Saturday, January 28, 2012

'Waiting for the Bus': John Eppel's tribute to Julius Chingono

A tribute to Julius Chingono from John Eppel (published in Sonata for Matabeleland (Snailpress and Baobab Books, 1995) and in John Eppel, Selected Poems 1965-1995 (Childline, 2001))


All along the road from Bulawayo
to Gwanda or Matopos or Vic Falls;
at bus-stops, lay-bys, under shadeless trees,
the people wait beside their bundled things.
All day long they wait, and sometimes all night
too, and the next day – anxiously waiting.

Waiting for the public transport to stop
and let them in and take them home. Waiting
with babies to nurse, children to comfort
and feed, chickens, the occasional goat.
They have learned to come prepared, with blankets,
izinduku, pots for cooking sadza.

Waiting for ZUPCO or SHU-SHINE, AJAY,
to get them to their Uncle's funeral,
their cousin's wedding, their baby brother's
baptism. Waiting with the new Camper Vans
cruising by. Anxious to be at work on
time. Anxious not to lose their jobs. Waiting.

They take their time now not by wrist-watches
but by the sun and the stars and the moon;
by the appearance of the mopani worms;
by the ripening of marula fruit;
by the coming of the rains. Not by bus
timetables but by birth, marriage and death.

And while they wait they count the jets that fly
to Harare and Johannesburg.
Liverish businessmen sucking whiskies
are in these jets. And Chefs with mistresses
wearing the latest digital watches,
Digital dolly-birds. All carry brief-
cases with combination locks, and next
to nothing inside: dark glasses perhaps;
and a newspaper to study the Stock
Exchange; something digital, perhaps, for
calculating profit . . . and more profit.
It's something for people to do while

they wait – counting the jets high overhead.
Often the vapour trails are the only
clouds in the sky. No Forex for buses,
They tell us, but the five-star hotels go
up, and another Boeing is purchased.
All day they wait; all night; long suffering.

And when, at last, a bus does stop, its tyres
are likely to be bald, its brakes likely
to be held together with wire, its body
battered, belching clouds of brain-tightening,
lung-collapsing smoke. Who's responsible?
"Not me," says the Chef dipping his fingers

in his girl-friend's cocktail, shifting his vast
belly, vast enough to accommodate
at least seven baby goats. "Don't look at
me," says the Managing Director, "my
bottom line is profit. I owe it to
the shareholders. Another whisky please."

And I don't think it is going to be any
different tomorrow or the next day
or the next. The time of sweet-becoming
is over. For those millions who depend
on buses, nothing has changed; only their
expectations have once again been dashed.

The time of bitter arrival is here:
not safe new buses, but the amassing
of personal wealth, the cultivation
of another crop of heroes. Street
names change, statues change; hotels go up, jets
go up, and the people go on waiting.

Photo from ZimboJam

Friday, January 27, 2012

John Eppel's 'Hatchings' available on Kindle

John Eppel's 'Hatchings', chosen for the Times Literary Supplement series on 'the most significant book to have come out of Africa', is now available on Kindle. If you have a Kindle, or if you're thinking of getting one, please visit

'Hatchings' was recently reviewed by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende on

Other amaBooks titles will be available soon for Kindle.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Where to Now? reviewed on

Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe

Edited by Jane Morris. 
Published by amaBooks

As long as there are storytellers writing and employing whatever medium or platform this question will not arise. Where it does, the bone of contention can only be the focus and direction that the writing assumes.

But as Where to Now? demonstrates, there are as diverse areas of focus as there are storytellers and in this case – everyday stories for and about everyday Zimbabweans.
So there will always be new mediums alongside the conventional ones thus ensuring that storytellers will forever withstand the test of time.

Autumn colours adorn the cover of this book, perhaps suggesting a forgone era or one in its twilight moments. But if you have a fascination with the environment or once poured over desert maps/topography the reaction is either that this is a tree trunk with its striations describing its growth pattern or alternatively the course of a dried river with each striation its tributaries or a narrative – an idea that finds space, shoots off on a journey of exploration or one that promisingly starts off in a chosen direction but perishes prematurely.

In Writing Free, a collection of stories recently published by Weaver Press I found myself re-reading The Novel Citizen by Ignatius T Mabasa. It is a compelling story told using rarely explored techniques. In Where to Now? I haven’t stopped re-reading the collection – such is the level of engagement in the 16 stories.

This is a brilliantly woven mosaic of everyday stories about the daily trials and tribulations of Zimbabweans told in a fascinatingly riveting fashion. There is enough variety, technique and theatre to enthrall and sustain the reader’s interest. For example, while Thabisani Ndlovu uses a rustic setting for his story, NoViolet Bulawayo uses a township environment, all to maximum effect.

In I am an African am I? Mzana Mthimkhulu deals with issues of locus standi that the African rising class has to contend with in its quest to embrace modernity while having the baggage of the extended African family. One man discovers his roots and in the process, himself.

In Christina the Colourful, Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende addresses a woman’s quest to assert herself against a society that is firmly founded on traditions of patriarchy while in A Beast and a Jete; Mapfumo Clement Chihota tackles everyday issues revolving around infidelity among ordinary folk and their recourse to survival instincts.

Coming so soon after commemorating 16 days of Gender Activism, stories like Making a Woman -told from a male patriarchal perspective and its attendant male insensitivity - reek of crass barbarism. It’s a story that haunts you as you empathize with the female who is being “made into a woman”.

Aunt Mongi understands sign language – the result of a condition she was born with. But that condition unfortunately arrogates others – her immediate nuclear family and villagers - to decide “what’s good for her”. She must therefore be “made into a woman” so she can start to serve the needs of a husband even though she has categorically stated she does not entertain such thoughts in her immediate- or medium-term plans.

Thabisani Ndlovu’s narrative focuses on how a whole family and village conspire in repeatedly raping a girl. Her greedy father, feigning concern for her unmarried status, is only interested in the livestock in the form of lobola/roora that he stands to benefit from. “Your Aunt Mongi needs to become a woman before it’s too late. As God’s own creature, she does,” reasons the father.

