Monday, December 19, 2011

Short Writings from Bulawayo II: A must have piece

The Herald, Monday, 19 December 2011 00:00
Title: Short Writings from Bulawayo Two
Author: Various
Publisher: 'amaBooks
Pages: 116
ISBN: 0-7974-2896-8

Aristotle said politics is the highest form of art because other goods and services borrow their life from people who bow to the force of whips that are cracked in Parliament. This year the main political parties in the country, Zanu-PF and MDC-T, brought many people to attend their meetings in Bulawayo.
Hotels should have used this opportunity to interest them in reading Short Writings from Bulawayo Two for the benefit of the whole hospitality industry in Zimbabwe. This collection of short stories and poems is about the life of people in the City of Kings and its surrounding rural areas. It deals with how people in high-density suburbs make ends meet in the face of economic hardships.
The guests staying in hotels can borrow books from the reception desk for reading in their rooms. Tourists enjoy reading books like this very much. An increase in sales of indigenous literature would have artists smiling all the way to the bank.
Its time hotels saw themselves as part and parcel of the culture of people. A family can go and watch a play at the theatre or it can go and sample an exotic dish at the local inn. Chefs know best that cooking is an art.
Eco-tourism binds art and culture and the hospitality industry together and books fasten that bond. It's natural for birds of the same feather to flock together for their mutual benefit. People of Bulawayo have a crush on Wim Boswinkel. He was born in Holland in 1947 and 'amaBooks published his first novel, Erina, in 2003. In his short story, 2084, he writes about a future that has no language and no alphabet. People express their feelings using their hands and faces.
The artist sees this weird world through the eyes of 17-year-old John and his sweetheart Nomakha. Theirs is love across the colour divide. As they walk through the park, they reflect on what life was like during the Dark Ages compared with the Light Age in which they live.
"People had all become equal," says the author, meaning equal in material possession. "Terrorism and crime had disappeared from the earth, and so had superstition and prejudice." The artist is good at evoking atmosphere.
"They loved," he says of the two, "to roam through the dense vegetation, to dig with their hands into the moist soil and to bring some to their noses to inhale the fragrant aroma of the top layer. It made them feel part of nature, as once mankind had been, in long forgotten primitive days."
Environmentalists should love this story.
Now, any woman worth her salt would feel what MaSibanda goes through when a gunman rapes her while Ncube is lying prostrate. The title of the story, Between Two Men, sums up the position of the husband. Hwange-born educationist Addlis Sibutha describes how the two of them leave the beerhall at closing time. A lone gunman accosts them along the wasteland and warns Ncube to be sensible.
MaSibanda asks herself why Ncube didn't do something to fight off the rapist. Ncube thinks that perhaps MaSibanda knows this man from somewhere. Children, knowing their parents to be boisterous when they are in their cups, ask them why they are in a sullen mood.
Ncube meets the rapist at the bar and other men help him to mete instant justice on the scoundrel. The artist leaves you to imagine how MaSibanda will revenge herself when she has remained at home.
Rapists in Zimbabwe go to jail for seven years. In other countries it's 40. Plumtree-born Christopher Mlalazi (39) is a product in creative writing from Crossing Borders project of the British Council. He tells, in My Meat, the story of Zama.
He shows off to Nsingo the beer that Marx, who has come from South Africa, has bought for him at the bottle store. A dog makes off with braai meat that Zama had hidden in his jacket from the other guy. Zama runs after the dog as Marx buys himself a quart and talks of his girlfriend. Nsingo wishes he could go and work in Egoli. It's a sad story about youth and unemployment.
Derek Huggins joined the BSAP at 18 in 1959. He was CEO of the National Arts Foundation for 13 years up to 1988. Weaver Press has published his first collection of stories, Stained Earth.
P/O Greg Stanyon, in Crossing the Devine, is driving from Enkeldoorn back to camp in Sabi Valley. He finds workers poking a bird with sticks on the side of the road. Stanyon takes home this giant eagle owl and decides to put it down when he finds out that its wing is broken. He makes a bad shot and the bird takes a long time dying. In his remorse, a poignant past event pricks his conscience.
Seeing the bird fighting for its life becomes unbearable to him. This brings to mind the way the chicken tries to defy death when you have cut off its head. Horrible! The picture that Zambian-born Hezekela Mlilo (30) drew for the cover depicts the ideal woman by any standard - stout as a drum and strong enough to collar four oxen to the span single-handed. He won an award for graphics at the Mbira Art Exhibition and was nominated for Nama award.
The draw-card in the collection is Pathisa Nyathi. This member of the Zimbabwe Academic and Non-Fiction Authors Association has done justice to AmaNdebele culture through his works.
Pathisa Nyathi is first among equals in literary journalism in Zimbabwe. He ran columns in four publications at the same time and is public relations officer at Town House in Bulawayo.
In Illuminating Flames, this prolific writer pays tribute to the ancients who gave him wisdom.

The leaping crimson flames
Of mopane wood fires
Out in rural Kezi
Still flicker large in my city mind.

Another poet is John Eppel, born in 1947. His first novel, Great North Road,

won the M-Net prize in South Africa. In My Dustbin, he says:

These children
have acquired the patience of queuing;
children of neighbourhood; suburban;
queuing at my bin for a lucky dip.

Books, rights activists should have Short Writings from Bulawayo Two on the shelf.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Zim Writers document 'lost decade'

Zim writers document ‘lost decade'

Diana Rodrigues

IN spite of the warnings and advice of our teachers and parents never to judge a book by its cover, it would be difficult to ignore Veena Bhana's cover design, based on a sculpture by Arlington Muzondo, for amaBooks of Bulawayo's latest collection of short stories, Where to Now?

