Category Archives: Interviews

Mandy Pannett interviews Catherine Edmunds

Thank you for this interview, Cathy. Good to talk to you. Congratulations on the publication of your collection ‘How to Win at Kings Cross’. This was the result of an Erbacce Press competition wasn’t it, which had nearly six thousand entries? Tell us more.

I love the ‘Erbacce Prize’. It’s free to enter, you send a good sample of poems rather than fixing your hopes on just a few, it’s genuinely read blind, and the prizes are seriously good. In previous years, I’ve come close, but have just missed out on the top prizes. This year I finally made it and have been rewarded with the publication of a complete collection.

This is a full length collection – nearly one hundred pages. I’d love to know what criteria you adopted for selecting and ordering the poems. Are you following themes, settings, atmosphere? Was it difficult to choose the first and last poem?

I have written hundreds of poems since my first collection, ‘wormwood, earth and honey’(Circaidy Gregory Press, 2007), so I had plenty to choose from. Initially, I gave preference to those that had already been prize winners or published in prestigious journals, but they weren’t always my favourites, so some of these were eventually discarded. Ultimately, I went with my guts. I could see various themes emerging, but wanted to leave the precise order to my editor Alan Corkish at Erbacce Press. He has the editing and publishing experience; he knows what works, and I trust his judgment.

I’m intrigued by the title ‘How to Win at Kings Cross’. Is there a background to this? Was it a title in waiting?

The title was inspired by an internet article I came across a few years ago that demonstrated the necessity of ignoring direction signs on the Kings Cross Underground unless you are happy to walk miles out of your way. My brother used to have a flat a short distance from the station, and I always stayed with him when I was in London, so I gradually learnt the tricks of ‘how to win’. Over a period of ten years, I gorged myself on all the art the city has to offer, and this is reflected in the title poem, which I see as a declaration of my love for London, but which other people interpret very differently. That’s the great thing about poetry—the poet provides the initial impetus with the words, but it’s the reader’s interpretation that creates the poem.

You are an incredibly creative person – musician, artist, novelist, poet – there’s probably more! Are you drawn to all of these equally or, if you could only concentrate on one thing, what might it be?

Last summer, when I was being filmed as a contestant for Sky Arts ‘Portrait Artist of the Year’, presenter Frank Skinner said it was like sitting next to Leonardo, which was a wild exaggeration, obviously, but nice to hear. I have been an artist all my life, and when I’m painting, I don’t want to be doing anything else, but professionally, I’m a musician, and six months ago I joined award-nominated Irish folk/rock band, ‘Share the Darkness’. When I’m playing with them, I’m on a real high and can’t imagine anything better—but then there’s the writing. When I’m writing a novel, I fall in love with my characters with such intensity, it hurts when eventually I must send them away from me. Individual poems can have the same effect. Could I pick just one, out of writing, music and art? No. Not a chance.

Not only creative but prolific too. Do you have a routine for writing, a daily to-do list, or do you grab opportunities as they arise?

I have a daily ‘to do’ list, but I rarely adhere to it. I get up early, skim through facebook and emails to deal with anything urgent, and then dip in and out of writing/art/music all day. I stop every so often to give a scheduled violin or piano lesson. When I need a break, I indulge my ‘killer sudoku’ habit, and I’ve also recently started learning Welsh. Wales is a country I love and have visited since early childhood, hence the number of poems with Welsh settings in the collection.

And now what comes next, once you’ve sent ‘How to Win at Kings Cross’ on its journey? A long poetry sequence? Another novel? A multi-media publication? Lots of luck with it, whatever it may be.

Thank you. I have recently completed a novel and a novella which are being sent out to agents and publishers, so writing-wise I’m between major projects and am concentrating on individual poems and flashes. Wearing my artist’s hat, I’m working on a large portrait—not a commission, unusually for me, but an attempt to hone my portrait-painting skills. I have had three drawings of Christine Keeler accepted for a forthcoming nationwide tour, so I feel I’m on the cusp of doing something more prestigious with my art. Musically, my electric blue fiddle is fully booked from now till Christmas and beyond. People ask me how I manage to do so much, particularly given my major health problems—but illness is what has spurred me on. We all lose eventually, but while we’re on a winning streak, we need to make the most of it and live life to the full. And I know how to win at Kings Cross.

