Interview: Chinodya Shimmer by Professor Annie Gagiano
Transcription of Interview with Shimmer Chinodya, Stellenbosch, March 5th, 2010.
Speaker: Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is Francois van Wyk. I represent the American publishing company called ProQuest Information and Learning. ProQuest Information and Learning recently made available, in online format, the [Heinemann] African Writers Collection. [This company also sponsored Chinodya’s visit to Stellenbosch for participation in its annual Festival of the Word or ‘Woordfees’.] Now in this collection you’ll find the work of (among others) Nadine Gordimer, Ingrid Jonker, Steve Biko and even Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. But tonight we’ve got a very special guest. He’s an author from Zimbabwe who’s won many, many international awards and we’re delighted to have him here in Stellenbosch. So without any further ado I present to you Mr. Shimmer Chinodya and Professor Annie Gagiano. Enjoy.
Annie: Good afternoon everyone. I’ll kick off by saying that whenever I see Shimmer’s first name I think of a saying by the English poet William Blake: “He whose face gives no light, will never become a star”. Because I think in Shimmer we have someone who is ‘shimmer’ by name and ‘shimmer’ by nature. I thought that I would link my questions to Shimmer this evening (and he gave me permission to refer so informally to him by his first name) and I will link these questions by using small quotations from his own texts. So the first quote is from one of his recent novels called Chairman of Fools and in it the main narrator says the following when asked about why he writes and where the writing comes from. He answers: “Sometimes the ideas come just like that, but sometimes I have to help them along. I don’t know why I write. I suppose it’s like beating oneself on the head with a stick while trying to enjoy the pain, but it feels good when the book is complete and you can say, ‘here it is’”. So my first question, Shimmer, is: does that reflect your own ideas or still reflect your own ideas about your writing?
Shimmer: I think it does. I write because… to echo maybe one of my favourite writers who is a Greek-American writer, his name is Harry Mark Petrakis, and he says writing is a process by which we, by which the writer, revisits memories of suffering and refashions them and softens them and lyricizes them and comes up with something which is more palatable, something which is more endurable. I think for me writing is like revisiting old pains, old memories, old troubles, old problems and doing something with them and coming up with something which is palatable, more digestible … swallowable, if you like. That is for me what writing is about. It’s about suffering and the artistic endeavour to create something possibly out of pain.
Annie: Thanks very much, Shimmer, I think some of the little snippets we’ll get to tonight reflect that. But I also want to touch just slightly on the issue of the medium of your writing, which is English. And I quote from the same novel, Chairman of Fools, where you actually refer to your participation at a conference, just after being horrifically mugged in Johannesburg during one of your previous visits to this country, and at this you, I mean the narrator, says that “there was wild applause when he made revolutionary remarks about the use of English language by African writers, but the hesitant applause at the end of his presentation made him wonder about the value of workshops and if writers should ever engage with debates” (130). This is not to get you into the whole language debate which surrounds African writing and African writing in Europhone languages, but I was so intrigued by the reference to the narrator’s ‘revolutionary remarks’ about the use of English language by African writers. I wondered if you minded sharing those ideas?
Shimmer: I think writing in any place or any language, or foreign language, is an act of repossession and reclamation. It’s a declaration of intent. I said last night that I read in the Queen’s language. I said I was a traitor; that I was a sell-out, but it’s not that simple. I think that this language was imposed upon us but for me it’s too late to apologise and I’m not apologetic anymore. I think I’ve lost my apology. (I’m very, very good in Shona or Ndebele and in Zulu and I want them to write!) For me the English language imposed itself upon me, and it’s now for me to impose upon the English language my thought process, my vision of existence, my values, my beliefs when using this language. People often say to me, “Do you think in Shona or do you think in English?” I’m not sure. I don’t know whether I think in ideas or I think in words but I grow from two linguistic cultures – my Shona culture and my English culture and I cannot think without some kind of language, for me the language problem is not a problem. It’s an act of hybridisation.