Aunt Mongi is a victim twice. Firstly she is a rape victim and secondly she is a police victim or victim of laws that refuse to recognise that rape victims have rights not to be violated so violently and not to be condemned to live daily with the physical reminders of being raped, never mind the psychological trauma.

She suffers in the silence that defines her world while also being victimized for infanticide yet her rapist and accomplices are allowed to go scot-free.
She suffers in silence on account of her unawareness of the existence of laws such as the Domestic Violence Act that should protect her against Gender-based Violence. The Act provides protection and relief to victims.

Sixteen writers contributed to this collection of short stories from Zimbabwe that defines issues that dominated what has come to be termed the “lost decade”. It certainly hasn’t been lost on our story-tellers.

– By Sonny Wadaw.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma interviewed on 'The Mantle'

From 'The Mantle', January 18, 2012

The following conversation took place via email. Between Novuyo and myself(Emmanuel Iduma), we exchanged about 35 emails, in which I was greatly moved by her dedication (as you would see) to her writing, her understanding of her craft, and her willingness to engage. I have never met Novuyo in person, but it feels as though I have known her for a long time. Indeed, there are few of the writers scheduled in this series that I can recognize from a distance. I am yet to fully come to terms with what this means, suggests.

Novuyo says about herself: “When not going about the nuisance of living, I am writing.” She is currently pursuing a degree in Economics and Finance at the University of Witwatersrand. In 2009, she won the Intwasa Short Story Competition for ‘You in Paradise.’ Her short stories have been featured in anthologies, including The Bed Book of Short Stories (Modjaji Books, 2010); A Life In Full and Other Stories: Caine Prize Anthology 2010 (New Internationalist, 2010)and Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe (amaBooks, 2011). I have provided links to her stories below.

Both Novuyo and I have expressed a wish to meet in person.

EMMANUEL IDUMA: For the benefit of all of us, describe your writing table? Do you keep a strict schedule, working on this table?

NOVUYO ROSA TSHUMA: My writing space is where I live; an apartment. I will write anywhere in this space; on my student’s desk; on the floor, on the couch, in bed, with my laptop perched on my lap. I write in bouts; spurts, I would call them – something about that elusive thing called a muse – but really it is more about taking advantage of your free time – I have studies with which to juggle my writing; living too – and getting work that needs to be done, done.

IDUMA: Was there a point when writing became a decision, or part of a decision?

TSHUMA: Indeed there was; at the point when I discovered the contemporary African writers, I became overwhelmed by the realisation that the culmination of my writing into something meaningful would require a conscious cultivation on my part. This was end of August 2007. I had always been writing, but had never consciously thought of it. Probed by a deep, jagged sense of writing and career crisis, I dropped out of my architecture programme at NUST University and ventured into a year of soul searching, some fumbling, as it were, in the dark.

IDUMA: Did you feel, at the time, that dropping out of the Architecture programme was necessary for your writing? The conscious cultivation you refer to, does it also include sacrifice, the choosing of an alternative career?

TSHUMA: Architecture is a field that requires dedication and a great level of passion. This dedication and passion was not something I could ever sacrifice willingly to architecture – while we were learning about great and inspiring architects I was busy day dreaming about great and inspiring writers – it became evident that it was not for me.

A conscious cultivation is to say: I shall dedicate time to honing my craft, to nurturing writing, to seeking opportunities that foster growth in my writing. This automatically reduces time for other opportunities and informs the paths you take.

IDUMA: To get on with his days work, Hemingway sharpened up to seven pencils. Do you sharpen pencils, too?

TSHUMA: Mine is work done on the computer. Rather, I sharpen my writing momentum.

IDUMA: A sense of dislocation surrounds your stories, the kind that is replete with the familiarity of an itinerant’s disorientation. But do you think that because you are outof Zimbabwe, you write aboutZimbabwe? The kind of thing that happens to a writer in diaspora, in exile?

TSHUMA: Hmmm. I am out of Zimbabwe, indeed, but I am so close to it – South Africa is a close neighbour – as to be init without really being in it. Perhaps it is this intimate distance that may allow me a landscape perspective I may not possess were I totally immersed in Zimbabwe. The relationship between Zimbabwe and South Africa is a very interesting and complex one, you see, and here I speak of the social dynamics. Zimbabweans, like many foreigners here, have permeated the South African culture. We are, literally, everywhere. Our interaction with this environment, though, which is sometimes hostile, has something of a corrupt cadence to it. For some, there is a need to belong, to find seams of familiarity in terms of tribe and culture, in which to embed themselves, and reap the many benefits of a country as advanced, in structural terms, as South Africa. For others, there is a visceral reaction against this environment. I am fascinated by the contradictions of this love-hate relationship.

Now, I believe the sense of dislocation which you speak about represents a broad unplugging that plagues one when one is in foreign lands. The feeling of not really belonging is a very stark, if not disorienting one. And one feels this no more than in the complicated landscape that is South Africa. There is an ignorance within the formal halls of South Africa of the foreigner and his place here outside the cliché views of ‘illegal immigrant’. This only serves to further alienate the foreigner, so that he skulks about as something not wanted, per se, but rather tolerated, within this space.

IDUMA: Has the friction of South African politics affected you in any way? Do you, by studying in South Africa, by being a witness to xenophobia, Jacob Zuma, crime, etc., long for home? Are the Zimbabwean characters in your fiction related to a feeling of corporeal dislocatedness? Perhaps a feeling of melancholic homesickness?

TSHUMA: South African politics affect me in a personal sense in so far as they affect my quality as a Zimbabwean living here in South Africa. Being randomly stopped on the street and asked to produce identification, ever aware that I ‘do not belong’.

