Interview: Chinodya Shimmer by Ms Mavengere Munsaka

Shimmer Chinodya
in an interview with Ms Makanaka Mavengere Munsaka for the online publication,

MM: From as early as 1982, Shimmer Chinodya, a well-known Zimbabwean author, poet, scriptwriter, director and curriculum designer, has been putting pen to paper and has written books that are read worldwide. He has, among the many accolades under his belt, the Commonwealth Writer's Prize (Africa Region) and the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa for his books Harvest of Thorns and Strife respectively, and has since published scores of other books which have received great reviews the world over because of their relevance in this ever-changing world. Among numerous fellowships, he was Distinguished Dana Professor in Creative Writing and African Literature at St Lawrence University in upstate New York from 1995 to 1997.

MM: You have written many great books, my old-time personal favourites being Harvest of Thorns and Chairman of Fools. What would you say is your secret ingredient?

SC: A passion for words, a consuming interest in the human condition and a keen eye for detail and for the weird, partaking of the humour, irony and pathos that surrounds daily life; the joy of recognizing the immensity and variety of life and experiencing moments of epiphany and communicating them to the world.

MM: In the war between virtues and vices, do you think that virtues stand a chance seeing that most people these days are hiding behind political correctness?

SC: That’s a loaded question you’ll need to unpack it. You are juxtaposing virtue, vice and political correctness – notions that are too rigid to creative art. Virtue and vice to me are not clear-cut, black or white notions that can be clearly defined or isolated and raw politics is even more predictably depressing. For the artist life and the universe are infinite with and without order, and the task and joy of the artist are exploring that chaos and coming up with that little semblance of order that a novel or short story can simulate.

MM: When writing a story that is based on real-life experiences, especially painful ones, do you feel reliving that experience and having it in black and white helps you heal?

SC: Definitely. Writing has a therapeutic effect for both the writer and the reader. Art can even celebrate pain or disaster if it’s well done. And with each book the writer grows, develops, learns to cope better with future adversities.

MM: Do you not feel that sometimes people judge you because of the way a character in one of your books is portrayed, take Farai from Chairman of Fools, for example, because they think that you were writing about yourself?

SC: A character in a book is a composite being – autobiographical, fictional, actual, imaginary. In a book, the character may sometimes assume a life of his or her own. The artist distorts, embellishes, intensifies. He creates and destroys, but his own life, the artist’s, keeps moving on, metamorphosing into other shapes. The Farai of Chairman of Fools may not necessarily be the Shimmer of today.

MM: Most writers experience the writer’s block at some point or other what do you do to awaken your writing juices?

SC: Read, go to a jazz, comedy show or play, go meet people, chat, laugh, LIVE.

MM: What are the three things you cannot live without?

SC: Fresh air, music and people.

MM: Do you think that writers are born or they are made? Can you take a person from the street and teach them to be a writer?

SC: I think writing is 50 per cent instinct and 50 per cent training. You basically need the orientation and the calling but can hone in your skills by eclectic reading and persistent practice. Not everybody on the street can be groomed to be a writer and that’s why it's tragic when you have ‘made it’ and you regularly receive in the mail a fat envelope of unsolicited poems or stories from aspiring writers who haven’t even read your own books, ‘budding writers’ who cannot tell Tsitsi Dangarembgwa from Yvonne Vera and can’t string up two exciting sentences but have the nerve to think they deserve to be published.

MM: If you were to rewrite any book you have read which one would it be and why?

SC: Why rewrite a book? When a book is written it’s done and you go on and do another one. There is just so much to do. Right now I have a dozen plots in my mind and my worry is if I’ll live long enough to transcribe them. Just like life. You can’t relive the past. You simply learn from past mistakes and move on.

MM: Who is your favourite writer and what is it about that writer's work that appeals to you so much?

SC: I’ve read so much it would be futile to drop any names. I like brutally honest writers with a wry view to offer of life, and humour and wit and verbal dexterity are of course always an added bonus.