The earthy colours and ancient striations of the stone carving give more than a hint of the dreams, aspirations and adventures of some of Zimbabwe's most important writers, all to be found within this slim volume. Most of the writings in this collection have been inspired by events taking place between 2000 and 2010, a time that has come to be called Zimbabwe's "lost decade". These were the years of violence, inflation and economic collapse, when many fled to the diaspora, seeking new livelihoods and ways to support their siblings and the ageing parents they left behind. These stories are important in their placing of Zimbabwe in a history of events, that will determine all our futures, and eventually provide an answer to the question "where to now?" Although the writers deal with serious issues, a light touch and sense of comedy often temper the darkness and despair wrought by poverty in the lives of the characters. In Tomato Stakes, John Eppel describes school holidays spent with his friend Lofty Pienaar in his parents' house, a pondok made of burlap coal bags sewn together that "flapped" in the wind. Adventures trapping mice in the bush and swimming in algae-infested reservoirs ended when the boys left school. Lofty trained at Gwebi Agricultural College and became a successful commercial farmer. When the farm invasions began, he was left with a mere 10 acres of his original 350-acre spread at Umgusa. The resourceful Lofty, like a character from Boys Own Adventures, then embarked on a five-year plan to grow catha edulis, a tree whose leaves and bark are used to make Bushman's Tea, a stimulating beverage with medicinal properties. Rejoicing that Lofty has remained on the land, and will be able to support his wife and four children, the reader is astounded by a turn of events in the narrative. The outcome is as shocking as it was unexpected. "Your white masters must be delighted with you!" Mark hissed into my ear as we filed out of the general manager's office into the wide corridor, is the intriguing first sentence in a story by Mzana Mthimkulu, entitled I am an African, am I? Accused by his work mates of being un-African and a sell-out because he eats sadza with a knife and fork and because he returns his unused fuel allocation to his white boss, Timothy begins to question himself and his motives as a purchasing manager in a beer brewing company. When a colleague accuses him of preferring to watch satellite TV to visiting his relatives in the townships and rural areas, he takes this criticism to heart. Loading his Mazda 626 with two bags of mealie-meal, he drives to Pumula Township to visit his aunt. Delighted, the aunt calls down blessings on Timothy. He eventually returns to the city, happy that the spirits of his ancestors have spoken to him: He resolves in future to give up golf in favour of family visits. Like an enticing box of chocolates, there are many more stories in this collection to read and enjoy at leisure. Where to Now? is to be launched next year by Parthian Books, one of Wales' most respected publishers. Both amaBooks and Parthian are diverse and contemporary in their range. Publishing a wide variety of novels, short stories, poetry, local history and culture titles, they provide encouragement and support for many of Zimbabwe's established and budding writers. - (You can also visit the publisher's website:

Review from the Financial Gazette (

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Song of the Carnivores School Competition

The prize-giving ceremony for the schools component of the Song of the Carnivores Lyric Writing Competition was held on 29 November at the Academy of Music in Bulawayo. The four winners from the Bulawayo schools are shown in the photograph - the overall winner being Jordan Edwards of Whitestone School.
The competition was organised and judged by 'amaBooks and the prizes were presented by Brian Jones of 'amaBooks and Maureen Stewart British Council Zimbabwe. Dr Netty Purchase, the coordinator of the project, talked to the audience about the importance of the five carnivores - Cheetah, Leopard, Wild Dog, Spotted Hyena and Lion - during the ceremony.
The entries from the four winners will be considered, together with the winning entries from the adult competition - from Edgar Langeveldt and Peggy Lendrum, to be put to music by composer Richard Sisson and performed during the Bulawayo Music Festival in 2012.

Publishing Workshop in Bulawayo

A workshop on publishing was held at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo on Saturday 3 December. The event was organised by the Zimbabwean Academic and Non-fiction Authors Association and was facilitated by Isaac Mpofu, Brian Jones of 'amaBooks Publishers and Pathisa Nyathi.

Friday, December 2, 2011

World AIDS Day and a library at Mpilo Hospital in Bulawayo

World AIDS Day was commemorated at Mpilo Hospital in Bulawayo with the announcement of support from the US Embassy in Zimbabwe for the Opportunistic Infection Clinic Resource Centre at the hospital for young people living with HIV/AIDS - the only one of its kind in Zimbabwe. All 1500 young people between the ages of 13 and 24 who are registered at the clinic can take advantage of the facilities of the resource centre.
'amaBooks are helping to set up the library at the centre, which will include non-fiction and fiction titles, including those from Zimbabwe. As Ambassador Charles Ray stated in his speech at the event: "The pieces of literature will, we hope, inspire readers and broaden horizons." This project follows on from 'amaBooks' involvement in helping to establish reading groups of young people in the city.
A similar library is also to be set up in Matabeleland North, as part of Kariyangwe Mission Hospital's Home Based Care Programme.

John Eppel and Julius Chingono’s Together nominated for a Pushcart Prize

Together, which features stories and poems by John Eppel and the late Julius Chingono, was co-published earlier this year by ’amaBooks of Bulawayo, the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press and the University of New Orleans Press.

The Pushcart Prize, published every year since 1976, is considered the most honoured literary project in America. It is a prize for the best “poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot” published in the small presses of America over the previous year. The work of John Eppel and Julius Chingono qualifies because of the co-publication with the University of New Orleans Press.

