A Conversation with journalist Moses Magadza
Chenjerai Hove is a Zimbabwean author, poet, essayist, playwright, and human rights activist. A vocal critic of the regime of Robert Mugabe, Hove was forced to flee Zimbabwe in 2001 and has, ever since lived in Exile. He is the author of several noteworthy and award-winning works of fiction, poetry, and essays including the novels Shadows and Bones, which won the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. In January 2010, Hove was invited by the Center for Literature and Theatre at Miami Dade College to participate in the Miami: City of Refuge writer-in-Residence project, part of an international network affording displaced writers a place to live and work in freedom. While in Miami, Hove published Home Sweetless Home: A Memoir of Miami, a compilation of his essays, poems, and plays.
Of sweet homelessness and other issues
Chenjerai Hove says the practice of branding men ‘fathers of’ certain exploits is dangerous and can contaminate the minds of the world’s men and boys, entrenching patriarchy in the process. Chenjerai Hove, who now lives in exile in Norway and is noted for his deep sensitivity to gender roles, expressed this view in an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with journalist *Moses Magadza. Asked for his take on the raging debate on whether the late Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic Chinua Achebe of ‘Things Fall Apart’ fame could be regarded as the ‘father’ of contemporary African literature, Hove said the whole debate was dangerous and unhelpful. Below are excerpts of the interview.
Moses Magadza: It has been said in some circles that Chinua Achebe is the father of African literature. What is your take on this? And, who could be the father of Zimbabwean literature?
Chenjerai Hove: This idea of ‘father of’ and ‘father of’ is really nonsense. Chinua Achebe is a great writer, one of the most vibrant voices of the African continent. He came on the literary scene, wrote his masterpieces, and left our literature and society probably much better than he found them. That is the task of a writer; to write well, to challenge society with new values, to show readers that the world could be looked at in different ways. In other words, to create a new identity for society, for a nation, a continent. Achebe does not have to be ‘the father of’ anything.
People are obsessed with the idea of ‘father of.’ How about ‘mother of’? Such concepts lead to dictatorships on our continent. Concepts like ‘father of the nation’ are dangerous. Once you call someone ‘father of the nation’ or some weird words like that, you give the impression that life should be looked at in terms of male and female power relations. There is no ‘father of Zimbabwean literature’ but there is a chain of Zimbabwean writers who came and contributed artistically, historically and even geographically to our literature. Nobody fathered anyone in the process. They came, wrote beautiful books, contributed to our imagination, and gave the baton stick to younger ones to continue the dream.
Chenjerai Hove: Don’t forget that I was for nine months part of a woman’s body, nine months. Everyone is like that unless they were born prematurely. But all my writing is an analysis of power relations, power in all its manifestations. The good marketplace for such a study is the relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, mother and son, etc., and the values which society teaches us as we grow in order to make us ‘real men’ while the women are taught to become ‘good wives.’Also when I was growing up, I was very close to my mother and my aunt. They were both unique in their own way. My mother was a story-teller. She selected her stories extremely carefully, leaving out those which glorify the stupidities of men in preference to those which celebrated the achievements of women and girls. My aunt, VaMakumbi, was one of the sharpest political brains I have ever come across. Without any formal education to her name, she was the sharpest critic of the colonial political system I ever came across. She understood the relations between wives and husbands. She was also poetic in her analysis.
In terms of understanding the meaning of profound human experiences, I have come to know women have a better grasp of the complexity of life than men. Men are usually pretentiously full of themselves, but women suffer and endure quietly, managing to bring out the best in other human beings, their children. But that is not to say there are no horrible women. They exist, but in terms of numbers and acts, men have a big deficit.
Look at how the women work in the villages. I did a project years back in which I went around taking pictures of men and women around the country, in the countryside. I never came across a woman walking down the village with nothing in their hands or on the back or on their head. A baby on the back, water or basket on the head, a hoe in the hands.
Moses Magadza: For some years you worked as a teacher then editor. To what extent and in what ways has that impacted your own writing?
Chenjerai Hove: To write is to teach, to create themes and messages for society, to shape and re-shape the language. Every time I taught in high school, I tried to make my students discover the joys of language, that language is beautiful, the glory of words, phrases and sentences.
When I worked for many years as educational and literary editor, the educationist in me was always at the forefront. I edited the works of many young writers, helping them along, selecting the juicy parts of their works to show them how they had the potential and should not lapse. I motivated many writers who are now really big in our national literature.
As editor, I was writing my own works as well, studying as well, and teaching part-time. Human interaction is always healthy for a writer at a certain point. But at the same time the solitude of a writer is supreme.
Moses Magadza: What are your thoughts on making a living as a writer? Is it possible? Do you live solely on your writing?
Chenjerai Hove: It is hard for any writer to live solely from their writing. I spend most of my time teaching and writing newspaper columns. Reading tours and performances usually earn the writer more money than the writer’s books.
Moses Magadza: Once upon a time you were writer in residence at the University of Zimbabwe. I notice that you are still attached to various universities. How has working with academic institutions impacted on your worldview and your writing?
Chenjerai Hove: For me, working with universities enables me to meet young students, to engage with them in debates and discussions. It also allows me to interact with youths and other professors about literature in general and my own books in particular. It is always refreshing to meet young minds which challenge me in terms of my own worldview and literary practices.
At the UZ I worked with a vibrant group of young aspiring writers. Most of them have since published and they are great names in Zimbabwean literature. I am glad they found my presence inspiring, but I appreciate how they also inspired me. I wrote ‘Shadows’ and ‘Ancestors’ while at the UZ. I also completed my poetry anthology, ‘Rainbows in the Dust’.
