Interview: Bryony Rheam Calls on Zimbabwean Authors to Move Away from “Overtly Political” Subjects

I recently finished reading Bryony Rheam’s novel This September Sun and the author agreed to answer a few interview questions. At the end of this very enlightening interview on her craft and influences, Bryony calls on suggests that writers expand their creative horizons and embrace genres that move beyond the “overtly political”. Below is the intervew.

1. I just finished reading This September Sun and I enjoyed it a lot. You created an impressive character in Ellie. I also now know that the book is not autobiographical, but what inspired Ellie?

Although the novel is not an autobiography, it is autobiographical in many ways. I am very much like Ellie and there are parallels in the events in our lives. I don’t see her as myself though – she is a character in her own right.

2. I love the first sentence of this novel, but this question is about the ending. Is it reasonable for Ellie to expect to go back to Zimbabwe and find Tony waiting for her after all these years? Was it just a momentary epiphany, or a sudden realization that there could actually be alternatives to how she had thought she could dream? Or does it really matter what she returns to as long as she returns with a sense of hope?

The ending of the novel appears to be a ‘happily-ever-after’ one, but the more you think about it, the more you begin to wonder if this isn’t another of Ellie’s dreams – like her one of going to live in the UK. Will Tony be waiting for her or will he have met someone else? That’s up to the reader to decide. However, although Ellie is an idealist who will probably encounter many problems and frustrations on her return to Zimbabwe, the most important thing is that she is going back to Zimbabwe with a sense of starting over rather than dwelling in the past.

3. Readers of my age seem to connect with Ellie in that she speaks for our times. But how important was it to make her ignore the war? If she was six at independence, was she too young to be bothered about the vagaries of war? I know I wasn’t too young not to remember, but then I was in an area that continued to see the signs of war four or five years into the eighties. In other words, was the war as irrelevant as Ellie seems to imply?

I don’t think that Ellie sees the war as irrelevant; after all, it had such an impact on her family. What she despairs of is the tendency of the older generation to almost wallow in its pain and therefore refuse to move on. It’s a time in Zimbabwe’s histrory that people seem to have to constantly return to, whether they be politicians, writers or the average person on the street. That’s all very well, but what about now?

4. I know you have pointed out that this novel is a mystery/romance. But I think it turned out to be literary too. Do you care about it being considered literary? Or are those genre distinctions even necessary?

I am sure there are many ways in which the novel may be considered literary. I have actually discovered a number of things that may be considered symbolic, but that wasn’t my intention when I wrote the book. T.S. Eliot believed that the author’s intention wasn’t as important as the reader’s response and I go along with that. I’m glad that it can just be read as a mystery/romance because it means it appeals to a wider audience than a purely literary work would.

5. You have already been compared with Doris Lessing and because of that, I couldn’t help but look for traces of the The Grass is Singing. Is this a fair comparison?

I have great respect and admiration for Doris Lessing and yes, I think it is fair to say that her writing has influenced me a lot. I remember sitting in almost trance like state after finishing the last page of The Grass is Singing!

6. Which writers have influenced your writing? How many of these are Zimbabwean, or is this even relevant?

There are three books which I could read over and over again. They are The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (I consulted this book many times when writing Evelyn’s diaries), Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (I love the attention to the smallest detail) and Reef by Romesh Gunesekera, a Sri Lankan writer (politics are so much in the background here, they are almost non-existant, yet somehow you manage to feel its effects in the lives of the characters). Funnily enough, I haven’t always liked other books by these writers.

7. There is always debate about whether one is or is not an African writer, and often, the debates are fraught with misunderstandings, leading to unnecessary controversy. Do you consider yourself an African writer? And what does this mean to you?

This is one debate that will go on for eternity! I think I’d just like to call myself a writer actually. I don’t see any need to be anything in particular, even if I do live in Africa.

8.There are some subtle metafictional elements to This September Sun (which I enjoyed, by way). How important was it for you to present Ellie as a writer? As I read the story, I enjoyed being aware that it was being written as I read.

