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Dies Irae: Days of Wrath, Days of Crisis:

A Report on the Current Situation in Zimbabwean Creative Writing

Patricia Alden

In 2002 Finnish political scientist and research fellow at the Nordic Africa Institute Mai Palmberg initiated a series of interviews with Zimbabwean artists – across the arts – to document “what the crisis in Zimbabwe does to the arts, and what the arts do about the crisis.” These interviews are available on line through the Nordic African Institute as “The State of the Arts in Zimbabwe: Some Notes from 2002—“

In an appendix I list the 25 people whom I interviewed and the 11 respondents to an emailed questionnaire. A second appendix provides a partial list of some of the new writing, published in Zimbabwe in the last decade, which informed my interviews. My group included mostly fiction writers, mostly anglophone, several scholars of Zimbabwean literature and 4 publishers in Zimbabwe. I am deeply grateful to all the Zimbabweans who gave me their time and were willing to participate in my project. With one exception, at the outset, I have elected to make the responses anonymous, although I will be giving direct quotations from the interviews throughout. I also want to thank the Hartman family in Harare for special assistance with transport and telecommunications and St. Lawrence University for a faculty research grant which covered part of my expenses.

I begin with an overview comment from my interview with professor of literature Kizito Muchemwa. “Much of the current writing in Zimbabwe reflects an urban dystopia, symptomatic of failures in both culture and politics. This literature often reflects a breakdown in the traditional family and the emergence of children in the role of mothers and fathers, replacing parents lost to AIDS, domestic abuse, or to grinding, humiliating poverty. There is frequently a psychic struggle between children and parents for power.”[i] And I would add that that domestic struggle at times registers by indirection the on-going power struggle with the state.

Numerous stories reflect this dystopian landscape and the struggle between generations. One especially powerful story is “Plastics and Cardboard,” by Memory Chirere (No More Plastic Balls), which opens in an urban wasteland, a rubbish dump area, where a disabled mother lives with two teenage children, who, in their dreams and in reality, beat her viciously for her (to them) obscene sexual encounters with a blind man. Here the children attempt to discipline and punish the sexuality of their damaged, but more fully human, parent figures. Two other stories which feature notably hostile, gargantuan fathers threatening their children are Madanhire’s “The Grim Reaper’s Car” and Mungoshi’s “Sins of the Fathers.” These two stories, along with Freedom Nyamubaya’s “That Special Place” (all in Writing Still) are cogently analyzed in a forthcoming essay by Muchemwa, “’Why don’t you tell the children a story?’: Father figures in three Zimbabwean Short Stories.”

Professor Muchemwa’s comment illuminates not just themes in contemporary writing but the situation of younger writers themselves who are locked in an agon against the “fathers” of the ruling elite and, with much less hostility, against the established writers in the Zimbabwean canon. Here are some of their voices. “The younger generation is looking for a break with the past. Politics is just about power struggles” and, sounding a different note, “Younger writers have thrown all caution to the winds and are tackling political writing face on, whilst the established, for reasons they cannot be blamed, proceed with caution.” “We younger writers now have something to focus on and identify with. All the earlier writing seemed to be about white versus black. Now it is a struggle between Zimbabweans.” “We are running away from the older writers; we are trying to explore new styles.” And from a member of that older generation, “There is a boldness in the new writers. They take taboo issues on. You can’t help feeling optimistic. They are very inspiring.”

Younger writers often reject the idea that their work is “political” or “national” because these terms are associated with ZANU-PF, the ruling party. One respondent said, “Younger writers are actually working against the idea of a national identity and are exploring different kinds of communities.” Specifically, they are not interested in writing about – or hearing about – the national liberation struggle, the second chimurenga. “We didn’t ask the old ones to go to the struggle. We don’t want to hear about that. We want to talk about why there is no food on the table, and about other pressing problems.”     Thus, most younger writers – and indeed most writers in general – eschew dealing with “politics” or the government directly, while remaining fully absorbed in the task of recording the present moment, particularly the human consequences of governmental policies and the marked development of class differences among black Zimbabweans.

