Stanley Ruzvidzo Mupfudza is one of the most exciting emerging voices in Zimbabwean literature.
His short stories have appeared in anthologies such as A Roof to Repair (College Press, 2000), Writing Still (Weaver Press, 2003), Writing Now (Weaver Press, 2005) and Creatures Great and Small (Mambo Press, 2006).
A number of his short stories have also been published in national newspapers and magazines that include The Sunday Mail, the Sunday Mirror and Moto.
In a recent interview, Stanley Mupfudza spoke about his writing.
Do you think newspapers and magazines in Zimbabwe are giving enough space to creative writers?
The Sunday Mail no longer has space for creative writing. The Sunday Mirror had it because of my own initiative. Many magazines have become defunct in Zimbabwe, so it is no longer a question of magazines giving space to creative writers, but that creative writers no longer have media through which to express themselves.
How would you describe the current situation in Zimbabwe? What do you think caused it? Is there a solution?
Political and economic stagnation. Political arrogance, national self-disbelief, sanctions... As a nation, we failed to consolidate the gains of independence, to create a solid foundation on which we could go forward as a nation. Instead, we became mimic men.
A solution is inevitable, but it is difficult to see how soon. There is lack of unity of purpose, a failure by people from different walks of life to come together for the good of Zimbabwe. You see, politicians come and go, as do parties, but Zimbabwe remains. This country that lies between the Zambezi and Limpopo is a special place; so special that it is the only one South of the Sahara that has anything as spectacular as Great Zimbabwe. There is the Great Dyke. Now diamonds are being discovered in Marange. The potential is massive. Look at the Zimbabweans who go abroad and do well -- they are in key positions. We are currently beggars on a beach of gold -- but six years after everyone had written us off, we are still here and that fascinates me as a writer. Some think Zimbabweans are docile people. I think they are simply resilient. Historically, the white settlers were taken by surprise when the 1896/7 uprisings came. They had thought the people docile, too.
What are your main concerns as a writer?
Spiritual regeneration, the triumph of the underdog, humanity's resilience, justice, freedom... Conformism has always riled me. Going through life, I noticed that those people who are usually overlooked, cast out, mocked etc., have their own stories to tell, stories that more often than not add value to human experience. I am a sucker for stories about overcoming adversity, triumph against all odds, succeeding when everyone has written off success... My father had to resort to the old custom of kutema hugariri -- you know, where a husband to be had to go and live with his in-laws and offer his labour, ploughing, building, etc. as a way of paying lobola -- then became a truck driver, until one day he was able to set up his own store at Nyangavi Township in Guruve -- he sent his brothers to school, raised six children...
I am concerned with questions of identity. For a long time I wandered through the mazes of our own Zimbabwean condition -- western education, acculturation -- looking for a centre. I even dabbled in Eastern philosophy, always felt on the outside of mainstream society. Then I started delving into our own religion, history and mythology. One of my short stories is called "The Lost Songs" which is about a singer who repudiates his past, his rural family and gets lost in the seedy life of the city, pop music... Then one day he forgets all the lyrics to his songs... Things begin to fall apart around him, his so-called friends abandon him... Then he makes the journey back home, to his mother where he reconnects with his family history and he discovers an ancient mbira which was passed down from generation to generation in his family and through mbira music he finds his place in the scheme of things.
In Zimbabwe right now, many claim to be Christians, but n'angas (traditional healers) are doing roaring business. There are stories of about people using the arcane in order to become rich, to gain political power -- there is the belief in the avenging spirit, ngozi... How can one take all these concepts so that they become leit motifs in one's writing? How does one deliberately borrow from symbols of drought, rain, hunger etc. that have been used by Charles Mungoshi, Dambudzo Marechera and others, and talk about current conditions? Can one take folklore figures, transpose them to contemporary society and write a children's story that will appeal to a techno-generation kid? I grapple with all these questions because our culture and history are rich and the struggle is to make use of it all to come up with universal stories which are, however, rooted in the particular.
What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face? And how do you deal with them?
Getting published. Having a PC or laptop of my own -- priced out of reach down here.
Irene Staunton and Weaver Press have been highly exceptional in promoting emerging Zimbabwean writers. Her two anthologies, Writing Still and Writing Now have done a lot to create that excitement but I have been around for quite a long time. Back in 2000, when I tried to get a manuscript published, I was told that publishing houses had put publishing fiction on hold for about four years since the economic conditions were bad. Well, they are worse now and school textbooks have a ready market. Zimbabweans would rather buy DVDs, bread and butter, than books.
When I was an undergraduate student, I had a second, probably fourth-hand typewriter, that I had bought from a used goods shop in Harare. I always wrote my work long hand before typing it out. That process became a process of revising, editing and re-conceptualisation. I was a high school teacher from 1994 to 2001. When the school where I taught introduced computers, I took advantage of that and began to type my stories at school, whenever I got the opportunity, saving them on disks. When I worked as a copy writer in an advertising agency, I took advantage of that, too.
Same now... when you are not at work, you can't really sit down and do your final drafts, and when you are at work, you do not always have the time. Something suffers in the process. You might write long hand, make notes, and so on but there are times when in the middle of the night, or just before dawn, an idea crystallises... but you have to wait until you get to work.
How have your own personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?
At one stage writing saved my life. I wrote in order to stay sane, to make sense of who I was, to assert myself. When I was doing my A' levels, I wrote almost every day. I kept a journal where I poured out all my fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams. I always felt the odd one out. I was reserved and saw the world differently. I began to write fiction as a way of self-assertion. It helped tame my personal demons. It helped me face the Furies that were tormenting me.
