On January 1 1999, my family moved to Gweru. My parents had just bought a house and the relocation was meant to signal a new beginning. I say that because I want to tell you something about what it’s like to be a writer in Zimbabwe. Most local Zimbabwean authors live in Harare (or at least that’s the perception). It is there that you find the literary scene or scenes if you actually manage to become part of them.
If you are in one of these groups, you are a writer among others who write and think somewhat the way you do. There is no honest literary conversation in a small population where just about everyone is related. It’s not unusual, artistic milieus are decidedly claustrophobic. There is so little being published that people are polite and congratulate mediocre efforts because they represent some kind of effort or initiative.
I have lived in Harare on and off in the past 15 years and I am generally considered to be an outsider. I have been told so many times that “you don’t understand because you have not been around” or “we don’t do things the way you do in London or New York.” It is not so much that I no longer belong. It is much to do with the fact that the space is owned and controlled. Some of these self-appointed stewards are themselves mediocre. They may have the right intentions but lack the talent.
And there’s something to that, I think. If a writer isn’t familiar with the literature of their own country as it unfolds, they miss out on a lot. Zimbabwe has produced great writers, and not as much anymore. We lack the infrastructure, the forward thinking, the funding. As a country we just do not know how to show love to our writers.
Zimbabwe is not good at supporting its writers. In the Ministry of Culture, the National Arts Council or Culture Fund of Zimbabwe, there are no specific funds earmarked for author work grants and translations. Our culture policy excludes writers. It does not recognise that writers help to preserve our languages, culture and history.
What is disheartening is how Harare behaves as if it is Zimbabwe. You can only be a writer if you are in Harare. This myopic view has taken the urge off our literary culture. Our literature is regional and parochial than national. Reputations do not go beyond the borders of Harare. When did we become a one city country?
In the 1980s Zimbabwe used to be a literary force — our writers featured prominently on award lists, we hosted the most influential Book Fair in sub-Saharan Africa, our publishing industry was an envy for many. Thanks to our ruinous politics, our country has become too isolated and too insular. We don’t really participate in the big dialogue of African literature anymore.
As we go into 2016, it is important that we change the way we do things. Time to retool, reimagine and repurpose our institutions and literary ideals to the 21st century. And Harare is not Zimbabwe.