 

Copies of How to Win at Kings Cross may be purchased from the Erbacce Press website: http://erbacce-press.webeden.co.uk/catherine-edmunds/4594362934

Voices of Nigeria: An Interview with E.C. Osondu | Spike Magazine

Voices of Nigeria: An Interview with E.C. Osondu | Spike Magazine.

A Tripartite Dialogue on Zimbabwean Literary Culture

Emmanuel Sigauke, Tinashe Mushakavanhu & Christopher Mlalazi

Three Zimbabwean writers – Emmanuel Sigauke, Tinashe Mushakavanhu and Christopher Mlalazidiscuss the state of Zimbabwean literature, writing from the Diaspora, what is African literature among other literary issues. In this candid roundtable discussion, they question the direct nature of literature and its suitability in chronicling moments of unique political and social significance. In a country like Zimbabwe, which exists to the West as a flurry of news reports and political upheavals, literature attains an importance that it rarely enjoys in Britain or America: it becomes a necessary thing, essential to the survival of the self. A sobering set of first-hand accounts accompanied by revealing anecdotes about writing and reading experiences influenced by the three writers’ collusion with many cultures and worlds in their different journeys.

What is your earliest personal memory when you might say your love for stories and writing began, and even then, did you ever dream you will end up one day a writer, and could you please tell us a bit more about your dream.

Emmanuel Sigauke: I started writing when I was in Grade 7, after reading Aaron Chiundura Moyo’s novel, emmanuel sigauke which we acted in interschool drama competitions. My friend and I decided we could become writers and challenged each other to produce a novel with several weeks. I met the deadline, and my Grade 7 teacher read the story, which was set in out village, to the class. That’s did it; my peers began to demand that I keep writing and reading to them during break time. I have never stopped writing since then.

This process was very satisfying because I had my audience there at the school. I did not know about the publishing process, and I did not write to publish, but to meet the local demand for my stories. It took me a very long time to think of the commercial value of my writing, and it would take years before I was paid for my writing.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu:

I grew up in a household full of books, especially my working mother’s lunch-time reads. I remember so many times we had to move house and my dad would complain about the heavy boxes full of books. Throughout my childhood, there was always something to read at home and so reading has always been for me a way of dreaming and experiencing other worlds. And thanks to my dearest mother who was and continues to be an inspiration for my interest in learning. But no, in those younger years, there was nothing in the DNA of my environment to suggest I would become a writer. I had never met a writer before. But it was at an out of way rural boarding school that I started writing, mostly for myself, as a way of letting out pent up emotions, as a way of navigating the turbulent road of teenagehood. A few friends read some of the stuff and liked it. And I grew to love it with time!

Picture of Chris Mlalazi

Christopher Mlalazi I fell in love with the written word before I could even read and understand words. That was in primary school. I remember I used to pore over comic books or any other book that had illustrations, trying to decipher through the illustrations the story the words kept locked away from my understanding. Let me also point out that my father was a great story teller of folk lore and used to regale us in the evenings before we went to sleep in the township where I grew up with beautiful and evocative tales of a time once in the universe when animals and trees could talk and hare was the clever guy, lion the bad one, and elephant the wise. I think this is where my love for stories began, and I was to follow that up later with voracious book reading, and then later with attempting to create my own stories to add to the worlds story chest. I started writing good stories before I realized it in high school during composition lessons, and only became aware of it one day in form two when my English teacher Mrs Nleya, bless her soul, one day asked me to accompany her to one of her form four classes. When I entered this classroom, all the form four students started clapping their hands and cheering at me. You can imagine the confusion because I didn’t know what I had done. Then Mrs Nleya said to the class: ‘This is Christopher Mlalazi who wrote that composition I read to you. Now I want you all in this class to try to write like him.’ A year later in Form 3 I started my first novel, and wrote many more manuscripts after that first attempt, about 5, which I was all abandoning along the way after completing because they just did not seem to click. I guess I was training myself for what is happening now to my writing career two decades later, because I realize that now my mature stories are sort of some synthesis of all the skills I picked up along that long and tempestuous road.

