Writing Nervous

by Brian Chikwava

One can argue that great literary works are rarely about good sentences or syntax. Given a good literary mind, these are insignificances that will normally sort themselves out. More often than not, it is the pulse of the mind behind a piece of work that either turns it into a shoddy bundle of words, or a creation that will find resonance across cultures and connect peoples experiences in ways unenvisaged before. Such minds have been seen in geographically disparate corners of the world: Nawal el Saadawi in Egypt; Augusto Roa Bastos in Paraguay; Abdullah Hussein in Pakistan; Ngugi Wa Thiongo in Kenya; Boris Pasternak in the Soviet Union; Steve Biko in South Africa; the list is endless.

Whilst this is a literary pantheon that many a Zimbabwean writer can only dream about belonging to, one hopes that perhaps an urgent pulse is entering the work of Zimbabwean writers, both established and the upcoming writers.

Thankfully, in spite of or because of the difficulties that Zimbabwe is going through, the turn of the century has seen a quiet adjustment in the publishing of fiction, giving new voices a better platform to be heard.

In this regard there has been amaBooks Short Writings From Bulawayo, Volumes I to III, Weaver Press short story anthologies Writing Still and Writing Now, of which a natural progression ought to be Writing Nervous, for it is a nervous pulse that beats beneath the face of any Zimbabwean, be it a writer or a crack lipped mother in the rural areas who knows first hand the kind of tricky relationship a child can have with its empty stomach, or a nurse in diaspora who dreads the text message from her family asking her to wire more money back to their family who find themselves increasingly unable to look after themselves in an economy ravaged by inflation, the unemployed citizen who braves the aquatic predators of the Limpopo to become an illegal immigrant in South Africa, or the firebrand intellectual who dabbled in utilitarianism of a Stalinist variety advocating the tearing down of the social fabric and national institutions in the name of the final revolution, the third chimurenga and now finds him/ herself sitting at his/her desk; pondering the question of again cutting whatever is left of our national nose to show what we are capable of when push comes to shove. All are in a nervous condition; all are hostages. That includes the president himself, who held hostage by his own will, is nervous about the future. Nervous because although he may have seen the moral shallowness of imperialism, colonialism, global capitalism and mutations of such, far from raising himself above such moral conventions, he continues to live in a moral depravity that he makes up for by exercising brutal power over ordinary citizens. His would be a fascinating contribution to Writing Nervous.

That Zimbabwean writers of wildly differing opinions, whether inside or outside the country, find themselves moved to commit pen to paper in larger numbers, is a healthy development for Zimbabwean literature. And it is perhaps fitting and natural that such developments should be accompanied by the appearance of the above mentioned short story anthologies that have given new writers platforms to be heard. Gone are the euphoric and rather innocent days when the unknown short story writer had to look to the magazines Parade and Moto or the Sunday Newspaper supplements to cut their teeth.

Those were the days when Auntie Rhoda, Parade Magazines famed agony aunt, had the answers to all the citizens questions, from the challenges of living with alcoholic husbands to handling bad tempered mothers in law who were going through a mental pause (sic). Today the social pulse is a different one, the questions are bigger and perhaps true of Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembes view of many a post colonial African country: a reality that is made up of superstitions, narratives and fictions that claim to be true in the very act through which they produce the false, while at the same time giving rise to both terror, hilarity and astonishment. No doubt there are still issues that Auntie Rhoda would still be able to take in her stride, but even she would probably quiver at the thought of an impending whack on the head were she to give answers that are sympathetic to one political truth at the expense of another.

Because of this, it is appropriate that some of the tricky questions be dealt with in these recent short story anthology series; the conversation can no longer be with Auntie Rhoda, but amongst the writers themselves.

Perhaps due to these and other developments, new writers have come into visibility, myself included. These include Stanley Mupfudza, Gugu Ndlovu, Andrew Aresho, Edward Chinhanhu, Chris Mlalazi and Lawrence Hoba among many.

Some have come into the public eye through the British Councils Crossing Borders programme, amongst them, Chaltone Tshabangu, Adrian Ashley and Blessing Musariri, while from the diaspora poet Togara Muzanenhamo, Stanley Makuwe and Petina Gappah (who was recently shortlisted for the 2007 HSBC-SA PEN Literary Award along with Chris Mlalazi) are emerging. And to add an urbane and gritty realism to this cacophony of voices is a gang of spoken word practitioners like The Teacher, Manikongo, Lucius, Comrade Fatso and Mbizo who, through their performances at The Book Café poetry slams have over the years been creating another row in the choir, right behind such seasoned performance poets like Chirikure Chirikure and Ignatius Mabasa.

The names mentioned here are only a handful picked from many equally good writers. In the years to come, some will be able to tap into the national psyche and produce inspired and great works, while many more of us, will be lost in the fog of our condition. Today, with the aid of digital chatter, our perceptions of our epoch are set to multiply dizzyingly, and from this heap of words, facts, fictions, sophistries and startling lies, one hopes that something will emerge, something that will at least measure up to the past works of names such as Charles Mungoshi, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Yvonne Vera, Chenjerai Hove or Shimmer Chinodya. No doubt, the hurdles ahead are many, and the intellectual demands on the writer or poet of today are greater.

Whereas yesteryear it was enough to talk of Zimbabweans suffering in the colonial era and during the war, today it is the fictions of liberation that must be put under scrutiny; it is time to ask harder questions, and perhaps soberly consider, creatively enquire and consider in our own different ways, such assertions as those of Czech born playwright Tom Stoppard who in reference to communism in Eastern Europe suggested that revolution is a trivial shift in the emphasis of suffering. To question continuously, put ones finger on a nations pulse and at the same time hold the mirror to its collective face without flinching, one imagines, is the staff of works whose worth is not only judged by syntax or the number of adverbs.

Brian Chikwava is a Zimbabwean writer who lives in London. In 2004 he was the winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing and is currently is working on a novel alongside a short story collection.

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