You have written that a novel tells more about a country than history books. What do your novels tell about Zimbabwe?
They tell everything about Zimbabwe, the history, the geography, the emotional and psychological landscape, the rhythm of the country and the aspirations of ordinary people that you don’t find in history books. My books try to give images of a country – it might even be a small village. I am a person who likes small settings, small villages, small places where it is easy to identify the feelings of people, their interactions. I am a writer of small places really. I don’t like to write grand spaces and big movements, my books are always set in small places, which gives you a picture of a country. I don’t think it’s possible to get a picture of the whole France but if you take good pictures in small places, it talks about the whole history. The whole imagination, you get it with just sitting in a small place like Rambouillet, looking at people and identifying their destiny.
That is quite different from some francophone African novels that take place in big cities.
I grew up in small villages in the countryside. Those images of life, the poetry of villages, their music, their dance, the sounds of birds, animals, they are part of my imagination and I would never let that go for anything. For me it was typical of the philosophy of Africans. When you grow up in villages in the countryside your job is to harmonize with nature. You are part of nature. I grew up like that, respecting that perspective. I learnt English when I was 11. The language in which I learnt to name things was not English. We had a game where we listened to the birds singing and writing little poems on what the bird was saying. I cannot escape those images! When I write about the city, sometimes people move from the countryside to the city and they often go into a mental asylum or just die in my books. Because the city first kills their spirit. They have been living in villages where everybody cared for them and all of a sudden they are in the city where you could be lying in the street dying and nobody bothers.
Land is a very central character to your book. There is a very stirring relationship to land.
Land is not just a place where you put a seed and it grows and you harvest and then sell it. It’s not a commercial enterprise. Land is a spiritual force; it’s a holy place, a sacred place. That’s why you find a lot of the traditional philosophy of Zimbabwe is based in » you must respect the land and the soil. » Because your ancestors are in the soil, and that’s where you get your food from and where you are going to join your ancestors. So you and your ancestors are joined together by the land, the soil. The soil is part of you. It’s part of your identity.
Does that explain some of the trouble over land in Zimbabwe today?
No. What is happening has nothing to do with the spirituality of the land and everything to do with political power and a desperate dictator who wants to hold on to everything that can raise emotions but not wanting to do anything about the spirituality of land. ( ) It has everything to do with greed and desperate political power and dictatorship.
You wrote about exile to Gotami and you describe it with » not knowing the words to name things « . That’s a good description of exile!
I was born in the South. Then my father, when I was about 11, got a farm on the other side of the country. For us it was a total fragmentation of our imagination. We didn’t even know the names of the trees and the birds. The rivers were flowing in the wrong direction. The mountains were in the wrong place. You have to start learning like a little boy how to name things again. I never really felt part of that place. I failed and so did many others. It was totally strange. It’s a completely different country. We didn’t know how to respect ancestors and so on.
Now you live in exile as well. Would you use the same description?
Yes. When I am here and I am describing things, I don’t know the right names for trees and so on. There is a bird that comes near my apartment – I don’t know its name, so I always say it is like that and that kind of bird at home. I think that is the technique of dictators who force writers and artists to exile they have to take a lot of time to relearn things, to completely change their vocabulary. It’s difficult for me to write a story set in Paris or Rambouillet. I can’t make a little boy climb up the tree because I don’t know if it’s allowed and I don’t know the name of the tree. I don’t know the rituals associated with this and that place. It forces you to concentrate again on language. That’s why you find a lot of writers who are in exile who start writing in their mother tongue. I think Ngugi wa Thiongo is a good example. He began to miss the language. If I find somebody who speaks Shona or Ndebele, I am like a baby who found a new toy You start missing the language, and writing it in an old fashioned way.
Is that what is happening to you?
I write in both languages. I started writing a children’s story set in Rambouillet. I am not bleak about being in exile, discovering that a dictator would kill me. There are also advantages. I am away from home. I have time to focus, to look at our universe from another universe. You are able to look at your country with different glasses. Exile dislocates your language and your perspectives, the way you look at things. And you’ll never be the same. Going back is a new voyage of discovery. The landscape is part of your identity when you grow from a child to an adult. All of a sudden you are in a place where you can’t relate to things emotionally in the same way that you usually do.