Annie: Thanks very much. I think also that by means of English, it’s a way in which communication intra-continentally can and does take place and I don’t ever get the impression from yourself or several other African writers in English that they are writing for outside audiences primarily. It’s a way in which the whole continent can talk to one another.
Shimmer: Yes, I think you need to write for … you’re responsible to … But basically, initially anyway, you write for yourself and you are involved in the sense that the self in your work can communicate primarily with his or her own community and extend that to regions and to the world and hopefully extend that to the universe.
Annie: Shimmer, you have mentioned the fact that people often want to pin you down, since you hail from Zimbabwe, and they come with blunt and tactless questions particularly about Zimbabwean political and social realities, so I want to respect that but I want to mention that although there is very little overt politics in your novels, you do, it seems to me, handle the private lives and experiences you describe in ways that that do often allow particular attitudes and opinions to shade through, but especially it’s a kind of resistance to ideology, rigidity, and any kind of crude fierceness. Still from Chairman of Fools, the narrator-figure says at one point, “after all he is not one to flaunt his opinion on contentious issues” (165), and I think that it is so carefully phrased – it doesn’t say that there are no opinions, but it does express resistance to highlighting, or as you put it, flaunting such ideas. Would you care to comment on this observation?
Shimmer: My backdrop is generally political. I mean, somebody says – Ngugi wa Thiong’o said that everything is political and I don’t want to go that far, but I think there is some sense in this part of the world, in which politics imposes itself upon us. I remember when I was teaching creative writing at St Lawrence University [USA], my students used to write some very empathetic stories, but I remember one story in which a student had had her pet which died and she went shopping. ‘My pet died and I went shopping’. And I tried to encourage the students to … come out with stories about the cats and shopping and all that normalcy. I wanted them to talk about the ‘bread-and-butter issues’. I try to address the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues, but this is my backdrop. In my programme … I show people trying to communicate, people trying to relate, people trying to survive … and these are vivid individuals. These are my politics. I like to situate vivid individuals and vivid stories against the backdrop of change in society and change in societies in general. That’s how I understand myself.
Annie: We’ve slightly touched on the fact that so much of your writing conveys the impression of being close to personal experience. When you spoke this morning you in fact acknowledged without any qualms that this is much of the case; that it is close to [familial/familiar] experience. At the same time I think readers feel that there’s autobiography and then there’s autobiography and more. The kinds of experiences that are reconsidered, and in being represented are re-evaluated and reinterpreted because it seems to me always that it’s not only readers who engage in interpretation or students who are forced to engage in interpretation of texts at university, but that authors are interpreters and cannot actually be creative writers without in some way being interpreters. Would you go along with that, do you think that that is something like how you use autobiographical experience?
Shimmer: Two things: I think authors often say, ‘write about what you know’. I hate to read books where the writer creeps around and you think all the characters are plucked out of the sky and pasted onto the page with no conviction of there being any felt experience or any felt feelings. I very much like to write about what I know, but secondly, I need a vision of existence. You can’t be a writer and not have a vision. You need to impose your own views of life, your own view of [life], your own view of change and relationships … I saw a black actor being interviewed and they said to him, “But aren’t you an egoist?” And he said, “Of course I am an egoist, why should I go on stage if I am not?” Now I don’t want to go that far but I think artists are by nature egoists. Even if they’re writing about what [general life is like]. But their [egoism stems from their] view of life, their view of existence and a good writer must [change you, or must let you change your view, and must get people thinking about problems…] that’s what egoism is. I think.
