Kizito Muchemwa

"Two nightmares writers deal with"

Kizito Muchemwa. Photo by Mai Palmberg

Kizito Muchemwa is a poet and a lecturer in English, literature and media studies at the Zimbabwe Open University, Masvingo Campus. He was born in 1950 in Chirumanzu and did his B.A. (honours) and M.A. in English when the university in Harare was still the University of Rhodesia. Later he took a graduate certificate in education at the University of Zimbabwe and teaches now African, African-American and Caribbean literature.

Kizito Muchemwa's poetry has been published in T. O. McLoughlin's two books, 'New Writing from Rhodesia' and 'When my Brothers Come Home', in 'Poems from Central and Southern Africa', edited by Frank Chipasula (Wesleyan Univ. 1985), and in 'And Now the Poets Speak', edited by M. Khadani and M. Zimunya (Mambo Press 1981).

Mucheamwa has also edited a book on 'Zimbabwean Poetry in English' (Mambo Press 1978) and contributed with a chapter, entitled 'Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera' in the anthology 'Sign and Taboo' (edited by Robert Muponde and Mandi Taruvinga, Weaver Press 2003) . He has also written essays on Zimbabwean poetry for the Internet site 'Poetry International'. See www.poetryinternational.org

There seems to be a difference in the situation of the artists in Africa compared to Europe in that you have a to me slight schizophrenic situation where artists are working from their own experience, from their own culture and even are expected to put some kind of mark of their art signalling that it comes from their culture, yet at the same time the overwhelming part of the market is not here. This goes for painters and it goes for sculptures. I do not know whether it also goes for authors?
I wouldn't say that this applies to authors at the moment. You know, there is a local market for writers and the local writers do not set out to anthropologise themselves and the country. They set out to interpret their experience for a local readership or a local audience. The schizophrenia that you are talking about, I do not seem to see that in literature.

I think what I see as the main worry in Zimbabwean literature is that writers are dealing with the nightmare of the colonial past and the nightmare of the present. These are the two nightmares that the writers are dealing with. The past just traumatised the nation and writers are trying to come to terms with the traumas of the past. But the colonial past is going to be a remote past very soon. The immediate past that the writers are dealing with is the liberation war. It has traumatised the whole nation, and it has affected almost every aspect of culture in this country.

If you look at writers like Yvonne Vera, Chenjerai Hove and Kanengoni, they are dealing with this immediate past, this nightmare of the liberation war and how it has shaped us and our consciousness.

I think there are two ways of dealing with the past for any country, for any writer. One way is to romanticize, to idealise the past and the other way is to realistically portray the past, to see the past and not to see it as a grand narrative of one group, but to see its history as a multiplicity of narratives that needs to be interrogated, that needs to be portrayed. If you look at Zimbabwean writers, they are normally associated with what is described as the nationalist aesthetic. This nationalist aesthetic to a certain extent is associated with the creation of a grand narrative

Could you give some examples of such writers?
I will start off with the writers who have sort of started the creation of nationalist aesthetic: Stanley Samkange, and Solomon Mutswairo. These are the first generation of writers. And you also have the old nationalists, like the late Ndabandingi Sithole.

You find a writer like Charles Mungoshi in 'Waiting for the Rain' writing in this tradition. He develops a myth about the founder of the clan and the tribe. Now that is a grand narrative that the writer is trying to create so as to be used by as a source for individual and national identity. But what I find a bit disturbing about the creation of grand narratives is that they suppress other narratives: the narratives of women, the narratives of other groups who are not associated with this myth that has been created.

Could you say that Yvonne Vera's 'Nehanda' is a kind of attempt to include another narrative but not collide with the nationalist narrative?
I think 'Nehanda' is an attempt to find another narrative, this time one that would accommodate women. Because the grand narrative that I am talking about in the nationalistic aesthetic is very patriarchal, it excludes women. Yvonne Vera from 'Nehanda' and through 'Under the Tongue' and 'Without a Name', questions this narrative that we find in the fiction written by men.