The founding editors for the Pushcart Prize were Anais Nin, Buckminster Fuller, Charles Newman, Daniel Halpern, Gordon Lish, Harry Smith, Hugh Fox, Ishmael Reed, Joyce Carol Oates, Len Fulton, Leonard Randolph, Leslie Fiedler, Nona Balakian, Paul Bowles, Paul Eagle, Ralph Ellison, Reynolds Price, Rhoda Schwartz, Richard Morris, Ted Wilentz, Tom Montag, and William Phillips.

Writers who were first noticed from being nominated for the prize include Raymond Carver, Tim O’Brien, Jayne Anne Phillips, Charles Baxter, Andre Dubus, Susan Minot, Mona Simpson, John Irving, Rick Moody, and many more.

Together is available in outlets throughout Zimbabwe, South Africa and North America, and can also be purchased outside of those areas online through the African Books Collective and other websites.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Zimbabwe Writers Association Meeting

The Zimbabwe Writers Association (ZWA) cordially invites you to the first of its monthly meetings on Saturday 3 December 2011 at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, 20 Julius Nyerere Way, Harare from 2:00pm to 4:30pm in the library extension (upstairs) for the purposes of discussion and readings. You are reminded to bring your $10 membership fees.
The major objective of ZWA is to bring together all willing individual writers of Zimbabwe in order to encourage creative writing, reading and publishing in all forms possible, conduct workshops, and provide for literary discussions.

Photograph courtesy of Memory Chirere

Friday, November 18, 2011

More 'amaBooks titles available as ebooks

More titles from 'amaBooks are now available as ebooks through into-ebooks, including Christopher Mlalazi's Dancing with Life: Tales from the Township, John Eppel's Hatchings, Intwasa Poetry, Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe, Short Writings from Bulawayo I, II and III, and Pathisa Nyathi's Zimbabwe's Cultural Heritage. All are priced at E12.00.

Please look at

Thursday, November 10, 2011

WordsEtc Review of Together

Review by Thabisani Ndlovu

In a groundbreaking joint publication project involving two Zimbabwean writers (one black and the other white), as well as three publishers, Together reflects the innovation that went into this collaboration, emerging as a refreshing and highly symbolic text. It presents short stories and poems by two veteran writers, disturbing the racial and political polarities that have come to characterize the rule of ZANU PF. Both writers strike the pose of a jester in their views of the Zimbabwean “crisis.”

Following the axiom that the truth is told in jokes, both writers use humour as social commentary to explore shared abject poverty, shortages of basic commodities, state brutality, the travesty of justice, the abuse of political power as well as the complicity of the oppressed in their oppression. The two poke fun at the “absurd” that has been normalised. Focus is on the everydayness of life to illustrate that in a country characterised by extremist attitudes, the truth lies in between; that in fact, the very stuff of everyday life exposes the vacuity that so characterises the rhetoric of racial and political extremism.

Chingono uses a deceptively simple style. His sympathies, like those of Eppel, lie with the poor and downtrodden who may be wantonly killed in cross-fire, kept waiting by politicians only interested in getting votes, made poor and hungry through political machinations or have their houses bulldozed by the government in a “clean-up” exercise. Yet in this depressing and depraved condition, Chingono sees the funny side of life, for example in the stories “Shonongoro” and “The Toilet Issue.” One senses though, an underlying sadness threatening to cloud the humour. The metal number plate of a car that makes up part of a shack door in the poem “20-044L;” the jostling for space in a bus in “At the Bus Station”, and the emptiness of greetings occasioned by extreme deprivation in “Greetings” all suggest a deep-seated sadness from which one of the means of escape is alcoholism. In “We Waited” Chingono employs that archetypal trope of waiting in Zimbabwean literature as epitomised by Mungoshi’s Waiting for the Rain. The waiting in this context is symbolic not only of arrested development but decay, entrapment and destruction.

John Eppel’s wit is more direct and acerbic. Most of his pieces speak of deprivation. The first, “Malnourished Sonnet” signals his keen sense of observation, especially the dearth of responsible leadership. The poem “Afrika” shows such vacuity as does “Culture.” Eppel exposes the ridiculous or absurd in Zimbabwean politics. In “The Debate,” the three candidates are battling to see who will be “allowed to dish out cabinet posts, including the newly established, and coveted one, of Minister of Rural Beauty Pageants.” Of interest to Eppel as well is Zimbabwe’s troubled past, especially Gukurahundi in the pieces “Democracy at work and at Play,” “Broke Buttock Blues”, and “Bhalagwe Blues”. The writer exposes the hypocrisy of the country’s leadership in attempting to erase large scale state perpetrated murder that was ethnically motivated.

The only thing that short story enthusiasts may be disappointed with is that the stories tend to be anecdotal with not much attention to development of character and as such emerge as “sketches”. Perhaps that is the result of their expository mode. It is difficult though, to fault the poems. Overall, Chingono and Eppel not only remind us of a hard time in Zimbabwe’s history but also remind us that the bond of suffering that Zimbabweans share has a common source of misery – a corrupt self-serving oligarchy. The bond of suffering also suggests a wider conception of nation beyond race, ethnicity and political affiliation.