Annie: I think that you gave me a sort of encouragement by mentioning the delight you took in an interpretation of Strife that was offered by your compatriot Robert Muponde and from this article of Muponde’s on Strife, your most recent novel, I’m going to read something close to the end just briefly to give the audience members who have not yet read that novel a sense of what this novel does and how Muponde sees it. He writes, “The options out of this culturally-defined role are limited but reside in a more brutal and frank assessment of interlinked existential categories of his life” [the narrator’s, so we’re back to the interpreted autobiography, and these are the interlinked existential categories. Muponde refers to a certain allegorical passage at the end of the novel and these are the features of it: several characters appear and they bear symbolic names. These] “… include the sickly, mournful and misty-eyed ‘tradition’ (p.216); the well-to-do belly and shining cheeks of ‘Patriarchy’, who rides on the backs of women (p.217); the fat old woman called ‘Fatalism’ (ibid.); ‘Shame’, a hermaphrodite, neither man nor woman (p.218); and finally, and more importantly, ‘Modernity’ and ‘Education’ (both seen as women!) and ‘Medicine’ (styled as a young male doctor). It seems that the mortal combat is between them and newer traditions of education and modernity, from which explanations of the present and prognoses of the future could be made, as they hold the stage as the curtain draws at the end of the novel. But the onus is on Godi, [the title character] – to ‘Explain!’ …” (‘Tombstone’ 129).
Now, I think that what you’ve been saying goes pretty much along those lines, but when I was reading this passage, this very perceptive and subtle analysis of the way that final passage encapsulates the forces played and the pulls in the various directions that the central character is plagued by; it also struck me, I think, that one very important term that isn’t mentioned here but that permeates the whole of Strife and much of your other writing is ‘Family’. Not primarily ancestral family, but rather the immediate family of parents and of siblings. And Strife itself seems itself primarily very, very profoundly immersed in the influence exerted on individuals by their parents and their siblings and in fact there’s even a point at which the principal character in Strife declares the following: “I realise how the divisions engulfing the family have taken precedence over myself and my own family and made my wife and children temporary appendages; I know how, for better or worse, if somebody held a knife to my throat I would gasp ‘mother’, ‘brother’ instead of ‘wife!’ ‘child!’. Oh, the terrible ambiguity of it all!” (147). I would really like you to say something about this very painful moment in Strife which is I think a work that faces very, very hard and difficult issues, but maybe a particular aspect of it is encapsulated in that quotation. Could you say something about it?
Shimmer: Strife looks at the concept of family. I think you’re very right. My books are not like Marechera’s books for instance … – you know Dambudzo Marechera, very learned brilliant Zimbabwean writer? Marechera sees the family as a dysfunctional institution. In my work I think again and again I go back. In Dew in the Morning I showed the family in the [morning] of its [making] – the happy family. But as I go on in my work I get more and more disillusioned with family and I begin to ask myself whether the concept that we have of family as a traditional unit is strong enough to survive? Is the family strong enough to nourish the needs of the individual? I go over again and again over that. But in Strife, I go back 140 years, maybe 120 years, some of it imagined, some of it true, most of it basically heard or passed onto me from generation to generation. I examine this family of the Gwanagaras and look at what happened to them and interestingly enough we have heard from Annie about Robert Muponde who comes up with a very amazing thesis . Robert Muponde says that men are emasculated over the years – my grandfather was emasculated, my brother was emasculated, I am emasculated. I don’t know what the gender theorists have to say about this. Robert Muponde thinks that our men have been emasculated for centuries and I, on second thoughts, realised I agree with him and maybe we even need a men’s movement to empower the men again. I don’t know.
