Interview: Chinodya Shimmer by Manfred Loimeier
Q: Can we talk? What is the theme or are the themes of your short story collection Can We Talk and Other Stories?
A: The title story is called ‘Can we Talk’. It’s a bunch of eleven short stories. The title story is about communication between spouses and the problems of post-independent Zimbabwe. … I’ve a black middle-class couple [who] try to communicate but have serious problems in reaching through to and accommodating each other’s idiosyncrasies, personalities and egos. The theme of this story and other stories in the collection is: can we talk openly about the personal, social, political, cultural problems [that affect] our lives, our relationships, our communities and the country? How does the child, the adolescent and even the adult come to terms with the world? Is it possible to communicate the confusion, and despair [they feel]? There’s a bit of doubt in the answer to that question. The collection is a plea to readers, to people in Zimbabwe, in the world, to communicate, to talk [to each other].
The stories are arranged chronologically. The first story begins with a little boy, growing up in Hoffman Street. He’s very inquisitive, he keeps asking apparently naive questions like where did we come from? What is pregnancy? What is a country? Who is the president? Who is the prime minister? This is situated way back in the early 60s, and there were lots of things happening then. The little boy is like a window to the world of the novel. The story begins with the little boy asking questions about himself, about childhood, about the complexities of parents [of parenthood]. His parents and older siblings never give straightforward answers, and the boy keeps probing and trying to understand [them and their world].
The other stories that follow are fairly chronological. We mostly follow this one character, my doppleganger, through childhood, through his school days, through adolescence, through university, through the northwest of America, through Zimbabwe and post-independent Zimbabwe. You can follow what is happening in the country fairly chronologically through those stories. But the main theme, the overall theme is this desire to speak, this plea for communication and acceptance and accommodation – whether it be in spousal relationships or in socio-cultural or political relationships. It’s about wanting to communicate.
Q: And after Can We Talk and Other Stories you published Tale of Tamari. What is it about?
A: Tamari is about this young, deprived, orphaned girl who, together with her younger brother is abused and oppressed by a selfish uncle. But Tamari is vivacious, artistic, resilient and enterprising. She survives a rapacious uncle, wily older males, poverty, persecuting school bullies, the onset of puberty and the challenges of being a girl child. It’s a book about hope, hope for young people in this country living in deprived communities. It’s a book for teenagers, and one that I very much enjoyed writing. Soon after it came out it was prescribed as a compulsory set text for the Zimbabwe Junior Certificate [ZJC] literature section, but that year the government ran out of funds and scrapped the ZJC exams. Tough luck for me and for my publishers Weaver Press, I suppose – millions of kids were going to read it! But happily it is being read in Swaziland and two or three other SADC countries as a set text right now.
In this part of the world literature desperately needs the school and college markets, and the publishing and book marketing industries are in dire straits. Such are the vagaries of the trade. Fortunately in Zimbabwe the book is, like the others in this interview, still available from Weaver Press and readers can find copies if they try hard enough. In South Africa there is an edition of the book available, published by Longman/Pearson Education.
Q: What did you do after that?
A: I wrote Can we Talk in 1998. Then I was busy with other things I don’t usually talk about –bread and butter books, the stuff that puts food on the table, buys you a newer car and gets the kids through university. I’m a trained curriculum developer and a professor of creative wrtiting, so I was writing English Language textbooks which would buy me time later to indulge freely in my real passion – fiction. I never wanted to be another Marechera (his amazing genius truly acknowledged!), living off other people and scrounging for drinks in bars. I wanted to be, and am, professional. I don’t believe a doctor or lawyer or accountant is necessarily more professional than I could be. And I am not bragging about it, but just declaring that even in Zimbabwe we can, and ought to have a breed of truly professional, full-time writers. I try to make my textbooks very creative, I try to get the best texts from all over the world for students to read and enjoy to device interactive and life-related follow up activities. So for about six or eight years I concentrated on laying the nest eggs – textbooks – and didn’t publish any fiction. And then I published Tale of Tamari, a children’s book. Then Chairman of Fools came out around 2005. Chairman of Fools is not about what you think, it’s not what about what most people think. People were asking me, ‘Were you writing about about a certain chef, perhaps?’ I even nearly got into an ugly scuflle with a gentleman in a black suit and dark glasses when he saw the cover of the book on a bar counter, but that’s another story I’m going to put down somewhere... People were asking me, were you writing about the Chef in those days? They think this is about a political chairman, a leader of fools. Perhaps it could be, in an obtuse sense. The background is set in problem times of Zimbabwe, you get a bit of the famine in the book, a bit of the dollar getting down, of people maddened by shortages and ubiquitous queues. But this is really a book about individual and national insanities. Individual and national madnesses. The main story follows the misfortunes of a character, who for a week or two is supposedly mad and is sent to a sanatorium; he lives with so-called ‘mad’ people and he realises that madness has its own logic. The book is about the terrible logic of insanity, which the average person rarely experiences. In the sanatorium people talk alone, people shout or mumble, engage in baffling mono- and dialogues; the book tries to explore that and to show the inner, obstinate logic of this most misunderstood condition.
