In the mid-2000s, when “auto books” were the Facebook for sharing personal information, from favourite Chamhembe songs to dope quotes and young love, I was an old soul in a school uniform, an anti-social literary initiate who only had time to curate whatever back issues of Moto, Horizon and Parade had to say about Zimbabwean fiction.
The storyboard: with Stan Mushava
One of my favourite entries in the used counter book where I glued magazine cuttings was a Charles Mungoshi picture captioned “Reading Writer”. There was no way to what book the legend was curiously hunched over in the picture, but a latter Chenjerai Hove interview provides a range of clues.
“Not a single writer in Zimbabwe has read more books than Charles; do you know that? He is such a voracious reader… He has read Haiku poetry, he has read Latin American, Caribbean literature, James Joyce – his life is just reading,” Hove addresses his peer in an interview with Ranka Primorac.
Hove says this while spitting a list of his own literary influences, from Zimbabwean patriarchs to Nobel laureates. A famous Hove contemporary, Dambudzo Marechera, was no less a moving encyclopaedia. I remember getting roasted by older journalists on Facebook over a reprint of my first newspaper article suggesting that Marechera was big dictionary, no substance.
The downside of being a columnist is that you commit all the sins of your youth in public and, once you have, you can never take them back. I came to be remorseful over my original sin as further wanderings into critical theory, literature and history opened my eyes to the things Marechera was saying. No; you do not cut through his cultural intelligence in one sitting.
Anyway, the oracle of the muses concerning Zimbabwean literature this week is: Read or thou shalt not be read. Marechera, Hove and Mungoshi’s place atop our list of literary greats is earned because they were intellectually invested in their craft. As upcoming writers who frequently complain that there is no reading culture in Zimbabwe, do we have a reading culture as writers?
Hip-hop heads frequently tell the young lil’s – whether invoking urban syncretism or history, I do not know – that “the energy you put into the universe is the energy you get back”. If this is the case, are there chances that people are not gravitating to our works as much as they did to the older writers because we are also apathetic about reading other writers?
I have been in few Mermaid Tavern-sort of WhatsApp groups (do not ask me for links; we’re talking literary royalty) and this is a concern that frequently comes up. Recently, Phillip Chidavaenzi wrote a lament on how increasingly deficient some writers he has come across are, mostly because they are too bored to read.
I want to revisit a conversation with Promethean apologies to my Gs, Memory Chirere and Robert Muponde, that I feel captures this problem. Chirere addresses the headaches of Tanaka Chidora (who, by the way, never gives a generous book review in his Literature Today column without commending the author for being well-read) over the dangers of a little reading.
“What cut me to heart is when Mr Chidora said, if you read our literature, you see that our writers don’t read other writers beyond our borders to catch up with other trends elsewhere. He also said there is evidence that Zimbabwean writers rarely read each other’s works. Kkkkkk. It must be true because you see a writer repeating what has already been done by Aaron Chiundura Moyo, but giving us a weaker version!” Chirere says.
The Bhuku Risina Basa author then tells the story of a young writer who hands in a script to Weaver Press. Irene Staunton acknowledges receipt, but asks the young writer if he also reads Zimbabwean novelists. “The writer says, ‘I have no time to read other writers!’ Irene asks, ‘So who will read your book, seeing as you don’t read others?’ The author replies, ‘Mine they will read because I am great!’
“Do you know that the great Russian novelists read each other? All great writing traditions have writers who read each other,” Chirere challenges fellow writers. “Yes; they actually gave each other stories: ‘You write this one; I can’t do it justice myself.’ They discussed writings, criticising each other: You didn’t quite bring out the Russian soul or historical forces at play.’ All this helped strengthen their literature,” cuts in Muponde.
Reading culture starts with the writer!
It is not hard for me to imagine how upcoming writers are reading less than their older peers, although I do not have all the answers as to what might be done. I want to acknowledge from my own experiences, some of the cultural shifts authors are dealing with.
In high school, I could only admire Finnegans Wake and Poems of Black Africa from afar, after a teacher had me blacklisted from the library for reading too much fiction at the expense of my studies. At a local university library, I have not been able to borrow many novels for seven years. They have not yet been entered into the system, probably because one rarely ever borrows a novel at a university that does not offer literature.
My thing is, our education system has an instrumentalist understanding of reading that prejudices literature. Soon enough, you lose interest because there is no incentive to read outside the syllabus. As an aspiring writer and curious reader, I have brushed off frequent reality checks not to let writing get into my head because it no longer pays. If you are a money-minded prophet, you will, of course, get policed into instrumental reason.
When I changed high-school nicknames from Marechera to Pastor, frowned on novels in favour of devotionals (not that these literature are mutually exclusively), this influenced how I was writing at the time. I treasure the experience of becoming a better person and getting on the good side of S.U sisters but, man, if you want to be a dramatist, read the plays. Message is what you get from evangelically themed tracts; form you will have to master from literature.
And then, the compulsive trap of social media. While this is an “everything dump,” from (you will agree with me) the insightful “Wagwan” chats above to crushworthy, friendzone threads pointlessly draining political debates – its toll on reading culture is easily felt. A bit of offline time will help writers up their game, I guess.
The other thing about reading is it is an economy problem. Three years ago I wrote a spirited plea, backed by insights from writers, publishers and booksellers, for government to drop the 40% import duty on books. This duty is passed on to the poor reader in form of unaffordable books.
That is just one of the challenges of keeping up with the latest writing beyond our borders. Liquidity problems starting in 2016 have made it hard to purchase books on platforms such as Amazon, as mobile money wallets scrapped VCNs and the US dollars required for transacting disappeared. Recent changes also leave ordinary readers like me mortally afraid to set foot in US dollar-denominated bookshops.
Writers, we need to read. But our challenges are not just apathy. They are also economic and cultural. So help us God.