These concerns are so pervasive that one cannot mention all the stories that take them up in interesting ways. Christopher Mlalazi is particularly effective in developing characters and dialogue which evoke destitute urban communities (“Pay Day Hell” (Writing Now) and “It’s His Who Wakes the Hare” (Short Writings from Bulawayo II); Rory Kilalea, in his ironically titled “Unfinished Business,” and Edward Chinhanhu, in “These are the Days of our Lives” (both in Writing Now) structure their stories as tours around cities which show the economic breakdown that Mugabe’s third chimurenga has wrought. Mzana Mthimkulu provides a compelling psychological portrait of an ambitious manager in his “The High Flyer” (Writing Now), and class distinctions also inform Stanley Mupfudza’s “Mermaid out of the Rain” and Julius Chingono’s “Maria’s Interview” (both in Writing Still).

The young writers are among the “born frees,” coming of age after independence and benefiting from the efforts made to strengthen and extend Zimbabwe’s educational system, efforts which have contributed to the number of active, good writers in this generation. They are free to address new themes, but they also express a sense of being unanchored. Mostly urban-raised, without notable contact with a rural home, they are comfortable with English as a medium of communication. Having realized their parents’ academic aspirations, they feel they are now being criticized for losing a sense of cultural norms and values. Politically, almost all of the younger writers feel that the government (the fathers) has failed the people by leading Zimbabweans into a disastrous economic crisis. Culturally, the young writers feel somewhat adrift, searching for new cultural norms, new forms of community, and new ways of writing.

As the sheer volume of work published in Zimbabwe in the past decade suggests, there continues to be, despite huge impediments, great interest in writing. However, the economic situation is such that everyone’s priority is to put food on the table. Few can afford to buy books, and libraries and schools have almost no budgets for new purchases. The market for fiction is essentially confined to school texts, works adopted by the Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council (ZimSEC) for the national set syllabus for O-level and A-level literature courses. Writers themselves say the problem is “money, money, money.” “We lack the tools of the trade: paper, pen, PC, no books to feed the mind, no outlets to publish, the constant struggle to survive.” “Who can write a novel with so many power cuts?” Magazines which formerly published good short fiction, such as Parade, Horizon, and Moto, no longer exist. Much external funding from international NGO’s has been discontinued, and venues that supported the arts in the mid-1990’s, such as the International Book Fair, no longer thrive.

There is the further issue of censorship. “The majority of contemporary Zimbabwean writers are steering clear of direct engagement with the politics of the country. They are assuming the role of documenting what is happening without commenting or engaging directly with it in their writing. The few exceptions are one or two playwrights who are being routinely harassed and detained by the country’s security agents as a result.”    In public venues such as theater in the park, street theater, poetry slams, and book launches, “you always feel monitored and you wonder who is the CIO man in your audience.” “There is always self-censorship, a feeling of insecurity. I keep my stories at the level of ordinary people on the ground. I don’t write about changing the government. I’m afraid to.” There is this wry consolation: “There is fear in writing here, but you presume the authorities don’t read your book,” said one writer, commenting on what many said: books are too rare a commodity read by too few people to need to be censored. Even so, “there is ruthless self-editing,” a need to avoid any overt critique of government policies or reference to individuals in government, a need to craft a book that will be acceptable to the publishers, to ZimSEC, and to the often very conservative parents of children in the schools.

In this climate two private presses, Weaver Press in Harare and ‘amaBooks in Bulawayo, have become very important for creative writers. Since novels are costly to write as well as to market, these two houses have recently published anthologies of fiction in which numbers of new and established writers are included: Weaver has produced Writing Still in 2003, Writing Now in 2005, and ‘amaBooks the three volumes of Short Writings from Bulawayo (in 2003, 2005, and 2006).

While it continues to make marketing sense to aim for the school textbook market (and Writing Still was recently adopted to become a set text in the schools), both these presses have largely eschewed profits in order to publish work of high literary quality. In some cases they have been supported by NGO’s, in particular the Dutch group HIVOS.   Another way in which younger writers have received support has been through the British Council’s program called “Crossing Borders,” which uses the internet to link up aspiring writers in several African countries, including Zimbabwe, with writing mentors.

