Lovemore Ranga Mataire The Reader
There are instances when publishers rush to box an author in limiting spaces. In such instances, certain labels are attached to writers. The labels may signal death knell in terms of versatility as one panders to the whims of publishers.
However, some writers seem to have perforated such narrow conceptualization of their writings through various ingenious literary strategies that have put to shame rushed compartmentalisations. One author generally misunderstood by critics and publishers is Brian Chikwava. Chikwava is the author of “Harare North’’ published in 1998. He currently resides in England and was the first Zimbabwean to win the Caine Prize for African Writing IN 2004 with his short story ‘Seventh Street Alchemy’.
Weaver Press publisher, Irene Staunton describes “Seventh Street Alchemy” as the story of a prostitute in Harare who is trying to establish her identity. Not in any idealistic or existential sense, but in a purely bureaucratic sense.
Staunton says without an identity she cannot get a passport, and she cannot establish her identity without succumbing to greedier side of the bureaucracy. “
“But there is irony in the tale. To charge her for creating such a disturbance in trying to acquire an identity they must first establish her identity. But much more than just a story of the circular machinations of bureaucracy in the hands of petty minded officials, the story is also about a woman surviving on the streets of Harare, on the intersection of Seventh Street and Samora Machel Avenue.”
It seems irony or obscurification is the hallmark of Chikwava’s literary output, which makes it difficult to simply compartmentalise it as post-colonial literature highlighting the disillusionment of African political independence.
The complexity or sophistication of Chikwava’s fiction parallels his own flux identity and restless creative prowess as a student and young writer attending the University of Zimbabwe.
While at the University of Zimbabwe, Chikwava is said to have tried a lot of things including undertaking studies in electrical engineering, electronic engineering and ended up doing quantity surveying but he still refuses to be labelled an ambidextrous.
Born in Victoria Falls in 1972, Brian Chikwava had a relatively comfortable life in Zimbabwe. He attended boarding school in Bulawayo and studied civil engineering at Bristol University. Before leaving for England the young Chikwava stayed in Harare during his formative years and frequented the now defunct Book Café where he participated in evening poetry events. The writing buck later blossomed when he landed in England and socialised with a group of artists and writers started writing poetry and later short stories.
While most critics are quick to label “Harare North” as post-colonial protest literature against the misgovernance of the new black leadership, the book is actually a double-edged sword in its analysis of both Zimbabwe and England.
Maybe a better understanding of “Harare North” can be derived from the author himself. In an exclusive interview with prominent Zimbabwean author Memory Chirere posted on his blog on Tuesday, May 25, 2010, titled “I am right handed but left footed,” Chikwava says the spur to write “Harare North” came from a contact and conversation he had with an ex-Lord’s Resistance Army guy on the street of London.
Chikwava tells Chirere that: “We had a chat and he told me how he missed his past life, how he missed holding his AK 47. At first I thought it was all a joke but quickly realised he was serious. More than anything, I was struck by his stance, knowing how un-pc it is to confess to loving LRA. So I thought I thought, well, why not create a Green Bomber who comes to London and is just as unyielding in his beliefs.”
The statement by Chikwava is very critical in understanding the genesis of the book. While, it is clear that the Green Bomber is a product of Zimbabwe’s post-colonial history, one notices some kind of impersonal narration by the author in trying to bring out the complexity of an individual living within the so-called “Lost Decade” or the “decade of a crisis.”
The complexity of “Harare North” is that while it was generally believed that those who migrated to London during the decade of the crisis where members of the opposition political party MDC, there was no acknowledgement that even supporters of the ruling regime left the country for various reasons.
The nameless narrator in “Harare North” is a typical example of the many who migrated to England and used the cover of political persecution as cover for asylum status. In other words, Chikwava is challenging both the dictum of the Western mantra of opposition members being persecuted and also the lopsidedness or gullibility of according such a status coming from Zimbabwe.
Michael A. Orthofer confirms the complexity and deceptiveness of the novel in refusing to be boxed as an entirely advocacy work against President Mugabe’s rule when he writes: “Though set in London, “Harare North” is as much a Zimbabwean novel as it is an English one. The narrator begins his account — after a brief Prologue — with his arrival at Gatwick airport where, after mouthing “the magic word — asylum”, he is immediately detained. Though eventually allowed to officially enter England, the narrator is not, in fact, a proper asylum seeker. In fact, he’s planning to head back to Zimbabwe as soon as possible — or rather: as soon as he has earned the equivalent of US$5 000 that he needs — $4 000 to pay off the authorities so that the criminal proceedings against him can be made to disappear, and $1 000 as reimbursement for this airfare”.
In summary, “Harare North” deviates from the usual writings that are spurred by a crisis in that it is not linear in perspective. It derides both the place of origin and castigates the place of arrival in equal measure, but at the same time never losing sight of the historical background that gave birth to the actual crisis. As illustrated earlier, a better understanding of “Harare North” can never be complete without a reading of Chikwava’s short story “The Fig Tree and the Wasp” for it is in this story that the birth pangs of Zimbabwe are encapsulated.