This twilight world has its own principles, a baffling resemblance to the ‘real‘ world out there, replete with with the trappings of power and submissiveness, and heirachy and a curious semblance of order. At the same time the characters of that shady world are victims of a cruel country called Zimbabwe, but they even have a chairman, secretary, treasurer and so forth. But they are supposed to be insane – idiots, fools drugged into lethargic stupor by a relentless regime of drugs. Are they like the fools out there – the political figures flaunting their power and arrogance? Are the fools members of the cabinet, are the fools members of the parliament, or are the fools the gullible/complacent/fickle minded people of Zimbabwe themselves? Who are fools, what are fools?
Chairman of Fools is a very dramatic and a very fast-paced novel. It took me five weeks to write it. I wrote it in Italy at a very beautiful place called Umbertide near Perugia – it was an ideal place and I used to get up at 7 o’clock in the morning and go to bed at two in the morning. I was so inspired and in my real element, as if I was driven by some insane energy to put the story down and get it out of me before I got hit by a bus or went nuts because of the very nature of my subject matter. The genesis of the story is both imaginary and real; it’s for the discerning reader to decide.
I had a good friend and I told her the story and late one night after we had been out listening to Jazz Invitation, she said to me: Tell me that story again, properly. Tell me everything that happened. Meantime I’d started Strife. I had already [written] fifty or sixty pages of Strife. And my plan was to complete Strife. But when I was about to leave for Italy, my friend said: Tell me the story about madness, and for four solid hours I told her the story, blow by blow. She listened with bated breath, without a comment, still and naked and warm in my arms. The jigsaw puzzle of the story gelled in my mind me as I narrated it. And at the end she said: ‘This is a novel. You shouldn’t go and work on Strife in Italy, you’re only going to be there for five weeks. Go and write this story about madness. The way you’re telling the story, it’s done already. This is a very fast paced, logical, chronological, but dazzling story, the characters are there, the setting is there, the voice is there, the drama is there – just go and take it out of you and put it down exactly the way you told it to me.’
So I listened to her. I went to Italy; I was there for nearly five weeks, I used to get up at 7 in the morning, and by 7:45 I was sitting at my laptop. At 1 o’clock we went out to meet with other inmates of the house, the artists, sculptors, visual artists, writers, dramatists, poets – fellow comrades of that veritable mad brigade. We would meet for over lunch and talk – it was nice. But come 2 o’clock I’d be back on my laptop. 7o’clock – supper, 8 o’clock – I was back at my laptop and would stagger like a zombie to bed at 2 o’clock in the morning, numb from the sheer dazzling terror of the delusions of my strange tale. So I managed to write 180 solid pages in five weeks. I don’t know what that did to the book; it gave it a certain blurry and hallucinatory quality, which perhaps I don’t have in my other books. My other books tend to be slow and reflective, and written over long periods of time. But‚ Chairman of Fools is not about Mugabe. Mugabe is somewhere in it, somewhere in the background, because the country that I describe is absolutely chaotic. The land grab has started, the dollar is collapsing, there’s no food, there’s no petrol, so that’s the background. It’s a story about both personal and national insanity. That’s Chairman.
Q: And then came Strife?
A: Yes, then came Strife. When I finished Chairman of Fools I gave it to Irene Staunton, my publisher, and she read it and said: ‘It’s a wonderful book, I will do it’. A year or two before I had gone for a fellowship at Kuntlerhaus Schloss Wiepersdorf, a writer’s colony outside Berlin. – It’s funny, most of my big books are written in these writers’ colonies outside Zimbabwe, in old farmhouses, haunted castles and the like. It’s like I need to fly 10,000 kilometres away to come back to my real self and my devastating hang-ups. It’s too hectic and too depressing here in Zimbabwe. But I go to these farmhouses and these castles in foreign lands, with the ghouls of my stories already fermenting in my head and envelopes bursting with scraps of notes in my suitcases to do the books and come back as soon as I finish them. I have to come back to the re-energising chaos and disorder of home, Zimbabwe – Europe and the west are too tame for me.