Even to characterize, publicly, the present situation in Zimbabwe as a “crisis” is considered daring and happens infrequently. I asked writers if they considered the current situation a crisis and whether they found Mugabe’s term for this period, the third chimurenga, helpful. There was absolute unanimity about the crisis: an older writer of broad experience commented, “Everyone agrees there has to be a change. There must be change. I have never seen a consensus of this magnitude.” Another wrote: “Each day you see around you people trying to eke out a living, lamenting about the rising costs of basic commodities. You are aware of a centre that simply will not hold anymore.

What matters the term used to name it? The term can be as hollow as the politicians who coined. it. The term is meaningless, but the condition is inescapable.” Many found the term “third chimurenga” an “empty slogan,” “just propaganda,” “nonsense. Revolution comes from the people and not from the leader, top down. The first and 2nd chimurengas had the backing of spiritual forces and the people supported it. It’s nothing like that now.” “The third chimurenga is the President’s psychological war against home-grown opposition politics.” “Chimurenga means war. That’s what we have. We are in a crisis that is like a war.

We all agreed there needs to be land distribution, but we didn’t think it would have these economic consequences.”    A number of other responders were more open to the term: “Land reform is a beautiful idea, and Mugabe unleashed this revolution, but it is true that he has failed to tame it.” “The third chimurenga has brought in a new era, it is the ending of a period of drought in creative writing. It means a lot in terms of change of ownership and also in writing. New voices are being heard. It represents a new generation of those who didn’t see the war, who aren’t concerned with the second chimurenga.”

To respond to the situation in which writers feel urgency to represent a crisis and yet are cautious about how  and out midterm review sheet Agriculture Trust in Zimbabwe.ial Farms, 2000-2005.ion, ed. imurenga, fa in the ground rules for texplicit they can be, some are turning to alternative forms to the dominant mode of realism (still well represented in the anthologies) – most notably the use of satirical and post-realist modes. “Writers may fear censorship but subtlety in writing gets around the censor and it is better writing. If you want to say something, you look for indirect ways.” Brian Chikwava’s story “Seventh Street Alchemy” (in Writing Still) combines gritty realism showing the life of an aging prostitute living on Harare streets with a darkly comic, Kafka-esque confrontation with a faceless bureaucracy which denies her an identity because she doesn’t have her papers in order. This won the Caine Prize in 2004.

Chris Mlalazi’s “id i” (in Short Writings from Bulawayo III) is a bold engagement with the violence of the dissident crackdown in Matabeleland, material treated in a mode of domestic realism which merges into the paranoid, hallucinatory experience of “the street” in which an outspoken writer is, or imagines himself to be, threatened by a head of state accompanied by an old crone. The delirium suggests Joyce’s “Nighttown,”and the crone figures the nation just as Ireland is figured as “the old sow that eats her farrow.”   Ignatius Mabasa uses dreamlike “modern folk tales” as in “Delicious Monstalia” (Writing Now) to deal with the issue of incest.

In Yvonne Vera’s novel about the Gukurahundi in Matabeleland, The Stone Virgins, her lyrical, poetic prose style functions as a kind of veil over the violence of the period she addresses. Julius Chingono, a respected poet, has recently turned to short stories which are basically realistic but often have a satirical edge. In “Are We Together?” he depicts youth militia rousting out voters for a ZANU rally, their bullyingly insistent question “are we together?” serving as an ironic title which questions the coerced political consensus. By pushing into the realm of the grotesque, satire offers what one writer called “deniability.” A recently hailed novel in Shona by Mabasa, Mapenzi (“Fools”) makes use of a madman to tell truths that his fellow fools find plain crazy. Poetry and metaphor can provide a similar kind of protection. As one writer said, “You count on the security people being too dumb to get the point.”

Laughter has become a vital way of coping with the daily news. “As soon as a new policy is announced, you will see a joke about it on the internet in a hour or two.” When I mentioned once that forming queues has become a regular occupation in Harare, my respondent told me an ironically self-deprecating joke that was circulating: “We Zimbabweans have a high “I queue.” Humor is one way of creating and maintaining those alternative communities that younger writers are seeking. Other micro-communities are developing in other ways. Some Bulawayo writers have a sense of regional identity deriving from the different history of Matabeleland since 1980. Among those most effective in capturing the sense of a community with its own history is the poet and fiction writer John Eppel.

