Tuesday, September 18, 2018

All Come to Dust in Bulawayo

Photos courtesy of Violette Kee-Tui
Last week, Bryony Rheam read from some of her published short stories and from her forthcoming novel, All Come to Dust, at Middys Coffee Shop in Bulawayo. The novel follows Chief Inspector Edmund Dube as he investigates the suspicious death of Marcia Pullman. As the investigation unfolds so does the story of Dube's life from his early years as he begins to put the pieces together of why the Scottish couple, for whom his mother worked, left the country in a hurry and Dube with an abiding sense of abandonment.  

The readings at Middys were well attended, with a scattering of other writers published by amaBooks, including Mzana Mthimkhulu, John Eppel and NoViolet Bulawayo. The event was organised by Hubbard's Historical Tours.
NoViolet Bulawayo and Bryony Rheam

John Eppel and friends

Mzana Mthimkhulu

Bryony is an ardent fan of Agatha Christie, a passion inherited from her grandmother. As testimony to this enthusiasm for Christie, she won the international Write Your Own Christie competition, which involved writing a chapter of a novel in the style of Agatha Christie, following on from chapters of previous winners. She was also runner-up for a previous chapter she wrote.
As her prize Bryony travelled to London to have dinner with Christie's grandson and the detective novel writer's British and American publishers. It will be up to Bryony's readers to judge whether she is able to follow in Christie's footsteps and weave as tangled a web as the best-selling author did in her many works.

All Come to Dust, to be published by amaBooks in November 2018, will be available in Zimbabwe through amaBooks and elsewhere through the African Books Collective.

Bryony's short stories have appeared in several anthologies published by amaBooks: Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories, Where to Now?, Long Time Coming and Short Writings From Bulawayo I, II and III. Short stories by Mzana Mthimkhulu and John Eppel have also been published in the anthologies, and John Eppel has had several novels, poetry and short story anthologies published by amaBooks. A story by NoViolet Bulawayo was published in Where to Now?.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

A Literary Evening with Bryony Rheam

Bryony Rheam will speak about some of her published work - as well as reading from her forthcoming novel All Come to Dust.  

Her debut novel, This September Sun, won 'Best First Book' at the Zimbabwe Book Publishers Association awards and was chosen as a set text for ZIMSEC 'A' level Literature in English in Zimbabwe schools. The book, initially published in Zimbabwe by amaBooks, went on to be published in the United Kingdom, where it topped the Amazon sales charts,  and in Kenya. It is, at present, being translated in Arabic for publication in Egypt.

Her soon to be released novel, All Come to Dust, set in Bulawayo, features Chief Inspector Edmund Dube investigating the suspicious death of Marcia Pullman. Bryony is a great admirer of the work of Agatha Christie and is a winner of the international 'Write Your Own Christie' competition.

'An Evening with Bryony Rheam', at Middy's Coffee Shop, 129 Josiah Tongogara Avenue,  Bulawayo, is being organised by Hubbard's Historical Tours. Books by Bryony and other amaBooks publications will be available on the night.

Bookings are essential for the event and the dinner; please phone 0772851609

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Redemption Song, the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing anthology, reviewed in Borders Literature Online

