Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tribute to Julius Chingono - From Murray McCartney

A passage:

Had it not been for the shortage of mealie-meal caused by the shortage of land that we were in the process of repossessing, we would have drunk our alcohol on stomachs full of sadza, thick white sadza, and we would not have been as wasted as we were. Sovereignty had replaced sadza. Alcohol taken on a stomach full of sovereignty tended to make us aggressive.

Vintage Chingono. It’s all there: the playful imagination, the narrative lilt, the satirical wit.

Weaver Press published that story – ‘Kachasu: a killer’ – in our 2005 anthology, Writing Now. Prior to that, we published ‘Maria’s Interview’ in Writing Still. Prior in turn to that, his name first crossed our radar ten years earlier, when the South African publisher of a volume of his poetry asked us to help promote it.

Our first response was: Julius who? But we didn’t remain in the dark for long.

It was the start of a warm and productive friendship.

The first piece we asked him to write, wasn’t a poem; it wasn’t a story. As the editor of Poetry International’s Zimbabwe website, Irene had been asked to submit to them a Poet’s Diary. She asked Julius to write it.

‘A diary?’ he asked. ‘What’s a diary?’

‘Well, each day, for a week, you write down what you did, and your thoughts, and your feelings …’

Julius fell to the task with slightly bemused vigour. The result appeared on the web in December 2001, and promptly became the stuff of literary legend: a week in the life of a rock-blasting Mufundisi – urban squalor, hyperinflation, crowded combies, family arguments, bones for supper. And it spread like a virus. Anyone googling ‘explosives’ could have found it, for instance, and we had responses from as far afield as a Michigan mineworkers’ union.

One thing leads to another. In 2004 Julius was invited to the Poetry International festival in Rotterdam. It was his first time out of Zimbabwe. Another Diary emerges, this time with new themes: strange food; late evening sunlight; being addressed as a poet; window shopping; explaining Zimbabwe; buying new glasses for reading on stage.

Julius brought his characteristic good humour to the event. Whether during readings, or over breakfast, or in the bar, he charmed everyone, from literary editors, to a future Poet Laureate – drinks with Carol Ann Duffy – to students from the city.

Impish charm isn’t enough, though. It may get you to the gate, but it won’t on its own get you through it.

Julius took his writing seriously, just as seriously as he took his sermonising and his dynamite: it was work, and had to be imagined, and drafted, and redrafted. In his relations with his publishers, he didn’t look up to them, or down on them: he looked them straight in the eye.

We delighted often in this straightforwardness, this ease of friendship. It’s a long haul from Norton to Emerald Hill at the best of times, and we knew Julius through the worst of times as well. But in he would drop, for a coffee, for a sharing of news, for the recitation of tales and adventures and highs and lows. Then off he would go again, through corruption-scented air and traffic, back to his wife, to put food on her table, and nag her about the ironing of his priestly robes.

He was one of a kind.

Thank you.

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