Interview: Chingono Julius - The Mail & Guardian

From The Mail & Guardian (SA), store 6 October, advice 2006

‘Not yet Uhuru’

Niren Tolsi speaks to Zimbabwean poet, try Julius Chingono

Now, there are no books in Zimbabwe," laments poet Julius Chingono over the telephone from Harare, "its a luxury, even ourselves, as writers, we write but we don't expect to be published." Chingono says that prior to independence, and despite the restrictive tendencies of the Ian Smith regime, there was "a flood" of books, especially by post-colonial African writers such as Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong'o, into Zimbabwe. Until the 1980s that is. "Now you go into a bookshop and you can get setwork books, but not much else," says the 60-year-old. The writer, who lives in Norton, 40km west of Harare, concedes that in a country suffering economic meltdown, where the inflation rate is estimated at more than 1 000%, the last thing on most people's minds is bedtime reads. Not when there is a scramble for food, petrol and employment. Having supplemented his writing by working as a rock-blasting contractor for most of his career, Chingono feels the pinch to the ribs as much as anyone else. He talks of sometimes hitchhiking from Norton to Harare to look for work because the taxi fare has escalated and of the desperate shortage of contracts: "Its a painful thing and I have ended up doing day jobs, which I never thought I'd do: translations, working as an orderly, clerical work."

Chingono started writing poetry in the late 1960s when, finding himself unemployed after school, he worked as a cadet reporter with journalists such as the late Justin Nyoka (who was to later become President Robert Mugabe's director of information). He admits to not sticking with journalism because "I did it just to keep myself going ... I didn't find myself very competent, but my stories were being used by them and I did learn a lot about writing from these guys." His bibliography includes the publication of Not Another Day (2006) a collection of short stories and poems; the Shona novel Chipo Changu (My Gift, 1978) and the 1980 play Ruvimbo. His poetry has been included in South African and Zimbabwean anthologies Flags of Love (1983) and Flag of Rags (1996) and various Shona anthologies. "I find that some of the poetry I wrote before independence still suits the situation here today. We had just a few days of independence," he says.

Chingono writes simply, unfettered by self-consciousness. His work is imbued with a humanistic sensitivity gleaned from his personal encounters and observations as it deals with themes ranging from the abuse of women disguised as culture (My Wife) to the hunger pangs of the everyman (Grapes) and the shattered dreams of freedom (Propaganda). Of Chingono's work, the Zimbabwean writer Charles Mungoshi wrote: "I recognised [Julius's] sincerity and his feeling for humanity. I also understood that the simplicity of his language disguises the complexity, the irony, the double entendre that lies beneath the surface. You rarely read one of his poems the same way twice."

"As a writer, I cannot run away from the things happening in my life," says Chingono who writes in both English and Shona because "with art, you either find it is either good in Shona, or in English."

The popular belief in Zimbabwe is that with reading being such a minority interest, the government pays scant attention to writers, or their suppression, through legislation. The Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act focuses more on journalists and while Chingono feels that the government "leaves us pretty much alone" it is still a dangerous situation, especially for emerging writers. "When you are starting off you want to get your stuff published and I think that some young writers feel that if they write certain things they will not get published, which can lead to ruthless self-censorship, which is always dangerous," he says. Despite the gloomy tone of our conversation, Chingono has space for optimism, occasionally he breaks out into laughter which seems to transmit his toothy grin over the telephone lines: "When you are deep, deep into something it will always appear gloomy. But we went through the the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s ... change will always come," he says of Zimbabwe.

Presidential Motorcade

Masi, Jamu and I wave our hands

to the President.

The windows of his limo are tinted

and always closed.

The motorcade travels fast

but Masi and Jamu say that

the President waves back.

We wave our hands

every time the motorcade passes

in the hope it will stop to drop a coin.

But we hear the chauffeur

does not know the

'Give-way' sign nor the 'Stop' sign.

Julius Chingono, 1996