Annie: Maybe something called ‘Masculine Regeneration’ rather than ‘Moral Regeneration’? I think that’s a strong theme that people are picking up nowadays, that African masculinities are in trouble. All over the continent. I want to mention here, I want to read very briefly, maybe you should read it yourself, the description of the mother figure in Dew in the Morning on the left hand page … [p.80]
Shimmer: Dew in the Morning is my personal favourite. I love it. I was 18 when I wrote it but it got published later on. It’s about my childhood as a child living in the urban areas, as a child growing up in the villages, but interestingly enough Anthony Chennells, a professor of literature at Zimbabwe University, sees this book as one of the first books of the ‘land problem’, all those people who were shunted into villages and ended up as witches or dissipated […]. That’s the beginning of the ‘land question’ in the 60s. Okay let me read this. The mother tells stories about two dogs, she is trapped in misery right in the beginning, she tells stories about drowning in wells, about seeing her grandfather dying. She’s destined to be the mother-in-strife. I don’t know if you picked this up. There’s this sense of entrapment and doom and unhappiness ... So okay, she tells these stories:
“Whenever mother told us this story I looked uneasily into the darkness and moved nearer to the fire. There was something ominous about its atmosphere – the setting sun, the night gathering over the vast uninhabited forest, and the solitary hunter clinging precariously to the big branches of the tree, looking down fearfully at the lion below. I could almost hear the sad echoes of his voice singing through the forest before his faithful dogs came to his rescue. There were other stories too – the girl who drowned in a well and was captured by the river maidens, unknown to the people who drew water from the well, and whose efforts to find her were in vain. Somehow I found a similarity between mother and some of the protagonists in her stories. It was as if she shared with them a life of pathos and resilience. // A photograph of my mother taken at thirteen revealed a girl in a simple brown dress and a scout belt. She was already a young woman with a budding chest and legs which a man would turn to look at. She had been born on a farm and her father was the farm foreman: a farmer, who grew potatoes and kept cows. Traders came from far to buy his potatoes and his rich milk. He was a young man, smart, with trim hair and a dark moustache. His wife was also a farmer – growing peanuts and raising chickens. She was a smart woman who could not bear black specks in her milk or cracks in the walls of her huts.” 
Annie: You might not have chosen the same passage yourself, Shimmer, but I chose it because it seems to me that the title is somewhat misleading. Dew in the Morning sounds like all innocence; it sounds like some sort of pastoral idyll and yet [with reference to the Introduction] as Chennells mentions and also as you indicated, this is country life and it’s a family that returns to a rural life. That life is not romanticised at all. The mother figure is quite heroic in the way in which she wins harvests from the soil, in the way in which she fends off the marauding cows of a neighbour that eat up her crops and so on, but also there is this dark undertone of exploitation that is happening, and of enmity and suspicion linked with witchcraft practices, and the story both begins with a reference to the headman and ends with him, when he has actually died and just been buried, old and mad and completely decrepit, a body in decay and even on the grave there’s some nameless bloody little package and the novel ends at that point. It’s a kind of interspersal of the constant celebration of dew in the morning and the boy who observes this and who celebrates and rejoices in country life, in growth, in crops and so on and yet country life is no escape from the hard realities of life’s threats and some evil patterns in relationships; that’s really why I wanted you to pick that passage and I think that I wanted to move on from this to where probably the same figure features in a much later stage of his life. Now the setting is distinctly urban and compared to the boyhood here, we now have adulthood, male adulthood, but it’s almost as if there’s been not a long period of innocence ever since adulthood came. It’s as if a jadedness sets in, in quite a youthful maturity. And we have a passage like the following (and this is from the collection Can We Talk and Other Stories). I think that this passage addresses what stands out in your writing amongst particularly male authors for highlighting the problematic conduct of men in the world, in this continent. These are the kind of problems that more often women and women writers complain of and try to analyse and try to change, and you have the courage in your writing to address this in a very, very honest way. I just want to read an example here of that kind of passage where the issue of this kind of male, and shall we say husbandly conduct, is addressed. The man is married and has children but he is actually a loner and he goes to pubs to find companionship and of course to get drunk. And he describes here sitting across a woman who is trying to make a play for him. He describes her as follows:
“… and now she is sitting there eyeing him and caressing her glass and waiting, caressing her cool quiet heat with her long thin fingers whimpering silently with her loud dark eyes and her slender neck whimpering for a leash and damnit she is small and still and tight and yawning widely bigly deeply secretly for him damnit why is it always long thin fingers he succumbs to, damnit why did God ever invent this thing called woman and whoever invented alcohol and bars and nightclubs and alleys and parks and backseats of cars and booking houses and dark decrepit dungeons called houses in which humans called whores lived and the virus damnit the virus who invented the virus like being told you can’t eat sadza and meat and covo any more the virus the virus why does it have to be this century and this decade and this year damnit all those statistics in the papers and those deaths in the news and waking up every morning saying am I am I, damnit all those droves of people sitting looking innocent would anybody ever learn damnit this weekly game of hide-and- seek with death and this big little woman caressing her cool quiet heat with her long thin fingers and tapping her long black purse with her long sharp nails and eyeing him with her condom mouth …” (96)
It’s a very striking, a very brutal passage in all sorts of ways and I think you were really brave to tackle this kind of topic so full-on in your writing and what strikes one reading it is that it must be very painful to write about this and this type of topic in such a way and this is a hard and a deep question but how do you manage to do that, and what brought you to the point where you say ‘I am going to write about it and I am going to put it down on paper’?
