Wednesday, October 12, 2011

[Interview] Murenga Joseph Chikowero

Zimbabwean writer, Murenga Joseph Chikowero is a doctoral student in African Literature and Film at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In 2010, he collaborated with Annie Holmes and Peter Orner on an oral history project which gave birth to the highly-regarded book, Hope Deferred (McSweeney’s Publishing, 2010).

His short stories have featured in the anthology, Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe (amaBooks, 2011) as well as on the PanAfrican writers’ blog, StoryTime.

In this interview, Murenga Chikowero talks about his concerns as a writer:

When did you start writing?

Back in primary school, probably in 6th grade.

That year, I moved to a different part of the country, near Guruve in the north, and there a friend told me a story, one of those fantastic tales. When I went back to my old school a year later, our teacher asked everyone to write a story, any fictional story. I wrote down this story about a mythical, one-eyed giant but ... when our books were returned ... mine wasn’t there! Our teacher had misplaced it. When she eventually found it, she asked everybody to stop whatever they were doing to listen to my story.

That, for me, was when writing stories down began although storytelling itself was nothing new in my family and, indeed, other families in the villages.

How would you describe your writing?

I write mainly short stories though I have a novel on the way.

I am fascinated by the 1980s, the time when so many people felt they could dream ... independence was finally here and, for that reason, young men walked with a pronounced swagger, shirts unbuttoned down to the navel and hats worn at fancy angles. Young women wore their over-ironed pleated costumes, stretched out their graceful necks and went about their business. My writing traces the radical and more subtle changes from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe and what ‘Zimbabwe’ meant to different generations and groups. The clamor of the post-2000 politics masks the amazing beauty – and. yes, largely untold trauma – of the 80s and I try to recapture that in my fiction.

Outside fictional writing, I recently collaborated with two writers, Annie Holmes and Peter Orner on an oral history project that gave birth to a book called Hope Deferred. That project basically attempts to bring voices of ordinary Zimbabweans – at home and abroad – to bear on the narrative of Zimbabwean crisis of the last decade. I traveled to Zimbabwe and interviewed some of these witnesses and victims of torture and political persecution.

Hope Deferred is a collection of some of the most remarkable personal stories of ordinary people’s experiences of state-sponsored terrorism, their struggles for a better society and, ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

My short fiction generally targets a mature audience but my novel-in-progress courts younger Zimbabweans although all English speakers will find something to enjoy there too. A lot of our young people today have no clue what the 80s and 90s meant – or promised – to those who lived through them. The beauty and ugliness of that period is unlike anything we have seen since.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

Because my school didn’t have a library, I read whatever I found.

The adolescent detective genre was quite an obsession early on, especially the American variety: the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. Nothing was better than lying on my back before the yellow light of a paraffin lamp after supper and join Frank and Joe Hardy and their friends – and sometimes their father Fenton – as they put together the puzzle pieces of some big crime in their town.

Then, after reading No Longer at Ease, I considered myself a firm disciple of Chinua Achebe. No book made me happier even with its subtle, controlled prose. Achebe’s fiction, though written in English, read like my native Shona and I liked that instant recognition.

I bumped onto a battered copy of House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera in between reading the then ubiquitous Pacesetter series that we exchanged in middle school and I was instantly hooked. The problem, though, was that the copy was so battered it had no cover so there was no way of knowing its title or author.

But the Pacesetters series! My very first Pacesetter was called Evbu My Love by a Nigerian writer named Helen Obviagele. It was a somewhat sad story but there was something about love brewed in the African pot that nibbled gently at your heart and made you read the story once, then twice.

The Pacesetter Series was impressive for its vivid language and fast-paced action by African heroes and, occasionally, heroines. Secret service heroes like Benny Kamba in Equatorial Assignment. Some of the heroes had English names such as Jack Ebony in Mark of the Cobra but that didn’t bother us and we were right there with him as he delivered deadly karate kicks to venomous snakes hidden in his wardrobe by enemies of the state.

I also read some South African fiction, most of which I didn’t particularly like at the time, perhaps because the first ever South African novel I read was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. The Pacesetters had introduced me to African heroes who could punch their way out of trouble so I found Cry, the Beloved Country particularly depressing.

Luckily, Dambudzo Marechera saved me around this time. A friend let me borrow his House of Hunger though we didn’t find out what the title was until much later. Unlike anything I had read before, Marechera seized me by the scruff of my neck and thrust me into a violent yet fascinating world of the ghetto slum. I had not stayed in any urban ghetto so the world of House of Hunger shocked me. Another happy problem was the language; I didn’t understand a lot of the more flowery prose but it excited and shocked me in equal measure. A less happy problem was that Marechera, of course, didn’t see anything wrong with describing graphic sexual acts, sometimes even in our native language and so I got a bigger book, a schoolbook actually, planted House of Hunger right in the middle and read and re-read the numbing details of ghetto life while my teachers marveled at my keen academic interest!

Around the same time, we discovered James Hadley-Chase, Louis L’Amour and the British classics – usually the abridged versions.

My older brothers also read anything under the sun and kept personal libraries of sorts. I was allowed to read these books – as long as I was behaving myself. I liked history books the most because they were packed with biographies of larger than life characters, characters who rose from nobodies and turned the world upside down. I liked all of those legendary figures. Our government was then heavy on what is called Gutsaruzhinji or Socialism and there were all these history books detailing the Chinese Revolution of 1947. I would look at a certain picture of a youthful Mao Zedong – then called Mao Tse Tung – and envy his army cap.