From Borders Literature Online

Reviewed by Olatoun Williams

The glamour of the Caine Prize for African Writing is seductive, but what made it important that I attend the SOAS readings held Tuesday 26th June 2018, is the fact that the prize has come under fire. Some members of the African literary community have called it ‘neo-colonial’, perpetuating stereotypes about Africa. They argue that it is fossilized: shunning new frontiers.  One celebrated member of the community contends that an online magazine such as Saraba does far more to promote emerging writers than The Caine Prize for African Writing
I picked up my copy of Redemption Song from the publisher, New Internationalist, which had set up a small stand in the foyer outside SOAS’s Khalili Lecture Theatre and went in to enjoy a short event which saw South Africa’s Stacy Hardy and Nigeria’s Wole Talabi speaking with impressive clarity during the plenary session. I began to read on my tube journey home. Joining the five shortlisted stories whose authors I had just been listening to, are twelve other stories written by authors at different stages of emergence. From countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, including Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, the twelve writers convened in March earlier this year to produce short stories at the 2018 Caine Prize Workshop held in Gisenyi, Rwanda
Given that each story is either an already published or edited work, readers expecting high quality writing in the anthology will find it. They will also find migration, an all too familiar trope. American Dream (Nonyelum Ekwempu, Nigeria), America (Caroline Numuhire, Rwanda) and Departure ( Nsah Mala, Cameroon) tell stories dedicated to Africans in pursuit of greener pastures in the United States of  America. But despite die-hard migrants enduring ordeals that span the predictably stressful, predictably duplicitous and treacherous, the stories are still able to display an originality that distinguishes them from conveyer belt trope.  Departure by Nsah Mala for example showcases a romantic love between an impecunious married couple that is touchingly sincere and vulnerable to abuse by ruthless cynics who are everywhere. Standing alongside these three stories are two others which consider the subject of migration from rarely considered perspectives: ‘No Ordinary Soiree’ helps to dislodge images from our brains of Rwandan people damaged by a genocidal civil war. Rwandans with broken bodies and horrifying confessions have been replaced in this tale by the affluent young professionals of post-war Rwanda. Out of this sea of smug, well-fed faces, the lonely face of the celebrant stands out. She is ill-at-ease, out of place at her own birthday party. Looking around her, she confronts a truth she already knows: marrying out of a low-income community and into the moneyed class of society can be as isolating as migrating to another country. She has not been able to fathom the ways of the demographic group her husband belongs to.
Ngozi by Zimbabwe’s Bongani Sibanda, presents the hardly examined trend –at least in fiction - of intra-African resettlement.  When the protagonist family flees Mugabe’s Zimbabwe in search of sanctuary and ends up in neighbouring South Africa, family members live out the prescriptive pain of disappointed hopes and broken dreams.   America, produced at the Caine Prize workshop by Rwanda’s Caroline Numuhire is particularly ironic with its soon to be jilted (and thoroughly exploited) fiancée in rivalry with America which the author has endowed with the magnetism of an imperious, costly seductress.
In Bringing the Clouds Home, Ethiopian Heran T. Abate spins a web of enchantment with her presentation of the psychology of children. In this child scale story relayed through a child’s eyes, we walk with the children, registering things that delight them and those which inspire fear. Understanding how cruelly excluding innocent childhood can be, readers will delight in the evolving compassion of one little girl who befriends another whose disabilities frighten her. Bringing the Clouds Home is Abate’s delicately told elegy to the sweetness of childhood.
Reading like a one-woman play, Involution by Stacy Hardy of South Africa is intellectual curiosity run amok. Hardy, an editor of the respected Chimurenga magazine, explores the unique experience of a woman who has found a small creature, the size of a microbe, secreted inside her vagina. The story is amusing: cleverly and richly detailed in its examination of the body, texture, intentions of the creature – will it breed?- and its needs – won’t it need to eat? Those who dismiss the Caine Prize for conservatism will repent, faced with the picture of a young woman squatting, holding a saucer of milk to her labia lips and keeping it there for moments, she is that serious about feeding her guest.
But if is true that poverty - bête noire of Caine Prize challengers - is ubiquitous in the 2018 anthology, with critics denouncing this trope served up year after year, its inevitability only exposes the truth: that poverty – migration’s main catalyst - is not the exception in Africa but the rule. I agree that it is crucial to display Africa’s wealth in our artistic expressions: her tribal and language diversity, her plurality of cultures and myriad art forms, but not at the expense of her poverty, particularly the heartbreaking poverty of her children. It is for this reason that I welcomed Olufemi Terry’s Stickfighting Days, (Caine Prize 2010). Terry’s terrifying portrait of street boys is as important in its social objectives as it is masterful art.
Makena Onjerika
If the 2018 Caine Prize winner Fanta Blackcurrant did not elicit in me the same response, it is not because the story draws attention to Africa’s child poverty but because I questioned the idiom in which Makena Onjerika’s children speak and behave: what is her frame of reference? That said, scenes involving familiar, visceral human drives, elevate Fanta Blackcurrant and we watch with the horror of recognition as the other children, overcome by jealousy, set violently on Meri because of her ‘beautiful… brown mzungu face’.  We nod with understanding as the same children express a compassion towards her which grows in proportion to the darkening of her skin, the destruction of her beauty by hardship beneath the scalding sun. And with that calamity comes the slipping away of hope of rescue from Meri’s trembling grasp. The children are compassionate because the donors who walk and drive past, can no longer distinguish her from the rest of them.
Bongani Sibanda’s Ngozi is centred around an idea put forward in Fanta Blackcurrant: physical beauty as a life-line. Though this story takes off with a Zimbabwean family in flight from cash poverty, it quickly veers into an examination of the life outcomes of a person whose face lacks any comeliness that would endear him to humanity. It is ugliness, not cash poverty, which dooms the prospects of Thembani in this totally unexpected tragedy about fraternal love and loneliness.  At the broken heart of this excellent story is an horrific crime and an ending you will not see coming.
Beyond White Space founder, Vimbai Shire, provided oversight for the writing workshop. In her introduction to the collection of stories produced by participants, she comments that they ‘(tackled) the topical and the taboo’. I found this to be true of the anthology. With a selection of four remarkable stories dedicated to their cause, the Caine Prize has paid tribute to the brave LGBTQ voices across Africa calling for inclusion and respect.  In the eponymous Redemption Song, Nigeria’s Arinze Ifeakandu has crafted a sensitive and compelling domestic tragedy in which there is no mercy, no redemption for the husband who left his wife for a young male lover and who is suddenly and tragically bereaved of his small son. Kenya’s Troy Onyango, rising star in the literary firmament, has bequeathed All Things Bright and Beautiful. It weaves a rich, digressive template while retaining a compelling linearity about a family’s collapse in the wake of the father’s suicide wearing their mother’s white and pink-laced panties. A letter to a sibling brimming with love and sorrow in this tragedy contains the anthology’s most heart-achingly memorable lines.
On the Prize’s shortlist, American Dream is Nigeria’s Nonyelum Ekwempu’s offering. While the main focus is a defenceless widow and her small children, the author extends her compassionate gaze to homosexual children when the young narrator finds his neighbour motionless on the floor of his home, ‘his face swollen beyond recognition. Cuts and bruises covered his entire body... (while) his mother seated ‘on a short stool in a corner (is) shouting, ‘Bastard, bastard, bastard,’ repeatedly in Yoruba.’  This disturbingly silent boy was one of two schoolboys attacked at the school by a mob of other boys who had caught them kissing.
Nigeria’s Eloghosa Osunde has written Grief is the Gift that Breaks the Spirit Open which falls into the afro-speculative but Osunde, the 2017 Miles Morland Scholar, has brought into being an unusual spirit which serially inhabits and serially dumps women’s bodies.  In this layered story, the ‘hoverer’ is a bi-sexual femme fatale with a trail of broken hearts behind her and in front of her, a twist of irony which sees her falling for a mirror image of herself.  Erotic love is a condition that excites in the being the desire to ground herself permanently in human flesh. Osunde’s story is an interesting exploration of sexuality within the intersection of the imagined ethereal with the corporeal. In this anthology festooned with speculation, Osunde’s hoverer’s movements from an ethereal state to the material can be categorized not only as an exploration of identities but as a form of migration: from one condition to its opposite.
“Speculative fiction is everything that isn’t realism, and it spans the entire continuum of the fantastic… (It is) any fiction that bends the known world…Fantasy, I consider as a sub-genre of speculative fiction based on imagined creatures, events, forces, people and other elements that do not come from reasoned extrapolation of established knowledge and are presented without respect to a scientific method” (Wole Talabi, Caine Prize 2018 shortlist).

