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November 27, 2008
to this Book Cafe discussion here
begin my presentation on satire with reference to my application,
earlier this year, for a grant as African guest writer for three
months at the Nordic Africa Institute. In previous years, my applications
for writers- grants were simply ignored, but this time I was
put on a shortlist and then placed third out of a list of three
reserves for the position.
The grant was
awarded to a young Nigerian writer called Tolu Ogunlesi. The first
reserve was a young Kenyan writer called Shailja Patel; the second
reserve was a young Zimbabwean writer called Brian Chikwava; and
the final reserve was an old Zimbabwean writer called John Eppel.
The four judges
submitted a report and this is what they said about me, quote: "...a
writer and teacher in Zimbabwe who has published poetry and fiction
since 1982 [the late 60s, actually] but as a white and irreverent
satirical writer, has not received the recognition he deserves,"
unquote. I applaud the judges for their honesty.
The key phrase
here is "irreverent satirical writer"; but the other
objection, that I am white, is not without relevance to this topic.
For example, in my first novel, D G G Berry-s The Great North
Road, which focuses its satire exclusively on white settlers, I
use the Ndebele word, umdidi, meaning arsehole. It is the name I
give to the village inhabited by the white settlers of the novel.
I use the backside as a metaphor of whites, my people, behaving
badly; and since the novel is partly autobiographical (the hapless
protagonist, Duiker, is my alter ego), I include myself in the vicious
attack. This novel won the M-Net prize in South Africa, and the
administrators immediately sent press releases to the Herald and
the Chronicle who ignored them. Consequently very few Zimbabweans
have even heard of it, let alone read it. But one journalist who
did read it (he borrowed my copy) was the late Godfrey Moyo. Godfrey
dismissed the novel as racist: why? Because I used the Ndebele word,
And this brings
me to a misgiving expressed by some that although satire can play
a significant role in society, ridiculing the corrupt and the complacent
and the self-righteous, it can easily be misunderstood, since it
is a form of irony, by less sophisticated readers as threatening
to them. I-m not sure about this. There was certainly nothing
unsophisticated about Godfrey Moyo and others, even fellow poets,
who have chosen to misinterpret my writing by dismissing it as racist.
There is indeed a long and popular tradition of satire in Africa-s
oral culture. You-ll find it in songs, stories, drama, even
in praise poetry. It-s probably a lot more good-natured than
the Europeans, beginning with Juvenal and running through Chaucer,
Rabelais, Swift, Pope, Voltaire, Jane Austen, Hogarth, Monty Python,
and Private Eye, but it is nevertheless there. I suspect that those
who feel threatened by satire, even if they aren-t in obvious
positions of power, deserve to be. Let him who is without hypocrisy
toss the first cabbage! (That is a challenge I have failed many
times). In any case, it wasn-t the ordinary people of Zimbabwe
who suppressed for years other satirical writers like Dambudzo Marechera,
Julius Chingono, and Cont Mhlanga; it was the establishment - the
literary establishment in cahoots with government organs, before
and after Independence. Is it not a breath of fresh air then that
some of our most promising young writers: Petina Gappah, Christopher
Malalazi, Brian Chikwava, to name a few, are satirists, the "born
frees" who will not be blocked as the older generation was
blocked by the establishment.
But the fact
that even a progressive organization like the Nordic Africa Institute
can be troubled by satire, to call it irreverent is tautological,
is interesting to say the least. Perhaps this would be a good time
to look at the genre itself, and then return to its problematic
role in African cultural studies. This is how the Oxford Concise
Dictionary of Literary Terms defines satire: A mode of writing that
exposes the failings of individuals, institutions, or societies
to ridicule and scorn. Satire is often an incidental element in
literary works that may not be wholly satirical, especially in comedy.
Its tone may vary from tolerant amusement, as in the verse satires
of the Roman poet, Horace, to bitter indignation, as in the verse
of Juvenal or the prose of Jonathan Swift.
goes on to make an interesting point: that the 17th and 18th centuries
were the greatest period of satire in Europe because, quote: "writers
could appeal to a shared sense of normal conduct from which vice
and folly were seen to stray," unquote. Is there a shared
sense of normal conduct in Zimbabwe? And if not, is this a possible
reason why the genre of satire in the postcolonial period seems
What the definition
does not point out is that, in order to succeed, satire must be
funny. But not everybody finds Monty Python or "The Rape of
the Lock" or "Borat" funny! Many good people find
them silly or offensive. Incidentally, the direction of our laughter
is a good way to distinguish between satire and comedy: in the former
we laugh at the characters; in the latter we laugh with the characters.
In the best tragi-comedy, like Waiting for Godot, for example, the
two prepositions merge, and that can sometimes result in sadness.
As the poet, Byron, said: "And if I laugh at any mortal thing,
'tis that I may not weep". Byron-s mock epic,
Don Juan, is one of the great English satires.
stock defence is that he attacks the type and not the individual;
in Jonathan Swift-s words: "No individual should resent
/ Where thousands equally were meant"; or Jaques in Shakespeare-s
comedy As You Like It, using the sin of pride as an example:
Why, who cries out on pride,
That can therein tax any private party?
Doth it not flow as hugely as the sea...?