Shimmer: All my books are painful. I think all my books are painful portraits and I am very old fashioned. I believe in honest narrative. I believe in honesty and objectivity. That’s the best I can do. I probably can’t change things but if I’m honest enough to describe a scene, describe a situation and I get you as readers thinking about it and talking about it, I want you to read my books and say, “Ah yes” or, “I didn’t know it was possible to write like this, didn’t know it was possible to dare to write like this”. I’ve written, some of my books you wouldn’t believe what I’ve written about, but it’s what I believe in. It’s what I can do as a writer to shock you, drag you by the neck and say: “Look at this, look at this, what do you think? And how do you respond to that?” It’s my ‘thang’.
Annie: I think that I’d like to move to Harvest of Thorns at this point. I think that all the other books that engage so intensely with family issues, issues of masculinity, seem to engage with what is in the end more or less the same family. Not always the same names, not always the same cast, but there is, if not the identical family then there’s overlap, and there are echoes backwards and forwards and the issues that live on, the problems that live on, but also to some extent some things change, some things get resolved – if only by death. There’s a great many, a great deal of death and loss in your novels. I think that Harvest of Thorns, your fourth novel, actually (and this is the cover of the edition I have) is perhaps the only one of your novels that is less closely involved with the same family than the other ones. Which does not mean that issues of family are not central to this one also. It is also primarily a novel of the Zimbabwean war of liberation and it’s a totally splendid novel because without ever simplifying, it shows how that war came to be, why it had to happen and it shows the pre-war generation and then it shows the wartime generation. It’s a story of two generations therefore. First it tells the story of the main protagonist’s, Benjamin’s parents – of their early youth, their courtship, the early days of their happy marriage, then the terrible strain of childlessness, then how they joined a church which apparently helps them to have this first child and this ties them irrevocably to this church, which practices a type of not merely pacifism but passivity, just at the time when a nationalist fervour and an anti-colonial fury start to build up in Zimbabwean society, and the way those strains interact is brilliantly invoked in this story. Then the rest of the novel actually goes through the war with Benjamin so vividly and so convincingly that I think many people reading it believe that Shimmer actually was a combatant himself, which he was not. But it is so vividly imagined. But I’d like to refer, before I get to the text itself, I wonder if you know that the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – she’s a Nigerian writer, very good writer, a prizewinning writer, and her first novel was Purple Hibiscus, a family novel, a painful novel. The second one was called Half of a Yellow Sun. In it, she attempts to recapitulate the Biafran War that happened in Nigeria, it was a civil war not an anti-colonial war, but she said about this war novel of hers: “When I started my second novel Half of a Yellow Sun, set before and during the Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-1970, I hoped that emotional truth would be its major recognisable trait. // I hoped, too, that it would be the type of character-driven war novel brave enough to engage subtly with politics, as the Zimbabwean writer Shimmer Chinodya does in his remarkable Harvest of Thorns…”. She also says: “Chinodya’s sentences have a lovely rhythm and his characters are free of implausible hysterical features, suggesting that they are products of a writer’s remaining faithful to experience and memory, rather than trying to meet certain theoretical requirements [and painting] a complex portrait of Zimbabwe’s war of independence”. And she also mentions “the wonderfully restrained sense of disappointment underlying Chinodya’s narrative remind[ing] her of how similar the histories of many African countries are, how passionately people believed in ideas that would disappoint them, in people that would betray them, in futures that would elude them.” (Website)