Thabisani Ndlovu is a writer of fiction, has a PhD in African Literature and is Deputy Director of the International Human Rights Exchange Programme at Wits University, Johannesburg.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

YouTube video of the Bulawayo launch of Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe

A YouTube video of the Bulawayo launch of Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe, featuring Owen Maseko's live interpretation of NoViolet Bulawayo's story in the collection as it is read at the launch is at

John Eppel's Hatchings reviewed by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende

The incisively satirical novel Hatchings, by John Eppel, is set in the city of Bulawayo, during the doldrum years of post independence Zimbabwe. In it we find Elizabeth Fawkes and her family, a representation of the ever dwindling middle class and middle class values of solid family ties, sound education, hard work and integrity. The story centres around the Fawkes family, who are in a sense the barometer of normality against which the reader can measure all the other characters in the novel. Some of these characters are extreme criminals of foreign extraction whose predatory instincts bring them to the chaos that is Zimbabwe and become the opportunistic parasites feeding voraciously off the dying country. Such an unsavory character we find in the person of Sobantu ‘the butcher’ Ikheroti, who is devoid of conscience or anything that amounts to human sympathy. Ikheroti is involved in the business of providing illegal abortions to pregnant underage girls, who have been put in the family way, thanks to the rampant penchant for “Black pussy”, by two British expatriate primary school teachers, Simon and Nicholas. Enter the Ogojas, Nigerians, who deal illicitly in stolen emeralds and who are in business with Ikheroti, who incidentally pimps the girls he provides abortions for so that they can pay him back for relieving them of their unwanted babies. The dead babies are passed on to the esteemed artist Ingeborg Ficker, who is creating an organic statue using hills valleys and trees called the Gwanda Giantess who will be birthing these babies.

Eppel’s characters move along the natural continuum of class and racial composition of Bulawayo (and therefore Zimbabwe), sardonically invoking stereotypes of the various classes and racial groups. There are the residents of Cornwall Street in the city centre: the Amazambane and the Ilithanga families, Ndebeles who cohabit in one small flat, all 14 of them. There is the old coloured family, the Reeboks, whose one son was hanged for murder, the other was doing time and the mother of their 11 year old granddaughters was strung out on drugs. The bitter divorcee, Aphrodite Fawkes, and the bachelor Boland Lipp, in possession of pathetically good heart and a love for classical music and the colour green, complete the residents on Cornwall Street. Let us not forget the Indian landlord who is reminded of the plight that befell his kinsmen in Uganda when he inquires about the number of people living in flat 3- the Ndebele flat.

Enter the Mashitas - the Shonas, who have turned their whole yard into a maize and vegetable farm, the Macimbis - the Ndebeles, who have assisted nature by denuding their yard of all vegetation and swept the ground clean of its topsoil, the Voerwords of Afrikaans ancestry and the Pigges, whose lineage hails out of England. All of them are neighbours to the Fawkes family and their children, Black and white play in the neutral zone which is the Fawkes’ backyard. They are in what was formerly a middle class neighborhood but the clear delineations that defined such a neighbourhood have become somewhat blurred.

Then we move on into the world of the obscenely rich, those who can afford to waste water in a city whose resources are fast dwindling. It is the world of the born again Christians with their ostentatiously wealthy pastor whose powerful preaching of the gospel of prosperity induces mind numbing orgasms to the women folk in the congregation. It is the world of true believers who sing and dance and clap and in trancelike state sign huge cheques for the Lord. It is from this world that the Black Rhino elite private school draws its student population with the sole aim of “ensuring the high standards of Rhodesian education”. At this school, the students, over indulged children of the wealthiest farmers and business men excelled in those aspects of Rhodesian education which mattered the most: “rugby, water polo, bullying and geography”. In this setting we find the very ordinary Boland Lipp as the English literature teacher who strives to impart a love for the written word to his students, who are only really interested in brand new fast cars, motor cycles and sex.

In stark contrast to Black Rhino School is Prince Charming High School, embedded in one of the ghetto townships of Bulawayo. It is here that Simon and Nicholas the English teachers teach politics and have sex with the female students, getting a fair number of them pregnant, which results in expulsions and several fair skinned babies found dumped in different places around the city.

John Eppel sets the scene for New Year’s Eve parties in the city of Bulawayo, by providing imaginative and hilarious descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of each of his characters. Each character, community, race and class brings a different but colourful dimension and meaning to the terms corruption, greed, slovenliness, debauchery and selfishness, which renders the story of the parties on New Year ’s Eve in the various locations uproarious. Despite the dead babies that are a constantly being discovered throughout this story, Eppel succeeds in delivering a story about a city whose inhabitants have lost the qualities of Ubunthu: those qualities which form the fabric of strong communities in which the individuals care about the wellbeing of the others, demonstrated in simple acts such as preserving water during a drought, in order that there may be enough for everyone. This delivery is neither moralistic nor judgemental, but it is brutally honest, stripping individuals literally to their bare bottoms and institutions to reveal their rotten innards, all accomplished with humour, great skill and unparalleled precision.

The story lifts the reader out of the filth and one is deposited at a light, hope inspiring end. Young Elizabeth Fawkes’ love for the ruthlessly handsome, devil- may- care Jet Bunion is finally reciprocated, and the egg she has been incubating for her father in her bra is hatching. Fresh beginnings and a new day are possible after all.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Conversations with Writers: Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende

Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende was born in Zimbabwe. She worked in Germany for a number of years before moving to Scotland where she was a student at the University of Glasgow. Currently, she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
One of her short stories has been featured in Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe (amaBooks, 2011).

In this interview, Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende talks about her concerns as a writer:

Do you write every day?

No. I do not write every day. That is in part due to time constraints but also because I spend a lot of time reading or creating stories in my head so that when I do sit down to write, I write as opposed to thinking.
I am putting together a short story collection and working on a novel.
I create stories while I am chopping vegetables or folding laundry. Then when I have half an hour to sit at my computer, it is to put down something. The writing usually ends because I have something to attend to, like the pot of burning stew!
Often times I have a notebook close by to jot ideas down as I go about my daily activities, including grocery shopping.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

So far the biggest challenge I face is juggling family life and finding the time to write. My daughters are 10, 8 and 5 (twins) and they require a lot of energy and attention, which leaves very little time for much else.
I have learnt to be extremely efficient in my use of the little time that I do have.