But in the character
of Jaques, Shakespeare satirises the satirist who is disingenuous,
who pretends to stand on the high moral ground but is only interested
in vindictively attacking, speaking daggers at, people against whom
he might have a personal grudge. And it has been suggested that
Shakespeare himself, in the character of Jaques, is having a personal
dig at his near contemporary, the satirist, Ben Jonson who boasted:
an armed and resolved hand
I-ll strip the ragged follies of the time
Naked as their birth.
There is no
doubt that much satirical energy is expended in personal vendettas.
Here is Alexander Pope besmirching Lord Hervey:
let me flap this bug with gilded wings-
This painted child of dirt, that stinks and stings.
Here is Charles Dickens taking it out on Leigh Hunt, caricaturing
him as the social parasite Harold Skimpole, in his novel Bleak House:
... for he must confess to two of the oldest infirmities in
the world: one was, that he had no idea of time; the other, that
he had no idea of money.... All he asked of society, was to let
him live. That wasn-t much. His wants were few. Give him the
papers, conversation, music, mutton, coffee, landscape, fruit in
the season, a few sheets of Bristol-board, and a little claret,
and he asked no more. He was a mere child in the world, but he didn-t
cry for the moon. He said to the world, "Go your several ways
in peace...go after glory, holiness, commerce, trade, any object
you prefer; only - let Harold Skimpole live!"
We recall the
old proverb of the pot calling the kettle black. We recall the revenge
of the weak - the sickly, stunted hunchback Alexander Pope, England-s
greatest satirist, hurling philippics against the Beau Monde.
By way of ending
this paper, I-d like to return to its beginning, and look
again at the Nordic Africa Institute-s singling out my irreverence
and the colour of my skin as factors which have penalised me as
a writer. I don-t think they have a problem with satire itself
as a genre; or whiteness itself as a condition of the skin; I think
it-s the combination that worries them. I am reminded of those
dreadful American comics I grew up on, cowboys and Indians, and
the stock, yet pertinent, accusation: "Paleface speak with
um forked tongue"; and with its history of colonisation, doesn-t
Africa have every justification to distrust the ambiguous voice
of the colonizer? Africa-s most famous satirist is Nobel Prize
winner, Wole Soyinka (there-s not a troubling combination);
Africa-s most famous Confessional prose writer is Nobel Prize
winner, J.M. Coetzee (there-s not a troubling combination.)
But people smell mischief when a white settler chooses, not good-natured
comedy or abject apology, but scatological, scurrilous, malicious,
vicious, capricious satire. Why, then do I choose it?
I-ll tell you why. It is because I am an angry old man who
has spent half his life as a Rhodesian and half his life as a Zimbabwean.
In fascist Rhodesia I turned to satire because, how else could I
record, in retrospect, my relatively happy childhood as 'piccanin
baas John-? In totalitarian Zimbabwe I turned to satire because,
how else could I record my relatively happy adulthood as 'iwe,
makiwa!-? Before I became politically aware, and it happens
late or never if you grew up in Colleen Bawn, I wrote poetry exclusively,
and very little of it was satirical. I wrote about the usual stuff
poets write about: mortality, loss, love, birds, the weather. There
is, however, one aspect of my poetry that has become, over the years,
satirical, and that is prosody. More and more I use it ironically,
self-consciously, as a tool of self-criticism, as a tool to accuse
the culture that produced it. I don-t write sonnets, I write
parodies of sonnets, and parody only succeeds if it is as skilful
as the object it parodies.
What inspired me most, I believe, was a sense of being rooted in
the soil, and this, certainly with historical justification, but
also with a good deal of political correctness, has been denied
me. The historical view of the Land is that the whites looked upon
it as property to exploit for material gain and the blacks looked
upon it as a source of spirituality. In his interview with Ranka
Primorac, Chenjerai Hove speaks for all white settlers (peaking
at approximately 270 000) when he says, "For white people
it was just a place where you put seeds, grow crops and sell them
and make big money and go to holidays in Portugal or London or South
Africa." The worst thing he can say about black people who
were given farms forcibly taken from white commercial farmers is
that they are behaving like whites: "People who now have land
don-t know the spiritual meaning of land. They are trying
to behave as if they were settlers. To just go in there and grab
a piece of land...." The idea that white settlers are, by
definition, greedy exploiters of the land, ripples into literature
where white poets who express in words a love for the land of their
birth are sometimes called insincere or morally questionable.
I should have
given up writing altogether, but I couldn-t. It-s like
an addiction with me. However, being denied a place in the soil,
which gave birth to me and which will, in time, take me back, made
me become more ironical, more ambiguous, more and more satirical.
Still, the number one victim of my cabbage tossing is a certain
ageing left-handed white male school teacher from Matabeleland;
after that, those in power who abuse power; then come the bigots,
the smug, the sanctimonious, the self-righteous - virtual synonyms.
I do not mock the poor, the sick, the homeless, little children
- the disempowered.
A final thought:
have some of the world-s current power mongers made satire
redundant? George Bush, Kim Jong Il, Robert Gabriel Mugabe - who
can caricature a caricature? Even so, nobody likes to be laughed
at - those who see themselves as big daddies, least of all.
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