When I myself wrote a piece about Harvest of Thorns long ago, just about ten years ago, I said that this unforgettable novel could be considered a special kind of bildungsroman; it depicts a movement from the political passivity prevalent in Rhodesia, through the growth of resistance against colonialism into the liberation born in this region and towards the ending of this war in the disappointing harvest of thorns it produced. A society now in Zimbabwe where for the average family very little has changed for the better. Despite the impression such a bald summary creates, this is one of the least dreary of novels. Its story is told with such irresistible liveliness and honesty. And so on. I would like to kick off by reading at first a brief passage from it, one of my favourite passages from the novel, which describes Benjamin’s mother. Now this is the earlier colonised generation of Zimbabweans and the mother grows up in the country very much like the other mother and I think there are even a couple of little echoes in the description of her. The narrator writes: “Back in the mid-fifties, when she was still a lean, strong-limbed, black-kneed, hoe-blistered, tender-eyed, braid-haired, bra-less, knee-skirted…” (you read it!)
Shimmer: “…scout-belted, mariposa-shoed, country-humble girl of eighteen, just completed Standard Three and living with her elder sister who was married to a dip-attendant who worked on the farms neighbouring the reserve where she lived, Shamiso Mhaka had one day accompanied her elder sister to the district office in the town nearest to their village to get a birth certificate for her sister’s two-year old son”. (27)
Annie: I wanted only that short passage mainly for the interest of saving time but also because of what struck me about your description of the parental generation. Although eventually they end up being parents who misunderstand their son Benjamin in all kinds of ways that have serious and damaging implications, the invocation of the period of innocence in their lives is done without condescension. Especially that expression ‘country-humble’ captures this mother-figure, and then she meets the father who is a type of city-slicker, he’s a clerk in the colonial registry office in the nearby town, and the way in which he flaunts his urban sophistication and the way Shamisa falls for it, and delights in it, and gradually herself becomes absorbed by it, is invoked with such tenderness and absence of condescension and I thought it very important to mention that this is the same novel that progresses from this kind of novel to one of the most devastating experiences that Benjamin had during the war, where he is ordered, with a fellow soldier, to beat to death a woman in a village who has been caught out as a spy. She revealed the comrades’ position and Smith’s troops came down and attacked them and it’s because of her spying activities that they were attacked and Benjamin is ordered to beat her to death along with his fellow soldier. And as he is beating this woman, irresistibly she reminds him of his own mother, and you describe this in the most amazing way. We can’t read that now; people have to read that for themselves. But I will read one of the letters that Benjamin imagines writing home, particularly to his mother, at this time. Or I ask Shimmer to read it.
Shimmer: Okay, this is an interior monologue. It’s done in an unpunctuated italic. It’s like […] after one of their colleagues has been killed and after he’s murdered, he’s reflecting on what happened. So it’s addressed to his mother.