When did you start writing?

I started writing and enjoying it when I was in Grade 7. I was about 12 years old.
Over the years I have written creatively and, also, as a scientist. Currently, I write literary fiction. Short stories mainly.
When I started writing seriously last year, I was doing it mainly for my friends who I went to school with and those who knew me growing up. Over the years many of them have suggested that I write and so I started a blog purely to share stories with friends and family. My friend, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, who I have known for 10 years, read some of my pieces and hooked me up with a couple of editors of literary journals and the journey began.
My most significant achievement as a writer has been to turn a personal passion into something to be shared as a way to entertain and perhaps to enrich others. This, above all else, gives me the greatest satisfaction.
My only hope is that whoever gets to read my stories enjoys them as much as I enjoy writing them. My hope is also that my stories appeal to those who are familiar with the environment and the experiences that inspire the stories as well as to those who enjoy a good, well-written story no matter what the story's context or background.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

My personal experiences have an impact on my writing in many ways. I recognize that my prose style borrows heavily on the oral, story-telling tradition that was very much a part of my childhood. My experiences living in the village provide a rich context for many of my stories.
My extensive travels and living in different countries has shaped many of my views and beliefs and this comes through in some of the characters I create, as does personal loss and challenges that I have had to face.
Being a wife and a mother also feed my writing tremendously.

Which authors influenced you most?

I draw inspiration from many writers from different backgrounds and eras. The ones that come to mind, because I read them over and over again, are: George Orwell, for his crisp uncluttered style; Milan Kundera, for his audacious and oftentimes crazy characters; Toni Morrison, for her uncanny ability to revisit the same subject matter and present it in unique ways through compelling characters and use of language; Chinua Achebe, for telling a story that would have an indelible impact on my young psyche as an African teenager in a predominantly white school; Tsitsi Dangarembga, for weaving an amazing tapestry in which I could locate myself as a Zimbabwean woman, in her book, Nervous Conditions.
There are so many more writers who have influenced my work and my desire to write and share my stories: Chris Mlalazi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Charles Mungoshi, John Eppel, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Yvonne Vera and so on and so forth.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My one major concern is the fact that there seems to be an expectation that as a writer who is Zimbabwean and therefore African, I cannot create art for art’s or write for writing’s sake. There seems to be this expectation that as a writer I have the responsibility of being a good ambassador for country and for continent.
What concerns me is the definition of good ambassador. Who is articulating it and the parameters that are used to define the 'good ambassador'? I live in angst over the fact that I may be accused of pandering to the west by presenting an Africa that fuels their hunger for sad stories of war, boy soldiers, famine, poverty and corruption. It seems that this is quite an issue based on the criticisms that have been leveled against contemporary writers whose work I identify with.
I think, for me, the best way to deal with this issue is to simply write what I like and to tell stories that help me make sense of my own world. Anything less than this, writing ceases to be the joyful passion through which I can be fully myself.
I also accept that inherent in the decision to get published is the risk of uncomfortable scrutiny and criticism. Not everyone will like what I write ... that is totally fine.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Where to Now? reviewed on

Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe was launched by ‘amaBooks at the National Gallery on 24th September 2011 in conjunction with the Intwasa Arts Festival koBulawayo. It will also be published by Parthian Books in UK in 2012. Editor Jane Morris and ‘amaBooks of Bulawayo began publishing anthologies of Zimbabwe-themed short writings in the early 2000s. The current volume follows the success of Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe (2008), where thirty-three writers chronicle ‘the lost decade’ of political crisis, forced removals, mass migration, joblessness, starvation, hyperinflation, AIDS, cholera and other hardships. Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe is a slimmer volume with half as many pieces. The photograph of a stone sculpture by Arlington Muzondo graces the book cover; and its roaming cracks suggest a myriad of tentative and uncertain routes – as if in answer to the question posed. In this transition period – where national crisis continues in slow motion – Zimbabwe’s writers clearly grapple for a new sense of direction. Jane Morris said submissions slowed considerably from 2009. Even so, there are some excellent pieces. Fifteen of the sixteen short stories catch the socio-political impasse and tell of its far-reaching effects. The exception is Bryony Rheam’s The Piano Tuner, a Zambian story with a distinctly different mood. Though Rheam is a displaced Zimbabwean herself, the setting for her story is a hot and dry Ndola, where Thomas Jenkins Piano Tuners is now fronted by Mr Leonard Mwale who delights his client, a shy woman of Indian heritage, with a light piece of Beethoven. The characters literally connect on a positive note. But this stands in contrast to the other stories overshadowed by Zimbabwe’s fraught politics, which they cannot seem to transcend. Mzana Mthimkhulu’s I am an African, am I? is exemplary. Accused by an anti-Western colleague of betraying African identity, a troubled company manager finds affirmation and gratitude for delivering mealie-meal to his needy rural relatives, but this will not ultimately resolve the deeper existential dilemma. Five stories address political violence and dispossession, and are noticeably downbeat. Raisedon Baya’s Her Skin is a Map details police brutality during a teachers’ protest in Bulawayo. In The Accidental Hero, Murenga Joseph Chikowero tells the fate of young ‘Comrade Advance’ who distributes free eggs to the Party faithful during food shortages and gets a groundswell of support. But as crowds surge he falls to his death from a ladder; and absurdly becomes a martyr of the anti-colonial struggle – a ‘HERO OF THE PIOPLE’ [sic]. Christopher Mlalazi’s They are Coming is a snapshot of troubled township life before an election, when the Green Bombers (Zimbabwe’s Youth Brigade) rampage though a community, splitting a family and leaving a path of destruction. In Nyevero Muza’s The Poetry Slammer, a ‘closet writer’ creates an alter-ego poet named X, who leads a crowd of protesters against tyranny, but takes a bullet in his chest. X becomes a martyr, identified by his blood-stained poem of resistance. But the closet writer’s own creative/populist aspirations fall flat. Tomato Stakes, by John Eppel, exposes Zimbabwe’s land grab and its human cost. War veterans, youths, and the Deputy Director of Youth Brigades drive a desperate white farmer to hang himself. Also his Malawian foreman is murdered and left with the word BLANTYRE carved into his chest to mark him, like his white boss, as one who does not belong on Zimbabwean land. The white farmer’s surviving family find refuge in New Zealand, which ends their 350-year history on the African continent. Political violence, dispossession, and forced relocation still weigh heavily on the national consciousness, as the above five stories show. On the theme of exile there are four thought-provoking pieces. In Crossroads, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma tells about starting a new life in South Africa – the hard choices and shattered dreams. She excellently catches the nervous anticipation, lonely struggle, self-sacrifice, unwanted dependence on relatives and bloody-minded determination that has characterised so many journeys across the Limpopo. If disillusionment is the dawning reality in Crossroads, fear of xenophobic violence is the theme in Sandisile Tshuma’s The Need. Visualizing an illegal immigrant set ablaze in a Johannesburg slum not long after the Football World Cup, the narrator fears ‘the collective brain that told you that foreign is bad, that foreign steals jobs, that your brother is your enemy and that ‘they’ all deserve to die.’ The Need explores the psychology of xenophobia, how friends can suddenly become murderous enemies, how it feels to be cast as an outsider in the so-called ‘Rainbow Nation’. In Sudden Death by Blessing Musariri, we meet two enterprising Zimbabweans working as carers for the elderly in the UK. Agnes is not really Agnes at all: that is her fake ID. Simba, her partner, also poses as someone else to get through UK Immigration. After months of hard work, they believe they have finally sent enough money to Zimbabwe to build a house – but betrayal by a thieving relative wrecks their dream. Trans-continental tragedy also figures in Diana Charsley’s Mr Pothole, which focusses on a hit and run victim with dementia, found face-down in a pothole. His Bulawayo funeral is attended by his next of kin, who abandoned him for a life in London. The exile-themed stories express sadness and expose the huge social and psychological cost of Zimbabwe’s mass exodus. Moving to gender, several stories challenge female subordination. Mapfumo Clement Chihota tells of emasculation versus female empowerment in A Beast and a Jete. A jete is ‘A woman who kicks her husband’s bum around … who defeats her husband mentally and outwits him at every turn.’ In this case Vanyemba cuckolds her husband with one of the villagers but is acquitted of adultery through lack of evidence, by the village headman, to the great amusement of all. She is also paid damages for what is judged a false accusation. Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende continues the theme of female assertiveness in Christina the Colourful. Here Kudu, the young narrator, greatly admires her transgressive aunt, criticised for ‘jumping from town to town’ and disgracing her extended family. Cornered into an arranged marriage, Christina nevertheless outwits her forceful patriarchal matchmakers, becoming a strong role model for her young niece in a bitter-sweet resolution, which necessitates their separation. A child narrator also tells Thabisani Ndlovu’s story Making a Woman, which exposes appalling patriarchal violence, conducted casually within a small rural community. The young boy’s Aunt Mongi is beautiful but deaf, unmarried and childless. Grandpa, aggrieved for having a disabled daughter, decides to ‘make her a woman’ which means organising her rape and impregnation by a chosen suitor. But Aunt Mongi defiantly chooses abortion. Abortion also figures in NoViolet Bulawayo’s Snapshots. (She won the 2011 Caine Prize for Hitting Budapest). Previously published in 2009 in New Writing from Africa, this is the sad story of a young girl who does not stand a chance against cruel patriarchal customs that drive her onto the street after the death of her father, away from a mother who is compelled to disown her, into the arms of a sexual predator when she has nowhere else to turn, and finally to a back-street abortionist, who seals her fate with a jabbing coat-hanger. Though the piece is exceptionally well-written, it is depressing to think a young girl’s fate can be so thoroughly determined by circumstances over which she has no control. By contrast the other female characters in this collection, Vanyemba, Christina, and even Aunt Mongi, are not stifled or snuffed out by patriarchal forces. Alone, by Fungai Rufaro Machirori, also examines strength and resilience in the reflections of a single woman moving into middle-age without needing a man in her life. While all of the content in this collection is engaging, my one criticism is that the quality is uneven. The short story is possibly the most difficult prose form to master; and it is apparent that some writers are more attendant to issues of structure and style than others. Some pieces are more sketches than short stories. On the other hand, the inclusion of writing that is somewhat rough around the edges, in juxtaposition to that of a more polished quality, lends the collection an authentic appeal. This is a rewarding read for anyone following the Zimbabwe story, for anyone concerned about Zimbabweans and their collective destiny.

Reviewed by Drew Shaw

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Murenga Joseph Chikowero interviewed on Conversations with Writers

Zimbabwean writer, Murenga Joseph Chikowero is a doctoral student in African Literature and Film at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In 2010, he collaborated with Annie Holmes and Peter Orner on an oral history project which gave birth to the highly-regarded book, Hope Deferred (McSweeney’s Publishing, 2010).