Despite what I said above about greatly reduced economic resources, several arts-supporting institutions remain active and foster communities among their patrons: among them the Book Café on Fife Street, hosting many arts events, including a monthly poetry slam mentored by the well-known poet Chirikure Chirikure and the young artist and arts-manager Victor Mavedzenge; Zimbabwe Women Writers; the Pamberi Trust; the Harare International Festival of the Arts, or HIFA, operating since 1999 with an annual week-long festival in April; and the Intwasa arts festival in Bulawayo, operating since 2005.    The two private publishing houses, Weaver and ‘amaBooks, have also fostered a sense of writers’communities. Added to these should be various on-line groups which allow Zimbabwean artists, both in the country and in the diaspora, to stay in touch and to feel connected to a global community of the arts. All of these micro-communities support individuals who feel disaffected from the state.

I asked participants what they considered to be the hallmark themes, tropes, and metaphors of contemporary writing. One response reminded me of the purchase which certain titles continue to have on the Zimbabwean literary imagination; his list included house of hunger, house of stone, drought, rain, wounds, thorns, the dry season, fools and nervous conditions. Shona writer Ignatius Mabasa’s next novel will be titled “Corpses,” a likely addition to this list. Most respondents included among frequent themes poverty, despair, dysfunctional families, AIDS, domestic violence, the vulnerability of women and children, power and powerlessness. A few mentioned land, the farm invasions, urban spaces, the diaspora and the effects of migration on those who travel and those staying behind. White writers frequently mentioned loss, pain, change, “you don’t always know where you belong and you need to belong somewhere.”

Another commented: “This period is distinctive because the woes of the masses now, to a certain extent, are home-grown. We are our own enemies. Shifting the mind to realize this takes time because we were conditioned by colonialism to look for an external enemy, the white man to be specific. Bold current writing seeks to throw light on the high-level lies that have become the food of the disadvantaged.” The trope of the queue shows up quite often, in the joke I mentioned, in a Chinodya short story “Queues” (Writing Still), as the central action in Edward Chinhanhu’s “These are the Days of our Lives” (Writing Now) and as the organizing element in a film that Dangarembga would like to produce. For me this is a particularly revealing contemporary trope, arising from fuel and food shortages which have given virtually all Zimbabweans the experience of being in a queue, where one feels, on the one hand, a loss of agency and futility, and on the other hand a sense of a community that forms spontaneously to assist each other, without much regard for skin color, class, sex, or other identity markers.

I also asked how current writing is treating rural versus urban spaces. “Rural space used to be equated with ‘home,’ the kumusha, the repository of positive values and urban space was seen as alien and oppressive. Now the rural is as likely to be a place of poverty and disease where one returns to die.” “Urban space is sometimes associated with opposition politics and with a rejection of indigenous values which are sometimes regarded as being “sold” by ZANU-PF. Murambatsvina was the erasure, the bull-dozing of new urban communities that had formed to challenge the ownership of the city by the nouveau riche ruling elite.” This contest is at the center of Chikwava’s story “ZESA Moto Muzhingji” (Writing Now) in which the protagonist, after being treated with contempt by his elite employers, returns at day’s end to the community in Chitungwiza which welcomes back home his eccentric self. The atmosphere of urban dystopia, to recall Muchemwa’s phrase, the presentation of the city as a nightmare scape, is evoked in many stories and is the focus of Wonder Guchu’s Sketches of High Density Life. Prison space is captured in Chiedza Musengezi’s “Space” (Writing Now), which explores the physical and psychological confines of women’s lives. One respondent commented that “the new space to be transited and understood is Harare/London, not rural/urban.”

There is not as yet much writing dealing with the national trauma of the farm invasions, beginning in 1998-99. This is an extraordinarily sensitive topic, politically and humanly. The fast-track land reform policy, in the manner in which it has been conducted, has caused enormous pain, violence, and dislocation to white farmers and black farm-workers. A great many Zimbabweans believe land redistribution was long overdue and necessary. Some, both black and white, question even this, affirming that the Zimbabwean economy needed to be developed through industry rather than agriculture, and that the land issue was purely a political ploy to manipulate the ruling party base. Two stories, both by young black Zimbabwean writers, catch different angles on the experience.