What issues do you deal with in your writing?

Emmanuel Sigauke: I went through years of promoting other people’s writing than my own. And as an English teacher today, this trend of focusing on others’ writing continues, but I have long begun to set aside writing time. Currently I am also focusing on the marketing aspect of writing, which I dread because I know that it’s a process removed from writing; it is an additional skill, with its own demands on time and effort.

I have also dealt with issues of audience and language. I wrote in Shona for a long time (in the early years), but later majored in English literature, which influenced my decision to write in English, but sometimes I write in Shona. I worry that our overemphasis on English, with its many advantages, will weaken writing in out own languages. Conscious efforts are needed to promote writing in our Indegenous.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu: I write about everything and nothing. I don’t primarily want to see myself as a message writer but as a creative writer who can explore any subject. Yvonne Vera once said that ‘a writer has a constant and changing identity. The writer is continually perplexed by being alive at all. The writer is the trickster figure, who has slid beneath rock in the midst of a hurricane, and while hidden there made love, given birth, seen shooting stars and survived storms.’ And because of the ‘Zimbabwean crisis’, writers are automatically pressured to take a political stand of some kind or identify with certain political parties. I have always avoided allegiance to political camps and their defining ideologies because I believe they falsify truth for their own self interests. It is necessary to concentrate directly on the fundamental subject of any literature – people. It is only people who make other people suffer. For example, the suffering may continue even when Robert Mugabe goes six feet under.

Christopher Mlalazi: First and foremost for me a story is all about addressing conflict. Conflict with one’s self, conflict with the environment, conflict with humans, with animals, with lovers, with kin, with politicians, and also attempting to aesthetically make your presentation to these conversations or debates in the story form that has truth as its fundamental principle, in simple language pure and honest conversation. Pure and honest conversation has the ability to bring about change in our ways of thinking, it can make the sad person happy, it can expose ills, it can forge strong kinship, it can unite, and it can also expose the bad. I think this sums up closely the initiating force behind my writing, or any good writing for that matter for me.

What is the current state of Zimbabwean literature?

Emmanuel Sigauke: It is going through a kind of boom, much like, if not more than, that which happened in the 80s and early 90s. I believe, there is a lot of writing going on in Zimbabwe, especially in response to the economic state of the country and the difficult life the people have experienced. What we fail to understand in real life often manifests itself more clearly in our literature; therefore, the real story of Zimbabwe is being re-envisioned by the writers.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu: Zimbabwe has a literary culture but one that has been in a protracted childhood. For so long our literature has been a handful of writers, some of whom have been doubling as critics and writers. Zimbabwean literature is relatively small and this can be very claustrophobic if everyone is working out of the same mould. The land itself has been sowed and owned and fought over. Every little inch is named and placed. But a new Zimbabwean literature is emerging. It is a clear break from the earlier phase which preceded it, a phase that focused on ideas of nationalism and decolonisation and was more concerned with telling us who we are and where we came from. There is now an aspiration for ‘internationalism’ among most of the new writers. It is a writing beyond mental and physical geographies.

Christopher Mlalazi: Zimbabwean literature, is once again, evolving at a steep gradient. Literature is affected by environment and has an impact on the consciousness of a people – so the implosion of the political situation in Zimbabwe of the last decade has seen a new literature surfacing that questions the status quo questions and also seeks for answers – this literature is as intense as the situation it is addressing. Look at pre and (immediate)post Independence writing, most of it was in direct protest of the political dispensation of the time – the ghost of colonialism – that was deemed as rogue. This is the scenario that we are faced with today, most writers are focusing on the injustices they perceive are being perpetrated on the common man by government and have made them the focal point of their writing, because the most meaningful or healthy conversations usually feed off chaos directly or indirectly.

There is an increasing call for African writers to begin to embrace genre writing (romances, thrillers, mysteries, etc) to widen audiences. What do you think of this, especially in relation to Zimbabwe?