I had done the first 100 pages in two and a half months at Künstlerhaus Schloss Wiepersdorf in 2001. So I left it, did Chairman of Fools and after a year I got back to Strife, I finished it in in Zimbabwe. Chairman was a book between books, a mad interlude. With Strife, I thought my ancestors were urging me, led by my oldest known forbear, Zevezeve, The Whisperer: ‘We gave you this gift with words and it’s time you wrote about us, about your ancestry.’ When the book came out and won the Noma Award something inside me said to the winds, ‘Thank you very much. Thank you.’ But I can’t go back to the village to brew beer and play the drum. I don’t know enough about beads and snuff and red and black and white cloths and tsvimbo dzechinyakare, I was supposedly raised Christian and the elders I know of in my lifetime stained the walls of the household of the clan with their misdeeds, so who am I to attempt cleanse them? Won’t I make the walls even dirtier? I am a tiny little baby to all this! I no longer know what I believe in and am a most confused cochroach but this work, this novel, is my tribute to you, my forbears.’ In Shona they would say it was my way yekupembedza dzinza rangu – my way of honouring my ancestors and ancestry.
Q: The form of Strife is very interesting. You have two stories blending into one at the end. You quote from your other works, Dew in the Morning‚ Harvest of Thorns‚ Farai’s Girls and so forth; there is a dramatic epilogue – was this an attempt to achieve a certain balance in your work? There is also the ‘Hoffman Street’ …
A: You mean these intertextualities? Yes, ‘Hoffman Street’ is everywhere. It’s in Can We Talk and it’s in some of my other works. I think these are the homes that I can’t run away from – Hoffman Street and Gweru and the Gokwe of my ‘Dew in the Morning’ days. I can’t run away from my childhood homes, from my past. I can’t run away from Gweru or Gokwe, these places keep haunting me. I’m rooted there spiritually but when I visit them now in my pretentious Lexus I feel oddly out of place and they seem so shabby and shrivelled and I am almost overwhelmed by a sense of inexplicable guilt.
Q: What was your intention in writing Strife?
A: I felt it was time to write Strife. There was a predecessor, Harvest of Thorns, my fourth novel which did very very well for me. I was able to travel to maybe 20, 30 countries because of Harvest of Thorns, after winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Africa Region, in 1990. Up to now I’m not sure which of the two I would choose. Strife is more mature, more dialectical, more contentious; it’s an older perspective interrogating the complacency of assumed beliefs. It’s a grown-up worldview, glutted by all these stories of tragedies and dilemmas and the crushing weight of the past, whereas Harvest of Thorns, while stylistically more adventurous, perhaps, is more of a young man’s book. But I think they are both my best books.
Harvest of Thorns was written in the early prime of my career – it is about the freshness and hope of adolescence and young marriage pitted against the physical and psychological brutalities of war. I think writers of my generation can’t run away from the war. Like all generations everywhere in the world you’re raised by your parents‘ history, your parents‘ politics, your parents’ culture, and in Harvest of Thorns I couldn’t run away from the war, but I tried to make it more than a war novel. And then I did these other books between.
Long before I started Strife, I felt that at some point I would have to write a book that explored my cosmology as an African living in modern day Africa. I stylised it, got these two voices, one from the past and one from the present, with these two narrative threads, and I tied them together at the end. I consciously wanted to break away from this rabid myth that African writers are mere storytellers, folk-story-tellers, so I experimented a lot with voices and style, but it’s a novel that demanded, cried out, to be written.
