Useful Zimbabwean Blog

Fungai James Tichawangana’s coverage of Zimbabwean Literature on his blog Unofungei Fungai is the best I have seen so far. I was on Google looking for news covering names like Ignatius Mabasa and Memory Chirere when I came across this rich resource and I was hooked.  See this exemplary entry:

 Slamming Them Together Through Poetry

The House of Hunger Poetry slam is on this weekend, 2 August 2008 at The Book Café. The Poetry slam is celebrating the International Youth Day which traditionally falls on 12 August according to the United Nations International Days calendar.

This month The Poetry Slam is running with the theme ‘Reconciling young people’– bridging the gap between the future leaders of tomorrow and creating an environment for national cohesion and healing within young people. The past years have seen young people being associated with all sorts of activities that are sinister, destructive and abusive.

Pamberi Trust poetry program however would like to bring a platform for dialogue and expression through poetry as a medium to communicate issues affecting the nation and help wipe out the past history of an unlawful and destructive youth culture in Zimbabwe
As future leaders in the Arts, Finance, Trade, Education, Sport and Politics we need to start talking about the future we hope to see, enjoy and uphold.

Veterans of the slam: Comrade Fatso (left) and Chirikure Chirikure

This is a process that we have to engage in as youths and most importantly as a young people who are organized and reconciled, a truly Zimbabwean youth that will be responsible, protective, patriotic, respectful and possess untamed love for their people.

The poetry slam event on Saturday 02 August 2008 will accommodate both veteran and upcoming poets. Poets of all sorts and styles are invited to this August event to express themselves through this art form with a message of reconciliation, hope and nation building.

Slammers & Slam fans: (L to R) Outspoke, Irene Staunton, Chirikure Chirikure and Olley Maruma at one of the House of Hunger Poetry Slams.

Come down to The Book Café on Saturday 02 August from 2pm – 5pm and be part of this exhilarating event that will influence your weekend to be a better and well served one.

Comment: Despite the difficulties, or because of them, poetry is alive in Zimbabwe. Oh, out here, from Zimbabwean are writing as well, and soon the voice of the writer and the poet will be heard reflecting on the country’s challenges.

ZIBF CANCELLATION REAL BLOW ON ZIMBABWEAN BOOK INDUSTRY

It is a tradition that began in 1983, when the new star African country, Zimbabwe, was embracing the fruits of high literacy. Amidst the euphoria of independence, the widespread introduction of educational programs meant to reach the remotest corner of the country, the ZIBF was formed to serve as Africa’s example of the appreciation of writers, books and the publishing world. Harare in late July/early August was a beehive of activities, a Babel of sorts as writers and publishers from all over the world converged to enjoy a week or so in an environment of conferences and excursions. This went on for over twenty years, each year registering another successful story for the book industry in Zimbabwe. Then from about 2004 things began to change. The political environment in the country became restrictive as publishers from sanction-swinging countries became uncertain on whether or not to travel to Zimbabwe for the fair.  The numbers of exhibitors began to decrease, and finally, the 2008 ZIBF has been cancelled. The main reason given, as The Herald reports, is the withrawal of funding by sponsors who sited the current economic environment in the country as not conducive for the fair.

This position is understandable, in a world determined to punish the Zimbabwe government, a world that does not want to seem to contribute money that might end in the wrong hands. It is also understandable that most exhibitors would choose not to participate in the book fair, considering that, in a country in economic ruin, spending a week setting up stands in order to celebrate books might be a mocking luxury, not to mention, again, that these exhibitors would pay fees that end up funding what the world does not want funded. There is also the issue of safety, at least from the perspective of the foreign exhibitors going into the country. Most NGOs and humanitarian organizations have said that Zimbabwe has limited or even stopped their activities to prevent the championing of interests that do not agree with the government’s. It would make sense that the continued spread of literacy that the promotion of books engenders might also be seen as an unwanted intrusion serving these conflicting interests. And, oh, with some foreign media not allowed in the country, who would cover the activities of the fair to make the experience worthwhile? It would seem inconceivable to have, say, a British publisher state that it is sending representatives, with thier Pounds, to exhbit literacy in Zimbabwe. Basically, the questions anybody would ask those trying to put together another ZIBF would be, why even bother?  Whatever the real reason for the cancellation, it is clear that the book industry in Zimbabwe has suffered a heavy blow, just as many other sectors in the country have. So 2008 is going down in history as the year the Zimbabwe Interational Book Fair was cancelled; it will go down in history, of course, as the year a lot of other things happpened or did not happen in Zimbabwe.