Emmanuel Sigauke: Since I know that I read genre fiction growing up, and that a lot other readers were reading foreign mysteries, romances, horror, fantasy, science fiction, it would be important to grow this kind of fiction in our country as well. Just to widen our horizons. That might also help some readers appreciate what we have to offer, help them appreciate multi-genre fiction that addresses Zimbabwean life, written in English. I say written in English because Shona and Ndebele writers have always written mysteries, romances and horror. It seems that only writing in English has centered mostly on the literary. So before a readership for genre works can be cultivated, there needs to be the growth of the writing itself. We will continue to write serious literature, of course, because everyone needs to read serious literature, but some reading is also purely for entertainment, and genre writing tends to provide this.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu: I think there’s already a bit of that. My year-long experience as an editorial intern at Weaver Press and my involvement with Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe (BWAZ) community structures as a National Secretary in the organizations executive committee gave me an intimate insight on the diversity of the Zimbabwean writer and his desire to express himself in different genres and styles though that unfortunately that was often badly done. The problem is that the aspiring young writers in Zimbabwe do not read. As a result most of their writing efforts reek of mediocrity. Though I hold strong and ambiguous feelings about ‘teaching’ writers, perhaps we still need to introduce Creative Writing courses to finesse basic skills and techniques. Writers can improve if they learn certain things, eg. How to read? The talent is already there. But we must also be careful in our definition of Zimbabwean literature as a literature only in English. Shona and Ndebele fiction already has a lot of variety – myths, epics, crime, romance, folktales, drama etc.

Christopher Mlalazi: The way I see it, this stinks of frustration on the part of genre writers when they see stories of literary value being given first priority on the printing press more than their pulp. It makes great sense to see more and more people engaged in debates over the condition of the human being, especially more so in these days when the world is increasingly exhibiting confusion in the direction where it is headed to. Of course, now and then, we need to lighten the mood to relax the mind, but it would be nonsensical to suggest that we play all the time like children and forget to be adults. So, I think the solution to this lies in writers and also readers concentrating on their own genres and letting the other genres do their own thing otherwise we will argue about this till Kingdom come. We also know that there are some writers in genre writing who don’t take it well when they see almost all the writing opportunities not coming to genre writing, and we can’t blame them…I would not be happy too.

Call me a writer only. Only call me a writer. Call me only a writer. In its many versions, this statement echoes in African writing circles. What’s your take on it? What are we declaring about our identities, or lack thereof, as African writers?

Emmanuel Sigauke: Perhaps we don’t think about identity issues when we write. I know I don’t; I just deal with the writing process, representing as much of what I know, and don’t know, about life as possible, but when the writing is out there, when it’s finally published, it cannot escape labels. That’s when issues of identification with a certain place are articulated, often from the outside world that does, or does not read, the works. The world loves classifications; you can’t just be a writer without you being an American, African, British, or, okay, world writer. So what do I want people to call me? A writer, of course, and if readers notice that my works are produced in a specific context and setting, then that’s even more interesting; they can call me what they want, as long as they are reading my works.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu: African writer. African literature. Postcolonial this or that. These are commercial labels to stick out in some obscure corner of High Street Bookshops in London. But as much as we are defined by ‘others’ and we also define ourselves as such by the politics of our message. Africa has always been a continent of message writers. Perhaps it is a colonial legacy – we have always been the ones who write back to a system, to some powerful forces, and the ones who write to educate. This has obvious limitations – the label only serves to highlight our grandstanding of the image of the African image and the African story. But, the label – African writer – also largely reflects on the consumers of ‘African’ or ‘post-colonial’ literatures. The producers and the market have already placed a value judgment on our work even before they have read our stories.

Christopher Mlalazi: Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to talk of myself as a writer because I see myself as a human being first, and this concept of title giving seems a bit vain anyway. I will never go around with a badge written ‘writer’ just like the bus conductor or the shop assistant, or the doctor. I am simply telling stories just like everybody else can, but maybe I go further than ‘normal’ people in that I am methodical about it, I sit down and write the stories, deliberately polish them, and present them in a way that challenges people’s thinking and also entertains them. As to the marker of the ‘African’ writer, I think this is subjective, yes I write stories about Africa, I am from Africa, but I am also from the world and I write stories about the world, so you might as well call me a world writer, but then, I am still a young writer, if you agree that 40 years of age is young. I leave it to the ‘debaters and critics’ to define and name whilst I get on with the job I know best – that of writing!