His short stories have featured in the anthology, Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe (amaBooks, 2011) as well as on the PanAfrican writers’ blog, StoryTime.

In this interview, Murenga Chikowero talks about his concerns as a writer:

When did you start writing?

Back in primary school, probably in 6th grade.

That year, I moved to a different part of the country, near Guruve in the north, and there a friend told me a story, one of those fantastic tales. When I went back to my old school a year later, our teacher asked everyone to write a story, any fictional story. I wrote down this story about a mythical, one-eyed giant but ... when our books were returned ... mine wasn’t there! Our teacher had misplaced it. When she eventually found it, she asked everybody to stop whatever they were doing to listen to my story.

That, for me, was when writing stories down began although storytelling itself was nothing new in my family and, indeed, other families in the villages.

How would you describe your writing?

I write mainly short stories though I have a novel on the way.

I am fascinated by the 1980s, the time when so many people felt they could dream ... independence was finally here and, for that reason, young men walked with a pronounced swagger, shirts unbuttoned down to the navel and hats worn at fancy angles. Young women wore their over-ironed pleated costumes, stretched out their graceful necks and went about their business. My writing traces the radical and more subtle changes from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe and what ‘Zimbabwe’ meant to different generations and groups. The clamor of the post-2000 politics masks the amazing beauty – and. yes, largely untold trauma – of the 80s and I try to recapture that in my fiction.

Outside fictional writing, I recently collaborated with two writers, Annie Holmes and Peter Orner on an oral history project that gave birth to a book called Hope Deferred. That project basically attempts to bring voices of ordinary Zimbabweans – at home and abroad – to bear on the narrative of Zimbabwean crisis of the last decade. I traveled to Zimbabwe and interviewed some of these witnesses and victims of torture and political persecution.

Hope Deferred is a collection of some of the most remarkable personal stories of ordinary people’s experiences of state-sponsored terrorism, their struggles for a better society and, ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

My short fiction generally targets a mature audience but my novel-in-progress courts younger Zimbabweans although all English speakers will find something to enjoy there too. A lot of our young people today have no clue what the 80s and 90s meant – or promised – to those who lived through them. The beauty and ugliness of that period is unlike anything we have seen since.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

Because my school didn’t have a library, I read whatever I found.

The adolescent detective genre was quite an obsession early on, especially the American variety: the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. Nothing was better than lying on my back before the yellow light of a paraffin lamp after supper and join Frank and Joe Hardy and their friends – and sometimes their father Fenton – as they put together the puzzle pieces of some big crime in their town.

Then, after reading No Longer at Ease, I considered myself a firm disciple of Chinua Achebe. No book made me happier even with its subtle, controlled prose. Achebe’s fiction, though written in English, read like my native Shona and I liked that instant recognition.

I bumped onto a battered copy of House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera in between reading the then ubiquitous Pacesetter series that we exchanged in middle school and I was instantly hooked. The problem, though, was that the copy was so battered it had no cover so there was no way of knowing its title or author.

But the Pacesetters series! My very first Pacesetter was called Evbu My Love by a Nigerian writer named Helen Obviagele. It was a somewhat sad story but there was something about love brewed in the African pot that nibbled gently at your heart and made you read the story once, then twice.

The Pacesetter Series was impressive for its vivid language and fast-paced action by African heroes and, occasionally, heroines. Secret service heroes like Benny Kamba in Equatorial Assignment. Some of the heroes had English names such as Jack Ebony in Mark of the Cobra but that didn’t bother us and we were right there with him as he delivered deadly karate kicks to venomous snakes hidden in his wardrobe by enemies of the state.

I also read some South African fiction, most of which I didn’t particularly like at the time, perhaps because the first ever South African novel I read was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. The Pacesetters had introduced me to African heroes who could punch their way out of trouble so I found Cry, the Beloved Country particularly depressing.

Luckily, Dambudzo Marechera saved me around this time. A friend let me borrow his House of Hunger though we didn’t find out what the title was until much later. Unlike anything I had read before, Marechera seized me by the scruff of my neck and thrust me into a violent yet fascinating world of the ghetto slum. I had not stayed in any urban ghetto so the world of House of Hunger shocked me. Another happy problem was the language; I didn’t understand a lot of the more flowery prose but it excited and shocked me in equal measure. A less happy problem was that Marechera, of course, didn’t see anything wrong with describing graphic sexual acts, sometimes even in our native language and so I got a bigger book, a schoolbook actually, planted House of Hunger right in the middle and read and re-read the numbing details of ghetto life while my teachers marveled at my keen academic interest!

Around the same time, we discovered James Hadley-Chase, Louis L’Amour and the British classics – usually the abridged versions.

My older brothers also read anything under the sun and kept personal libraries of sorts. I was allowed to read these books – as long as I was behaving myself. I liked history books the most because they were packed with biographies of larger than life characters, characters who rose from nobodies and turned the world upside down. I liked all of those legendary figures. Our government was then heavy on what is called Gutsaruzhinji or Socialism and there were all these history books detailing the Chinese Revolution of 1947. I would look at a certain picture of a youthful Mao Zedong – then called Mao Tse Tung – and envy his army cap.

My brothers also had collections of Shona language novels, some of which were course setbooks at school. I detested the moralistic variety churned by the sackful by our Literature Bureau but absolutely loved the detective thrillers like James Kawara’s Sajeni Chimedza and Edward Kaugare‘s Kukurukura Hunge Wapotswa. Though targeted at older readers, these novels were not too different from the Pacesetter Series. Above all, I loved the Shona language liberation war novels, the best of which was Kuda Muhondo by a writer whose name I forget. The more overtly partisan ones like Zvairwadza Vasara, I didn’t particularly like.

