Presentations at the launch of Writing Mystery and Mayhem

‘The Way of Revenge’ by Valerie Tagwira

From Writing Mystery and Mayhem

Launched on Tuesday 10th November, 2015 at ZGS.

This presentation by Farai Mudzingwa, author of ‘Sizwe Burning’ whose subtle reflection on murder in the immigrant community in South Africa takes a surprising turn.

Notes on ‘The Way of Revenge’ by Valerie Tagwira

Presented by Farai Mudzingwa

“A surreptitious stroll down the sanitary lane confirmed it to be deserted. Gleefully thanking his ancestors for a dark, wintry June night, he walked back up to the shack. He could hear the muted sounds of music playing inside. It suggested that the woman was still awake, but it would also mask any noise that he might inadvertently make.

With efficient, practised movements he decanted the container quietly, soaking clear liquid into the wooden panels at the back of the small wooden dwelling. He inhaled the fumes, his excitement mounting. It was time for the closing act. At each corner of the back wall, he placed a full box of matches, making sure there was good contact with liquid dripping off the wall. He lit two cigarette stubs and attached one to each box. Quickly, he picked up the now empty container and walked briskly towards Mbare Market.

He would position himself near the northern entrance. From that vantage point, he would enjoy a clear view of the imminent inferno. He had just a few minutes to get there. Another surge of adrenaline propelled his feet forwards.”

One of the key elements of a “mystery” story is the actual mystery - the unknown – and how it is built up. There is a delicate balance between building up the story, generating anticipation ... and drawing it out too long and boring the reader. The writer, Valerie Tagwira, treads well within that line. She builds the mystery up gently without being overbearing.

Another thing I like about this story is the authenticity of the setting. In particular, I had a sentimental moment when I read the phrase “sanitary lane”. This collection is in English but I read that in Shona as “sendi raini”. I grew up in 1980s Zimbabwe, in Chegutu, and a quintessential element of my childhood was time spent weaving through the mazes of “masendi raini” in the location. One didn’t really know a township until you knew how to get from one end to the other without using a regular road. This reference, and others in the story, gives the reader assurance that the author is narrating a real setting they have lived.

Third, this story is about a heavy social issue. It talks about infidelity and revenge against infidelity. There is also failure to conceive. The protagonist and her brother both have mental conditions – one has schizophrenia and the other compulsive behaviour - and mental health is still oddly a taboo subject in this country. The writer manages, quite subtly, to have all these social issues in the story without making it sound like a documentary – without being preachy.

‘They Only Come Out at Night’ by Donna Kirstein, joint winner of the KAF award, for the best short story.

From Writing Mystery and Mayhem

This presentation by Jonathan Brakarsh, whose teasingly playful story, ‘The General’s Gun’ appears in the collection.

Notes on ‘They Only Come Out at Night’ by Donna Kirstein

Presented by Jonathon Brakarsh

Main points:

This is a horror story about mob violence, a hunted man named Geoffrey who is a teacher and his student, Vicky. In the beginning your sympathies lie with Geoffrey. But things change. When one is flying over the narrative landscape of a story, often the ride is pleasant but the story is forgettable. In Donna Kirstein’s “They Only Come Out at Night” the plane veers imperceptibly off course so that by the time one disembarks, you find yourself in a country hostile to your idea of how the world should be.

This feeling of unease is amplified by the hyper-detail of the writing. This except is taken from the beginning of the story:

“He watches the blood drip down to the ground, each splash of red slowly separating out into a dendritic system of cracks and crevices in the concrete.”

This story plays with your sympathies until you become confused – Who is the victim? Who is the hunter? In this confusion, you might ask yourself, “Are we capable, am I capable of the evil depicted here?” Your first impulse will be to answer, “Never, No!” But dig further. This is the power of the story – to understand us and what we are capable of – the greatness and the horror.

Truncated Excerpt (full excerpt from the bottom of p.33 to the middle of p. 35):

Geoffrey stumbles out of his alleyway, almost stepping onto the sleeping shape of a beggar. He knows that it is time to leave. In the hot October sun with the abduction of two children, all it had taken was one angry shout. One man with a voice that carried above the clatter of the market , marking him.

‘He’s the one,’ the first call had sparked a righteous anger, a crackling murmur. They should have known better. His students had been playing the in the dust nearby. He tried to calm the crowd.

