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.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Speculative Fiction Workshop in Bulawayo

The workshop participants along with Walidah Imarisha and Tariro Ndoro

The  African/American Speculative Fiction Workshop took place weekly over the past few months, with sixteen participants chosen through samples of their writing.  Speculative fiction is an umbrella genre encompassing narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements. This includes, but is not limited to, science fiction, fantasy, superhero fictionscience fantasy, horror, utopian and dystopian fiction, and supernatural fiction. 
The workshop, led by Fulbright fellow Dr James Arnett, included required reading of speculative fiction anthologies as well as the participants writings stories for critique. The workshop considered four texts – Blood Child by Octavia Butler, an African-American science fiction writer; AfroSF, an anthology of new African science fiction edited by the Zimbabwean Ivor Hartman; Kabu Kabu by the Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor, and Octavia’s Brood, from the US, edited by Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown. Selected stories from the texts were discussed, focusing on style and content and thought was given to the relevance to Zimbabwean social and creative settings. Participants submitted stories to be discussed at the sessions.
Walidah Imarisha
As a separate event, to which members of the public were invited, the American writer and academic Walidah Imarisha delivered a talk “Visionary Fiction and Fantastic African Futures”. The event also featured a short story written and read by Harare-based writer Tariro Ndoro and a personal essay exploring the roots of her interest in science fiction and fantasy. 
Tariro Ndoro
Walidah also hosted a hands-on visionary fiction workshop for the members of the workshop. The purpose, she explained, was to understand how science fiction was a vehicle for imagining more just futures and provided the opportunity for brainstorming creative solutions to real, present problems. Those present were asked to identify issues they were concerned about in Zimbabwe – a list that included universal health care, freedom after expression, the status and belief in African science and medicine, and others. Groups then worked together to create a world and a baseline story from which each participant could branch out.
Walidah, Tariro and James Arnett
Jane Morris and Brian Jones of amaBooks gave a presentation on the different routes to getting published and were able to attend most of the workshop sessions and were impressed by the quality of the writing produced by the participants. It is hoped that an anthology of Zimbabwean speculative fiction will be published in the near future by amaBooks.
The workshop was supported by amaBooks Publishers and the Public Affairs Section of the US Embassy in Zimbabwe.

Working in Stillhaven garden

Tariro Ndoro

The audience at Walidah and Tariro's presentation

Can books satiate a hungry individual?

Tanaka Chidora Literature Today
surrounded by a sea of books . . . Tendai Huchu, author of several novels including “The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician” (2014).
One of the saddest parts of a novel that I read narrated a character’s dislocation from the physical and social world of human interaction and his attempt to stitch back together his existence by [re]locating himself in the world of books. This part comes from Tendai Huchu’s novel, “The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician” (2014). The character is the Maestro.
The Maestro’s hunger is captured thus: “The scary thing, the Maestro realised, was not the falling, but what happened after the fall. Nothing, not even the nothing of the darkness of night or the nothing of emptiness; those were something at least, those were nothings that could be measured by the absence of a particular thing, and so they had an essence on them, a core beyond the event horizon. Not this, this was an incomprehensible Nothing, the nothingness of non-existence, beyond consciousness, a Nothingness that was not something … This for the Maestro was the reason he read these books, to try to make sense of life … (p. 43). This lack of essence, in himself, in the world and in the people that surround him, makes him befriend books.
The Maestro’s intimate relationship with books is captured thus: “Almost without thinking, he ran his fingers along the cold spine of a book. Of late, he found himself preferring the company of his books to the companionship of people. Tatyana was virtually his only friend, if he could call her that.
“Everyone else has forgotten him or given up on him once he’d withdrawn, almost as though he’d quietly sunk into quicksand that no one else could see … There was something safe in the white pages of a book. A book could be opened and set aside. It could be read and reread, each time a new, deeper meaning deciphered. People, well, people were harder to read. So much was hidden in the twitch of the brow, a sweaty palm, the tenor of the voice, subtle gestures, and the things left unsaid. People were moving, dynamic, inconsistent in a million ways” (p. 44).
The irony is that the satiation that the Maestro is looking for finds momentary fulfilment, but soon, like the essence that he is looking for, it too eludes him so that one day, after discovering that these books were just a “jumble of words with which he had no connection”, he burned them and “curled up on the carpet and cried himself to sleep” (p. 173, 175). The Maestro fails to find a place for himself in books. They fail to stitch him back by giving him back the essence, the elixir that he is looking for.
Elsewhere, we have such characters who try to recover that essence by creating books or by reading the books that others have created. In “The House of Hunger” (Dambudzo Marechera, 1978) writing seems to be the only “stitches” available to put back together the fragments of a disintegrating individual and society.

Thus, the poems the narrator writes are symbolic stitches: “Afterwards they came to take out the stitches from the wound of it. And I was whole again. The stitches were published. The reviewers made obscene noises. It is now out of print. But those stitches, those poems …” (p. 53). A lot of his friends, however, fail to make anything out of the stitches, echoing Harry‘s words of hopelessness: “What else is there?” (p. 22).
Philip tries to write a lot of negritudinal poetry but instead ends up with a melancholic and suicidal mood: “There were 15 poems in all; his own. They expressed forms of discontent, disillusionment and outrage. Clarity, it seemed, had been sacrificed for ugly mood. Even the praises of ‘Blackness’ had a sour note in them.
“One felt live coals hissing in a sea of paranoia. Gloomy nights stitched by needles of existentialism. Black despair lit up by suicidal vision” (p. 74). It looks like the narrator is the only one who succeeds in stitching together some poems and short stories whose style is like a million flying fragments. The hunger remains still.
To assuage his hunger, the narrator dives headlong into the world of books. The physical world has failed to end his soul-hunger. There is no security at home. When the narrator’s mother smacks him for speaking to her in English, and the father completes the violent cacophony of fists with a tooth-shattering punishment, the narrator’s alienation becomes even more profound. There is no warmth in human relations or from fellow human beings.
In this respect, art becomes a way of stitching together a fragmented psyche. Marechera seems to have constructed art out of the chaos of life. “The House of Hunger” seems to be a product of the chaos of the colonial experience. But it is more than that. It is also a product of a hungry and angry artist. There is a Fanonian tinge in “The House of Hunger”.
Art is also some sort of escape from a maddening reality. Words clashing on the pages of the novella work like the storm that exorcised the narrator of the maddening assault of the ghosts who constituted the narrator’s nervous breakdown:
“When Harry and I returned to the dormitories we went to the showers and there the miracle happened — I almost cried with glee. They had gone! I could feel it. They had erased themselves into the invisible airs of the storm. The demon had been exorcised and gone into the Gadarene swine. For the first time in my life I felt completely alone. Totally on my own. It is as if a storm should rage in one’s mind …” (pp. 47-48). It is, however, unclear whether the exorcism is permanent, just like the Maestro’s transient [re]location in the world of books.
An analysis of the style of the novella verifies this purging function of Marechera’s art. The syntax is disconnected and sometimes incomplete as if to represent the disconnectedness of the black Rhodesians in the colonial time-space they find themselves in.
I find myself feeling empty too. I find myself taking down cobwebbed and dusty scripts and tearing them apart in anger. Sometimes I find myself obsessed with the books that I read; other times I find myself wanting to run away from them. I try not to be a stranger to this world. I really do try . . .
From: The Herald, 18 June 2018