Four stories in the 2018 Caine Prize anthology traverse the spectrum of speculative fiction and fantasy as defined by shortlisted author Wole Talabi at the SOAS Caine Prize readings held 26th June 2018. Grief is the Gift that Breaks the Spirit Open by Eloghosa Osunde, mentioned earlier, is a fantasy exploring the gravitational pull of the human body and its constraints through the ‘human’ experience of spirit beings. 
Bongani Kona
Spaceman by Chimurenga Magazine editor, Bongani Kona from South Africa and Zimbabwe, is a tragedy in five vignettes illuminated by a disquieting brilliance. It charts two bizarre episodes in the histories of two unrelated groups of people: a white South African family which, while nursing the horror of a double murder and suicide in the family, must tolerate the presence of the family patriarch who puts the blame for the crimes on the kaffirs. Parallel to the breakdown of the white family, is a frantic car journey undertaken by a motley crew of damaged African souls who have just experienced a failed attempt at space travel in a make-shift rocket. When these haunting stories converge in the 4th vignette, the tragic symbolism of Bongani’s outstanding fiction becomes startlingly clear.
Where Rivers Go To Die is the gift of Ugandan Sci-fi filmmaker and speculative story writer, Dilman Dila. It is set in a sealed off forest inhabited by a people who venerate the organic and hand-made whilst rejecting automated machinery, reviling it as pure evil. Dila’s story is accomplished and dense with the perceptions of the little boy cast out by the tribal elders subsequent to his mother’s death. The forest is dark and what appears before our squinting eyes is a surreal tableau: a wounded little boy, taught to believe he has the magical powers of an ‘abiba’, a ‘demi-god’, hopping about on one leg, desperately searching in the darkness for a place to call home.
Awuor Onyango’s Tie Kidi is a gleaming, speculative wonder which borrows liberally from Luo mythology. The world evoked here is perceived through the eyes of a curious and adventurous girl child who can mold time and who kicks against her confinement in a simulation tank, for her own safety. The story looks at the present condition of an already unsustainable humanity and projects into a future in which humanity’s survival is illogical, ‘if the sun were truly to explode’. Wole Talabi, 2018 Caine Prize shortlisted author, might be, as they say, emerging, but in Wednesday’s Story he has already displayed mastery of his craft. In eighteen and a half pages, this Nigerian author has told a story of magnificent scale based on the well-known nursery rhyme, Solomon Grundy. In his brief biography included as a footnote, he professes to a liking for ‘oddly-shaped things’ and ‘elegant equations’ providing evidence in a story replete with surprising arcs and a disorienting play with time’s equations. His love of ambitious play has made possible a brilliant and totally unpredictable fleshing out of Solomon Grundy: conceived here as an ochre-skinned, ankara clad child of the rape of a Yoruba kitchen maid by an English merchant sailor.
Curiosities that defy the classifications we can fit the other stories into are The Armed Letter Writers by Nigeria’s Olufunke Ogundimu (shortlist) and The Weaving of Death by Rwanda’s Lucky Grace Isingizwe. Both are testaments to the joy of story-telling but in mood and tone, they couldn’t be further apart. The Weaving of Death is an interesting story treating attempted suicide in the family and the emotional travails of two siblings. At the other extreme, The Armed Letter Writers and the inhabitants of the estate whom the thieves plan to rob, provide farcical comedy about dysfunction and criminality in Nigeria’s law enforcement and public service delivery. Ogundimu’s yarn is pure theatre of the absurd. It is begging to be staged.