In “Maize” by Memory Chirere (Writing Still and republished in his collection Somewhere in this Country) a woman farmer who has been granted more land than she can till is wooed, in an unorthodox way, by a wandering stranger who would like to take up with her and her land. In “The Trek” (Writing Now) Lawrence Hoba shows through a child’s eyes how a black farming family with few resources is overwhelmed, in the absence of any meaningful community or structural support, when it attempts to lay claim to a formerly white-owned farm. Alexander Kanengoni, whose Echoing Silences is among the finest novels about the liberation struggle, is currently at work on a novel about the farm invasions. His short story “The Ugly Reflection in the Mirror” (Writing Still) has already occasioned a good deal of debate; it portrays a meeting between a white and black farmer, now neighbors, whose mutual commitment to the land creates common ground for a new kind of exchange.

I conclude with a comment on Shimmer Chinodya’s new novel Strife. Its themes will, I believe, resonate with many of the younger writers with whom I spoke. Focusing on one family — the children, now grown up, of the Dew in the Morning stories – it explores the world of the well-educated, urbanized black middle class in Zimbabwe. It traces these characters’ roots, their ancestral father and mother figures going back 150 years, and the extended family network which includes rural branches in which indigenous belief systems have remained strong. In speaking about this novel, Chinodya said, “I want to start a debate about what it means to be black and middle class in Zimbabwe, about children who succeed, who get education and who become Christian, but what does their success do to them as people? What do we believe in? What is there beside material pursuits? And at the same time, I want to show that people 150 years ago faced the same issues as we do today. They too asked, ‘What do I believe?’”

To return to Professor Muchemwa’s comment with which I began this paper, I note that Chinodya’s novel carefully eschews dealing with contemporary political failures but does focus on the “failure of culture” which is tied to the “breakdown in the traditional family” and the “psychic struggle between children and parents.” It would be gratifying to see an established writer explicitly explore the connections between failures in the family and failures in the state, something similar to Nuruddin Farah’s trilogy “Variations on a theme of African Dictatorship.” However, I anticipate that the concerns Chinodya raises will be poignant for many Zimbabweans. Perhaps the day will come soon when the current political crisis has been resolved and the cultural and class issues explored in Strife will command the attention of future generations of readers and writers.

Appendix 1 – Persons Interviewed (25) and Respondents to an emailed Questionnaire (11)

  • ‘amabooks (Jane Morris and Brian Jones)
  • Andrew Aresho
  • Pat Brickhill
  • Brian Chikwava
  • Julius Chingono
  • Shimmer Chinodya
  • Memory Chirere
  • Chirikure Chirikure
  • College Press – Hloniphani Ndlovu
  • Tsitsi Dangarembga
  • John Eppel
  • Petina Gappah
  • Wonder Guchu
  • Lawrence Hoba
  • Derek Huggins
  • Alexander Kanengoni
  • Ignatius Mabasa
  • Victor Mavedzenge
  • Christopher Mlalazi
  • Rosemary Moyana
  • Mzana Mthimkulu
  • Kizito Muchemwa
  • Charles Mungoshi
  • Jesesi Mungoshi
  • Stanley Mupfudza
  • Blessing Musarari
  • Chiedza Musengeza
  • Ambrose Musiyiwa
  • Vivienne Ndlovu
  • Ranka Primorac
  • Briony Rheam
  • Bill Saidi
  • Shirley Sanyangore
  • Flora Veit-Wild
  • Weaver Press (Irene Staunton and Murray McCartney)
  • Zimbabwe Publishing House (Molly Nyanguru)