I feel writing is a way of making sense of your life. Why, for instance, do people keep diaries? Both Evelyn and Ellie use writing for a number of reasons. One, as I said, is to make sense of their realities; another is to record it – both women want to be ‘heard’ by someone: Evelyn uses to diaries as a confessional and eventually leaves them to Ellie because she wants them to be read. Ellie feels constantly overlooked and therefore demands that the reader listen to her. However, as with all first person narratives, how far are they to be trusted? At times we see an incident from two different points of view, such as the time when Evelyn and Ellie visit Miles’s house. Which is the truth?

9. I read somewhere that you studied literature in college. How has this influenced your writing? You are also a teacher. Do you believe, as Achebe, that a writer is like a teacher?

Studying literature at university definitely influenced me a number of ways. I had to read a large number of books that I would never have chosen to read for a start! I also became much more aware of how vulnerable the writer is and how you have to constantly think about how your writing may be criticised, both positively and negatively – but this shouldn’t stop you writing. The biggest drawback about studying literature is that you always want to look deeper into something and I really resented the way some of my favourite texts were almost carved up and dissected. I got to the point where I just wanted to read for reading sake and to be entertained, but I don’t think you can ever do that again after studying literature! I did get frustrated when studying post-colonial litertaure because I felt that many of the white characters in much of the writing weren’t ‘real’. They tended to be limited to the District Commissioner or a policeman. Issues of identity and belonging were never seen as ‘white’ problems. I used to argue quite a lot during turorials, but I never really felt that I got the others to listen to me. I think everyone was too busy being politically correct! As for a writer being a teacher, I would hate to be didactic in my work, but I do think you can prompt the reader to look at a situation differently. How many times have you heard someone say, ‘this book changed my life’? Books can have a huge impact on people.

10. Your novel has been hailed as the first one in Zimbabwe to educate readers about the white world in Zimbabwe in the 80’s. I don’t know how true this is, but having studied Zimbabwean literature at the University in Harare, I was well aware of the absence of white Zimbabwean literary works on the syllabus. Do you think the makers of the curriculum deliberately left out these works, or the works were not being written.

I don’t think there have been many literary novels by white Zimbabweans. In fact, I can only think of Doris Lessing and possibly John Eppel. However, I do think that will change.

11. What aspects of This September Sun were difficult to write. I imagine coming up with those letters and keeping them in the same voice may have been time consuming, yet they sound so natural, so believable. Was this difficult to do?

Yes, it was very difficult to ‘be’ Evelyn. Sometimes I thought she sounded too old-fashioned, like a character out of a Jane Austen novel. I also struggled to find her a place within England. Should she posh, upper-class or working class. I needed her to have a ‘neutral’ accent, because I would have found doing a broad Yorkshire accent or something similar very difficult! I had to be aware of the words I used in case certain expressions weren’t in use in the 1940s and also be aware of the era in general – what did women do and what didn’t they do? Getting the historical bits right meant a bit of research, but I enjoyed that.

12. What do you think of the future of Zimbabwean literature?

I think writers need to start to move away from the political, at least the overtly political. We need to write love stories and thrillers and mysteries, otherwise we will continue to go over the same ground.

An Evening of Stories, Poetry & Music in Los Angeles with Christopher Mlalazi

Chris Mlalazi

Villa Aurora & Eso Won Bookstore present

an evening of stories, poetry & music with
2010 Feuchtwanger Fellow Christopher Mlalazi, fellow Zimbabwean writer and editor Emmanuel Sigauke, and Judicanti Responsura
7PM on Saturday, July 31, 2010 at Eso Won Bookstore
4331 Degnan Boulevard, Los Angeles 90008