The Caine Prize jury has served us well with this collection of seventeen stories whose content reads like a focused response to clamour for a more inclusive and edgy representation of Africa: her past, her condition today, her speculative futures; the concerns of Africans and the diverse ways in which we look at ourselves and the world around us. To paraphrase the 2018 Jury Chair, Dinaw Mengestu, the stories in their totality put paid to the idea that certain narratives should be relegated to the margins of our expression and there is brave stand-out art in Redemption Song.

Redemption Song is published in Zimbabwe by amaBooks; it is available in Bulawayo at Book&Bean, Dusk Home, Indaba Book Cafe, National Gallery and Orange Elephant, or through amaBooks, and will soon be available from the National Gallery in Harare.

Monday, August 20, 2018

African Speculative Fiction in a Digital Landscape: Tariro Ndoro

Tariro Ndoro at the launch of Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories
Photo courtesy of Mgcini Nyoni

I’ll begin this talk with a quote from a poem by Denice Frohman and Dominique Christina. “The quickest way to silence a voice is to treat is as though none has come before it.”[i]
Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to much African speculative fiction. In fact, I wasn’t exposed to much African genre fiction either. Barring a few adventure books that were marketed for children by Dandaro Press, the vast landscape of what I (and presumably many other African children) was exposed to was literary fiction.
In her essay, “African Science Fiction is still Alien,” Dr Nnedi Okorafor blamed this on the success of Chinua Achebe’s “serious novels” that set a precedent for literary fiction in Africa.[ii] Sadly, this has been vastly perpetrated by the politics and economics of publishing. Literary fiction is from Africa is taken as the norm while writers of genre fiction are generally expected to have a deep reason for writing. In the words of Wole Talabi, “I don’t think any group of writers is called upon to justify and defend the existence of their work as often as science fiction and fantasy writers are.”[iii]
In her essay, “Emerging Trends in African Speculative Fiction,” Chinelo Onwaulu points out that the vast majority of African speculative fiction is open mainly to Nigeria and South African and even within that narrow landscape, most South Africans in the genre are white and most Nigerians in the genre are male, owing to historical advantage and patriarchy.[iv]
This state of affairs give us the danger of perpetuating what Chimamanda Adichie would refer to as the single story i.e. a single way of looking at black narratives, black characters or black settings.[v] To make an example of cinema and screenwriting, I’ve watched three different movies namely, Hotel Rwanda, Shooting Dogs and Sometimes in April that would all fall under the category of literary fiction if they were books. All three movies are about the Rwandan Genocide. In the landscape created by these movies, it easy to imagine a violent Africa in which everyone wields a machete at their neighbour, yet it has taken us many years to imagine a black superhero flick that casts black people in a positive light.[vi][vii][viii]
Why does this matter? Because speculative fiction has the advantage of allowing us to imagine our futures or to reimagine our pasts. In the words of Dr Okorafor, “the power of imagination and narrative should never be underestimated. Aside from generating innovative ideas, science fiction also triggers both a distancing and associating effect. This makes it an excellent vehicle for approaching taboo and socially-relevant yet overdone topics in new ways.”