The same, too, when I was an undergraduate student. In my second year back in 1992, I went through another crisis period. This had more to do with Literature and Socialism, a course I was doing then. I began to question the value of literature and poetry in a world full of wars, hunger and things like that... One day I recited a poem in First Street as part of a Marechera commemoration. One old man was more fascinated by my dreadlocks than my art. It all felt futile. I toyed with the idea of dropping out of university and joining the armed wing of the ANC and help my Azanian brethren fight for liberation.
How did you resolve this conflict?
I sat with an occidental student friend from the States who genuinely loved my writing and told her about my dilemma. She told me that art, literature was important. She had come to Africa thanks to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. After that talk, I went back to writing relentlessly and was saved once again.
Over the years, I lost two brothers and a sister and I became self- destructive. Dealing with the pain of loss, coming to terms with it all, was only possible through my art.
In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you the most?
One can only speak of specific influences at a given time. For example, there was a period of pulp fiction addiction, when Stephen King, Robert Ludlum and similar writers ruled the roost. Thomas Hardy, Shelley and Wordsworth at A-level. College years, Marechera, Jack Kerouac and others… but I have always tended to read, read and read and certain elements of style or vision would create a lasting impression and in the journey to find a personal voice, I tended to interlope, borrowing, grafting and so on.
Do you write everyday?
I am an undisciplined writer. I sometimes wait for inspiration to write. Yet, an idea can gestate inside my head for a long time and when I eventually sit down, the story, poem or essay is completely formed. I think right now I am suffering from a writer's block, actually -- I haven't written original fiction in a long while. I am not even coming up with ideas and concepts. I know I am going through a phase, where I am trying to come to terms with my current profession and personal life. I want to write a novel, a television script and a play.
It's important that I get involved in a creative project, because that is what I do and what I am -- I write. I am a writer.
One of your short stories is about the conflict between religion and rationality. How did the story come about?
"Faith" is about a man called Faith who is seen by some as a lunatic, and a prophet by others. The story is set just before the turn of the millennium, with Faith preaching that the end of the world is nigh. It is told from the perspective of a sceptical teacher, whose wife and child become converts. It took me between three to six months to write the story and it was going to appear in an anthology which we were expecting to come out around August, which has writings from across Africa. Things, however, seem to have stalled.
Which aspects of the work that you put into the story did you find most difficult?
The quasi-religious aspects, making them read and feel real, without being contrived. I wanted the reader to able to immerse himself or herself in the story and enjoy it, without batting an eyelid.
I have become fascinated by our folklore, myths, history and spirituality -- the challenge has been how incorporate this into my fiction and enrich it.
What do you think is the source of this fascination? How much space do you think folklore, myths and spirituality take in your own life and in contemporary life in Zimbabwe?
They have become the prism through which I view, process life. They help me shape my identity, offer me dimensions that hitherto had been hidden to me. They offer me a refreshing look at the world, a wealth that many have ceased to be recognised and yet can be very useful. People are always looking for crutches in order to survive, and I am fascinated by how these work or fail to work, and what people do or fail to do as a result of the beliefs and values they resort to or discard. Look at what the Latin American writers like Isabel Allende in The House of Spirits have accomplished. Magic realism can be a tool that might help us inject a fresh feel and voice to Zimbabwean literature.
What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?
Being still alive today and being able to respond to these questions.
Why is this?
Sometimes, the worst possible threats to ourselves come from us. Losing the will to live, not caring how one lives or dies. Perhaps there is a romantic notion of the artist underlying it all... fuelled by the desire to die young. One bad thing about dying young is that it comes too early...There is nothing romantic about death, while life itself is full of so many possibilities. My first brother to die died in 1998, while the second died in 2000. My young sister died in 2002. My sister's death was the most difficult of all to deal with. We were very close.
How did you deal with the pain and the loss?
One night, after a long hard day of vodka-fuelled boozing, I hit someone with a beer bottle in a nightclub. There was so much blood everywhere. I was mobbed and beaten up by his friends and thieves and nearly died. I was taken to the local police station and locked up in a cell with hardcore criminals, people from the underside of our society. These were habitual criminals, and I listened to their stories, each one had a different story to tell and no one, according to them, was really guilty. Through it all, a question kept nagging me: Is this as good as it gets?
I realised that I deserved more and that the potential I had could not end up in such a place -- there was no glory in that, in dying early.
In 2003, my then partner gave birth to a pre-term boy. She was seven months pregnant when he decided to come into the world. There were scary moments when he was confined to the intensive care unit. Then he developed jaundice, and the doctors were on strike, so you had medical students experimenting with treatments. The most amazing thing about it all was how this kid fought. He didn't want to die, he refused to die. It was truly amazing that a pre-term child, barely weeks old could show such a tremendous will to live. It was a trying period for me but through his struggle and triumph, I began to appreciate the value of my own life, and because he lived, I learnt to appreciate what it meant to live for someone other than yourself.
You have also talked about finding a centre. Where would you say your centre lies?
My centre revolves around knowing who I am, what I want out of life and going through life informed by a core set of values that enable me to value life, the gifts that we come with into this world and what we ought to do with them. Before me, there have been others of my line, who have made their contributions, even though they remain unknown and unsung, and I am part of that contribution.
My grandfather was a great hunter, drummer, mbira player and dancer, and the arts course through my blood. Skidrow was boozing and not caring what tomorrow brought, getting off, was taking charge of my life, creating a sense of purpose and focus...Whatever it is I do, I believe I should do it with passion and to the best of my ability, so that I leave a mark.
This article was first published on OhmyNews International.