What does this mean for Africa?

Given that the ZIBF used to be the Franfurt of Africa, its cancellation certainly affects the continent’s book image in many ways. Since Zimbabwe is in a transitional state, one not favorable even for the display of books as determined by the sponsors and some of the exhibitors, we can hope that next year the event will be held. But it is time other African countries raise support for efforts to hold book and writing events of a ZIBF magnitude. There is much hope. South Africa has a book festival that’s very promising. Kenya’s Kwani Litfest, which currently focuses on writing workshops, has the potential to operate at the level of ZIBF. Let’s have something in Mombassa, in Tanzania, something in Lilongwe. Something. Anything. The African Book events should be raised to levels that match the magnitude of writing talent that the continent’s writers have, and if this means that the writers themselves have to be involved in publishing and promotion, as in the case Farafina in Nigeria, so be it. This is the time for the African writer, equally a time for the development of a matching, sustenable, self-sufficient African publishing industry. Do I hear the whisper: You wish? 

Comment: As long as our art depends primarily on handouts from foreign organizations, it will come to times likes these, when politics of countries dictate when a book fair (that tends to benefit school children and readers of all ages) is held and when it is cancelled. This is not a good picture for both the sponsors and the recipients of these handouts.

Narrow Definition of Poetry Has Some Writers Worry About its Future

“Poetry may be out of fashion, but it is the finest expression of what makes us human”, writes Jay Parini in an article published by The Australian and The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Parini goes on to show us the developments, or deaths, of poetry over the years. The article aptly concludes with Parini stating that he couldn’t live without poetry, which he reads first thing every day. Even those who see value in poetry, like Parini, seem to concede that poetry is out of fashion, and I can see many heads nodding in agreement. But before we mislead ourselves, let’s face the reality: poetry is just as alive today as it was years ago. If we believe that it is dying, we might be subscribing to a dangerously narrow definition or understanding of poetry.

Poetry includes both the written art and the spoken word, and it comes to life when performed. Of course there is nothing new in this, but those who look at real poetry as that existing in the written form, as that relating only to the artistic forms of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Frost, and Yeats, need to stretch their definition of the art, and look around for signs of poetry in action. Fine, let’s be agreed, we are dealing with a world that is full of other forms of entertainment that seem more appealing to most people than poetry would. Fine, we might visit bookstores and notice that the poetry sections are much smaller than, say, the self-help or travel book sections, but that does not mean that poetry is dying or that it is out of fashon.

I have seen the growth of other forms of poetry that respond to the progression of time, poetry produced directly for the stage: that’s poetry, and poetry that is beginning to match the needs of different audiences. I have seen the growth in demand of artistic forms like Hip-hop capturing the hearts of many people, especially the young: that’s poetry. I have read reports of the growth of performance poetry in Zimbabwe, poetry that speaks to the hard times in that country, performances with big audiences: that’s poetry. And I have recently become more active in the poetry groups in my community; we meet for readings often, and everyone in those groups enjoys the art, reads poetry daily before doing other thngs: that’s poetry. At those readings we have audiences–fellow poetts and their families, plus other people interested in the art–who buy our books, read and talk about them: that’s poetry. Have you looked at the internet lately; have you seen how many people write poetry, and most interestingly, those who believe that they are poets and end up falling prey the dozens of laughable poetry websites infiltrating, but not suffocating, cyberspace? Hundreds and hundreds of people who are convinced they are poets and they want they world to see? To some extent, that’s poetry, or at least an acknowledgement of the existence and importance of the artform. A special note about all the poetry in existence out there that might seem like a mockery on the artform: I would not be too quick to dismiss these attempts in order to lament the state of poetry; I would take these as auditions: sooner or later, with persistence, some of these poets may one day make indelible contributions to this undying, forever fashionable art.