Villa Aurora’s 2010 Feuchtwanger Fellow, Zimbabwean writer Christopher Mlalazi’s novel Many Rivers (2009, Lion Press, Ltd., UK), Dancing with Life (2008, amaBooks), a collection of short stories, and play Election Day (2010), deal with the social disintegration of his native Zimbabwe, where he also contributes light entertainment articles for its major newspapers—a contrast that underscores a practice of self-censorship acknowledged by the 2008 OXFAM NOVIP PEN Freedom of Expression Award at the Hague, which he received with Raisedon Baya for their play The Crocodile of Zambezi. The Crocodile of Zambezi (2008), a satire of the Mugabe regime set in a fictional country along the Zambezi River, was officially banned and members of its cast and crew were harassed and beaten by state agents. Christopher Mlalazi’s work has received numerous honors and awards, including the ‘2009 Best First Published Creative Work, National Arts Merit Award in Zimbabwe’ for Dancing with Life: Tales from the Township, which also received NOMA Award Honorable Mention in 2009; Many Rivers was shortlisted for the 2010 National Merit Award for Most Outstanding Book of Fiction. Mr. Mlalazi has just completed a new novel about pre-election violence under a dictatorship.

Emmanuel Sigauke grew up in Zimbabwe where his interest in writing began at the age of thirteen. He studied English, Shona, and Linguistics and graduated with a BA. From 1993 to 1996 he was the National Secretary of the Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe (BWAZ), an organization that has helped groom many contemporary Zimbabwean writers. Sigauke moved to California in 1996 and studied English at California State University Sacramento. He teaches composition, literature and creative writing at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, is a board member of the Sacramento Poetry Center, where he hosts poetry readings every second Monday, is the book review editor of the organization’s bi-monthly publication, Poetry Now,. and is also the co-editor of the recently published African Roar: An Eclectic Collection of African Authors. Sigauke has also taught fiction workshops for the UC Davis Extension and in the Hart Senior Center Annual Writing Conference. His collection of poetry, Forever Let Me Go, appeared in 2008, and he has since published poetry in State of the Nation: Contemporary Zimbabwean Poetry and in journals like Witness, One Ghana, One Voice, and others. His fiction has been published online and in print journals. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel. He blogs at Wealth of Ideas.

JUDICANTI RESPONSURA is a Los Angeles based chamber music ensemble formed in 1984 by tubaist William Roper and percussionist Joseph Mitchell. They perform their own compositions and generate new works from area composers. They specialize in works incorporating Euro-Classical and African-American improvisational traditions. Judicanti’s repertoire ranges from purely musical compositions to multi-media, multi-disciplinary works. The group is represented on recordings released by the Asian Improv, Tomato Sage Consortium and Heliotrope Dreams labels. As individual artists they have worked with the L.A. Philharmonic, L.A. Opera, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Elton John, Yusef Lateef, Anthony Braxton and many others. http://roperarts.com/judi.html

Villa Aurora, with its unique émigré history, is an artist residence and historic landmark located in the former home of exiled German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger. To promote and foster German-American cultural exchange and to remember the European exiles that settled in Southern California, Villa Aurora offers a variety of salon style arts and cultural programs, including public lectures, concerts, screenings and performances. Villa Aurora and the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library at USC jointly provide the Feuchtwanger Fellowship to writers, like Christopher Mlalazi, who face persecution in their native countries.

ESO Won Books is more than a warehouse of reading materials. It is your personal gateway to inspiration, adventure, laughter, healthy living, social etiquette, history, and so much more. At Eso Won, you can count on friendly, down to earth personalized service. An Essential Los Angeles destination in the heart of historic Leimert Park, Eso Won has played host to a variety of authors from Presidents Obama and Clinton, intellectuals Michael Eric Dyson and Cornell West, to comedian Bill Cosby. Eso Won (African for “water over rocks”) is a living proverb as it provides fluid, safe, stirring opportunities that flow to a reservoir of knowledge for both the African and African American experience as well as any other topic you may wish to find.

Eso Won Bookstore (323-290-1048) is located in the historic Leimerk Park neighborhood at:

4331 Degnan Boulevard, Los Angeles 90008
west of Leimert Boulevard, east of Crenshaw Boulevard
south of West 43rd Street & north of Leimert Plaza Park
on West 43rd Place.