There is movement in your novels, not necessarily in space but in time, especially in Ancestors.
I like the way in which time is a human invention. Memories are trigged, they don’t respect time. The faces you see in the streets remind you of people you knew. The memory of a human being doesn’t respect time but events. In Africa, time is events. It’s not measured on the clock but on the events. I was told that I was born the year of the railway line. So I went to see the year on the plates on the line itself and I could estimate my age. Time doesn’t exist without events. Something must happen to make time. So it’s also in Ancestors the way of demystifying time. In Africa, the watch is just a decoration, not for time. ( ) In terms of memory and human observation, time is an invention which makes a lot of problems! When I go to the village, I don’t take newspapers, I just relax.
My mother, before we got a radio, was a very good story teller. She told us the same stories night after night but it was like new every time. She would change the structure every time. ( ) When you look at my stories, they are circular because time in Africa is circular, not linear. There are a lot of exciting European novels that still respect the old circular story. Look at Victor Hugo and Les Miserables, or James Joyce. Time is woven together like a carpet. It’s not like a thread. I find novels like that exciting. They demystify the whole myth of time, about linear stories. Life is not linear, it goes on in spirals.
The oral art of story telling is very important to you. That is put aside in many contemporary novels, at least in West Africa where young writers tend to look at it as part of past.
I was in West Africa for a few years and travelled in Senegal and Mali. I met your poets who actually really fit in the traditional image of griots. They denounce the griots but they do exactly the same. In terms of history – psychological and emotional history – a child always carries his history in him. The orality of language is not just something that you learn when you grow up. It’s something that is in your system, in your genetics if you want. But human beings like masks. Some African writers say they are metropolitan – have nothing to do with villages. But when you look at their work, you read one sentence and say, « This is oral. » You cannot just kill it. Just look at Toni Morrison or Alice Walker, who hear the language of orality. You find it also with D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce who respect the rhythm of the language. It’s not something that you can just kill all of a sudden. The most boring writers for me are those who think that language is just written, not spoken, not heard, not felt. Words are just strung together without caring for the rhythm of the language and the whole body.
When I wrote my first book of poetry, one reviewer wrote that I was the William Blake of Africa and at that time, 20 years ago, I felt very pumped up, very happy. And then a few years later, I started to realize that I could just be me, nobody else. I can only learn about the art of storytelling of my mother and other people. I have made a conscious effort to reflect on my mother’s capacity to tell stories, on her skills. I thought, « This is the way to write novels, they are circular, not linear. » When you look at Bones, it’s like a dance arena where each character comes in and dances. Just like in a traditional Shona dance arena. They are looking at each. As a writer I make the women dominate the dance.
Women are very present, they dominate the stories, they are strong minds, they prefer to die than to resign. Are women a symbol of resistance to you?
Women in public and in the tradition are seen as part of the husband. But in reality, the women In the Shona tradition, if the woman is offended by the husband, she takes a grinding stone and the grain and goes outside the hut and while grinding the grain, with a huge outpour sings her grievances against her husband. ( ) And you can’t persecute them. It’s poetic licence. And that’s what the dictators in Africa don’t respect: that the artist has the freedom to shout the truth through the villages without being taken to court. The women, in traditional Shona, were the storytellers. They were the ones that told stories to the children. I don’t remember men storytellers. When colonial education came, it preferred men and they were the first to be able to write but they were not the real storytellers. I give women the voice to acknowledge and celebrate their capacity to endure throughout the story. Sometimes they take their responsibility about their destiny by taking their own life.
Could your essays still be published in Zimbabwe ?
Publish and perish! It’s very difficult now, that’s why I had to leave. My editor was always arrested, I was always followed by the secret police, haunted my them. They threatened to kill or kidnap me. The new laws have made it impossible for a critical writer or journalist to write about the reality of our situation. In the late 80s, when I wrote these essays, my children knew that their father could be killed any time. Me leaving was a big relief for them. My family is still in Zimbabwe. It’s hard but we have to go through this process. We have a dictator and we have to face that fact. If you just sit and wait, they’ll just kill you. A guy I used to work with was killed last week. He was an editor in a publishing house, part of the opposition party. They just went to his house and shot him. You have to face that reality. I never used to think that I would live outside the country. All my writing is based on the particular colour of sand back home.
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