Yet it is unfortunate that we haven’t always been able to embrace speculative fiction for reasons stated earlier. Ivor Hartmann puts it bluntly, “If you can’t see and relay an understandable vision of the future, your future will be co-opted by someone else’s vision, one that will not necessarily have your best interests at heart.”[ix]
Yet because most would-be speculative fiction writers have to justify their stories, we are sometimes forced to navigate the landscape of black speculative fiction as though none had come before us.
Growing up, there were many cartoons I watched with a hint of speculative fiction, my favourite were about giant robots and space cowboys. I didn’t realize they contained elements of SFF, I simply watched them because they were there. In 2001 I watched Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone premiered at with my sister when I was 9 years old. What I remember most is that the cinema was packed to capacity.[x]
For the next few years, Harry Potter wouldn’t leave our lips. Everybody loved it, we gathered to discuss the latest books, the latest movies. Kids identified as being either Hufflepuffs or Ravenclaws. We mourned the death of Dumbledore. Yet there were hardly any people of colour in it barring a few minor black and Indian characters, and Cho Chang who was Harry Potter’s love interest.
This is how I lost interest in both science fiction and fantasy genres. I didn’t see myself in those stories and they lost relevance for me. I didn’t realize this had happened at the time. I concentrated on reading what was available in school libraries, in bookstores and on my mother’s bookshelf. In Zimbabwe, that meant a whole lot of literary fiction, a whole lot of crime paperbacks and the odd mainstream novel. The genre novels were mostly Western and the literary fiction was mostly African. This created a subconscious dichotomy in my head – genre fiction of any sort was for Western writers, if I wanted to be a serious African writer I had to write like Achebe or Soyinka.
Then 2015 found me in a Creative Writing class in which some of the readings were speculative. I struggled with them. Not because of the language or the synopsis. In fact, some of the readings were brilliant but as I told one of my fiction instructors, I didn’t see the use of them. Most of these works were written by white writers about white characters and I was there to write my serious African novel.
In 2016, I stumbled upon “What it Means when a Man Falls from the Sky” by Lesley Arimah -- a post apocalyptic sci-fi story set in Africa featuring African characters by an African writer.[xi] My heart came alive. Not only was this narrative fresh and relevant to me, it was also a form of proof that genre fiction by an African writer could be taken seriously – the story had been nominated for the Caine Prize.[xii] I scoured the internet for everything she’d written and I wasn’t disappointed. I’d found a kindred writer.
For the first time I saw that there was someone writing speculative fiction and it didn’t stop there. I loved that she didn’t restrict herself to hard fantasy or hard sci-fi, she played around with language and dabbled with genres picking and choosing what forms to use with each story. She had escaped the proverbial box and her escape charted a path for me to follow. Someone had come before me and therefore I was no longer silenced.
I want to stop here and emphasise that this is the best time to be writing african speculative fiction because although writing industry hasn’t changed much, the internet has played the role of equalizer.
In this digital age, I discovered that there is an entire community of african speculative fiction writers engaged in writing novels, comics and movies. I heard of Octavia Butler and Nnedi Okorafor and several magazines that support African writing, Omenana being the vanguard. There has never been a better time to write speculative fiction in Africa.
Earlier this year, I watched a different movie at the cinema. The room was as full as it was when I watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 17 years ago. Despite all claims by the men that hold the money, this movie had the highest grossing opening weekend of all time. I saw myself in many of the characters and even in the setting. Although the story was flawed, it was evident that the time for Afro speculative fiction has come and not only is restricted to a few people in the far reaches of the internet, traditionally “mainstream” people also queue to watch it.
Shortly after the Black Panther was released, the remake of a “A Wrinkle in Time” which was directed by a black woman, was released.[xiii][xiv] If we add the Janelle Monae’s futuristic music videos and the fact that two speculative stories were nominated for this year’s Caine Prize short list (Stacy Hardy’s “Involution” and Wole Talabi’s “Wednesday’s Story”), then I think we can conclude that there is not only a critical mass of writers interested in speculative fiction but also a large number of people who are interested in consuming it.[xv]
Is African speculative fiction still alien? Yes. For the simple reason that if I walk into a Harare bookshop today, I probably won’t find a copy of Binti but now that I’ve been exposed to this wonderful storytelling tradition, I think it is time to write until speculative fiction ceases to be alien. This is the best time to be writing nuanced and sympathetic stories with African heroes, African villains and African sidekicks. Let us begin.

