Irene Staunton

Irene Staunton. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"It will take several years"

Irene Staunton is a publisher and editor and was born in Zimbabwe. In the 1970s she worked with John Calder publishers in London but returned to Zimbabwe after Independence and worked as an editor at the Curriculum Development Unit of the Ministry of Education.

In 1987, Staunton co-established Baobab Books, which soon became known for its interesting publications of fiction, non-fiction and children's books.

Irene Staunton herself compiled the first Zimbabwean oral history with narratives of women in the liberation struggle, 'Mothers of the Revolution: The War Experiences of Thirty Zimbabwean Women' (1988) and 'Children in Our Midst: The Voices of Farmworkers' Children'. She also has also made interviews and was one of the editors of the Zimbabwe Women Writers' books, 'Women in Resilience: The Voices of Ex-Combatants', and 'A Tragedy of Lives: Women in Prison in Zimbabwe'. Staunton was editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series from 1999 until it was decided to discontinue the series in 2003. In 1999 she left Baobab Press and co-founded the Weaver Press, which has published about three dozens of books. In 2002 it also started publishing fiction. Two of the titles are, Yvonne Vera's 'The Stone Virgins' (2002) and the short story anthology 'Writing Still' (2004), edited by Staunton. See:

I would like to start by discussing Flora Veit-Wild's thesis, which states that Zimbabwe was different from the general pattern in Africa, had a strong nationalist phase after Independence followed by a phase in which the “disbelievers” came into the foreground. In Zimbabwe the disbelievers were in the foreground even before Independence.
Well, I think she is only talking about two or three writers, Stanley Nyamfukudza, Dambuzo Marechera, and maybe Charles Mungoshi.

But is it possible at all to speculate why these two, and especially Marechera, got and were allowed to get so much space?
I think perhaps Marechera became an icon not only of his writing but also of his personality. He was fearless. He was not afraid to be an alien, a critical outsider. One might even argue that he sometimes relished being a 'bad boy'. He learned the hard way. If you look at his background, his childhood, his youth – being thrown out of the University of Rhodesia , being thrown out of Oxford . Was he driven to speak out because he was alienated, or vice versa? It is difficult to tease out. In London he offended people left, right and centre, and was constantly in trouble, whether it was with the police, or at the Africa Centre, with friends or girlfriends. How much of this was alienation, how much that this formed his own critical vision, how much he was driven to test people, to see just how far they would go, how much they would tolerate, I don't know and I wonder if he did. He also loathed hypocrisy, double standards. He teased people. He refused to conform; he loved to poke fun at taboos.

He is possibly the most widely read of all Zimbabwean writers (especially amongst the youth in Zimbabwe ) because he was an iconoclast.

It seems contradictory or strange that this Government, more or less the same Government as the one that took power in 1980, would allow somebody who is radically projecting many things, including the way power is used and misused, to express himself although it does not seem easy at all to express oneself now.
The political elite regarded him as a small boy. I doubt that many of them actually read his books or thought about his fiction. They were more preoccupied with the symbols of modernity: Mercedes Benzes, cocktail parties, etcetera. Status. Thus somebody who wandered around wore kind of hip clothing and slept in the park was really a nobody to them. So it didn't really matter what he said. He was as irrelevant as a little fleabite. Marechera wrote in English. His writing is not easy and therefore not popularly accessible, so as far as the political government was concerned, I don't believe he was ever seen as a threat. Probably they did not even bother to think about him much, except if he caused a furore somewhere, in which case the police would pick him up, and drop him into prison for a couple of nights to let him cool off. A kind of paternalism – a small boy, a clever one, much admired by the outside world, but not anyone we need to take too seriously … .

Maybe Stanley Nyamfukudza was more disturbing because he was saying that the liberation war was not as it has been portrayed.
I think so, and a harder nut to crack in a way, because he did not get so drunk or wild, or play so many different games. But, nonetheless, if you look at the threats the Government has perceived over the last twenty years, I don't think writers are in the top ten, not fiction writers anyway. Once someone like Chenjerai Hove begins to write popular journalism, this could be a rather different matter, but only then.

Honestly, I am not sure how much the current repression is affecting writers qua writing. In terms of self-censorship, possibly yes, possibly no. In terms of the increased difficulty of just trying to earn a living, which means that you do not have so much time to write, certainly writers are affected. However, you need to have a distance, a detachment before you can write well about a period. We found this, for example, with the liberation war. The serious books began to come out from 1987 – 'Bones', 'Harvest of Thorn's, 'Effortless Tears', 'Pawns', 'Echoing Silences' … We have found it with other troubled periods of our history.

I wouldn't expect writers to be saying very much about the turmoil of the last few years, not yet. You might get popular novelists in the West, pushing out fast-paced action novels about Al Queda, the Twin Towers, the Iraqui war or something extremely quickly, but in terms of serious fiction which is what we have here, it will take several years for our writers to find the required distance, to gauge their responses, to reflect a situation in all its depth and complexity.

For me literature is an incredibly important way of telling the truth. In fact I actually think it is more important than history, although, of course, I do not mean that one would want to exclude one for the other. In terms, however, of the enormous complexity of different situations: what it felt like to be there, in that situation, what values, what principles came to the fore and why, how these related to individuals and how they embraced, challenged or evaded them, can only come through literature. It does not come through history in the same way, not how it felt to be there, not the confusion of feelings, ideas, emotions, beliefs. So for me literature is possibly one of the most quintessential ways of exploring ideas, of probing boundaries, of subtly changing perceptions. But I am not sure how many people would agree with me.

[Interview in Harare 2 November 2002]

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