Interview: Chinodya and Tagwira

STUDENTS MEET WRITERS CHINODYA AND TAGWIRA

Beaven Tapureta – Bookshelf

I am now a firm believer in the view that students of literature tend to benefit more if they meet an author of their set text before the examinations and converse.

Last year in September, Advanced Level literature students in Murewa and the other schools in outlying areas had a chance to meet and interact with Memory Chirere, author of their set text called ‘Somewhere in This Country.’ I attended almost by accident! However, that interaction was very fruitful particularly for Murewa High, which as I am reliably informed, scored a hundred percent pass rate in Literature in English.

I attended the recent meet-the-author event held at Prince Edward High School in Harare where Shimmer Chinodya was discussing his novel ‘Strife’ (2006) with students. Local writer Ignatius Mabasa had a writer-to-writer conversation with Shimmer Chinodya in front of pupils, teachers and some published authors and out-of-school aspiring writers. The event saw another writer Valerie Tagwira speaking about her debut novel ‘Uncertainty of Hope’ (2007) in an enlightening conversation with Dr. Sunanda Ray. Tagwira’s novel is also a prescribed Advanced Level Literature set-book. Both novels were published by Weaver Press which also organized the conversations with the two writers.

It is true that there are certain stories which writers keep behind those works which they publish and to hear them reveal real life circumstances surrounding the creation of their works pricks the mind and inspire an enjoyable journey into the writer’s ‘other’ life.

Asked to give his viewpoint regarding the current debate on the value of continuing to have Shakespearean literature in our education system, Chinodya dismissed with disdain the idea to delete the English writer.

 Various writers have so far expressed their sentiments about what it would mean for Zimbabwean student to be deprived of the so-called classic literature.

Chinodya obviously grew up reading and still reads more of English literature or world literature in general, complimented with African literature. “I recently bought six books by Shakespeare. I read African and American literature. I was reading Gwendolyn Brooks (African American poet) before I came here. Let’s go back to the classics, to Shakespeare, to Tolstoy. I think art should go back to the classics. Let’s have one or two Shakespeares alongside our own stuff,” Chinodya reasoned.

Asked about the actual circumstances that gave birth to ‘Strife’, Chinodya revealed what many may not have known about the book.

This is a book that cried out to be written. I think when you grow up or think you have grown up, there is a book which says ‘Write me’ or an album that says, ‘Sing me,’ if you are a musician. I had done 8 or more books before but ‘Strife’ was kind of summing up. It covers 150 years of my ancestry. Some of it is researched; some of it is made up. It came in my career when I thought I had a voice and was confident enough to do a book about a family’s history covering about one and half centuries. It is based on my life and my family, so it’s a tribute to my ancestors,” said Chinodya and he went on to ask the audience to observe two seconds in honour of his ancestors!

He added, “Strife came at a very crucial time in my life. It prepares you to come to terms with your past.”

Mabasa noted that all of Chinodya’s writings seem to dwell on strife as seen in ‘Harvest of Thorns’, ‘Can We Talk and Other Stories’ and ‘Chairman of Fools’. “Is this deliberate?’ asked Mabasa.

Chinodya shot back: “I think good writing is about pain, struggle, suffering and you try to make meaning out of existence. This is what makes good literature. Good literature is not about ‘they lived happily ever after.’ It’s about felt struggle. You will also notice that ‘Dew in the Morning’ is an earlier version of ‘Strife’. I wrote ‘Dew in the Morning’ when I was 18 years old and was doing Form 6.”

Last month, there were reports that did rounds in the papers and social media that Chinodya had strangely removed clothes in public at a certain hospital. The reports portrayed Chinodya as a strange writer with mental problem. Chinodya said something that indirectly responded to these reports that he is a strange writer. “I am a very happy person, please; people think I am a strange animal. I love mixing with people, I love people, and I love family and books... When it comes to writing, my particular slant is the pain. Beauty in art is about beautifying the ugly, the painful,” he said.

Mabasa asked why in ‘Dew in the Morning’ Chinodya showed that Africans have a religion that they can depend on and yet in ‘Strife’ the author seems to be questioning the same religion.

Chinodya said that all religions have a struggle and as a writer, he does not hate God but encourages readers to open up their minds and be tolerant to other religions. In ‘Strife’, Chinodya said, the main character sums up the whole ethos of the novel by confronting shame in tradition, education and science.

Nothing called tradition. It’s all psychical; nothing is ever new under the sun. We think we are modern but we are not!” he cried out.

If there were any serious budding writers among the students, Chinodya whose writing career started when he was in Grade 5, provided the tips for being a successful writer. He described writing as an obsession, a calling without which he would cease to exist. He also encouraged the new writers to be honest to their craft, to listen to their muse and calling and try to do it as well as they should.

Tagwira’s conversation with fellow doctor, Sunanda Ray, interestingly dwelt upon the premise that storytelling is present in the health sector. Tagwira said as a gynecologist and obstetrician, listening and telling stories have been predominantly the nature of her life. She interviews her patient and there is need to listen and work out the facts, the crisis and be able to re-tell that story as accurately as possible to peers, students or fellow doctors.

The novel ‘Uncertainty of Hope’ was written when Tagwira was in England. It is described on her website as a novel that “gives an insight into the challenges faced by a wide cross section of Zimbabwe”. For her, whenever she came home, she empathized with Zimbabweans who had been affected by the socio-economic meltdown of 2005 or thereabout.

Online resources, interviews with family members and friends provided Tagwira with ideas for ‘Uncertainty of Hope’. Although distance made it a little harder for her to be objective, she said it was easier to write about the situation occurring back home because she was cushioned and ‘not suffering from it’.

A student asked why Tagwira had to pursue a career in medicine when she could write well as attested to by her novel.

The soft-spoken Tagwira said at some point she had a conflict of interests. After completing her Advanced Level, she was encouraged to do medicine because her parents felt that making a living was important. However, when Tagwira the first year medical student at the University of Zimbabwe learnt that part of her studies would include studying anatomy and dissecting dead bodies, she was shocked and straight away went to see the dean with the intention of shifting to the faculty of arts.

When I traveled home and told my parents about it, they encouraged me to go back to medicine. They said it’s about making a living,” said Tagwira.

However, despite finding herself in the health sector, Tagwira said she has always had time for her writings. Writing is more than a hobby to her.

Uncertainty of Hope’, Dr. Sunanda Ray observed, has been compared to Charles Dickens in the sense that it captures a particular period in the history of a country, in this case Zimbabwe. If one wants to know what life was like during Dickens’ life, read the works of Dickens, say Dr. Ray.

Ms. Rose Zimunya, a literature teacher at Melbereign Girls High who accompanied her students said she was happy with the session but implored organisers to next time inform students in advance so that they are well prepared to meet the authors.

Not many of our students are wide readers nowadays, telling them in advance at least encourages them to read and research about the authors,” she said.

Strife’ and ‘Uncertainty of Hope’ are available from Weaver Press at estimated prices of $12 and $14 respectively.

To listen to podcasts of this event, click here.