a social force that can influence social change.
developments seem to hinge on contingency and chance: Who could
have predicted the arrival on the African scene of a blazing talent
like Yvonne Vera?
At other times,
literary works come close to being industrial products: posterity
is likely to forget most of the liberation war novels written in
Zimbabwe in the 1980s.
But the link
between politics and literature is undeniable, and both politicians
and writers know this. It was with good reason that the colonial
state banned the publication of works by Dambudzo Marechera and
Charles Mungoshi in the 1970s.
It is not for
nothing that Robert Mugabe's government fears the writings of Chenjerai
Hove. Literature imagines and represents new worlds which can threaten
and destabilise old ones.
Mugabe will be less outwardly spectacular than the post-independence
upsurge of creativity and hope, yet there is reason to hope it will
run more deeply. There are several directions it might take.
For nearly two
decades after independence, mainstream Zimbabwean writing looked
backwards, denouncing the suffering and injustice which dominated
the colonial past.
a new generation of writers will turn towards the complexities of
the postcolonial present. The latest novels of Vera and Hove have
already paved the way -- but their bitter condemnation of the 1980s
war in Matabeleland is couched in densely experimental prose, difficult
for most readers to follow.
are likely be more direct and to make use of shorter and journalistic
forms as well as novels. In a recent short story entitled The Bulldozers
are Coming, for example, Chris Mlalazi writes about the Mugabe government's
"urban clearing" -- from the point of view of a pregnant township
woman attacked by the police.
has always been inward-looking: most literature situates itself
within national borders.
During a 2002
interview, I asked Vera if she had ever thought about writing about
other places, and she said she hadn't because it was not a pressing
concern, there were other writers all over the world who could do
of Zimbabweans have been forced to leave home, and writing about
their lives of today does not necessarily mean writing about those
situated inside national borders.
Brian Chikwava, based in the United Kingdom, is working on a novel:
rumour has it that it's situated in Brixton, London. There are certain
to be others. After Mugabe, it will be possible for texts such as
these to be both openly critical of his regime, and published within
It is a part
of its colonial legacy that Zimbabwean writing has always been rooted
in bipolar conflict. This has, of course, in the first instance
been about race. But literary texts have also repeatedly represented
confrontations between traditionalists and modernisers, "patriots"
and "sellouts", men and women, children and parents, the "healthy"
and the "deviant".
literary works have always been those that have rejected the socially
imposed pressure to choose sides.
In Charles Mungoshi's
1975 novel Waiting for the Rain, the traditionally minded rural
grandfather does not condemn or disown an educated, city-bound grandson.
later, in a novel called Chairman of Fools, Shimmer Chinodya writes
against the social exclusion of the mentally unwell. Tsitsi Dangarembga's
world-famous Nervous Conditions speaks against the treatment of
women as "other".
Dual ways of
thinking have taken a deep foothold in modern Zimbabwean culture
-- and this is highlighted by the tragic fate of Marechera, whose
pluralist ways of operating were decades ahead of his time. There
is every reason to hope that, after Mugabe, literature will continue
to show that it is possible to imagine difference differently.
when the restrictive media laws are relaxed, conscious efforts should
be also be made to do away with the national culture of literary
self-silencing. Hove is right when he writes: "Not to tell is death."
can be proud of their literary tradition. Despite the repression
and the silences, and in the face of a succession of governments
that have systematically inflicted pain, suffering and death on
their citizens, mainstream writing has always been centrally concerned
with the value and preservation of life -- and it is safe to predict
that it will continue to do so in the future.
One thing, though,
has been missing: there is remarkably little laughter resonating
across the history of Zimbabwean literature. The comic episodes
in Marechera and Dangarembga and the traces of humour in Vera are
an exception rather than the rule.
When, one day,
authors start writing texts that will make their readers laugh out
freely and loudly, it will be the surest sign that Zimbabwe and
its literature have truly entered the period after Mugabe.
has a degree in literature from the University of Zimbabwe. She
is the author of The Place of Tears: The Novel and Politics in Modern
Zimbabwe (IB Tauris, 2006)
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