Do I suffer from homesickness? No. I love home without wanting to be in it. What I am more interested in is a geography that may act as a buoy for my sense as a writer. In this sense, I may claim a melancholic homesickness in terms of my writing. Which is in itself a shadowy concept as my writing is not purely a culmination of geography, but may lay claim to abstract homes. I can say that my coming to South Africa provided fertile soil for my roots as a writer, perhaps in a way home may never have, in terms of opportunity, in terms of ‘opening my eyes’, in terms of crushing my naivety. And yet, home becomes the manure which I use to feed these roots. So, it is all inter-connected. Do I share a certain romanticisation with South Africa? Certainly not. I am not disillusioned by my relationship with her. We are ambivalent about one another. But, the social dynamics of this place are so broad and so complex, as to be fascinating.

So, perhaps I may go so far as to say I do not want to necessarily commit myself to geography. It is not helpful to myself as a writer to do so. New spaces provide new, fascinating interactions; you find that geography exposes different dimensions of yourself. Is the me in Zimbabwe the same me that is in South Africa? Not entirely; the rules of each space provide different opportunities for self-illumination. What this does, though, is to perhaps cultivate an internal sense of vagrancy.

IDUMA: This is the same thing Gayatri Spivak said, “I fall into a place and I become of that place.” It’s like having roots in the air, so that you become familiar and okay with your disorientation. And this, as you have noted, affects your writing. More or less, your writing appears as a trans-African response to your asymmetry – so that at once you take up the challenge of intersecting Zimbabwe with Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria. There’s the conscious attempt in ‘The King and I’ even ‘In Bed with Ikeji’ to affirm that you are not afraid of your fluidity, that you are at home everywhere, and not at home anywhere. Is this even plausible?

TSHUMA: Intersecting ourselves with different cultures and nationalities is not at all a challenging thing in today’s multi-cultural environment. The writing of it becomes, really, a reflection of our cross-cultural interactions. Venture the streets of Johannesburg and you will hear the laden tones of the Shona, the heavy intonations lugged about by Nigerian pidgin, the staccato English ushered by the French-speaking Congo, the chopping up of syllables by the Chinese. India in the shops – the distinct smell of a curry. Leornard Zhakata blares from a radio on the street; across the road, some Sam Mangwana. All of this, in addition to the rich mesh that is South African culture. The melting pot stews.

IDUMA: Did you think leaving Zimbabwe was important for your writing life? Did you leave only as a person and not as a writer? Or both? Or these lines do not exist for you?

TSHUMA: Cognisant of the importance of education, I left Zimbabwe so as to attend university in South Africa. This move proved fertile to my growth as a writer; South Africa has a lush writing environment.

In retrospect, I may say it is important to seek opportunities that will make you a better writer, that will allow you the opportunity to hone your craft, expose you to an expansive range of reading, and so on.

The person and the writer; hmmm. I would rather put it this way: the writer and his writing need not always converge to a personal point. There are the manipulations of fiction to consider.

IDUMA: Speaking about reading, which African and non-African writers have moved you in the last one year? And which books?

TSHUMA: I enjoyed how Dambudzo Marechera bullied and battered the English language in his famous House of Hunger, bruising it into something unique and beautiful. The authentic characterization in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.Turkish delights in Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence.The eloquent depression in James Baldwin’s Another Country.The detailed meanderings in Teju Cole’s Open City.The disarming use of language in Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place. The illumination of the mundane into something gripping in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Intepreter of Maladies. The comic, sometimes tragic feminism in Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes.

IDUMA: Both ‘Waiting’ and ‘You in Paradise’ conveys what Rushdie, in reference to Dickens, called ‘a pitiless realism’ and ‘a naturalistic exactitude.’ Do you seek to do this? To spark off a feeling that your reader can take hold of your scenes, your character’s souls, their bedraggled existence?

TSHUMA: Well, in retrospect I may be able to say perhaps I seek to do this? But really, the process of writing is something of a subconscious one, I would say, and more intimate. To exact writing may actually rob the tale of the natural flow of the very elements with which one seeks to imbue it. More importantly, it may take out that innate pleasure the writer derives from the process of creating his or her work.

IDUMA: You speak, interestingly, of tales with political infusion, which raises, again, the debates on the social function of literature, as well as the question of stereotyping Africa. It is perhaps useful that your writing speaks to afro-modernity, afro-cosmopolitanism as much as it does to matters such as xenophobia, immigration, even Westernization. So do you contemplate that there’s a foreground-background approach to the handling of your themes – that a family’s story can serve as a foreground to an overarching tale about, say, xenophobia?

TSHUMA: I am not at all interested in stereotyping or destereotyping Africa. Let a story be a story first and foremost. To attempt to fight the politics of writing, such as stereotyping or destereotyping, may lead to didactic veins in a story, perhaps even killing the commitment to story one needs. What does this mean? It means that the political infusions which you speak about, as well as the afro-modernity you refer to, are simply products of the reality which I inhabit. My stories are set in Zimbabwe and South Africa, societies in which I have negotiated existence. I write, perhaps not what I see, in the literal sense of the word, but what I experience, in an emotional sense, an intellectual sense, a subconscious sense, what I may choose to experience for others through the page.

Zimbabwe, I will tell you now, as I have experienced it, has been a highly political society, with politics informing daily existence, particularly during the years of severe food and fuel shortages. Existence became politicised, and this is simply because of the extreme political imbalances which rocked the country, seeping into economic and social existence, remapping our interactions with one another. A neighbour was a neighbour on the street; in a mealie-meal queue he became an adversary.

What may help sway Africa away from this ‘stereotype writing’, you may ask? I think one way is reading and reading widely. That certainly has opened up the dimensions of writing for me. For example, I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s two short story anthologies, ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ and ‘Unaccustomed Earth;’, and I was taken by her electrifying illumination of the mundane. Here, for example, one can learn that melodrama – with reference to Africa things such as famine, war, political tension – need not necessarily fuel a story, but that mundane existence may be fuelled by the emotional pull of a story, by the manipulation of language.

