African literature reduced to a commodity

Dr Tinashe Mushakavanhu

Dr Tinashe Mushakavanhu

Stanely Mushava Literature Today
Dr Tinashe Mushakavanhu (TM) is one of the better-known “born-free” Zimbabwean writers and academics. He has edited “Emerging Perspectives on Chenjerai Hove: Literature, Politics and Culture,” “Remembering Marechera,” and “State of the Nation: Contemporary Zimbabwean Poetry” and contributed to several anthologies including “Writing Africa in the Short Story,” “Writing Now: More Stories from Zimbabwe,” “A Haunting Touch,” and “Our Poets Speak: Contemporary Zimbabwean Poetry.” Stanely Mushava (SM) interviews him on some of the topical issues in Zimbabwean and continental literature.

SM: What’s your view on the debate about whether African writers are recycling stereotypes on the continent from global media institutions?
TM: The problem lies in the fact that African literature is being produced more as a commodity than as a value. The production (editorial, publishing) and consumption (marketing) of African literature is largely in the hands of outsiders.
What is known globally as African literature lies outside the hands of its creators and subjects but is in the tight grip of institutions that obviously possess fixed ideas about what African literature should and should not be, and what authentic African characters can or cannot do.

Unfortunately, the primary market for African literature produced outside the continent is not Africa itself, but the West, desperately looking for authentic, contemporary representations of life in Joseph Conrad’s “heart of darkness”.
The tensions between these two positions, of authorship and a pre-determined readership, anchors on such issues as the very definition of African literature, the conditions and modalities of its production.

Sadly, the younger generation of “expatriate” writers from Africa have not been too eager to engage with these questions but are instead queuing to appear at international literary festivals as faces of African literature as defined by the audiences they talk to.

SM: Zimbabwean literature seems to have stagnated from the promise shown by our pioneer authors. What’s your view on the current state of local writing?
TM: Zimbabwe has a literary culture but one that has been in a protracted childhood. For so long our literature has been a handful of writers, some of whom have been doubling as its critics.
Zimbabwean literature is relatively small and this can be very claustrophobic if everyone is working out of the same mould.
But a new Zimbabwean literature is also emerging. It is a clear break from the earlier phase which preceded it.
There is now an aspiration for a new kind of writing that is beyond mental and physical geographies.

SM: Recent local titles have not made headway on the international market with a few exceptions. What must be done to take Zimbabwean literature to the world?
TM: We are simply not nurturing new writing. It is scary how our publishing industry and the academia insist on old ways of thinking. Our literature is still stuck in the 80s and 90s. We are not curious to explore the stories within us, individually and collectively.
The world must come to Zimbabwe for its stories. We do not need to go to the world to tell our stories.

SM: Who are the most exciting Zimbabwean writers at the moment?
TM: No doubt, the latest literary sensation to come out of Zimbabwe is my good friend, NoViolet Bulawayo. And it is good to see her do well from a distance — dazzling the world with her maiden book, “We Need New Names.”
Other writers who have excited our imagination in recent years include Brian Chikwava, Ian Holding, Petina Gappah, Andrea Eames, Tendai Huchu, and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma.

SM: How do you think our literature written in our local languages can be taken seriously like the literature written in English?
TM: We talk of our national literature only in reference to writings published in English. As a result most of us have become keen accomplices in making insignificant the creative potency of our indigenous languages.
Our educational system also conspires in this schematic dominance of English. How laughable is it that Shona and Ndebele are taught in English in our schools?

SM: Your recent comment on restructuring the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) has elicited mixed reactions. Can you elaborate your position?
TM: The ZIBF is an important cultural institution that needs all of us to be successful. I disagree with Beavan Tapureta on his prognosis of the state of the ZIBF or what fundamentally belies its problems.
To simply reduce the static nature of the organisation to a lack of monetary funding is wrong. We have a lot of untapped human capital that could fund fresh thinking into the project.
In fact, the ZIBF needs to adopt a new format that excites and challenges all of us.

SM: How important is it for the book sector to be compatible with technological trends worldwide?
TM: It will be foolhardy for us to pretend we are not witnesses and participants in the technological revolution taking place.
Our education system, our publishing industry, our media need to embrace the good things that technology is bringing.

SM: You once spoke on your intentions to become the youngest publisher in the country. Is anything in the pipeline so far?
TM: What irks me most is that I’ve seen well-funded foreigners come to Zimbabwe and in six months or less, leave with a book manuscript on our culture, politics, economics, music, etc.
It is as if the locals are intellectually impotent or incurious, so they need someone to tell them something about themselves.
Do we require these interventions from foreign academics for us as Zimbabweans to appreciate ourselves, our history, our writers?
We have the capacity to produce and package our own stories and ideas and I will play my little part in that.

SM: How did you land the title “Marechera apostle” and what does it bring out about your own work ethic?
TM: Your question assumes that being a Marechera apostle is an enviable position. Marechera is a misunderstood phenomenon in Zimbabwe.
When people decide you are too much for them, they easily “dismiss” you as a “Marechera”. I am just a young disruptive thinker.

SM: You mentioned in one of our encounters the importance of a vibrant magazine culture. Exactly what needs to be done?
TM: Zimbabwe has an anaemic history of literary magazine culture. Since independence in 1980, Zimbabwe has had no major literary magazines.
Have our academics and writers not been curious enough to engage with political freedom or the post-colonial state?
Literary magazines reflect the qualities or weaknesses of their societies. Our inability as a country to create such spaces for debate, discussion and reflection shows how feeble our intellectual community is.

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