MM: Out of interest why do authors use pen names and in your case why B. Chirasha?

SC: Ben Chirasha was a silly idea. I was young and arrogant and I thought, I don’t want people to know I’m also writing for teenagers. ‘I’m a writer for the mature adult,’ I told myself, self-righteously. I wanted a separate identity for my children’s books. Later on, I realized I could write for any age, and have done so for kindergarten right to PhD levels! And I have since owned up. Everybody knows who the real Ben Chirasha is.

MM: How has social media affected you as a writer and what do you do to stay relevant in today's ever-changing world?

SC: The media has been very kind to me, perhaps because I have worked diligently at my craft all my life. I started writing when I was ten or twelve, and have been doing so for the past forty years. To date, I have published nearly sixty books. Once or twice I’ve received an unflattering review, but when you have produced so much that’s a few drops of water off a duck’s back! I bump into a stranger in a supermarket and they start reciting Clopas’s love letters from Harvest of Thorns or a favourite passage from my Step Ahead English series and I do begin to realize I have educated a whole generation, and hopefully more to come. I’ve made a difference to millions of lives and it’s a great feeling. Right now all I do is write.

MM: What is your view on religion and how it has changed over the years from conservative to more liberal?

SC: I don’t want to talk about religion; I’ve already written stuff that would crush people’s toes and dismay some people who I think are blinkered or hypocritical or bigoted about the subject. Try my latest collection of short stories, Chioniso and other Stories if you dare to sample my controversial views on the subject. Basically I believe in goodwill, open-mindedness, empathy for the fellow being and an intelligent tolerance of the multifarious existence of divergent belief systems. You can’t go to a Buddhist or Moslem or Zen follower, or to my long departed traditionalist ancestor Zevezeve and try to convince them that they are all misguided and headed for brimstone and hellfire. Whose brimstone and whose hellfire and why? And let me add, I’m highly suspicious of the new churches that are sprouting everywhere like mushrooms to preach nothing but money and material prosperity, and thrive on greed, deceit, and the blind folly of the masses.

MM: What are you working on at the moment?

SC: I never tell anybody what I am working on, not even the person who prepares my meal or shares my bed. And nobody reads anything I am writing before it’s finished. But for you, Makanaka, I’ll break my credo and reveal I’m working on a musical production of my classic novel Harvest of Thorns, encompassing theatre, song, dance, reading and storytelling. We hope to showcase it in Zimbabwe and hopefully take it round the world. I’m having so much fun working with some of the best arts talents in the country.

MM: If you could travel back in time is there anything you would do differently?

SC: I could have drunk less, or even stopped drinking earlier. Not that I have anything now against booze, but I think I must help destroy the belief that all accomplished artists have to live a Bohemian life and ultimately self destruct. And I could have tried making friends with my kids much earlier, while they were still little.

MM: "Lazy, boring writers should be dragged out to the market place and flogged in public!" What is your definition of a lazy boring writer?

SC: Lazy, boring, pretentious, unschooled, complacent, that’s what.

MM: If you could change the world what is the one thing you would do?

SC: Oh, please…!

MM: Of all the books, poems and scripts you have written which would you consider to be the most successful and what is it about that particular piece do you feel made it have that impact?

SC: I can’t single out a particular work. Books are like babies, you like or dislike them all for different reasons. I’d say to my readers, read as much of my stuff as you can, every book is so alike, and yet so different, from the other. The whole is bigger than the part.

MM: What advice would you give to young up and coming writers?

SC: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Look around you and listen and learn. Open all your windows to ventilate the imagination. And be humble and persistent. Welcome to an excruciating, yet glorious, career.

MM: Are you on Facebook, Twitter or any social media platform where people can keep abreast of your latest offerings?

SC: No. I don’t have the face (maybe used to) and I am not a twit. I am afraid of being overwhelmed by petty verbiage. I’d say, google me on the internet, or try the Weaver Press (Harare) home page. I’m a very private person, thank you.