[i] Christina, Dominique and Frohman, Denice (2014, June 9) “No Chlid Left Behind” [Video file] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHSqUyi6GUU

[ii] Okorafor, Nnedi (2014, January 15) African Science Fiction is Still Alien [Blog Post] Retrieved from http://nnedi.blogspot.com/2014/01/african-science-fiction-is-still-alien.html

[iii] Talabi, Wole “Why Africa Needs More Science Fiction.” Omenana 03 March 2016 Retrieved from

[iv] Onwualu, Chinelo  “Emerging Trends in African Speculative Fiction.” Strange Horizons 29 February 2016, Retrieved from

[v] Adichie, Chimamanda, N “The Danger of the Single Story.” TED 2009 Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en

[vi] George, Terry, 2005 Hotel Rwanda Lions Gate Films.

[vii] Caton-Jones, Michael, 2005, Shooting Dogs, BBC Films/Adirondack Pictures, Germany/United Kingdom.

[viii] Peck, Raoul, 2005, Sometimes in April, HBO Films, Rwanda, France, United States.

[ix] Hartmann, I. (2012) Afro SF:  Science Fiction by African Writers. A Story Time Publication.

[x] Columbus, Chris, 2001, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Heydey Films/1492 Pictures.

[xi] Arimah, Lesley Nneka, 2015, “What it Means When a Man Falls From The Sky” Catapult.

[xii] Caine Shortlist 2016 Retrieved from http://caineprize.com/previously-shortlisted/

[xiii]Coogler, Ryan and Cole, Joe Robert, 2018, Black Panther, Marvel Studios.

[xiv] DuVernay, Eva, 2018, A Wrinkle In Time, Walt Disney Pictures/Whitaker Entertainment

[xv] Caine Shortlist 2018, retrieved from http://caineprize.com/press-releases/2018/5/15/2018-caine-prize-shortlist-announced

Tariro Ndoro's talk was delivered at the Speculative Fiction workshop held at the NUST American Space in Bulawayo - supported by US Embassy in Zimbabwe, the US State Department, and amaBooks Publishers.

Tariro Ndoro holds a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Rhodes University. Her fiction has been featured in several anthologies, including in Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories and in AFREADA, and her poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Kotaz, Oxford Poetry and New Contrast.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Textures reviewed in The Herald

Stanely Mushava, Literature Today, The Herald
Book: Textures
Authors: John Eppel & Togara Muzanenhamo
Publishers: amaBooks (2014)
ISBN: 978-0-7974-9498-5
When the muses refuse to smile on a poet, he runs out of inspiration but when a woman refuses to smile on him, a creative current carries him along. If not for this irony of deprivation, Dante, John Keats and Thomas Hardy may never have attained half their stature, and poetry would have been poorer for the equilibrium. John Eppel’s impassioned reminisces for lost love in “Textures” make for a Zimbabwean version of the deprivation theory.

“Textures”, the dual effort by highly regarded poets Togara Muzanenhamo and John Eppel, is a league apart for its classical forms, musical cadences and cosmopolitan depth of field.
Zimbabwean poetry, often politically themed, thrives on immediacy, rejects classical forms, branding them synonymous with colonial tradition, utilises the canon of cultural decolonisation and is almost uniformly set to free verse.
Muzanenhamo and Eppel’s joint anthology is an apparent revolt against the post-colonial canon and fares exceptionally as a new aesthetic school.
As if to confirm John Keats’s wager: “The poetry of the earth is never dead,” “Textures” won the National Arts Merit Award (Nama)’s main literary accolade this year, the second consecutive time a poetry collection has landed the honour.
With poetic thoroughbreds like David Mungoshi and Emmanuel Sigauke hunched over their keyboards this year, poetry may be bound for a third consecutive honour in the previously prose-dominated category.

