Re-inventing Zim’s reading culture

Stanely Mushava Literature Today
Zimbabwe’S reading culture is in steep decline. Research indicates that motivation for reading is mainly exam-oriented. Schools have done little to encourage reading for pleasure. “When a pupil holds a book, the fundamental question they ask themselves is whether it is in the syllabus,” African Languages academic Godwin Makaudze said in an address to Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) Indaba earlier this year.

“If not, then it is not worth spending time on. For many, there seems to be no incentive in reading for leisure,” Makaudze said. The digital migration of readers and low income have also pushed the book further into obscurity. The regress in reception is disappointing for a country rated the most literate in Africa.

Previously, the responsibility for stoking Zimbabwe’s reading culture has been outsourced to the public, policymakers and schools. But now Zimbabwean writers have assumed their part by taking books to the people beyond the library and the bookshop. Writers seem to be taking to every platform imaginable to promote their work, in some cases, crossing over to other media like film and music.

Tsitsi Dangarembga is looking to give “Nervous Conditions” a new lease of reception as she has commissioned Ignatius Mabasa to translate it to Shona, while Shimmer Chinodya has hinted on a similar project for “Strife”. In this edition, Literature Today tracks down some of Zimbabwe’s leading writers to find out what they are doing to reflow their books for greater visibility and to keep the creative fire ablaze in light of the evolving reception patterns.

“In a perfect world, promoting books would be the job of publishers, libraries, and other literary bodies like the now defunct Zimbabwe Book Marketing Association,” US-based writer Emmanuel Sigauke said. Sigauke pointed out that writers are exploring new methods like booktubing to keep in touch with their audience. However, while booktubing is an option writers occasionally explore, it is yet to amass a huge reception.

“A clip of someone being chased by a goat will get more attention than that of Memory Chirere reading on top of Chisiya Hill. So while booktubing is an available option, it’s not as hot to viewers as clips of Tocky or Sulu could be,” said Sigauke. “I even notice that wonderful speeches and lectures given by the world’s major writers on writing and reading do not enjoy the same kind of popularity in social media as other seemingly useless topics,” he said.

Sigauke maintains a literary blog called “Wealth of Ideas” but complains that it registers more hits from countries such as India, Nigeria and UK instead of places that matter more to him like Mazvihwa. In August, Sigauke took his writer-friends Memory Chirere and David Mungoshi to his “roots” for the inaugural Chisiya Writers’ Workshop:

“The idea is to reach people who would be geographically limited to access workshops. It’s a way of valuing the setting of the rural aspiring writer. So the workshop brings facilitators from the towns and relevant institutions to the villages.” He observed low income was adversely affecting the reading culture: “You know at the end of the Chisiya Workshop we gave everyone a book.

“But a few honest people, in their workshop evaluation, said they preferred receiving cash.” Zimbabwe Writers’ Association secretary-general Memory Chirere said his organisation occasionaly hosts readings as a way to promote published books and to give the readers access to writers and literature itself. “Readers are fans and they love to interact with authors. Ideally, a successful author reading can spark sales and help build a following for a new or an old book,” Chirere said.

“Although public readings are pitifully few in Zimbabwe, I have attended various public readings by local authors hosted for them by their writer organisations. “I like public readings because, as writers, we never get immediate feedback for our work, so when you read to an audience, you get a feel of how your story is working. “When I read, I get to re-experience the story. It takes a long time to write a story or a poem, but when you read it, you remember your thoughts as you set out to write,” he said.

Chirere encouraged Zimbabwean writers to blog and to work a lot on Facebook. “I have a blog ‘kwaChirere’ where I write about what I write and what fellow Zimbabweans write,” Chirere said. “When I told the world I had ‘Bhuku Risina Basa,’ the thing was still in draft form!” he said.

“The hungry Shona audiences across the ocean were pushing me on, even when I knew that less than a third of them have the guts to take a book to bed! “Petina Gappah has used the Internet so much in the process of doing her books. She was really having a nice time with all those audiences telling her about the unbearable wait,” Chirere said.

Chirere pointed out that in spite of the writers’ interventions, reading is still a peripheral occupation for most people. “By nature, the book finds its way into society very gradually, even if the author tries to push it to the people,” Chirere said. “Some of our lucky books are imposed on the readers by the school syllabus because the examinations council thinks such books lend themselves easily to being studied,” he said.

Novelist and Bhabhu Books publisher Ignatius Mabasa said exceptional Zimbabwean writers in the Diaspora can live off their talents because they are in places that value writers. “Locally, we do not value our writers, Government does not support them, piracy is almost legal and the writers are dealing with many frustrations socially, politically and economically,” Mabasa said.

He said writers can mitigate the problem by taking advantage of of new media. Mabasa himself has recorded two Christian poetry albums “Tsotsi” and “Nyika Yapera Wrong Time”. Last year he uploaded a fascinating story called “Party Yevana Vehuku” on YouTube. publisher and author Oscar Habeenzu said there was a whole new toolkit at the writers’ disposal to reach their audience beyond the conventional means. Some of Habeenzu’s titles such as “The Greatness Catalogue” are available for free download on the Internet but would have been paid for by advertising. Habeenzu has also turned to quick reads to accommodate the busy netizen and hosts workshops where new research and new titles are discussed.

Award-winning novelist David Mungoshi said would-be writers have to fight for their space and discard the notion that established writers owe them an obligation. “An aspiring writer must make his approaches and not wait to be approached. It is time we regarded writing as serious business and not just a hobby or afterthought,” Mungoshi said. “Every serious writer should be an avid reader. The act of reading can be, willy-nilly, an act of self-directed mentoring,” he said.

“Pan-African: From the Cradle to the Present” author and Leaders for African Network (LAN) publisher Richard Runyararo Mahomva convenes the Pan-Africa Reading Symposium every year. Mahomva said such symposia expand the audience for the pan-Africanist discourse which he is actively pushing through “research, public dialogue and creative intellectual engage- ment”.

Perfomance poet and novelist Tinashe Muchuri said poets were utilising festival slots to keep in touch with their audience. “It is these segments that writers use to recite their published work or work in progress,” Muchuri said. He hailed mentoring initiatives by organisations like ZIBF, Bevan Tapureta’s Writers International Network (Win) Zimbabwe and Kwayedza’s Detembai Tinzwe section run by Ignatius Mabasa for passing the fire.

Muchuri also hailed book clubs for helping young writers to get the most out of established artists. “However, one weakness I have noted with book clubs is that the leaders often sources the books,” Muchuri said. “Another weakness is that it is the language of the elite used in reading and in discussion. The language of the poor and their books are not under discussion here. Indigenous languages are often excluded,” Muchuri said.

It is encouraging to see writers taking these initiatives to stoke Zimbabwe’s creative potency into the future. Hopefully, other stakeholders will handle their part to create and sustain an enabling environment for Zimbabwean literature.

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