“you’ll never see these words or hear them because I have no pen or paper on which to write them and not even these trees and rock can hear them // I’m saying these words to myself only because you must be worrying about me though I don’t feel now I belong to anything other than this soil on which I sleep // I’m saying this only because they must have given you trouble after they found I’d gone but I think you’re OK // I know you worry about me but you shouldn’t // I’m not afraid // I’m saying this because I have to say something sometimes because we don’t talk about these things among ourselves and even if nobody hears these words at least I can say them // If you saw those little children dead under the trees with their arms eaten away and those naked mothers running through the bush you’d know // If you saw those fires after the bombs maybe you would stop chiding // If you saw [Ropa] lying there clutching a child in each hand then you’d know there was no other way but this” (148)
Annie: The references in the letter are first of all to an attack mainly on a camp of refugees. This camp is bombed and strafed by the Rhodesian forces. And of course there’s a massive death toll mainly of civilians in this attack. The character that he mentions, Ropa, who lies dead with a child in each hand, is Benjamin’s first love. She’s a very responsible, very worried and concerned young woman, the same age as he, who in the camp has the responsibility of teaching the children. The children are getting killed, the children are terrified of the war and the way in which she dies, clutching a child in each hand, is typical of the nature she has conveyed to Benjamin. And Benjamin who has been reviled as more or less satanic because of the fact that he danced on a Sunday, listened to the radio and accidentally, in trying to chop wood for a fire, accidentally cut off his young brother’s leg and then got pressurised at a later stage by school friends who taunted him, “Sellout, Sellout, Sellout” into helping to set a beer hall on fire. This is the same Benjamin who falls in love, not with some floozy, but with a woman who is tender-hearted and responsible and thoughtful and as sensitive a person just as he is. So the story takes a young man with that kind of sensitivity and shows him gradually as getting both hardened, but mainly strengthened, in the course of his war experience because the one thing that he holds on to, terrible as it is, to kill and face killing every single day, and facing the tensions, even the boredom that he develops amongst this group of fighters, there’s a basic sweetness and wholesomeness and health to this young man so the novel ends when he returns home and the tensions are still there between him and his mother, and him and his father, who in the meantime has betrayed all the values he taught them by leaving the mother and having an affair with a neighbouring widow. But the young woman whom Benjamin rescued during the war who has had a child, at the end, is visited in hospital when Benjamin finds out that she has had their baby and he describes this experience and Benjamin’s sight of the baby, and I would like Shimmer to end the programme this afternoon by reading just two brief paragraphs from the very end of Harvest of Thorns. So this is set in the maternity home where Nkazana has just delivered the baby.
Shimmer: “Nkazana lies pale and exhausted, surrounded by Benjamin’s father and mother, Esther and Muchaneta. A cot stands near the bed. They open out to let Benjamin and Dickson through. Benjamin steps forward and peeks at the little bundle of whites. The face is a mess of red skin and black hair – a tiny round ball of a head, a half of it forehead, bumps for eyes, a little hill of a nose, a pink line of pursed lips and two brown leaves of ears].” (276) [And then, further on:] “‘Zvenyika will use his head and hands and grow up to be somebody,’ [Benjamin says]. // He’s only twenty and he has no job or house of his own yet but he tells himself he’ll do all he can to raise the little bundle of humanity in the cot. He’ll do all he can, even though all he has is a pair of chapped hands. // He tells himself he’ll do it”. (277)
Annie: I want to end the quotations on that point because it seems we concentrated a great deal on familial tensions and problems and issues of masculinity, but these two paragraphs are permeated with a very masculine tenderness, protectiveness, the best kind of familial resolve. It’s evident that these moments and the birth of the baby will by no means solve the problems of the family or of the society, but I think they very beautifully and very convincingly represent and depict these very fine feelings that perhaps lie at the heart of human striving. The human striving to belong and to help others to belong and I think that with the emphasis on troubles and problems and tensions, I would not want to omit the fact that Shimmer Chinodya’s writing is immensely apt in offering ways of seeing and feeling that are, not so obviously, a profoundly humane writing project. I just want to conclude here by asking you what are some of the things that have been omitted here in this very brief discussion of your writing? What would you like to add?