Eppel’s Bulawayo sequence is set to sonnets, odes, sestinas, villanelles and Romantic references, while Muzanenhamo employs modernist frame and a cosmopolitan depth of field.
Irony of history, loss of love, sense of mortality, appreciation of beauty, invocation of forgotten feats line and the debilitating trail of war line the thematic taskbar of the two poets for the most part.
The trouble with the anthology, however, is the poems are often densely pixilated and cryptic to a fault.
While both poets ably set forth their scenes and provide the musical ambience, their ideas are sometimes buried in the aesthetics.
On first reading, the meaning flies over your head, on second attempt the jigsaws seem to come together, third time you want to be sure you got it right, and so forth.
If this is a flaw, though, then it has its side benefits. It makes the anthology more durable than the immediate ones which the reader stacks away after reading them once because there is nothing deeper.
With this anthology, after gleaning the alluvial nuggets in the beautifully structured stanzas, you have a conviction that what you see is not all there is to know and you keep coming back for more.
The esoteric tendencies of Muzanenhamo and Eppel are perhaps the occupational hazard of being too style-conscious.
In an interview with Drew Shaw, then a lecturer at NUST, Eppel explains the paradox faced by lyric poets “where they actually want to get rid of words, but the only way they can get rid of words is by using words. So there’s this movement from sense to dominating to sound dominating.”
That could explain how the reader can resonate with the flow and the scenery but still not come away wiser for the exercise.
Sometimes, especially in Muzanenhamo’s case, you feel that imagist economy could have worked neater but potency of diction eventually carries the day.
Texture is generally defined as the feel, appearance, or constancy of a surface or a substance but has different renderings in music, visual art and textiles.
“Both poets considered musical metaphors for the title of this collection but chose the more visual name ‘Textures’, which is appropriate, Eppel said, ‘because the word text is from the Latin texere, which basically means to weave hence the word textile… and the idea of the woof and the warp is appropriate for poets who are interweaving their texts in one book’,” Shaw relates.

Some of Eppel’s poems are double-layered where you have a visual sequence preceding a personal emotion.
And because “none throws away the apple for the core”, as John Bunyan said, each layer is meticulously attended sensory stimuli retaining appeal to the point of emotional disclosure.
The opening poem, for example, sets out a suburban setting, lonely but for the routine ambience of nature, in the first stanza. The second stanza, switched to another rhyme scheme, seems to recall lost love and the departed companion is imagined “smiling at him the way you smiled at me”.
“Only Jacarandas” seems to give a nod to the resilience of natural beauty; whereas displays are set for other forms to shine, “jacarandas/ can take their reflection/ from the dull sky of tarmac”.
The elderly poet is at it again in his sonnet sequence, “The Hillside Dams in Bulawayo,” reminiscing about lost love with more “you sections”.
One recalls Hardy (I gather some place that he is Eppel’s favourite poet) in his futile quest for Emma and the beautiful poetry occasioned, among listless sceneries, by his recollections of the “woman much-missed”.
The third entry in “Four Villanelles” and third poem, “Looking for You”, also seems to recall his Beatrice, Emma or Fanny, although the poet’s esoteric tendency does not allow for solid grounds.
The first villanelle on man’s conquest of woman has a political drift. “Davids are Goliaths in waiting/the corrupting effect of power/it’s a maxim worth restating”, the poet observes.
“In Beauty is Truth, Truth Death”, the poet reflects of the brevity of beauty, its subservience to the cycle of seasons, and in that thread, invokes a sense of mortality.
“Appropriating the Land”, a colonial reconstruction satirises a minority dispensation closer to nature than to the people, hence “bossy warnings/with words like ‘forbidden’ / and ‘only…’”
Suburban Eppel only ever gets out of Bulawayo with the poem “Dorothy Recollects”, a reconstruction of the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.

By contrast, young Muzanenhamo is cosmopolitan, globalist and modernist. His settings are as varied as USA, UK, Norway, France, Peru, Mozambique, Somalia and Zimbabwe, almost as an afterthought.
Muzanenhamo articulates the universality of human experience and the transcendence of literature, a view also espoused by Dambudzo Marechera and Wole Soyinka.
“It fascinates how similar people are,” Muzanenhamo says in an interview with Dr Shaw. “You go to any country and find that we all possess the same emotions; we speak different languages, and there’s a different landscape, but the baseline of all humanity strums at the same rhythm.”
“Gondershe”, a poem about a child soldier surrounded by his dead comrades on a Somalian beach, himself waiting to die is a forceful indictment on war.
“Having never fired a gun before, he held the rifle/as though the weapon were a dying child about to say something/ only they could share… Come dawn there would be no escape/He would die. Even the sea would burn,” Muzanenhamo relates.
“Zvita”, an anatomy of death, is singularly unsettling. Whereas December is the cropping season, synonymous with new life, Muzanenhamo appropriates the last month as a symbol of the end of life.
In “Mercantile Rain”, Muzanenhamo reconstructs the vagaries of war. Through a war that came with “loud with every death, dark with every monstrous fear”, a surviving soldier will never get over the loss his wife and family.