The world is always changing, and students are at the forefront of exploring those possible changes. It helps a writer to continue to revamp his vision. With young students, the writer cannot take anything for granted. They challenge established ideas as they search for ways to replace old ideas with new ones. Students are honest dreamers. They are not afraid to be wrong, which is the basis of creativity. They doubt everything, and literature is also a celebration of the human capacity to doubt old and new values.
Moses Magadza: What are your views and what is your advice on writers’ residences or fellowships? Can Africa afford them? Does Africa need them?
Chenjerai Hove: A country which has fellowships for its writers knows where its heartbeat is. When a writer is in a university, it is not only encouragement for the writer to continue creating; it is inspiration to the nation to say it acknowledges the creative potential of a writer, his or her contribution to the national vision of a country.
If a country cannot afford fellowships for writers and other artists, it runs a big risk: silence. The mistaken emphasis on sciences at the expense of the arts is damagingly dangerous to the creative realm of any country. When all is said and done, it is the creativity of a country which will mark its fame. If a nation cannot afford to nurture its visionaries, it will be a dry nation with no voices recorded by those who heard society’s cries or laughter as it underwent change.
Literature is a search for possibilities, a search for the dreams which make a nation worth its salt. The story-tellers of the land are the most subtle historians of the nation. Writers see, record and warn the nation about its human and general social conditions. So, it is not a matter of whether the country can afford writers’ fellowships. It is a question of whether a nation can have the luxury of not affording to nourish its own creative tree. There are countries that ignored their artists, and they had to pay for it through imposed silence and deafness.
Unfortunately, sometimes African governments think when they give a fellowship to a writer, that writer should dedicate his creativity to praise-singing the president or the nation. Writers are not public relations officers of any government or institution. They create and rebel, if they so choose. To write is, indeed, to rebel, to protest, to challenge the system and its established and ‘accepted’ values.
Moses Magadza: What are your views on literary biographies and memoirs?
Chenjerai Hove: Memoirs and literary biographies, oh, my god. I feel autobiographies are the worst. They tend to degenerate into self-praise and self-aggrandizement. Well-researched biographies and thoughtful memoirs are usually exciting to read. Usually biographies end up creating conflict between the author and the subject. I have enjoyed reading some fantastic memoirs, really.
Moses Magadza: Some people have remarked on the peculiarity of the title of your memoir ‘(Miami) homeless sweet home’. How do you reconcile homelessness and sweetness?
Chenjerai Hove: It is not a matter of reconciling them. I juxtapose them as contradictory pieces of memory. The irony of that contradiction is what fascinates me: In my country, I was at home, minus the sweetness. In exile, I am safe, and nobody bothers about me and what I write. That is the homelessness which is not actually so sweet.
When society doesn’t really bother about a writer and what he writes, that is homelessness. But when, like back home, (some people) take an exaggerated interest in what a writer writes, that that is bitter-sweet sweet home. So, those words of the title are celebrations of my homelessness, of a nomadic life, of owning nothing which does not fit into a suitcase. You see, it can be quite ‘sweet’ to own nothing of substance. I own my books and clothes, and my laptop, of course, in a country where materialism is the first god worshipped at the altar every day.
Moses Magadza: What, in your view, sets you apart from your contemporaries as a writer?
Chenjerai Hove: What sets me apart is that I am Chenjerai Hove. I am an individual, not a photocopy of anybody or any writer anywhere. I am not an imitation of anybody living or dead.
Moses Magadza: You have always been working with younger writers. What is your advice to aspiring writers?
Chenjerai Hove: I believe in young writers. They carry the flame of our literature. My advice has always been: your mission is to write well, no matter what you are writing about, write it well. To write is to think and if we keep on writing, we keep on thinking for our country, about our country and society, about the world. The vision of a writer should be a permanent one, not a temporary piece of flattery to some transient god or man.
Moses Magadza: How do you regard the state of Zimbabwean literature at the moment? Any new trends that you see? Any new voices that you respect? Any regrets?
Chenjerai Hove: Zimbabwean literature has probably been going through some kind of drought. I think literature tends to go through those periods of what you could call ‘the boom.’ After independence, we had a great boom, then a short drought in the mid-80s, then a big boom in the 90s. The economic drought also led to a cultural and artistic drought. But it is also a time for the writers to make notes, to reflect and refine their art.
Moses Magadza: I notice that young writer, Tshuma has named her recent novel Shadows. You also have a Shadows that came out years ago. Were you affected by that at all and how was it resolved, if at all?
Chenjerai Hove: It is within the law to have books sharing the same title. I think Tshuma did not know that there was a book titled Shadows. It seems when someone mentioned it to her, I understand she sounded a bit agitated about it. There was no need for that. I should think ‘the more the merrier’ is a good way to look at it.
Moses Magadza: In terms of writing, what are you busy with these days and what can readers expect from you?
Chenjerai Hove: I never tell what I am writing at any one time. I have finished an anthology of poetry which I sent to a publisher a few months ago. But for now, it is simply enough to let me keep the secret of my writing to myself. Every new work I am working on is like a secret lover. You don’t go about shouting and telling your neighbours about your secret love.
Moses Magadza: What has exile done to you as a person and as a writer?
Chenjerai Hove: Exile has allowed me to live on, even though the circumstances are not the same. I am able to look at my country from a distance and reflect on its beauty as well as its ugliness. One Greek philosopher said, ‘All action weakens contemplation.’ It means being in the thick of things might not enable you to see what is happening to you.
*Moses Magadza is a Zimbabwean journalist and editor. Winner of the prestigious SADC Media Award (2008), he lives in Namibia where he is broadening his mind at the University of Namibia’s School of Postgraduate Studies.