Shimmer: I think you’ve been very thorough. I’m honestly amazed that you’ve read all my books .… Actually the passage you didn’t want to read I was actually going to read this morning (you remember, when Benjamin is to beat up the traitor woman?), I was going to read that, but I thought I didn’t want to depress people too much, I mean coming from Zimbabwe I’m depressed already. I need some Eno’s to pep me up. But honestly I think I’m amazed at this, at how professor Gagiano has been able to really make things out and what is interesting is, writing is a life-time career for me. I’ve sometimes told people I’m a long-distance writer or runner rather, not a 100 meter sprint-freak, but it takes critics, I think, to go and see what you’re doing, because you’re so immersed in it when you’re writing; you’re so immersed in yourself, you can’t stop and discover yourself. It’s only when the whole job has been done when it’s too late anyway, but it takes sensitive readers to see where you are going and to interpret this. I think you very subtly mentioned that others have thought this is my most political book. And I’ve written other books, such as Farai’s Girls – you’ve read that? It is interesting, people always pre-empt writers or there are some mad professors who pre-empt you. I wrote Farai’s Girls, and one professor, who I hope is still alive, said people like Shimmer are writing about courtship and girls and Farai’s girls and with a raging war going on, when will he grow up? I will never forget that, because when this book came out I was already half way through Harvest of Thorns. I think maybe I just want to say that critics can destroy you or discourage you or critics can encourage you, and I really thank you for the way you’ve summed me up. You’ve talked about family, you’ve talked about my politics, and you’ve talked about male emasculation. I am glad people have realised, people should … if you’ve read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions – she’s my best friend in the world, we fight a lot! I’m sure she gets more attention than me. Fashionable. Gender is fashionable these days, but I hope in my own humble way I’m showing the other side of gender. I’m showing the traits and problems that the male writer faces in depicting his own condition and depicting the situation of his sex. I think.
Annie: I think I’m going to slip in one final reference … I do want to mention that one of the most recent texts that I know is the short story in this collection called Writing Now, which are Zimbabwean short stories edited by Irene Staunton, and in this book Shimmer has addressed another kind of family, a very modern kind of family, a very unusual kind of family, but the main figure is a little girl who is a stunning personality, absolutely endearing, absolutely dominant. And she makes family for herself. Family, including a narrative figure who seems strongly reminiscent of someone sitting near me on the stage. And Mr. Shimmer Chinodya, thank you for making it all the way to Stellenbosch and being so patient and being so gracious with my questions.
Shimmer: Thank you for coming.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Truth and Lies. Accessed 2010/02/26.
Chennells, Anthony. Introduction. In Chinodya, Shimmer: Dew in the Morning.
Oxford: Heinemann, 2001. v-xiv.
Chinodya, Shimmer. Can We Talk and Other Stories. Oxford: Heinemann, 2001.
First published Harare: Baobab Books, 1998.
---. Chairman of Fools. Harare: Weaver Press, 2005.
---. Dew in the Morning. Oxford: Heinemann, 2001. First published Harare: Mambo
---. Farai’s Girls. Harare: College Press, 1984.
---. Harvest of Thorns. Harare: Baobab Books, 1995. First published 1989.
---. Strife. Harare: Weaver Press, 2006.
---. ‘Tavonga’. In Staunton, Irene (ed.): Writing Now – more stories from Zimbabwe.
Harare: Weaver Press, 2005. 71-93.
Gagiano, Annie. Essay on Harvest of Thorns. In Litnet electronic journal, column ‘The
African Library’, Entry no. 15. 28th April, 2000.
Muponde, Robert. ‘Strife: Tombstones as milestones or “Am I safe in the home that
my father left me?”’ English Academy Review 25.2 (2008): 126-129.
* Biography for Annie Gagiano
Annie Gagiano is Emeritus Professor and a research associate in the Department of English, Stellenbosch University (South Africa). She is the author of numerous articles on a wide range of African writing, inter alia several on Zimbabwean writing, and of the books Achebe, Head, Marechera: On Power and Change in Africa (Rienner, 2000) and Dealing with Evils: Essays on Writing from Africa (ibidem-Verlag, 2008).