Unfortunately, Muzanenhamo occasionally comes across as gross, sometimes too enigmatic. But he has already staked his claim as one of the most sophisticated Zimbabwean poets writing today.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Redemption Song, the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing anthology, published in Zimbabwe

amaBooks have published the 2018 Caine Prize anthology, Redemption Song and Other Stories. This is the seventh of the Caine collections brought out by amaBooks in Zimbabwe. The collection is also published in other countries across Africa and the rest of the world

Now in its nineteenth year the Caine Prize for African Writing is Africa’s leading literary prize, and is awarded to a short story by an African writer published in English, whether in Africa or elsewhere.

Redemption Song brings together the five 2018 shortlisted stories, along with stories written at the Caine Prize Writers’ Workshop, which took place in Rwanda in April 2018. The collection includes two Zimbabwean writers Bongani Kona and Bongani Sibanda. Bongani Kona is also featured in the 2017 amaBooks short story collection Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories and in the 2016 Caine Prize anthology The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things.

The winner of the 2018 prize was Kenyan writer Makena Onjerika for 'Fanta Blackcurrant', published in Wasafiri. The Chair of the Caine Prize judging panel, award winning Ethiopian-American novelist and writer, Dinaw Mengestu, announced Makena as the winner of the £10,000 prize at an award dinner on Monday 2 July. The ceremony was held for the second time in Senate House, in partnership with SOAS and the Centre for African Studies.
Narrated in the first person plural, 'Fanta Blackcurrant' follows Meri, a street child of Nairobi, who makes a living using her natural intelligence and charisma, but wants nothing more than ‘a big Fanta Blackcurrant for her to drink every day and it never finish'. While it seems Meri's natural wit may enable her to escape the streets, days follow days and years follow years, and having turned to the sex trade, she finds herself pregnant. Her success stealing from Nairobi’s business women attracts the attention of local criminals, who beat her and leave her for dead. After a long recovery, Meri ‘crossed the river and then we do not know where she went’.
Dinaw Mengestu praised the story in his remarks, saying, 'the winner of this year’s Caine Prize is as fierce as they come – a narrative forged but not defined by the streets of Nairobi, a story that stands as more than just witness. Makena Onjerika’s 'Fanta Blackcurrant 'presides over a grammar and architecture of its own making, one that eschews any trace of sentimentality in favour of a narrative that is haunting in its humour, sorrow and intimacy'.
Makena is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing programme at New York University, and has been published in Urban Confustions and Wasifiri. She lives in Nairobi, Kenya, and is currently working on a fantasy novel.

The other shortlisted stories comprised:
American Dream by Nonyelum Ekwempu (Nigeria)
The Armed Letter Writers by Olofunke Ogundimu (Nigeria)
Involution by Stacy Hardy (South Africa)
Wednesday’s Story by Wole Talabi (Nigeria)

The workshop stories are:
No Ordinary Soirée by Paula Akugizibwe
Tie Kidi by Awuor Onyango
Calling the Clouds Home by Heran T. Abate
America by Caroline Numuhire
All Things Bright and Beautiful by Troy Onyango
Departure by Nsah Mala
Where Rivers Go to Die by Dilman Dila
Ngozi by Bongani Sibanda
The Weaving of Death by Lucky Grace Isingizwe
Redemption Song by Arinze Ifeakandu
Spaceman by Bongani Kona
Grief is the Gift that Breaks the Spirit Open by Eloghosa Osunde

The 2018 judging panel comprises: Dinaw Mengestu, journalist, author and graduate of Georgetown University and of Columbia University’s M.F.A programme in fiction; Alain Mabanckou, prolific Francophone Congolese poet and novelist and Man Booker International Prize finalist (2015); reporter, columnist and poet Ahmed Rajab; Henrietta Rose-Innes, a South African author who won the Caine Prize in 2008; Lola Shoneyin, a Nigerian writer who has won the Ken Saro-Wiwa Prose Prize, among others.

The prize was launched in 2000 to encourage and highlight the richness and diversity of African writing by bringing it to a wider audience internationally. The focus on the short story reflects the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition.