Hard Times Have Freed Zimbabwean Literature

Zimbabwean literature in English has a short history, only having started in the 70’s with the writings of Charles Mungoshi and a few other writers. The literature started in war time, when the country was still under white minority rule, which meant that the writers had to exercise a degree of self-censorship in order not to get in trouble. So this early literature was mainly rooted in moralism and the troubles of domesticity. Some, especially that written in Shona and Ndebele, the dominant indegenous languages of the country, was state-controlled, since it was channeled through what was then the Rhodesia Literature Bureau. So the overal effect of the literature was that it was not a threat to the government.

Then came Dambudzo Marechera, a Zimbabwean writer who was based in England, who published his ground-breaking novella House of Hunger, which was a sting on the government of the day, as well as an advance indictment of the upcoming Zimbabwean majority government. It was his writing, in its avant-gardist nature, which introduced defiance and non-conformity to Zimbabwean literature, but for much of the early eighties, immediately after Zimbabwe got its independence, Marechera did not have many followers; in fact, many African readers dismissed him as irrelevant to issues African. To them ,he was not African enough in his writing, so he was not frequently mentioned in matters of African literature on the continent.

Then came the late eighties and all of the nineties, when Marechera had died, and Zimbabwe was going through many economic and political changes. By then he had a large following of young writers, most of whom belonged to one of the largest writers’ organization in the country, Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe (BWAZ). These writers had great promise and revered Marechera’s radicalism and courage in his writing, but not many publishers were willing to risk publishing these young dreamers. So many were discouraged, but a lot continued to work hard on their art.

Up to the mid-nineties, much of Zimbabwean literature had still not fully recovered from the euphoria of Zimbabwean independence, and was therefore still appealing to what had already been defined as the real Zimbabwean literature, state defined. This literature still lacked the courage to pierce the heart of socio-political problems; it was afraid of artistic risk. The promising young writers were receiving rejections, realizing then that to be published they had to present material that would suit the publishers’ needs. And the main market for the literature were students, who could only read “certain” kinds of literature, the “suitable” kind. A Marechera-type book was not suibale for secondary school, neither was a book that seemed not to follow rules, because were the schools not trying to teach the students to be leaders of tomorrow? So there were more years of mediocre literature produced for schools.

But now, when it has become clear to Zimbabwean citizens that the greatest betrayal can come from the leaders of the country, after they have watched overt actions by the government to restrict freedom of expression, the people have lost respect for the government, which has not been useful to them for a long time. The unbearable levels of hardship in the country have taught the people to fight hard for survival, to do whatever it takes to remain alive. Among these people are writers, most of whom are the formerly rejected budding writers who have now matured, with their non-conformist tendencies. Writers existing in the harshest of enviroments, driven by words that defy control. The writer in present Zimbabwe had no time to rest; plots rain from every direction as the country continues to shock the world with its drama.

The Zimbabwean situation has shifted the production of literature from semi-conformist to free and courageous art. First, there is more writing than ever before, with the internet working as an outlet for much of the writing. The large number of Zimbabweans in the diaspora has also led to the expansion of free writing, with much of the new works employing satire both to make people laugh, but also to make direct criticism of failing governance.

Writers like Petina Gappah, Brian Chikwava, and Chris Mlalazi are expert satirists, who write without restraint. Mlalazi’s writing, in particular, is openly political, but because he is a master craftsman, the writing also is at best literary. More Zimbabwean voices are represented in the anthologies published in the country, which show writers like Ignatius Mabasa, Wonder Guchu, Joyce Mutiti, and Nhamo Mhiripiri dealing with the hard times in the country. The writing portrays today’s Zimbabwe, capturing the craziness, but it also manages to show that even in a situation of total chaos, life still finds a way to go on, courageously. Even when everyone has to wonder where the next meal is coming from, literature is still being produced, literature that will define an era and set the trend for tomorrow.

The young writer Tinashe Mushakavanhu, who is based in the UK, speculated at the beginning of 2009 that his may be the year for Zimbabwean literature. This literature, a giant that’s been sleeping for many years is awakening, and, as another Zimbabwean writers, Ivor Hartman, has said, it’s “an African Roar”.

Here are some of the Zimbabwean writers who will open a wide window to the Zimbabwean experience this year: Petina Gappah (whose first short story collection compelled Faber & Faber (UK) to do a transatlantic joint book deal with FSG (New York), a first deal of its kind in the history of book deals. We are yet to see what these publishers saw in this book, but whatever it is, it certainly has begun to work because the book, by the time it comes out in April, would have been translated in numerous languages, including Dutch, Italian, and others. Wonder Guchu has been described as “a literary heavyweight” and he is. He edits one of the vibrant online journals in Zimbabwe, artsinitiates, which showcases the country’s writing today, and what it promises to be in the future. Chris Mlalazi, who is a master satirist and stylist, one of the most courageous writers of the times, whose gems are in a collection entitled Dancing With Life, published in 2008 has several of his short stories StoryTime, a magazine for new African writing, edited by Ivor Hartman, a Zimbabwean based in South Africa.

Not all the writers are polical, of course, but they are all courageous and risky, finally taking Zimbabwean literature to levels that Dambudzo Marechera and  Yvonne Vera would have wanted it to go. This new literature will portray Zimbabwe to the world in its deepest sense; it is a literature of witness, illuminating what William Faulkner described as humans’ tendency of not only enduring, but also prevailing.


2 thoughts on “Hard Times Have Freed Zimbabwean Literature

  1. 1. I think when you speak of writers lacking ‘artistic risk’ you do a great disservice to the fearless work of novels like Strife, Bones, The Stone Virgins and The Uncertainty of Hope.
    2. The giant leap from Marechera to Chikwava, Mlalazi, Gappah et al ignores the greats that have gone before like Vera, Hove, Mungoshi and Dangarembga.
    3. No Mungoshi was not one of Zimbabwe’s early writers, the history goes back to 1958 with the first published novel in Shona, Feso by Solomon Mustwairo.
    4. No Gappah was not the first to get a ‘transatlantic deal’; Marechera, Vera, Dangarembga, Hove have all been published in various countries and their works translated into at least 9 non-African languages.

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