Now, does this mean that one cannot write about war, about famine, about political tension? Certainly not. Allow the writer the freedom to write as he chooses; many are impassioned by such experiences, and the rendering of such experiences cannot be dismissed as obsolete simply because so much has been written about them. They are relevant in so far as they continue to exist. As such, political tension may be a fresh angle for me in so far as it is that it is my experience, what I choose to experience for others. The issue, I would say, is never, really, about the experience itself, about war or famine or hunger, really, but about our different comprehensions and internalisations and handling of such experience, and the differing geographies these experiences inhabit. To broadly dismiss a piece of writing as ‘another tale on hunger or war or famine’ is to, sadly, miss the finer points of a tale; to miss the characterisation, to miss the setting of a particular space, to miss the interaction of language with emotion. Let a story fail only because it misses what it aims to do; perhaps because the characters are flat, or what-have-you.

Actually, the idea of stereotyping Africa in literature may actually lie not with the writer primarily, but with those critical halls that put a beam on a particular spectrum of writing. Must the writer now suffer for this?

IDUMA: The writer has the freedom to write as she chooses, of that everyone agrees. But the African writer often faces a different accusation, which is that the freedom she expresses is misplaced, owing to a craving for Western praise, accreditation, prizes. It is a dangerous as well as preposterous accusation, this. But the imagination, as Mukoma wa Ngugi writes, cannot be moved by ideology, otherwise it gives the ideology a different form. Maybe you can reinforce your opinion, speaking less of freedom, but more about the compulsiveness we often face when we want to tell a story?

TSHUMA: I speak of a freedom because that is precisely what it is. In our eagerness to destereotype the stereotype, we risk creating new stereotypes. I have already spoken about how primary interest needs to lie with the ingredients of the story and how they come together to do what they do.

Let us not be unfair by being dishonest in our honesty. Praise is a natural human desire. Writing motives now; well, they are a tricky thing. Writing for prizes must be a difficult, sad, if not disappointing thing, though, as literature cannot be exacted like mathematics. But prizes themselves, well, they expose a writer, may elevate his career. You yourself say this, that ‘the art of writing fiction thrives on validation.’

But let us not be so condescending towards the writer; his creative process cannot just be a fickle thing - fickle motives alone may be cause for a fickle pen. I will say this: as a writer, I welcome the opportunity to better my craft, opportunity to better my writing.

Once we agree that the writer cannot exist, survive and flourish merely upon fickle motives for his writing – because writing really is hard work and writing excellence requires, primarily and above all motives, that dedication and personal commitment to the creative process in and of itself first and foremost – we may then be honest about the relationship between the African writer and the West. Let us not fault the West for her excellent writing schools, her rich literary industry, her well-cultivated readership. The significance of her literary prizes, how they have the power to, literarily, like a magic wand, transform a writer’s career. And how all of this has benefited the African Writer: many of the African writers who flourish are based in the West. This is perhaps a reflection of our hostile literary industry in Africa, how it is difficult to survive as a writer in Africa. Yes? But let us not be so sullen about the West in terms of the African Writer, because opportunity is indeed a generous thing, trickling down, invariably, to the source: the African writer goes to the West, is afforded the opportunity and resources to hone his or her craft, produces some stunning work, wins some accolades, becomes a writing beacon…and then look, something like a Farafina Trust is born in Africa, something like a Kwani?, affording space, opportunities and resources for the writer within Africa, remapping Africa’s interactions with her own literature. Nadine Gordimer refers to it in her compilation ‘Telling Times’, how the writer in Africa faces the extra burden of concerning herself with the quality of education, with cultivating readership.

IDUMA: Let’s return to your earlier response on critics, and the story being a story first, before anything else. Have you received reviews you considered under-representative of what you tried to do? Do you think of those reviews? What do you suppose is a useful way to deal with this? And is it true for you what Hemingway said – “Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading”?

TSHUMA: There is no need to worry about dealing with reviews; enjoy the positive reviews – they may well keep a young writer going in a hostile industry where rejection is the norm. You may pick up a useful element in the constructive ones; and well, the shattering ones…I don’t see the point in allowing yourself to become a shattered writer. It does nothing for your writing stamina. Keep your eye on your writing, and how you may improve it.

Well, for a writer, I would say finding pleasure in your own writing is natural, perhaps has a dose of writer's vanity in it. Reading becomes an interactive process between the reader and the writing; hence, although the writer may judge the measure of his own work by his enjoyment of it - tricky thing as one is so close to one's own work as to sometimes be blinded by a superficial sense of self-flattery - at some point he needs to apply ruthless honesty in the assessment of his own work. Because well, we write so others may read, and if we agree on the significance of this, then we may agree on our responsibility to present our work in its best form.

IDUMA: It is easy to suspect that when you use words like ‘self-examination’, ‘self-consciousness’, ‘self-depiction’ you give in to a pleasure symptomatic to the writing process. Are you thereby agreeing that writers spend so much time trying to understand who they are, their place in the world, and how best to express that sync?

TSHUMA: Hmmm. Perhaps. In memoir writing, indeed one undergoes a direct, intimate, introspective and retrospective view of oneself. In fiction work, perhaps it does not matter so much. It is the jagged pieces of existence that make it interesting, and not the pieces that sync together.

IDUMA: If we agree on this, then you may also agree that it is equally necessary for a writer to be burdened with divesting herself in a work? There are bits of yourself, it is proposed, in every story you have written; your characters are not entirely fictitious.

TSHUMA: Not necessary, I would say. But it is an element that is ever there; one cannot run away from it. It is an unnecessary burden, for it will invariably be there, this element of ‘oneself’, at different levels.

IDUMA: Your constant foreground is family life – the disorientation, mostly, that surrounds it. In this you are not alone – other contemporary African writers have explored the subject. What is this attraction to family? Is this reminiscent of clichéd references to ‘African family life’ ‘African traditional life’, or is there a striking modern connotation?

TSHUMA: African family life is a rich mosaic; Africanism has always rooted itself in community and has always put community above the individual; the family becomes, perhaps, a miniature view of community. African family life continues to flourish even in the face of modernisation; the cliché lies only in the reference of the term; the experience is a relevant and fascinating phenomenon.

IDUMA: Are you working on anything at the moment?


IDUMA: What is that?

TSHUMA: It looks like a book.

IDUMA: How did you feel when you were shortlisted for the Intwasa Short Story Competition 2009? And did you feel differently when you won the competition? And afterwards did you say, I am a writer now? (Chuckling) What did you say to yourself afterwards?

TSHUMA: I was excited; green, clinging onto wispy strings to form something of a progression in my novice writing steps; it was super-cool. Winning was, of-course, a nice thing; afterwards I looked myself in the mirror, scratched my chin, nodded and said; yeah, we aren’t too bad, this thing called writing and I.

IDUMA: What difference do you strive for in your writing? Wit? Stylistic dissidence? Inventiveness? Or are you intent at striking a familiar chord in a reader’s heart, making a character look familiar to lived experience? You’ve termed your genre ‘realist fiction’? What did you mean?

TSHUMA: I may look for something different in different pieces of writing. The fun lies in the experimentation. Difference? Hmmm. Difference cannot, for me, be a conscious thing, it becomes a futile thing. Rather, I simply seek to ‘utilise my writing voice’, that voice that is ‘me’. By realist fiction I meant fiction based on the spaces we inhabit, our interaction with our environment.

IDUMA: In the yet soon-to-be published ‘Doctor S’, your voice becomes perceivably sharper, which is the same with ‘The King and I’. So is it true that constant experimentation is the pathway to affirmation, yes?

TSHUMA: Nothing substitutes for practice. Read and read and read; write and write and write. Write some more. Read some more.

IDUMA: And yet another question, the last, on this – a certain writer said that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardness in first trying to make something that has not previously been made. Have you experienced awkwardness in any form, especially because you say you are not conscious of attempting a ‘difference’? Is this conception of an unavoidable awkwardness altogether misplaced?

TSHUMA: That is how we learn; like the first wobbly baby steps, we learn to trust our own feet by trying, stumbling, at times falling. But there is that thing called writing personality.

IDUMA: Do you presume, having described writing as a ‘state’, even a ‘constant’ one, that you will have a lifelong career as a novelist, a storyteller? Are you often shaken, like Joan Didion, by the suspicion that no one out there is listening, and that your talent will not necessarily contribute differently to an understanding of who we are?

TSHUMA: Self-doubt is a writer’s inseparable companion. When you stop doubting, you stop striving, stop growing, stop learning. Do not make self-doubt your closest counsel, though; it may well cripple you with its wicked whispers, its creeping laughter. Adopt determination, even a little dose of obsession, once in a while, and let them fuel your pen.

It is useful to inhabit the inner state first; the private sphere of you and your story. Then, having written something, and wishing to share it with others, you may lay it bare, for public inspection. You need to be, as a writer, your greatest critic and your greatest motivator, need to know when to interchange these roles. Having faced rejection, you may mope at the pain of it and swear never to write again; but after a while, you find you are at it, and you are enjoying it so much that not even the possibility of yet more rejection can derail you. You want to take this thing called writing and master it, and just master it, and do it until you ‘have it’.

I enjoy writing. Get lost in it. Such enjoyment becomes addictive. Write; let the readers read.

IDUMA: What do you find yourself doing when not writing? How does this impact/impart your writing?

TSHUMA: Oh, I like to think I am a normal person. I do all those living things, those people things, those socializing things, those eating and sleeping things. Those reading things. Those must go to the grocery store things. Those need to read-for-a-test things. Impact my writing? Oh, sometimes you see things and experience things as you go about these living things, and one day, boom! They are scribbling on paper. If writing is an obsession, let us at least agree that it is sweet.

Read More:

Anthologies/Print Journals:
'The King and I' in A Life in Full and Other Stories, Caine Anthology, New Internationalist 2010
'Big Pieces, Little Pieces' in StoryTime African Roar Anthology, 2010
Links to Online Works:
'You in Paradise' winning story of the Intwasa Short Story Competition (African Writing Online)
'Waiting' (Munyori Literary Journal)
'Still Life' (Oracles d' Afrique)
Essays/Contributions/ Articles:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Zim's collective memory, conscience preserved in 'Together'

The Financial Gazette, Friday, 13 January 2012 11:48

Review by Diana Rodriguez

Modern African writers and poets, like the griots or praise poets in earlier times, hold a special place in society. While the job of the griot was to give praise to the traditional chief of the tribe, by virtue of his important position, the griot was able to throw in a fair amount of criticism, without being called to task. Today's African writers have a similar function: by telling it like it is, they are able to preserve the memory of the nation, while acting simultaneously as a collective conscience.

Two such writers are baby boomers, Julius Chingono and John Eppel. Both spent their early years in Rhodesia, survived the liberation war and enjoyed the heady first years of an independent Zimbabwe. The stories they tell in Together, a joint publication by amaBooks Publishers of their poems and stories, date mostly from the year 2000, vividly recalling the country's ‘lost decade'. In these troubled years, land reform displaced almost a million farm workers and their dependents, savings were lost forever, and an ageing population whose children fled to the Diaspora in search of jobs, was left to fend for itself in a country without food security or law and order.

In 2012, medical aid societies are functioning again, and supermarkets stock every kind of food. Memories of past privations are but dimly remembered, until the reader happens upon The Pact by John Eppel. Four elderly widows, Jean, Mavis, Harriet and Dorothy, pool their resources by moving into Dorothy's ‘large, rambling house in Burnside. When a large pot of soup the ladies are making for thirty street kids is overturned by troublemakers, Mavis is severely burned. Not being able to afford medical aid, her friends treat her burns with aloe vera cut from the garden. Their ministrations fail, and before Mavis dies, the ladies enforce the pact they made, that ‘if ever life became too much of a burden for one of them, all four would die together, by sharing one of Harriet's milk tarts, laced with a deadly Chinese-made rat poison.'

What begins as a jolly narrative of four good friends playing at becoming writers in their ‘Scribbling Club', doing good deeds and managing to get by, descends into mass suicide and tragedy.

The Dread Gentleman by Julius Chingono recalls 2005, a year of elections and violence, and the notorious ‘Operation Murambatsvina' when thousands of displaced city dwellers lost their livelihood and the average age expectancy for Zimbabwean women dropped to 34 years. The hero of the tale is a dread-locked businessman who had lost a business in the ‘tsunami' of Murambatsvina. He undergoes a purifying process performed by three Vapostori in spotless white robes, their heads clean-shaven and shining with ‘an abundant application of petroleum jelly.' Talking loudly above the sungura music ‘churning' from a nearby jukebox, the apostles throw holy water on the pavement and nearby Durawall and declare that the gentleman's future enterprise will be blessed and that ‘the public will see good in the goods that will be sold here'.

Chingono's light touch and humour make him a good companion to any avid reader. As a man of the people, he makes us aware of the difficulties of surviving in Zimbabwe: but he also brings the life and laughter of the townships and the ready wit of conversations during long ET rides into our immediate experience. At times John Eppel's elegant and stylish prose lulls us into a false sense of security. Beautiful images in his poetry evoke the scent of buddleia, cestrum and syringa blossom. But before you can say Euphorbia pulcherrima, he shows us ‘mounds of household rubbish dumped along our public ways', lamenting that our ‘houses reek of poverty, anxiety . . . even terror.'

Whether Chingono and Eppel will be judged as activists, writers or poets, will depend on you, the reader. Sadly, Julius Chingono passed away in 2011, but John Eppel is just getting into his stride. Keep a close eye on amaBooks Bulawayo for future offerings.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Review of 'Together: Stories and Poems by Julius Chingono and John Eppel'

Reviewed by Emmanuel Sigauke on Wealth of Ideas

One question I remember asking in the late eighties and early nineties in Zimbabwe is: Where are all the white writers? I could easily have concluded that Zimbabwe had no white writers, or that white Zimbabweans could not write. But I remembered that when I started school in the 70s, before Zimbabwe's independence, I had read stories and poems by white writers in school. So, as works by black writers flourished in the eighties, what was happening to works by white writers? John Eppel hints at one of the many possible answers in a short essay in the poetry collection, 'State of the Nation': "None of the Zimbabwean presses would publish me; none of the South African presses. Influential academics (and editors) of anthologies, not only at home but in those countries starched with political correctness like post-independent South Africa, Germany, Canada, and England, dismissed me as morally questionable or simply ignored me."

I remember seeing Eppel at writers' meetings. I remember his [then] explosive poetry renditions, and when I travelled to Bulawayo to launch the city's branch of the Budding Writers of Zimbabwe, he was in the group of participants. He might not have been published, but he was there, together with others, participating, seeking publication, like most of us were. But where were all the other white writers? It's one of those questions that would not yield a clear answer in racially divided Zimbabwe, but things have gotten better, Zimbabweans have learned to work together in the face of the country's crises. And there is no greater witness for this --in literary circles-- than the landmark work 'Together', a publication in which two writers, one black, one white, came together to publish a book. Most of the anthologies published in the country after 2000 show diversity.

'Together' is here. It was co-published by amaBooks (Zimbabwe) and UNO Press (USA). Shortly after, the South African edition followed. Another demonstration of togetherness, of collaboration, among publishers. The book starts with Julius Chingono's writings followed by John Eppel's. It's a beautiful book; I have read from it at different poetry events in Sacramento. I have proudly carried it around. It is one of very few Zimbabwean books published in the USA, so there is pride in that. I love that it's locally available, easy to order in bulk, if needed. Many readers will love it for its humor, the kind of humor salvaged in a place where hope is uncertain. Then there is satire, and, even more surprisingly, blatant criticism of governmental authority. To me, the writings are so sad I missed much of the humor on the first reading.

Chingono's poems tend to be short and incisive. He grabs my attention immediately with "Curiosity", the first entry in the book, about a "He" who heard gunfire outside, opened his door and "never saw / the bullet / that killed his curiosity." The poem reminded me of a childhood friend I lost in the seventies; he was only twelve, but because of his height, he was allowed to attend those all-night party indoctrination (pungwes). The base was ambushed, and as the people took cover and started crawling away, as they had been trained, my friend stood up to take a look at how well the brothers, the comrades, were firing, and a bullet got him and he died. A good work of art has the ability to transcend time, to be applicable to situations in different places. Nothing would stop this poem to resonate with anyone in Sacramento or Oakland, where shootings are common.

Chingono's story "Leave my Bible Alone" features Mudhara Gore, a drunkard who would do anything to keep his Bible, his most valued possession. Even though this is more of an incident that a fully rendered story (you get the sense that there is a lot more that's left unsaid), the piece hints at the state of affairs in the country. The most moving moment for me is not when the Gore falls and inadvertently releases the grip on his bible, nor is it when his wife carries him home in the family wheelbarrow; it is when this specific incident is introduced, in the middle of the story: "Gore joined the usual company of old time guzzlers. At this time backyard drinking joints selling illicit alcohol had sprouted up all over, as municipal beer halls were not operating and legal alcohol was too expensive... Afraid that the drinking hole would be raided by the police at any time, Gore and his friends hastily downed two 750ml bottles of kachasu. They parted in very good spirits, their bibles clutched to their chests." It's not even the social value of alcohol consumption that matters now, but the rapid guzzling meant to bury the larger problems of life. And right here in this paragraph you get the sense that people find solace in two major outlets, alcohol and church, and just as illicit alcohol places have sprouted, so have churches of all sorts and descriptions. Beer and bible are pronounced in the same breath in this story.

In the short story "We Waited", Chingono uses the voice of witness, which maintains the humor element we see in the poetry and his other stories. This is a story of the voter's voice not being respected, of the abuse of the electorate, but amidst such injustices, the voice manages to make us laugh: "We waited. We joked that the weather had joined the British and the Americans in imposing sanctions on us." Over and over again, the Zimbabwean writer has begun to tap into the humorous in the national rhetoric. It comes off as satire, yet too dire to always solicit our laughter with its humor element. The tragic looms larger: "We sat on rubble as we waited, rubble of the buildings destroyed during Murambatsvina when the shelters of the poor people who could not construct permanent structures were demolished by the government. We waited, keen to exercise our right to vote in the Goredema town council elections, a fledgling town west of Harare." Here, not only does the narrator assume I need a definition of Murambatsvina, he also reveals the exact location of Goredema in relation to Harare.

If the narrator is not reporting to a foreign audience, he is perhaps talking to posterity, future readers of this story who may not remember the time, or, suppose Goredema collapses altogether one day, given the rate of destruction in the world of this story, then it helps to offer level of specificity; it contextualizes the story and help reader visualize setting. But that's not all; there is a deep subjective interpretation of his world; the narrator tells the story as it is, from the way he sees it. He tells it in such a natural voice that he probably wouldn't care about the invasive editorial italicization of his points of reference: murambatsvina, maputi, freezits, since his exposition is so clear that italics or not, the the details would still make sense to the reader. Anyway, things don't go on well in "We Waited." They wait for nothing; they don't get to vote for the candidate they want, and their demonstration ends with tragic encounter with riot police.

The voice of witness also narrates "The Dread Gentleman", telling us of transport woes and other hardships the people are experiencing in the country. Commuters wait for hours at the bus terminus: "Fuel was in short supply and government was contiually 'in the process' [sic] of sourcing foreign currency to buy the precious liquid." Although the voice is still communal, talking about the experiences of the "we", the story introduces a specific individual, an object of everyone's curiosity. He too has been affected by the tsunami, which the narrator explains as "the wanton destruction of buidings by the government, named after the tsunami that devastated East Asia and Africa." The narrator, ever generous with detail, adds, " Most emergent business people had their place of work destroyed in the wave of politically motivated destruction carried out by the government to weed out dissent among the urban populace."

This reads like the prose straight out of the independent press' critique of government activities. Perhaps in a place where the press cannot report freely, literature begins to play the role of the independent press, and as readers, we are likely to accept the journalistic details that temporarily delay the story, or we accept that the reporting is the story. This is a common thread throughout this book and other works coming out of this period of Zimbabwean life; the voice of witness, the voice seeking what seems like a distant audience, the voice that's a cry for some intervention, the see-what-they-are-doing to us voice. It is hard to ignore; you connect with at an emotional level, and what you may suspend isn't disbelief but art.

The stories in the anthologies published in the first decade of this century carry this voice; voices reporting Zimbabwe, voices, in the words of NoViolet Bulawayo, "penning Zimbabwe". Perhaps the uniformity of reportage in most stories is a function of the limited publication opportunities in the country; the stories become an identity not so much of the writers but of the one or two publishers selecting the stories that tell the story of Zimbabwe's lost decade. As I have devoured these stories, I have also always felt that the full story, in its complexity, has not yet been told, and I don't want our publishing industry to make the mistakes made in the eighties, of pushing a uniform literature of liberation, laudatory poetry and blame-casting fiction chosen by just a few editors; some of the works then were driven by the euphoria of independence, and this guaranteed them a spot on the national curriculum. Those works that didn't fit in these modes were not promoted, were rejected, or banned. "

The Dread Gentleman" is also about survival. Chingono gives us a snapshot of how people are making ends meet through the parallel market. One example is the suddent emergence, an eruption really, of projects like Sams Electrical Investment, where "we buy and sell all electrical goods. we repair stoves, ions, hitters and all domestic and industry requirements. And all kinds of risk watches." During the decade of Zimbabwe's hardship, many outsiders wondered how people survived, their source of resilience. In this story, Chingono attempts to answer that question. Talking about the crowds who have gathered to support dread gentleman's new enterprise, the narrator says, "They were a peace-loving people who did not retaliate with violence. They did not believe in the old law--an eye for an eye. They did not believe in destructive engagement." Assuming a voice of the voiceless stance, Chingono writes: "They knew that the authorities destroyed their homes, factories, offices, stores, butcheries...They destroyed their small vending markets, their livelihood, without compensation." The critique gets even more stinging: " They knew the government was a soulless machine that did not have blood flowing through its veins. That had not eyes. No ears. That had no heart."
Chingono's poems reveal their truths through humor and conciseness. His short stories, most of them short, are conveyed through the expository voice whose urgent need is to chronicle the experiences of their characters. These are stories whose strength is in content, not so much in form. Collectively, they are a memoir of the Norton community, yet the experiences of these people resonated throughout the country, and they grip the attention of readers anywhere. The collective voice is like a call awaiting our response, a voice seeking to awaken our humanitarian impulses. For other writers, the stories are a storehouse, a documentations of experiences that could trigger other stories, filtered through diverse artistic voices.

John Eppel, on the other hand, experiments with different writing techniques, especially in his poetry, whether he is writing a satire or a sestina, a haiku or quartrain. In fiction, his prose is highly readable, and the narrative is suspenseful, but the content often is presented in a rawness that begs for more filtering or execution. I haven't read his novels yet, and when I do, I will start with the one about the English teacher.
In the poem "Afrika" Eppel features a debate on naming, identity, and progress. One voice questions the use of the letter 'k' to replace the 'c': "Do you think, by spelling out it with a 'k' / that you will make it...well..more Afrikan?" This is a serious question in a world where names are used to show many interpretations of identity and belonging; and the naming system as it relates to Africa and its Diaspora has been used to establish ideas of authenticity, or in some cases, to establish a sense of sovereignty and independence, or just in negate past systems and administrations. Street names have been changed from those of former foreign settlers to those of the new African leadership. There have been jokes about a four-way intersection where all the streets signs bear the name of the country's president, confusing motorists and pedestrians alike. In the poem, the voice in stanza two tries to address the questions asked in stanza one: "Look, friend, sacrifices have to be made.../..let's make a start...let's spell it with a 'k'.

And what's in a name? A lot, no doubt. Even Livingstone was quick to name the Victoria Falls out of his queen, and to this day, that's the name used. And as names are changed, what harm is in that? Not changing names has been known to benefit tourism in some circles, but in others, name change or not, nothing seems to have benefitted the people. That's perhaps the message at the core of the poem, as is hinted in these lines: "[Do you think] calling it Robert Mugabe Way / instead of Grey Street.../...the vendors squatting underneath the sign / will somehow earn more money down the line?" It leaves one to wonder what question the persona would have asked back when it was still Grey. But as the persona points out, parenthetically, like an aside, "What's in a man?" And the question that's not asked is "What's in a woman?"

The story that follows this poem also centers on a debate. "Debate" ridicules the whole idea of a debate in the context of Zimbabwean politics. It's a caricature of the debaters, whose real life identities the narrator does not work hard to conceal. It's a play (a word that will matter in the next story) on the Mbeki-led Zimbabwe talks, and it is very entertaining. That's what it is, entertainment, presented in inventive prose, but too much of a joke that evaporates soon after you finish reading. The story echoes the familiar sayings in Zimbabwean leadership circles. We can easily tell who Comrade Nod; he blames the problems of his country on former colonial powers and on America. He says, " The colonial sun set a long time ago; in 1980....and hence I ....we will never be a colony again." Mr Nod does not believe the country deserves sanctions because the country he leads is "very African and sovereign." Then when he ends his speech, he shouts some slogans presented in an ungrammatical medley of Shona and English, which I suspect has nothing to do with the caricature of the speakers: "pamberi the economy, pasi the drought, pasi sanctions,". And all the Shona words are italicized, consistent with some ....conventions, but the issue here is, seriously, that's how the character said it? It definitely has to be part of the caricature: not only are these leaders so articulate in English as they dismiss British imperial tendencies; they are also...inarticulate in their use of Shona. The story succeeds, however, in expressing the author's feelings about the political situation in the country.

The poem 'The Coming of the Rain' is clever. The sarcastic element that builds to the satiric tone serves the intention of the poem. Usually, in a place like Zimbabwe, the rains bring hope. In this poem, the coming of the rain is the only thing that endangers this society, not lack of freedom of speech, not the absence of freewill, not bondage and oppression...just the rain. The next poem, "Ghostly Galleon", deals with that familiar image of the Chinese ship bringing weapons to Zimbabwe. The poet praises Durban Dockers' Union for denying the ship entry. The celebratory tone is short-lived because "the ghostly galleon will be back-- / terror is here to stay". This is consistent with John Eppel's view, expressed in the essay I mentioned earlier, that Zimbabwe has not experienced real freedom since the Smith regime, but in reading these poems and stories, you get the impression that the situation has worsened in the Mugabe years; the euphoria of the eighties was shortlived, and for some, indepedence never came.

The fast-paced story "Democracy at Work and at Play" approaches brilliance in the art of pastiche, or more appropriately, in what Henry Louis Gates calls signifying. In short, Epple signifies on Yvonne Vera's work. Signifying includes a level of acknowledgement and appreciation of another author's work with some room to mock it; it's like a game, which might cause wounds, but in the bigger scheme of literary things, it adds to the value of literary engagement amongs authors or their works. Here Eppel critiques the occasionally unusual use of English in Vera's 'The Stone Virgins', questioning the awkward use of prepositions, what the protagonist calls "faulty grammar and mixed metaphors". The POV narrator seems to ridicule Benate's obsessive appreciation of Vera's work. He has an MA in Vera, and now is thinking of pursuing his doctorate with an emphasis on Vera again. The working title for his dessertation is Democracy at Work and at Play: The Subversive Function of Faulty Grammar and Mixed Metaphors in Yvonne Vera. Eppel believes that Vera's treatment of Gukurahundi in 'The Stone Virgins' is cowardly; it does not capture the horror, and you can see the same view expressed in this short story. I liked, however, how the story communicates with Vera's novel, and I feel we need more of such. Works of literature are related in many ways and at many levels; each work contributes to the multiple perspectives that form a literary tradition. Unfortunately, I couldn't find my copy of Vera's novel to compare notes with Eppel.

Eppel enters the non-fictional, reporter mode we saw earlier in Chingono. Once we reach the piece "Discarded", we are no longer pretending to be in the world of fiction. Reality has taken over, we are in the world of ZANU PF and MDC, political campaigns, AK 47s and Bloody Diamonds. I am reminded of that Orhan Pamuk narrator who abandons the story, and asks the author to just finish,to tell the reader details in the raw. Here, it's as if Eppel have contended with the fact that reality is more fictional than fiction in some situations. It's a story-telling mode he has perfected over the years. Perhaps that's the courage he wanted to see in Yvonne Vera? Forget art; tell us what happened. It's a matter of immediacy, the courage to capture the dangerous as it happens.

The editors concluded the book with one of the best Eppel poems, "Waiting". The topic of waiting is one of the thematic similarities between Chingono and Eppel in 'Together'. In Chingono voters are made to wait and wait, until distater strikes before they even cast their votes, that deadly shift from ballot to bullet. In Eppel's "Waiting", we count the frangipani leaves while explosions from the neighbours' burning rubbish trigger memories of the so-called Rhodesia bush war, which led to the independence of a country in which votes don't count anymore. But where there is hope there is waiting, so we wait, until the narrator tells us, ""The falling leaves remind me / that the day has come and gone for ballots / to be counted, results announced, and I'm / afraid that change will never come." And as long as we know we are afraid, we also know that we can learn not to be afraid; some have called it the gift of fear.

Together, John Eppel and Julius Chingono chronicle the lives of Zimbabweans going through a difficult decade. In their unique ways, these authors bring the reader closer to what was happening in the country, and their collaborative voice is a courageous plunge into subjects many artists often dread. In their statements of necessity, literary craft was not always as critical as conveying the content. It is certainly a book to read, if not for the issues and style, then most definitely for the spirit of the project, the need for collaborative work not only among writers from the same country, but writers across color lines. And given where we are in human development, it's a shame that we have just discovered--in the past decade-- the beauty and strength in working together. In the words of Na'ima Robert, author of 'Far From Home', " if we are to survive as a pluralistic, tolerant nation, we must be able to weave a coherent national narrative, a common ground, a shared history, in light of [our] differences." Togetherness is Zimbabwe's literary imperative.