Appendix 2 –Partial List of Zimbabwean Literature and Criticism, 1997-2006

Short Story Anthologies

  • A Roof to Repair. College Press, 2001.
  • Light a Candle: A collection of Short Stories by Zimbabwe Women Writers.
  • ed. Eresina Hwede. Zimbabwe Women Writers, 2006.
  • No More Plastic Balls: New Voices in the Zimbabwean Short Story
  • eds. Robert Muponde and Clement Chihota. College Press, 2000
  • Short Writings from Bulawayo – ed. Jane Morris. ‘amaBooks, 2003
  • Short Writings from Bulawayo II – ed. Jane Morris. ‘amaBooks, 2005
  • Short Writings from Bulawayo III – ed. Jane Morris. ‘amaBooks, 2006
  • Writing Still: New Stories from Zimbabwe – ed. Irene Staunton. Weaver Press, 2003.
  • Writing Now: More Stories from Zimbabwe – ed. Irene Staunton. Weaver Press, 2003.

Single Author Collections of Short Stories and Poetry

  • Chihota, Clement. Before the Next Song. Mambo, 1999.
  • Chingono, Julius. Not Another Day. Weaver, 2006.
  • Chinodya, Shimmer. Can We Talk and Other Stories. Baobab, 1998.
  • Chirere, Memory. Somewhere in This Country: Short Stories.
  • University of South Africa Press, 2006
  • Chirikure, Chirikure. Hakurarwi (We shall not sleep). Baobab, 1998.
  • Napukeni. Samayanga Records, 2002.
  • Eppel, John. Songs My Country Taught Me. Weaver, 2005.
  • Hove, Chenjerai. Blind Moon. Weaver, 2003
  • Mungoshi, Charles. Walking Still. Baobab Books, 1997.
  • Guchu, Wonder. Sketches of High Density Life. Weaver, 2004.
  • Huggins, Derek. Stained Earth: A Collection of Short Stories. Weaver, 2004

Novels

  • Chinodya, Shimmer. Chairman of Fools Weaver, 2005.
  • ——Strife Weaver, 2006.
  • Dangarembga, Tsitsi. The Book of Not. Ayebia Press, 2006.
  • Eppel, John. Hatchings. ‘amaBooks, 2006, Carrefour, 1993.
  • Mabasa, Ignatius. Mapenzi. College Press, 1998.
  • Musariri, Blessing. Going Home: A Tree’s Story. Weaver, 2005
  • Mufuka, Kenneth. Matters of Conscience. Mambo, 1999.

Critical Books and Essays

  • Hove, Chenjerai. Palaver Finish. Weaver, 2002.
  • Muchemwa, Kizito and Robert Muponde, eds. Manning the Nation: Father Figures in Zimbabwean Literature and Society. Harare and Johannesburg: Weaver Press and Jacana Press, 2007.
  • Muponde, Robert and M. Taruvinga, eds. Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera. Weaver, 2002.
  • Muponde, Robert and Ranka Primorac. Versions of Zimbabwe: New Approaches to  Literature and Culture Weaver, 2005.
  • Mguni, Z, M. Furusa, R. Magosvongwe. African Womanhood in Zimbabwean Literature:  New Critical Perspectives on Women’s Literature in African Languages. College, 2006
  • Primorac, Ranka. The Place of Tears: The Novel and Politics in Modern Zimbabwe. Tauris and Weaver, 2006.
  • Vambe, Maurice T. and Memory Chirere. Charles Mungoshi: A Critical Reader.  Prestige Books, 2006.
  • Veit-Wild, Flora. Writing Madness: Borderlines of the Body in African Literature.  James Currey, Weaver, and Jacana Media, 2006.

[i] This quotation is from an earlier version of an essay by Kizito Muchemwa, “’Why don’t you tell the children a story?’: Father figures in the Zimbabwean short story,” in Manning the Nation: Father Figures in Zimbabwean Literature and Society, Kizito Muchemwa and Robert Muponde, eds. Harare and Johannesburg: Weaver Press and Jacana Press, 2007.

(Presented in a shortened version at the African Studies Association Annual Meeting, Nov. 17, 2006)

Patricia Alden is Professor of English and African Studies at St. Lawrence University in New York. She co-authored a critical work on Nuruddin Farah, co-edited a volume on African Studies and the Undergraduate Curriculum, and has published essays on Farah, Charles Mungoshi and Shimmer Chinodya, and on masculinities in Zimbabwean literature.