‘Heaven’s Embassy’ by Chris Wilson

From Writing Mystery and Mayhem

This presentation by Godess Bvukutwa, joint winner of the KAF award, for the best short story, for her contribution ‘A Late Arrival’.

Notes on ‘Heaven’s Embassy’ by Chris Wilson

Presented by Godess Bvukutwa

What I love most about Chris Wilson’s story is firstly the subliminal tone he uses. He manages to be subtle about some outrageous and preposterous things from the very first paragraph to the end. Things like waiting the whole day to charge one’s phone because there’s no power; having water delivered weekly by a bowser because there’s no water running through the tap; businesses closing down, people losing jobs; smart children working menial jobs in South Africa because there are no jobs in their own country. All this is downplayed and the writer uses an innate humour and sarcasm that makes the story flow, enjoyably, and easy to read.

‘Heaven’s Embassy’ is, without question, a very Zimbabwean story. Wilson makes fun of the religious extremism that has gripped the country in the past few years. He juxtaposes two protagonists, Mrs Chipunza a branch leader of the Heaven Embassy church in Mutare. She is, of course, affluent, influential and holds quite a lot of power within her church and her family. She also benefits from the monetary donations that she receives as church offerings. By contrast, Mai Jane, is a poor woman, a widow, who lives in the shed on her property because she has been unable to finish the house she and her husband had started to build some years before. She goes to church for solace and solutions to her many problems. Heaven’s Embassy church insinuates the idea that for one to go to heaven one will need to obtain a visa to heaven through the teachings of this church. As I see it, this idea becomes an analogy of the Zimbabwean situation whereby for one to achieve success or acquire possessions – mining rights, a farm, a coveted airplane flying route, a telecoms license or, on a smaller scale, anything from a youth project, to a tractor –one needs to be a card holder of a particular political party. And, if you want to protect yourself and not get beaten during elections, you may need to hold this party card too. Thus, to me, Mai Jane becomes the symbol of the ordinary Zimbabwean; someone who is actually quite timid, afraid of confrontation and afraid to question those in power. Those in power, are symbolised by the powerful figure of Mrs Chipunza. She is clearly in charge and on top of things. She has even pushed her husband into the profitable line of business, building and construction. The rest of the churchwomen are in awe and even afraid of her as is evidenced by the failed ‘coup’.

Indeed when Mai Jane tells one of the ladies how she had given Mrs Chipunza all her money in order for her husband to finish constructing her house, though nothing was done; how then she was persuaded to give Mrs Chipunza even more money, which was later stolen by a ‘thief’ in a monkey suit, it emerges that the other women in the group didn’t actually like Mrs Chipunza at all, but were too afraid to tell her. Hence, finally, the idea of a coup. This suggests to me a metaphor for how people in power in Zimbabwe have built a fort around themselves and the people outside are in great awe and fear of them. Politicians have amassed wealth for themselves; a lot of it through shortchanging the very people who trusted them enough to put them in power, just as Mrs Chipunza has power vested in her. The poor and voiceless are taken for granted; their trust in the leadership is abused.

Like the church women’s failed ‘coup’ as they are outwitted by Mrs Chipunza; ordinary people have failed to to make a change of government. The rich and powerful have managed to stay rich and powerful for so long because they have grasped the tricks of keeping the poor in check.

‘Heaven’s Embassy’ is very a Zimbabwean story in all its particulars (Mai Jane’s son is called Genius and he works in South Africa) and while it conveys a serious idea, it does so with many hilarious touches, such as Genius’s plan to recoup the money that Mrs Chipunza has ‘stolen’.

… Mrs Chipunza was also an active member of Heaven’s Embassy, in fact she was their ‘ambassador’ in Mutare.

‘The chosen representative of Jesus himself!’ Bernard used to boast.

They had given her a laptop and 48-inch flat screen with tall speakers and a USB port, and every week sent her the latest sermons and hymns to download and play to the congregation which gathered at her house on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. They would come, mostly women for some reason, in their very best, complete with hats or headdresses, high heels and handbags, to praise the Lord, sing and clap hands, stomp their feet and waggle their bottoms. And, of course, leave a small monetary donation to ensure their visa to Heaven.

Mrs Chapunza had used part of the loot to extend the garage and turn it into a real church, with a coloured glass window and the TV on the altar. When it was not being used for God’s purposes, their two sons were in there playing video games. …