Talking about Zimbabwean Literature, Part 2

Prof Flora Veit-Wild’s sociology of Zimbabwean literature classified Zimbabwean writers into Teachers, Preachers and Non-Believers (1992). Perhaps a little bit outdated as she focused on writers active during the colonial times up to the eve of independence. With the passage of history and our evolving politics, have any new categories of the Zimbabwean writer emerged? And do you fit anywhere?

Emmanuel Sigauke: The literature has definitely evolved. We have also had the Questioners or Doubters, even as early as the Nervous Conditions, with Tsitsi Dangarembga’s challenging of the patriarchal system. But more has happened; the existence of organizations like the Zimbabwean Women Writers has led to literature that explore new issues of gender, class and so on. The literary evolution, which we should call a boom, has been sped up by the political and economic collapse of the country. We now have a crop of mostly born-free authors (perhaps, another category), exploring post-independence and current issues. We also have what is often called political literature, especially if it openly challenges the Zimbabwean government. The most important thing is some of the new writers have made our literature popular internationally, or shall we say, they have once again brought Zimbabwean literature back to the world stage. There is also talk of expanding the scope of Zimbabwean literature to include other genres. Where do I fit in? I haven’t produced enough work to be categorized, but judging by what I am writing, that’s something I will not worry about. I will just face the story, work very hard on it. Before I can afford to categorize myself, I need to work hard to publish, and to do so well (high quality writing, interesting story, etcetera).

Tinashe Mushakavanhu: I think at any point in time there is always among us writers who are teachers, preachers or non-believers. It is not necessarily a pedagogical or ecclesiastical calling, but rather how the writers package their messages and how they perceive their role and function in society. The teachers and preachers are essentially didactic and moralistic in their outlook and vision of the world whereas the non-believers are those who are always disillusioned by the entire system (be it creative, political or social). Perhaps the trend in Zimbabwe today is that we have established a ‘canonical generation’ – writers like Charles Mungoshi, Dambudzo Marechera, Stanley Nyamfukudza whom we refer to all the time and everyone else is compared to them. And independence from Britain in 1980 is our ‘canonical moment.’ For a long while, Zimbabwean literature was a band of few names. It was only  in 2000 with the publication of two multi-authored short story collections No More Plastic Balls and A Roof to Repair that a new crop of writers emerged and a new trend started. Anthologization became a way for Zimbabwean publishers to introduce new voices including several ‘born frees’. While the term ‘born free’ is not regarded to be endearing, it only points out the post/colonial off springs, those born from 1980 onwards. However, the scope of Zimbabwean literature has since widened.

Christopher Mlalazi: I would like to believe we still have all three, those who attempt to teach, those who preach, and the non-believers. We also have the indoctrinator, those whose stories attempt to convert readers into specific political ideology, and also the anti-indoctrinator, the writers who take up the fight against the enslaving of the mind by politics. Where do I fit in these layers? I would like to believe that I fit into the mould of the anti-indoctrinator, as in my writing I make a fair attempt to speak against political fanaticism, as I believe that the individual must rise above that set of belief and always view things with a critical eye, no matter what golden plate they are always dished in. But again I would also like to question academics who posit so called ‘groups’ in the literature platform as if they know everything, what if there is another layer of writing that we are not all aware of, but which is operational?

Do you think living and writing away from home affects the way you write and perceive home?

