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Poised for literature's last laugh
Ranka Primorac
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.

Sometimes, key 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.

Change after 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.

After Mugabe, 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.

Younger writers 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.

Zimbabwean writing 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 that.

But millions 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.

Caine Prize-winner 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 Zimbabwe itself.

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".

Zimbabwe's best 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.

Thirty years 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.

After Mugabe, 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."

Zimbabweans 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.

*Ranka Primorac 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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