That poetry is taught in schools is a good thing.  We are teaching it to people that will one day find the time to appreciate it. You know, that age when we are finally settling down and are remembering the things our freshman literature or composition teachers were trying to expose us to? At that time, if Borders does not have the books we wants on its shelf, we will turn to an online bookstore, which may happen to be a Borders one, and buy the poetry book we want. That is, if we have already not attended a poetry reading where were able to buy signed copies directly from the author. But here I am now talking about poetry in the book form, which is just one manifestation of poetry. Remember that poetry never used to be in the book form, back when we didn’t even know what book was, probably would run away if we saw one? Time has a way of connecting us to a much earlier era, especially in art, and we might as well start preparing for another form in which poetry may seek to manifest itself to audiences.

As a literary scholar, I may make myself feel good by arguing that the real poetry is contained in the nicely-bound Shakespeare and Frost volumes on my shelves, forgetting that this is only part of the story of poetry.

So, no, poetry is not going out of fashion.

Poetry will always be here, as it has always been.

You don’t define an art by means of how much money it brings into the pocket of the author; art defines and tranforms itself. While the academy has something to say about poetry, the artform would not even care a bit what the academic says, or doesn’t say about it. Poetry is, therefore it is.

Genre Expansion Necessary for African Writing

The continent of Africa continues to rely on foreign writers as suppliers of books in the genres of romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. This needs to stop immediately. We want the world to start reading romances written in Africa, by African writers. We want African readers to read romances (in the Harlequin & Mills & Boon sense) and horror stories (more horrific than those of Stephen King) written by African writers. This will help pique the interest of readers in local writing, and encourage African reading to develop to mass market heights. I know I generalize a bit here, but the trend as I have observed it, is that much of the mass market material Africa consumes if foreign-born, whether it is something relating to movies, many forms of music and writing. Perhaps the African writers are to blame. Here is why.

I started writing when I was thirteen, imitating authors like Aaron Chiundura Moyo and Vitalis Nyawaranda, whose works we were reading in school as set books. From that early on, I came to writing with a setbook mentality. Although I went through a James Hardley Chase, Ian Fleming, and Mills & Boon phase, it never occured to me that I too could write mysteries, romanes, and Stephen King-style horror. Why? Because when I put pen to paper, I had to think in terms of the literary, had to be part of that special group of writers whose books were only written for people reading literature in schools.

I have observed that most African writers write for the school system, in most cases for practical reasons, because a large percentage of reading happening on the continent is related to education. Our readers have not been trained to read for pleasure, to enjoy a mystery because that’s what it is– a mystery. Okay, there is often talk about how the nature of African life almost makes it taboo to enjoy reading for reading ‘s sake, that people are too busy dealing with demands of life more pressing than reading. So that leaves publishers looking at academia, and encouraging the production of the JM Coetzeean stories that have higher chances of winning a Caine Prize for African Writing before they even discover their readers. Our stories are wonderful, we write well, but sometimes we are too literary to the detriment our writing and its readership. Oh, and our most lucrative awards are in the short story genre. In fact, a friend of mine argues that Southern Africa is the home of the concise short story–very concise indeed– for obvious reasons, such as, he points out, long histories of government censorship of art, influence of folklore, and, he doesn’t say this, the short attention span of our readers! No, there I know there is demand for these genres, a demand for long stories dealing with the fantasy, horror, mystery, or the thick things Wilbur Smith was writing.

So here is a call to African writers to expand the genres of our writing. Let’s have awards geared towards rewarding stories about ghosts haunting this one bus stop in Kezi, Matebeleland. Let’s write romance novels set in Chimanimani and Natal, and stories about mysterious disappearance of foreigners in Alexandra and Johannesburg, horror stories of whole villages turning up limbless in election-time Zimbabwe. The horrors are all around us, so are the mysteries, and the possibilities of African romance. Put pen to paper, fellow writer, and expand the horizons of African writing.