Emmanuel Sigauke: It definitely does. Writing is my way of staying connected to home at a deeper level. Of course, I am always talking to people back home, but rarely do I enter the dialogue with home more deeply than I do when writing. Having been away for 14 years, I sometimes feel a disconnection, or worry that maybe the issues I am dealing with maybe out of sync with the reality on the ground; yet that too can be a good thing, to allow the imagination to work overtime. My initial point of reference when I write about home takes me back to the things I remember, the Zimbabwe of the mid-90s, when change was apparent, but not yet disastrous. I am then forced, once I have imagined the story, to make it portray things as they are now. That process feels superficial for the most part, until, with a little bit of research, and high regard of character emergence, I begin to approach a certain authenticity, which I think matters, not necessarily for mimetic reasons, but to enrich the story with relatable particularity. This is not an easy process, so in most of my stories I have noticed a drifting towards some elements of fantasy, creating worlds (mini Zimbabwes) that supply their own base of realism. There is always the fear, of course, of getting it wrong, or of feeling like it’s all wrong, because what do I know about standing in a bread line for five hours, but again what don’t I know? I have stood in long lines even here in the United States, DMV, immigration, and so on. So there is a distance from the experience, yet there is experience in the distance (whatever this means). In short, I just want to write, and to write well.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu: Sometimes, which is most of the times, I feel this new environment sucking up the energy in me to write.  The mind is crowded with too many nibbling things. There is a sense of  loss in one’s positioning in the world. The sad part is that I will never recover. I will never the same person, I will never perceive the same things, the same people the same. Distance makes you wear 3D glasses that allows you to magnify yourself inside out. But no matter where I go, Zimbabwe remains the vortex of my life and experiences. I write, and imagine from there. I migrate in there and from there.

Christopher Mlalazi: I would like to encourage serious writers, if it is within their means, or they are able to find a benefactor as in a fellowship or a grant, to try writing away from home at some point in time of their writing careers. Getting away from your subject once you have collected all the required material you need to construct your art piece has its merits as personally I have found that it enables me to view my subject from a distance, as through the lens of a pair of binoculars, and that detachment serves the task of putting everything in clear perspective, it gives you all the time to view the subject as one would also do a map one has drawn on a patch of soil like the hunters of yore did, and also follow all the threads with no immediate emotional attachment involved which would have blinded one in the first instance. Whilst writing in heat is greatly beneficial, a manuscript needs cooling off too if one is to polish it to that final gloss, just as the blacksmith will wait for his axe too cool from the hearth if he is too give the blade that final star catching gleam. And when one is away, one is not burdened with thoughts of the heavy hand of rogue censorship, of the secret police peeping through your window – the experience is uplifting and brings forth the best out of one.

Despite the fact that Zimbabwe has the highest literacy percentage on the African continent, what is your view about the reading culture in the country?

Emmanuel Sigauke: You have no idea how good that feels, to say this. It’s an argument in itself, a pleading with the world, a “look, we are educated [too].” But in some cases this had not meant much. For instance, we are not reading; somewhere in this education process no one told us that reading was important. Yes, they told us, those who came in many forms, that education was important, and a few through a novel or two in our laps, but the emphasis is on reading that which mattered, that which led to certificates. Sometimes studying literature we felt like little criminals…it was just reading, and reading of that sort did not lead to employability. It was worse if you were seen reading (in my case) a Shona novel for school, then you were slowly becoming a n’anga, that’s what they said. But we read on, and along the way some of us grew an appetite for reading. Often I wonder what came first, reading for pleasure, or reading for school. I think for me it was reading for pleasure; I confused the two readings along the way, started to enjoy reading in general. But not many people were encouraged to treat reading as something that could be done for its own sake. Of course, I sense some exaggeration in my response. I saw people reading for pleasure. They read what was available in their houses. What I did not see much was the purchase of books that were not connected to a school curriculum, the voluntary let-go-buy-a-book approach. Even when people still had disposable income. They bought other things. Perhaps one of the problems was in the set up of book business itself. Something as simple as a bookstore not allowing you to browse could easily turn away a potential customer. I remember we were not allowed to browse books in most stores in Zimbabwe. Remember the days when each store had a security guard, and he (sometime she) would follow you around as you attempted to explore shelves. It was difficult for me to deal with, but again, I was already addicted to reading my school books for pleasure.