These books and experiences shaped my early writing and made me feel I could try my hand too.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Each time I sit down to write down a story, I am always struck by James Baldwin’s assertion that the job of the writer is to look for the question that the answer tries to hide. And yet we often think of the answer itself as a solution to a query.

The ease with which myth passes off as truth in Zimbabwe motivates me to write fiction. My major concern is the place of historical memory in contemporary Zimbabwe. A lot has happened and we have a state that considers it a moral obligation to control this narrative, especially since the year 2000, thanks to a severely – and perhaps deliberately – stunted media landscape. I use different generational voices to interrogate these changes that have happened.

For example, one of the biggest myths in our country is that all Zimbabweans lived happy, comfortable lives before the Mugabe-led farm takeovers which began in earnest around 2000. Few people are honest enough to remember that the ruling elites, led by Mugabe himself, actually colluded with the rich white farmers and industrialists to lord it over an impoverished population.

Who remembers now that the farm takeovers were actually planned and spearheaded by ordinary villagers? Who remembers that these villagers were actually arrested for their efforts before political expediency made it necessary for our politicians to turn round and celebrate these villagers as heroes of the Third Chimurenga? I try to write beautiful stories that bring a more nuanced understanding to these issues.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenge facing most Zimbabwean writers today is the shrinking publishing industry. This, of course is true throughout Africa with South Africa as a possible exception.

The few, mostly independent publishing houses left in Zimbabwe are forced to put their few resources behind book projects by trusted names so as to recoup their investments. Yes, ours is still a society that views fictional writing as something of an indulgence, a hobby for the educated class. Of course, there is that basic question: Who is going to buy a book when all the money they have can hardly buy a loaf of bread?

You will notice that, contrary to the 20 years leading up to 2000, there are fewer fresh writers whose works are published individually. The tendency has been to produce these anthologies from which some talented voices occasionally emerge, for example, both Brian Chikwava and Petinah Gappah published short stories as part of this short story anthology tradition before launching individual careers as celebrated writers. To date, I have also pursued a somewhat similar path although some of my stories have been published in the form of e-books in South Africa.

Do you write everyday?

Because I balance an academic career with writing fiction, I cannot write everyday. It is also not my style to write everyday. I generally let a story or a chapter ferment in my imagination for days, rather like chikokiyana, our traditional brew, before writing it down. But when I start writing, the story demands that I finish it in one sitting, much like a gourd of frothy chikokiyana. Then I pass it on to my partner to read. She is by far my harshest critic so I usually listen to her opinion before editing my stories.

Ever since I discovered Dambudzo Marechera, Toni Morrison, Njabulo Ndebele, V. S. Naipaul, Charles Mungoshi, Joseph Heller and Ernest Hemingway, I have never liked a story whose conclusion is overwritten, especially if it’s a short story.

My short stories in particular use plenty of silences which estimate real-life African dialogue as I have experienced it.

I have a special dislike for stories that end in formulaic ways ... for example, a relationship that ends with a wedding or a rogue who is caught and jailed. I like my rogues out there, maybe some of them reform or they are chased out of town but I like them better out there and not in jail. Instead of a wedding, I am usually satisfied with lovers looking into each other’s eyes or even doing seemingly small things for each other.

My most recently published short stories include “The Hero”, which was featured in an anthology called Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe by amaBooks, a Bulawayo-based publisher. I have also published two stories, “When the King of Sungura Died” and “Uncle Jeffrey” on the PanAfrican writers' blog, StoryTime, which is managed and edited by Zimbabwean-born writer, Ivor Hartmann.

How would you describe "The Hero"?

“The Hero” is about an accidental hero who starts off as a rather banal political party thug who falls into a large beer container at a party rally and dies. His party declares him a hero and on the day of burial, he even dislodges the president from the news headlines. "The Hero" is based on a true story that happened in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe, around 2003.

I wrote it in one sitting, as I usually do with my short stories, and it was published in Where to Now? by Bulawayo-based amaBooks in 2011. My story speaks to other stories in that anthology, all by fellow Zimbabweans. In my story, for example, the ill-fated character is essentially a victim of an economy gone haywire; he takes to partisan politics like one possessed. In NoViolet Bulawayo’s award-winning story in the same volume, “Hitting Budapest”, you find a similar theme of ghetto kids craving for very basic necessities of life which their parents cannot provide, thanks to a crashed economy.

The ghetto setting is something I am very familiar with. I think a story’s power also draws from its ability to evoke a setting that readers recognize.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

Creating the ghetto scene and the atmosphere of a Zimbabwean political rally are the two things that I enjoyed most. Political rallies in Zimbabwe have a whole life of their own.

I also especially liked working with Jane Morris, the editor of Where to Now?.

What sets "The Hero" apart from other things you’ve written?

The satire ... Some of the so-called heroes and heroines buried at our publicly-funded heroes’ burial sites – heroes’ acres as we call them, including the National Heroes Acre, are no heroes at all ... But because of media censorship, there is little public debate about these kinds of issues outside the columns of the few privately-owned newspapers ... Thankfully, developments in Information Communication Technology have seen a steady rise in online newspapers, blogs and online social forums where a culture of robust debate is slowly taking root.

What “The Hero” shares with my other stories is the fascination with Zimbabwe’s public memory, particularly how it has been edited, suppressed and manipulated at various times to suit the goals of the political class.