Robert Giroux, Publisher, Dies at 94

The New York Times reports that “Robert Giroux, an editor who introduced and nurtured some of the major authors of the 20th century and who rose to join one of the nation’s most distinguished publishing houses as a partner, making it Farrar, Straus & Giroux, died Friday in Tinton Falls, N.J. He was 94.”  Read more.

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.

Dambudzo Marechera and the American Reader

A literary scholar interested in reading the works of the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera in the United States will be unsettled by the absence of these works in bookstores and most libraries.  While Dambudzo Marechera was well-received in places like the United Kingdom, and while his influence is spreading rapidly in Africa and other places, he is not as famous in the United States as he should be.Over the years I have wondered why this is so.

For one, Marechera emerged as a writer after American literature had gone through its interesting phase of avant-gardism, nihilism, and the beat; it had just entered the phase of post-modernism, which thrives to this day. This might have contributed to Marechera going un-noticed. In fact, according to Flora Veit-Wild, compiler and editor of Marechera’s posthumous works, Pantheon, an American publisher, “offered a contract for a hardback edition of The House of Hunger” (Black Insider 9). This happened toward the end of 1979, after the book had won the prestigeous Guardian Prize for Fiction. Veit-Wild adds, “Too late Pantheon editor, Tom Engelhardt, who was impressed by Marechera’s writing, found he had misjudged the American readership” (ibid; italics mine). So the publisher had to remainder the rest of the edition. In short, House of Hunger failed dismally when it was introduced in the United States in 1979, and it seems no publisher after that wanted to take another risk.

 In fact, Veit-Wild further points out that Pantheon reader for Black Sunlight dismissed it outright, describing it as “an exercise in self-destruction.” For the reader, Viet-WIld writes, Marechera had “reacreated the fatal flaws of bad surrealist writing chaos, fragmentation, separation from meaning–and that the characters [were] not fully developed.” For a literature that had already experienced Bukowski and many of the works by the beats and was getting ready for the postmodernist chaos of Kathy Acker, Marechera should not have seemed that nihilistic, but again, publishing, especially where contractural rights and possible advances are concerned, iis more about making money. Perhaps Marechera would have fared better in 1979/80 had he seemed to celebrate the emerging African leadership in Zimbabwe. For the knowledgeable American reader, he probably was not Zimbabwean-Rhodesian (hence African) enough for the times. Even the Kenyan reader for Heineman was as disappointed as the Pantheon reader, and expressed his fear that the book would alienate the African readership (Veit-Wild/Marechera 9).

Another reason might be the fact that when Zimbabwean literature was marketed outside the country, and especially in North America, focus was given to writers who were deemed representative of African literature, like Chenjerai Hove, Musaemura Zimunya, and Charles Mungoshi. These writers have had an opportunity to serve in fellowships and residences that Marechera, due to his premature death, did not have a chance to participate in.  Writers like Tsitsi Dangarembga and Yvonne Vera have penetrated ethnic, literature, gender studies classes that find the works relevant. While the presence of such works in the United States leaves a lot to be desired, it far surpasses that of the works of Marechera. Perhaps the 2009 UK conference on Marechera will create interest in his work across the Atlantic.

V.S. Naipaul Versus Derek Walcott

I studied V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas in my first year at the University of Zimbabwe.  I found the book engaging and enlightening, rich with its characters’ unique experiences. Later, I browsed other books by Naipaul, such as A Bend in the River, but none seemed to surpass the talent displayed in A House. So I can safely say I know one or two things about the works of Naipaul. But I am a new comer to Derek Walcott’s works, although I have always known about him being one of the Nobel Laureates. A few weeks ago someone mentioned Walcott’s facility with poetic style and the first opportunity I had I bought his Selected Poems and Tiepolo’s Hound.  That was last week.