So much has happened in my life, sometimes I can’t even believe how I kept holding on and have survived. Maybe 60-70 per cent of the book is autobiographical. Of course I wasn’t there when my grandfather was proposing love to my grandmother – that is fiction! A lot of it is fiction, but most of it is autobiographical. So many things happened in my life – for better or worse. I think my fellow writers would say, with artistic irony: You had a lucky life, Shims! With all these problems! Look, you’re very lucky – write about them. That’s the irony, one of the ambivalences of fiction – you cannibalise your own suffering, you vandalise your own personal history and your childhood. But because all these things happened to me and jolted my memory, my conscience, imagination and beliefs (or lack of them), I felt I should share them with the world. Now here I was, I had established and refined my voice slowly but steadily in all these preceding books, I thought I was confident, I had a voice, I had the voice, I had the artistic confidence to go and take on all these big issues about African cosmology and problems in the family and the past that holds me and refuses to be shaken off. And the big question of what to believe in? This book forced itself into my scheme of work. I had to do it. Now that I’m done and finished with it I feel now I can maybe, maybe, maybe leave autobiography and explore other forms of creativity. A lot of my favorite authors root their work on their experiences and I love them for their honesty and passion. I find ‘pure’ fiction cold and dispassionate, too thin and unconvincing.
I want to share with the world the painful past I have survived, and the dilemmas I face as a so-called ‘modern’ educated African. I don’t believe in plucking characters out of thin air and pasting them onto the page. My characters are fashioned out of real life. Not in the sense of real life as it happened only, oh, no – but life as it might happen. So ‘might’ is an important word. That’s where the inventiveness comes in – as extensions of reality. Strife is a search for identity and survival in time of crisis but you could say that this family of the Gwanangaras is a microcosm of the Zimbabwean nation. The strife that the Gwanangaras face is the tragedy that Zimbabwe faces as a historically and culturally dis-eased nation. I wrote this book not just to be read just as a biography of a particular clan/family but also an interrogation of the clash between education and tradition, between medicine and superstition, and so forth. I wanted to write a really big book with a time frame of 140, 150 years – that’s a long period and I’d like this to be seen as a record of national, cultural and spiritual strife over the last century and a half. Strife is a book about suffering in the family, about pain, about problems brought about by this clash of tradition and modernism. I think most good literature for me is about suffering, all solid literature is about human endevour to stave off strife and suffering, and good art seeks to create something positive and beautiful out of that stress. It’s not about making money and winning the state lottery and living it up forever, it’s about human endeavor to confront destiny. Frankly, I wanted to write a bigger, more contemporary book than even Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Q: You try to make traditions visible, to give a voice to people who are not alive. Is it typical for Zimbabwean modern writing that you’re searching for a contact to your past?
A: Right now I think I have a couple of challenges as a writer. One of the first ones is about reclaiming our past, authenticating our past, exploring and discovering our past. O.K., young people can come and write about Operation Murambatsvina – ‘Murambatsvina’ is the urban cleansing project where the state went in and destroyed people’s cottages, houses and home industries that were allegedly not properly planned; market places and home industries and the like. Or even election violence in 2008 or the present political stalemate. I think young writers are going to start with that, that is their beginning. But I think that the so-called older writers like me had a different beginning. Back in the 60s and 70s the question was not just about getting rid of Ian Douglas Smith, his pathetically myopic UDI and his goat-eyed repression but also this quest for who are we as Zimbabweans. Who are we? Where did we come from? What do we believe in? So it‘s something we have had to deal with, and will continue to do so, for a long time, the reclamation of our identity and reflection of our destiny.
Q: Is this why one could say the book has a Shona context?
A: When I was writing this book, and when I’m writing anyway, I have to have grammatical correct English, I have to have mastered the language, but then I have to go beyond that. I want my readers to read and feel the taste, the flavour of Shona culture. And I don’t mean that I throw just in the occasional decorative Shona phrase or word or proverb or riddle; no, no, in some cases you have to write things in Shona, because to Shona readers it makes more sense; for emphasis, and some things are untranslatable, But then when I use Shona I must be careful to create a context around these sentences. So maybe the next two or three sentences explain what I’ve said in Shona. Or if I don’t do that I put it in the glossary. But I have to assume that the context is something more emphatic in the original language, perhaps even untranslatable. Strife is my most ‘Shona’ novel because, though it is written in stylised English, it deals with a specific Shona worldview and Shona thought-patterns and expressions.
Q: What are you writing at the moment?
A: I won‘t tell you! I never tell anybody what I’m writing about, not even the person sharing my bed or preparing me a meal. Absolute secrecy is one of the pre-requisites to my craft. No, it’s going to be very – you know, like each of my new books, engaging. I try to think about a voice, about how to handle my material, how to do it really, really well and keep refining my craft and give my readers a damn good read. It might be a collection of stories or an artsy type novel – I’m simultaneously working on both! Well I’ve started it, or them, it’s coming on nicely; it’s going to be different as usual. I like to keep my readers speculating what I’ll do next. But they won’t have long to wait!