My brothers also had collections of Shona language novels, some of which were course setbooks at school. I detested the moralistic variety churned by the sackful by our Literature Bureau but absolutely loved the detective thrillers like James Kawara’s Sajeni Chimedza and Edward Kaugare‘s Kukurukura Hunge Wapotswa. Though targeted at older readers, these novels were not too different from the Pacesetter Series. Above all, I loved the Shona language liberation war novels, the best of which was Kuda Muhondo by a writer whose name I forget. The more overtly partisan ones like Zvairwadza Vasara, I didn’t particularly like.

These books and experiences shaped my early writing and made me feel I could try my hand too.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Each time I sit down to write down a story, I am always struck by James Baldwin’s assertion that the job of the writer is to look for the question that the answer tries to hide. And yet we often think of the answer itself as a solution to a query.

The ease with which myth passes off as truth in Zimbabwe motivates me to write fiction. My major concern is the place of historical memory in contemporary Zimbabwe. A lot has happened and we have a state that considers it a moral obligation to control this narrative, especially since the year 2000, thanks to a severely – and perhaps deliberately – stunted media landscape. I use different generational voices to interrogate these changes that have happened.

For example, one of the biggest myths in our country is that all Zimbabweans lived happy, comfortable lives before the Mugabe-led farm takeovers which began in earnest around 2000. Few people are honest enough to remember that the ruling elites, led by Mugabe himself, actually colluded with the rich white farmers and industrialists to lord it over an impoverished population.

Who remembers now that the farm takeovers were actually planned and spearheaded by ordinary villagers? Who remembers that these villagers were actually arrested for their efforts before political expediency made it necessary for our politicians to turn round and celebrate these villagers as heroes of the Third Chimurenga? I try to write beautiful stories that bring a more nuanced understanding to these issues.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenge facing most Zimbabwean writers today is the shrinking publishing industry. This, of course is true throughout Africa with South Africa as a possible exception.

The few, mostly independent publishing houses left in Zimbabwe are forced to put their few resources behind book projects by trusted names so as to recoup their investments. Yes, ours is still a society that views fictional writing as something of an indulgence, a hobby for the educated class. Of course, there is that basic question: Who is going to buy a book when all the money they have can hardly buy a loaf of bread?

You will notice that, contrary to the 20 years leading up to 2000, there are fewer fresh writers whose works are published individually. The tendency has been to produce these anthologies from which some talented voices occasionally emerge, for example, both Brian Chikwava and Petinah Gappah published short stories as part of this short story anthology tradition before launching individual careers as celebrated writers. To date, I have also pursued a somewhat similar path although some of my stories have been published in the form of e-books in South Africa.

Do you write everyday?

Because I balance an academic career with writing fiction, I cannot write everyday. It is also not my style to write everyday. I generally let a story or a chapter ferment in my imagination for days, rather like chikokiyana, our traditional brew, before writing it down. But when I start writing, the story demands that I finish it in one sitting, much like a gourd of frothy chikokiyana. Then I pass it on to my partner to read. She is by far my harshest critic so I usually listen to her opinion before editing my stories.

Ever since I discovered Dambudzo Marechera, Toni Morrison, Njabulo Ndebele, V. S. Naipaul, Charles Mungoshi, Joseph Heller and Ernest Hemingway, I have never liked a story whose conclusion is overwritten, especially if it’s a short story.

My short stories in particular use plenty of silences which estimate real-life African dialogue as I have experienced it.

I have a special dislike for stories that end in formulaic ways ... for example, a relationship that ends with a wedding or a rogue who is caught and jailed. I like my rogues out there, maybe some of them reform or they are chased out of town but I like them better out there and not in jail. Instead of a wedding, I am usually satisfied with lovers looking into each other’s eyes or even doing seemingly small things for each other.

My most recently published short stories include “The Hero”, which was featured in an anthology called Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe by amaBooks, a Bulawayo-based publisher. I have also published two stories, “When the King of Sungura Died” and “Uncle Jeffrey” on the PanAfrican writers' blog, StoryTime, which is managed and edited by Zimbabwean-born writer, Ivor Hartmann.

How would you describe "The Hero"?

“The Hero” is about an accidental hero who starts off as a rather banal political party thug who falls into a large beer container at a party rally and dies. His party declares him a hero and on the day of burial, he even dislodges the president from the news headlines. "The Hero" is based on a true story that happened in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe, around 2003.

I wrote it in one sitting, as I usually do with my short stories, and it was published in Where to Now? by Bulawayo-based amaBooks in 2011. My story speaks to other stories in that anthology, all by fellow Zimbabweans. In my story, for example, the ill-fated character is essentially a victim of an economy gone haywire; he takes to partisan politics like one possessed. In NoViolet Bulawayo’s award-winning story in the same volume, “Hitting Budapest”, you find a similar theme of ghetto kids craving for very basic necessities of life which their parents cannot provide, thanks to a crashed economy.

The ghetto setting is something I am very familiar with. I think a story’s power also draws from its ability to evoke a setting that readers recognize.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

Creating the ghetto scene and the atmosphere of a Zimbabwean political rally are the two things that I enjoyed most. Political rallies in Zimbabwe have a whole life of their own.

I also especially liked working with Jane Morris, the editor of Where to Now?.

What sets "The Hero" apart from other things you’ve written?

The satire ... Some of the so-called heroes and heroines buried at our publicly-funded heroes’ burial sites – heroes’ acres as we call them, including the National Heroes Acre, are no heroes at all ... But because of media censorship, there is little public debate about these kinds of issues outside the columns of the few privately-owned newspapers ... Thankfully, developments in Information Communication Technology have seen a steady rise in online newspapers, blogs and online social forums where a culture of robust debate is slowly taking root.

What “The Hero” shares with my other stories is the fascination with Zimbabwe’s public memory, particularly how it has been edited, suppressed and manipulated at various times to suit the goals of the political class.

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