A call to action: People involved with book production should be more proactive in attracting readership. We need serious outreach programs, some kinds of girl and boy child networks for reading. Petina Gappah, a voracious reader herself, has already mentioned that she wants to do book reading outreaches in Zimbabwe. I have come across several like-minded people who are also bringing books to Zimbabwe, but beyond just bringing books to the people, the people need to be taught to buy books, to sacrifice that one extra airtime card for the cell phone and buy Tudiki-diki (by Memory Chirere), African Roar (short story anthology), Forever Let Me Go (by Emmanuel Sigauke), Harare North (by Brian Chikwava) and many others. I realize some of these books are not available in the country, so bringing books to the people calls upon us to make those books available somehow. It all goes back to the publishing industry (which presently does trust that the people would read if the books were to be available), to libraries and book organization doing outreach activities.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu: Isn’t it strange that we are supposedly the most literate country on the African continent and yet a population of illiterates? Zimbabwean people read to pass exams. Our whole education system is a manufacturing process of careerism. We all have to study to become Accountants and Doctors and Lawyers and Engineers and whatever else crap. Unfortunately, we inherited these mechanical reading habits from our colonial past. We were conditioned to be robotic and perform our functions without questioning them. We not encouraged to read to develop our mental and spiritual selves. We were blind folded from the liberating potential of literature. We were taught to condemn reading for the sake of reading as self indulging luxury. Some elements of our society still hold on to that archaic view. And since the economy of the Zimbabwe of recent years has been scrapping at the bottom of bottoms, the nourishment of the belly obviously took precedence over the nourishment of the mind.

Christopher Mlalazi: I think the reading culture in the country is really really bad. I remember when I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s when book borrowing amongst friends was in vogue for some of us who couldn’t afford to buy novels, but that system seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur. It has become almost extinct. Now it’s the DVD movie and the DVD club. There are even more DVD clubs than there are libraries. Or if the library exists there are no books to borrow. SADLY, the novel is no longer being regarded as social recreation, but read only for educational purposes when it is the prescribed school set book. Some might argue that there are economical factors involved here, that people cannot afford to buy books, but we can still argue and say what about that borrowing network where one gets books for free, where has it gone?

How do you think our literature written in our local languages can be taken seriously like the literature written in English?

Emmanuel Sigauke: This question connects to the one on reading. It’s a matter of helping readers change their attitude on reading. We are creatures of habit and self-loath; we find the foreign appealing? The foreign? Of course, as much as English is an official language in Zimbabwe, it swiftly connects (especially if you have high-speed internet) to the foreign. Now, that’s one level of oversimplification. The high level is that somehow we are stuck in the habit we have picked along our educational and socialization path. We have been conditioned to thinking that what’s written in English is more appealing than what’s written in siNdebele or chiShona. A polite American would say, “That’s B.S.” But the B.S. came in durable and attractive packages. This applies to areas beyond language too, such as food, clothes, imported beer, and so on. But our concern here is language. We need to reprogram ourselves to respect our languages. I know when I attended the University of Zimbabwe, we for some [practical] reason, had the option of receiving [that is, learning] our Shona in English. The study guides were written in English, and of course our grammar had been written mostly by native speakers of English. Although efforts were afoot to write a new chiShona dictionary and to translate some of the teaching materials, we still enjoyed writing our fiction and poetry critiques in English, as long as you gave the direct quotes in chiShona, to capture the flavor of the original text. And this was happening at the institution of Higher Learning. I graduated with a BA in English and Linguistics, went ahead and advanced my studies in English, and I write most in English…., so how can our literature written in local language taken seriously? Perhaps, ask Ngugi.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu: Our definition of Zimbabwean literature has become narrower everyday due to the geo-politics of the world. If you want to go further as a writer, English is the language. Writing in English is automatically connected with residencies, international awards, festivals, grants, etc. As a result most of us have become keen accomplices in making insignificant the creative potency of our indigenous languages. Our educational system also conspires in this devilish schematic dominance of English over our own languages. How laughable it is that Shona and Ndebele are taught in English? Do we despise our languages so much as Michael Jackson despised the black skin? No matter, the amount of bleaching, our languages remain our languages to dream and defecate in. Even though Ngugi may insist on his manual Decolonising the Mind, for him it is alright to write in Gikuyu or Swahili. No matter what he writes, it will be translated into English. Whereas, for the young emerging writer, they believe English gives them a better chance of their voice being heard.

Christopher Mlalazi: This is a bit of a challenge for one as our vernacular languages are only read in the country or the region where the writer comes from, and outsiders cannot read our languages. So what this burns down to is that we can find a language/tribal grouping with very rich literature even in the global context, and with no way to get it out to the world to read it as translations of some local languages into the English language which is read continentally are as rare as ‘seeing the belly button of a frog.’ If we had translation programs that would be a very good start, but I personally am attempting to translate my English novel Many Rivers into Ndebele as my publisher does not have the capacity for that, and I will see how it goes.