Then today I woke up to find out these  Nobels have an on-going dispute in which they doubt each other’s talent in writing. Naipaul is reported to have labeled the poetry of Walcott as “full of emptiness”. Sometime in 2007. Now, actually last weekend, Walcott made a public attack of Naipaul at the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, in his poem “The Mongoose”. As he started his reading, reports The Statesman, Walcott announced, “I’m going to be nasty.” Here are the opening lines of the poem:

“I have been bitten. / I must avoid infection./ Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.”

Here is a longer extract as transcribed by The Statesman:

“So the old mongoose, still making good money

Is a burnt out comic, predictable, unfunny

The joy of supplements, his minstrel act

Delighting editors endorsing facts

Over fiction, tearing colleagues and betters

To pieces in the name of English letters

The feathers fly, the snow comes drifting down

The mongoose keeps its class act as a clown

It can do cartwheels of exaggeration

Mostly it snivels, proud of being Asian

Of being attached to nothing, race or nation

It would be just as if a corpse took pride in its decay

After its gift had died and off the page its biles exude the stench

of envy, “la pourriture” in French

cursed its first breath for being Trinidadian

then wrote the same piece for the English Guardian

Once he liked humans, how long ago this was

The mongoose wrote “A House for Mr Biswas”

The UK’s Telegraph  reports that Patrick French, Naipaul’s biographer, said “Knowing Naipaul, he’ll say nothing and then at some point he will lash out. He said to me once, ‘I settle all my accounts.'” Whatever happens, literature wants to see moments like these.

Digital Libraries Devaluing Literature?

So I hear some former and current graduate students of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are enraged by the university’s plan to digitalize MFA theses. So I hear some former and current graduate students of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are mad about the university’s plan to digitalize MFA theses. These texts, improperly named “theses” since they are creative works like novels and poetry collections, would be force-published on the university library’s website; they would then become abvailable to all of us through Google and other search engines. The writers, now up in arms, argue this is unfair and should not be implemented since it will lower the commercial value of their creative writing.

Really, is there anything wrong with having one novel (thesis) posted online by an instution like the Iowa Worshop? Isn’t it a way of credibly displaying one’s work? Oh, but the writers are saying the work might be embarrassing, and others think that’s publication without consent.

There has been an increasing trend of authors turning to the internet either to give previews of their works, or to blog their work into existence. I use the latter for my poetry. But the writers have the control of the length of time they want their work to appear online. Some will woe readers, then remove the work and let the readers beg for it to be published in print format. In short, why the digital age might be construed to devalue the art, some authors have found ways to gain value through effective use of the internet.

The Iowa Digital Library displays, however, would be a permanent record of the author’s early, or sometimes immature, hence embarrassing work. Or if the work is marketable, the authors argue that no publisher would be willing to publish it as long as it stays displayed on the Iowa website.

Perhaps Iowa should modify its open access policy by adding that the work will remain displayed until such a time when a publisher is interested in it; then it will be removed to raise its marketability value.

Reading Literature & Relating

When I read Thomas Hardy at a rural secondary school in Zimbabwe, my teachers expected me to relate to the characters, to understand them as part my reality in life. Of course, we were aware that reading these books was a way to travel to worlds far away from ours, but then by the time we finished reading them, we had been made to believe that they talked about our lives. One way in which we related to the characters was through their rural or semi-rural settings (especially Far From the Madding Crowd with its farmlands and plains); our imaginations were supposed to travel far in order to see near; thus, the crackling of embers in our fireplaces would communicate with the stark countryside realism of Hardy’s Dorset. Relating to these strange, but familiar stories opened in us the desire to read and relate that would see me write compositions set in London or New York even though I had not even visited my nearby Zvishavane town.  Such  explorations of foreign but familiar landscapes were even compounded by the fact that later in secondary school we would act Julius Caeser to audiences of proud mothers and grandmothers, to grinning and nodding fathers and grandfathers under a huge, ageless Muunga tree at the school.

But what is the point of all this?