Are there white writers also who belong here under that heading, Zimbabwean literature?
Yes. If we say there is no place for white writers we are simply going to the flipside of colonialism, where we reverse the process of writing out and suppressing the histories of other people. Zimbabwean literature is very much concerned about the question of identity and the development of an indigenous identity is the focus of the nationalist aesthetic. But indigeneity is not a very simple and straightforward question. It is a healthy sign that in Zimbabwean literature the simplistic conceptions of indigeneity are being questioned from within. Yvonne Vera does that, right? She does that.

Also on the question of whites? Would you call Doris Lessing a Zimbabwean writer?
A very Zimbabwean writer. Yes, she is very Zimbabwean. You cannot exclude her. It is unfair to just write out the history of other people like that.

It seems that there is in Zimbabwean literature more than in other countries a certain refusal to idealise the national liberation war and courage to describe the horrors of violence ...
Have you read Thomas Bvuma, the poet and ex-guerrilla fighter who has produced his collection of poems 'Every Stone that Turns'? Then there is Freedom Nymabaya. She has written two collections of poems, one of them is 'Dusk of Dawn' and the other one is 'On the Road Again'.

I also read a book of interviews that the Zimbabwean Women's writers had done, Women of Resilience and some of their stories were very non-romantic as to say the least. I doubt that there is room for the same kind of frankness in any country in southern Africa that has gone through a national liberation war.
One Zimbabwean scholar has explained the absence of this romanticisation. He says that most of the writers were not in the high command of the liberation war and were not articulating official ideology think that's very healthy. ZANU and ZAPU, unlike the ANC and MPLA, did not have a Department of Culture. I am sure it was because of the urgency of the war; they concentrated on the actual fighting. But it was an advantage.

That kind of total control was not there in the department of Arts and Culture. They are trying it now. But I think it is too late. Closing the stable door when the horse has bolted. You know, they are trying to control arts, they are trying to control artists, but I think it is rather late.

Why, what do you think is happening?
There is been a rapid, phenomenal growth in universities in this country but that growth, that expansion, has not been met with corresponding expansion in openness of debate. There has been a narrowing of vision I am sure and the emphasis, from a political point of view, is the emphasis on the expression of a single vision.

But then, of course, authors can survive even when they have to be silent.
I think as far as literature is concerned, any writer worth her salt has to find strategies of survival. Every regime has it is own sophisticated ways of censorship and writers have to find strategies of beating these strategies. Good writing will emerge no matter how repressive a regime can be. Good writing will survive. Writing that does not seek to beat these strategies of censorship will end up, as an appendage to the department of propaganda. Unfortunately, one of our writers, Chenjerai Hove, is in exile.

To some people it is not exile.
What is it?

Voluntary withdrawal? One thing I wanted to pick up with you was the role of the literary criticism. Very often the critics are those who can write and maybe also are writers themselves?
Yes, we have that kind of scenario in this country. There is an incestuous relationship between writing and criticism.

But how much would you say that literary criticism means for the development?
It is very difficult to measure the role of criticism for creativity but what I find is absent in this country is a forum for the exchange of critical ideas or creative ideas.

Where do young and budding authors get into literary debate? They seem to think there is absolutely nothing that prevents them from becoming stars except certain publishers.
I also get bombarded with mail. I edited the first anthology of poetry in English in this country, it was 1978 and most young writers, as soon as they get to know who I am they send me their scripts, they want to find out if I can assist them to get published. But most of them have very little to say and new to say. There is sameness in terms of subject matter, sameness in terms of style which can be irritating at times.

But is it a good sign or is it a sign of some serious misunderstanding that these lots of young people want to be poets and writers?
It is a good sign and sometimes a bad sign. It is a good sign that there is potential out there. There is no development right now as far as writing is concerned in this country. The National Arts Council is more interested in dance, theatre, sculpture and no in writing. I am sure that we would need a kind or organisation that will harness this energy that is out there. Not all of them are going to be great writers, not all of them are going to be Yvonne Veras, and not all boys are going to be Dambuzo Marecheras.

Writing is very demanding profession. It is very demanding and it is unfortunate that it is not the kind of thing that can be taken up by a person who is worrying about where is the next loaf of bread is going to come from.

[Interview in Harare on 4 November 2002]