There has been a lot of censorship and harassment of artists by the authorities in Zimbabwe, specifically in theatre and the visual arts where art work has been banned in cases where it is deemed to be too critical of the government.  What is the situation of censorship in Zimbabwe?

Emmanuel Sigauke: I am not quite familiar with the law itself, but I know of works that have been censored, or banned. I know, for instance, that some of your works (Mlalazi), have been censored, so have those of Cont. Mhlanga and Chenjerai Hove. Most of the works that seem to have been censored are those with high and immediate visibility, such as plays and opinion columns. Government censorship and banning of works is never a good thing; it limits the freedoms writers have and restricts information access. But the worst form of censorship is when writers limit what they can share with the public, when they censor themselves.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu: Somehow, the censorship law in Zimbabwe only seems to exist whenever it is invoked to hush some truths or silence some vocal individuals, the undesirables. Dambudzo Marechera is a classic example. At the dawn of independence his book, Black Sunlight, was banned for alleged obscenities and religious provocations. Several other writers have been lashed with the whip of censorship over the years. More recently, Owen Maseko, was being persecuted for his paintings on the Gukurahundi massacres of the early 80s, a subject the government have tried to expunge from the history of the country. But censorship sprawls in all facets of Zimbabwean life. It regulates the institutions of radio and TV in which Zimbabweans are denied the ability to dream or sing. It is in the muzzling of the press and manhandling of journalists. I also think that the political climate of the past decade resulted in most Zimbabwean writers and artists becoming unwilling self censors. You could only say so much and hope that your readers will get the message implied by the missing words. A new anonymous art emerged that defied limitations. Anonymous graffiti scrawled on public walls, durawalls, defaced billboards, etc It evoked laughter and introspection in its brief but very poignant and effective staccato lines. Graffiti became the diary of a country in crisis. In staccato shorthand, the walls told of histories and hatreds. The problem is that we suffer under the tyranny of deluded ‘war heroes’ who fail to appreciate that their legacy must be preserved in their retirement from public duty, especially as they are evidently at their twilight. No wonder they are paranoid about criticism. JM Coetze says that ‘Paranoia is the pathology of insecure regimes and of dictatorships in particular.’ This diffusion of paranoia is not inadvertent; it is simply a technique of control. With fear of violence and abductions and sometimes unwarranted murders, everyone suspects each other to be spies and our communities became fragmented webs of mutual suspicions. The frightening bit is when the paranoia of the state is imprinted on the psyche of the society. The feared “mole” who could be anyone, and from whom we protect ourselves, is the most efficient gag and has been the most effective institutionalised brain death in Zimbabwe. Censorship became a viral disease afflicting the whole population. And yet the irony as perpetuated by Nathaniel Manheru is that there is freedom to say there is freedom, but just to praise the ruling regime, and never to criticize. This political environment has also been a blessing in disguise as it has encouraged writers to embrace the liberties of the internet to share and distribute their writings to much bigger audiences. Borders were easily scaled over. And literature became fluid and seeped through to every place where there are people willing to read.

Christopher Mlalazi: At a recent panel discussion at the University Of Southern California on censorship in which I was a panelist, we discussed that undue censorship by any government of any work that is critical of it emanates from fear by the same government. It is political repression. The work being banned poses a threat to their lives for sins they would have committed which they want to hide, and so the concerted attempts to squash it. No good government will ever ban any work that criticizes its political strategy, as enlightened societies deem critical thinking in their midst as a sign of good health in their citizens. I will never tolerate the deliberate stemming of creative ideas from any individual or government, be it in Zimbabwe or in Mars. It is a bane on the world, a world which is because of creativity – without creativity the world would never have been there in the first place, and all bad censorship takes the world backwards.

Notes

Emmanuel Sigauke is a poet based in the US and he has poetry collection published, Forever Let Me Go (2008). Tinashe Mushakavanhu is a young writer and editor living in England and co-edited, State of the Nation: Contemporary Zimbabwean Poetry (2009). Christopher Malazi is an award winning short story writer in Zimbabwe with two books, Dancing with Life (2008) and Many Rivers (2009).