Shimmer’s writing about madness not a sign of madness

Shimmer Chinodya

Shimmer Chinodya

Ignatius Mabasa Shelling the Nuts

“Personally, I have madly enjoyed writing about madness and exploring the logic of madness through poetry, novels and short stories. I find madness a powerful and sincere device to explore and venture where polite and sane writing refuses to go. This is why I detest linking the works of a writer to their lives — even if writing may be greatly influenced by our lives.”

THE H-Metro tabloid recently carried a story saying Shimmer Chinodya parked his car outside some private medical centre, removed his clothes and started writing “furiously,” naked, at the reception of the hospital, for some 10 solid hours!

I will not dwell on the far-fetched, but who can write for 10 hours without tea and wee-wee breaks?

And where on earth were the hospital staff and was anybody doing anything about it, till 7pm!

When the story was published, I got a number of phone calls and text messages asking me whether it was true.

Some inquirers wanted to know why writers seem to have or exhibit psychological and drinking problems. They went on to mention Dambudzo Marechera, Julius Chingono and Charles Mungoshi. One inquisitive chap even went to the extent of linking most writings by these authors to obscure issues. He also said there was some murkiness in my novels too, particularly — Mapenzi and Imbwa Yemunhu. He ended his inquisition with a warning, “Nemiwo Mr Mabasa muchenjere kuti muchapedzisira mave kupenga.”

Health issues are private and personal, and I have no right or authority to give my opinion on those. Whether it was indeed Shimmer Chinodya or not, or whether he was indeed performing a striptease, or obeying the dictates of his raging muse at a hospital “reception”, I don’t know because I was not there.

What is unfortunate is the public verdict that the writer of the Commonwealth Prize award-winning novel Harvest of Thorns has lost his marbles. I know that as one of the inquirers observed, Shimmer has been writing or exploring very uncomfortable and unsettling psychosocial issues in Chairman of Fools and Strife. But, is writing about madness a sign that the author himself is mad? My mother-in-law used to say, “Mapenzi mazhinji ndeane nguwo,” meaning, it is actually most people who are well-dressed and presentable that are lunatics.

Tsitsi Dangarembga, who is one of the best intellectual minds we have in Zimbabwe wrote a timeless novel about madness called Nervous Conditions. The title of her novel comes from the introduction of Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, which talks about the psychological effects of colonisation. For Dangarembga, illness is a pre-existent, thematic condition under which the events in her novel take place. In Chairman of Fools Shimmer Chinodya implicitly sees the repository of ‘mad’ people — the annexe — as a microcosm of the ‘clawing world out there.’ Not to mention Dambudzo Marechera of course, that luminous but most misunderstood guru of the anguished prose and poetry of ‘lunacy’ . . . Aren’t these writers warning us, prophetically, that Zimbabwe is a nation in a state of chronic madness since the colonial days?

Personally, I have madly enjoyed writing about madness and exploring the logic of madness through poetry, novels and short stories. I find madness a powerful and sincere device to explore and venture where polite and sane writing refuses to go. This is why I detest linking the works of a writer to their lives — even if writing may be greatly influenced by our lives.

According to Lin Yutin, true literature always brings out that essential conflict of human imperfections because we are neither angels incapable of evil, nor beasts incapable of higher and nobler aspirations.

And so the conflict goes on and we seem to be making progress and we don’t. Love will always be with us, and so will pain; moments of joy and moments of suffering; beauty and ugliness; the sinner repents and the great man falls. A touch of sadness and a touch of madness make all the world akin.

That is why we resent all great men who are presented to us without moral imperfections, without idiosyncrasies or some form of defect, mental or physical, like Cromwell’s wart or President Wilson’s hurting toes.

There should be some personal weakness somewhere, or some intense love — a form of madness — be it for a woman or aeronautic science, a form of madness which implies absolute devotion to one thing and absent-mindedness or forgetfulness about all other things.

When Dambudzo wrote classics in the park, in the pub and god-knows-where, nobody cared to examine his head.

Rather hypocritically, when he got international recognition through the Guardian Fiction Prize award, we claimed him as ours. If Dambudzo was mad, then those that awarded him the prize were even more lunatic.

Dambudzo had so many intra-personal conflicts and he successfully managed to capture and write, fictionalising those conflicts. Whether he wrote naked, ‘mad,’ inebriated or with a hangover, his works don’t say that. Writers write about strife and madness and these forms of conflict can manifest in different ways or at different levels. Some conflict bubbles over like a cooking pot and may put out the fire, but does that mean there is no conflict in the lives of those that will rush to remove the pot from the fire?

I taught Shimmer’s brilliant, inaugural Caine Prize short-listed collection of short stories, Can we talk? in the USA, and I can tell you from the reception the book got, and the mystical experience I had sharing the work with my students, that the man is a true genius. I gave a speech at the Weaver Press book launch of his novel Strife in 2006. And this is what I said: Strife! Writing is also another form of strife.

Writers write from inspiration, from imagination, from society, madness and many other things.

I want to congratulate Shimmer on successfully telling a story that is difficult to tell — even harder to express in a foreign language. Nyaya dzemadzinza, dzechivanhu chedu, dze the clash between our already highly complex traditions and an imposed Western/Christian world view, dzekurarama nekufa, dzengozi, kuripa, minyama, midzimu, huroyi, zvidhoma — are stories that continue to puzzle us Africans even as we embrace our modern lifestyles. Shimmer writes of matters that still fascinate us and create a great deal of discussion when they are reported in the local media. He seems to be asking the question: Can we, as Africans, ‘detach’ ourselves from the traditional beliefs of our people? Is it true to say that to detach ourselves is to cut ourselves off from our roots, our foundation, the context of our security, our kinships and the entire group of those who make us aware of our own existence?

Is life itself a curse? Do the dead wield power and control over the living? What is the point of libations and ceremonies that are supposed to pacify the dead when they only resurrect fear and confusion? I enjoyed reading Strife and was at the same time devastated by the debris of cultural orphans left groping for the meaning of life. I said to myself, maybe the ultimate meaning of life for Shimmer’s characters lies in Christianity, which the author surprisingly only makes reference to in passing, compared to the detailed manner in which he delves into the bira ceremonies.

Judging by the strife in this novel, I could not help feel that it confirms the words of the preacher in Ecclesiastes that all is vanity.

According to the Amplified Bible, The book of Ecclesiastes is the book of the natural man whose interests are confined to the unstable, vanishing pleasures and empty satisfactions of those who live merely “under the sun.” The natural man is not aware that all the affirmative answers to life are to be found in Him Who is above, not “under”, the sun.

The natural man grovels in the dust and finds only earthworms, while the spiritual man may soar on wings like eagles above all that is futile and disappointing, and may live in the consciousness of God’s companionship, favour, and incomparable, everlasting rewards.

Strife is a window to highly complex African thought processes and beliefs. The philosophy is deep, almost cosmically so. Shimmer has a touch of sincerity that has now become his trademark and will tickle you to the marrow. Take a quick read of the last chapter — how the story ends as a stage play with Godi Gwanangara conversing with these imaginary characters; Tradition, Fatalism, Shame, Modernity, Education and others.

It’s a stroke of genius!

No wonder the Ministry of Education saw it fit to prescribe this ‘rich, densely written novel’ as an A Level Literature text for five years, starting this January. It’s time Zimbabwe learnt to revere its prominent artists and not slander and destroy them.

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