Sometimes, reading is like the writing process: the reader revises responses to a work of art with each step of the reading process. When I started reading Valerie Tagwira’s The Uncertainty of Hope, I quickly found discomfort in the transposition of Shona and English sentences since I thought this tendency served some interests of no immediate importance to the art of the novel, for example, serving an audience foreign to the issues and context of the novel. Reading “But thank you very much my friend. Ndatenda sahwira” (16) still bothers me, but I have also discovered that this aspect of the novel may not be as important by the end of the story as I thought it was at the beginning. I am, however, beginning to grow nervous with the abundance of images of pessimism that pervade the plot,and I worry that if the novel falls short in exposing the complexities of life in the Zimbabwe of 2005, it may excel only in showing the complications of the life. Right, art imitates life, but I like to see it challenging life as well. While a camera will record those snippets of life within its focus, a novel needs to process that information first (usually thoroughly) before it gives it shape. Challenge all readers to decide what to make of the story, to connect present events to past ones.
Zimbabwean writing seems to have fallen into that era remniscent of South African art in the 1980s and early 90s, when the main preoccupation seemed to be apartheid. The exposure of the hard hours of South Africa at the time had become so predictable that reading a Njabulo Ndebele was akin to listening to a Lucky Dube. Nothing very wrong with this, especially in the genre of protest literature; I just want us to allow the hollow core of our art to fill up before we share its visible manifestations. This is to say, even as I write this response, I find myself thinking of the necessity to feed the core of my critique before I point out the layers that float on the surface of the pond of discourse.
Some of the characteristics of Tagwira’s novel I like:
1. The time shift: right when the obvious begins to bore the reader to death, we switch to another scene as we would were we watching Hollywood. This aspect of the novel lends it to movie adaptation.
2. Familiar terrain: I like that I can identify with places like Swinton, Students Union; in fact, all the scenes happening at UZ are attention-grabbing.
3. The narrator is on the side of the poor people and is ready to defend them. The descriptions of Mbare are powerful.
4. The currency of the issues is great too, but I think the issues would be stronger if they anchored on their historical sub-text (I use this term loosely).
NOTE: I have been voraciously reading new poetry from Zimbabwe, and I see the same protest trend which tells of the hard times. There is a certain urgency in much of the poetry. One poet, however, ignores the present and chooses to recapture Shona praise poetry and translates it into English. This too might be a response to the present situation in Zimbabwe, an argument that seems to say that while all this craziness (ordinary word) is happening, the poet has better things to do – record the beauty of our art while you can; who knows, with this craziness, we might lose it all. That poet is Tawanda Gumbo.
Maxwell Mutami, author of When the Dust Has Settled, mixes the horrors of the present with their past antecedents, which means the reader senses that in reading a poem like “When the Dust Settles”, there is an antecedent situation that might be more important than what we see happening now, which is why we know the dust will settle one day, because it once settled before, after it had been caused, that is, raised, by something just as horrific as what’s causing it to rise again. Dust. Yet dust that rises is not alway ominous because Mutami, in the very next poem tells us that when the people (and he means masses)celebrate their regained sense of optimism, dust will rise and keep the skies hostage. Someting to do with hope and the skies.
But how does my writing (both fiction and poetry) respond to all this? I have tried many times to write a poem that attacks the government or corruption, but each time the poem forces me to look at the root of all these issues. So a poem that starts off talking about Harare in 2007 ends up settling on Salisbury in 1967. It’s as if my poetry is aware, of its own volition, that the big picture is not just in what ZANU and MDC are doing today: the poetry needs a concrete base on which it can take shape. Ian Smith’s 1965 dimentia has not had enough witnessing voices, for instance.
It is, let me argue, about complexities, not complications. Am I affected by the present situation in Zimbabwe? Yes, in a big way; but should I therefore write a novel dealing specifically with these effects, and only these? That might be a good start, but may not end up good. Should I, however, find myself inspired to write on these experiences, a memoir would be calling my name. The novel that’s taking shape is really like an internal journey, digging deeper into the nature of experience, but at this time it wouldn’t dare to announce itself yet. And poetry? Poetry knows my name.