Somehow I came to a world whose reality was that there were literatures one was supposed to read and familiarize with, literatures with strange characters that were meant to typify (without question) the universality of the human condition, characters that defied the label of otherness. What am I saying? I witnessed in this world the distribution of a few literatures presented as the quintessence of everything literary, then later was made to taste and finally accept literatures that were fittingly (and flitingly) other. These literatures, the other, the offshoots of the canonical, these were the literatures that came later when we  at the university, handled by junior professors and adjuncts whose motive seemed to squeeze all the eurocentricism out of us,  only to be shelved as transitory once reached upper division, where we found the tenured faculty smiling out reminders  that only the canonical would take us far (to Oxford where even Marechera with his constricted otherness had been a literature student). No wonder bright students who had for two years been singing Chinweizu’s afrocentricity abandoned Achebe again and exhumed Hamlet. Oh, what a moment that was, a moment to relate again, a moment to write theses that would knock on the doors of Harvard, Oslo, Zurich (at least a few of us left that early, before the mass detachment from the familiar and the desperate attachment to the unfamiliar pursued Zimbabwe).

Now, I have had dreams about teaching Things Fall Apart, Nervous Conditions, or Uncertainty of Hope without so much as cringe at the thought of defamiliarizing my audience from their familiar landscapes. And where I have dared turn dream to reality, I have done a damn good job of helping readers see the familiar in the unfamiliar without, however, seducing them into thinking the unfamiliar is the other to whom they cannot relate; rather, I have sought to help them see a balance between their familiar landscapes and the not-so-unfamiliar, not-even-other, worlds of Dangarembga, Arundhati Roy, Achebe, Ngugi, Valerie Tagwira, and even D.H. Lawrence.

Some readers come to the world of works like Things Fall Apart only when they are getting ready to travel to an African country. You see them at Borders, or Barnes & Noble asking for a novel that would best give an understanding of Africa, and the flattered bookseller (often book browsers believe they know what they are looking for, so if they approach you, you feel distinct or bothered, but definitely flattered) often takes them to Things Fall Apart.

“Thank you so much for this. I want to know what I’m getting myself into before I go. Have you been to Africa?” the reader might say.

“Me? Africa? I haven’t even been to Modesto. But this is a book most prospective travelors to Africa buy,” says the bookseller, whose eye lights when he remembers another title, which is hard to get but happens to have been special-ordered for the store because of an event. ” You can also find House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera interesting.”

House of Hunger? It talks about Africa too?” asked the reader.

Dah, thinks the bookseller, who walks the customer to the shelf. Indeed, the book also talks about Africa. So if one looks hard, one might find quite a few books about Africa, but today’s budget will only allow the purchase of one book.

“So which one would you recommend, if someone is only looking to buy one?”

“Things Fall Apart for sure; that’s the one most people say is the best representation of Africa.”

Deal. The reader walks to the cash register. She more places to stop by before finalizing plans for the trip.

The scenario demonstrates one of a few cases where readers willingly enter the world of another literature with the intention to understand how a different society works. Often, such misinformed self-emersion tend to disappoint as anyone who had read Things Fall Apart lately will attest to the fact that it is not be best tool to give you a “clear picture” of Africa today. These readers will encounter a world of the 1800 hundreds and imagine it as today’s Nigeria, only to be disappointed, or uplifted, when they reach Lagos one day; that is, if the touristic reader was travelling to Nigeria; most of these readers who are encouraged to read Things Fall Apart by their travel advisors are often visiting countries like Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and sometimes Zimbabwe.

My point then?

Readers of world literature (and there is no other literature) must be willing (as long as they know they are willing) to enter the world of literature to relate and live. Readers come in different shapes and convictions, and there are those who have to make reading literature their purpose on earth through the attainment of literature degrees and certificates; these have not excuse but to understand (as long as they are aware they understand) the principle upon which literature is anchored: the willingness to read and relate, realizing that in order to relate, they have to be intact selves.