History’s Shadow Will Often Hover over the Future

The African Book Review’s Chioma Nkemdilim met with some of the finalists of The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Bernard Matambo, a Zimbabwean poet whose poem “The City,” provides an in-depth look at the relationship between spaces and people.

 

ABR: How did you develop an interest in writing poetry and where does your inspiration to write poems come from?

MATAMBO: I started writing poetry in a serious way when I was 14. Before this I had always read everything near, and written short pieces for school or for myself. A lot of things were happening in my life at this age, sudden changes that led me to question a lot of what I had understood to be true and factual. Inevitably my understanding and reading of the world seemed to lack placement in the world around me. Poetry became a way of looking, a way of reading and synthesizing what was occurring within and around me at that age.

ABR: Your poem The City which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize seems to touch on issues of history, oppression, reclaiming spaces, and possibly how spaces can be a record/ keep the memories of peoples who have ever dwelt there. Can you share your inspiration for this poem and what you wanted it to be representative of?

MATAMBO: “The City” is part of a circle of poems I started working on in 2008. Part of my objective was to have the poems communicate with each other, thus creating a potential narrative arc when read together. Yet I also wanted each of the poems to standalone and exist without the others.

In this poem I was thinking of reclamation of internal and external spaces.

While the anguish of political oppression can be humbling, it can often too engage us with unsavory aspects of ourselves.

It often becomes effortless to dehumanize each other, for instance. I was thus interested in how a society would go about not only forgiving itself after the harder parts of a prolonged season of anguish, but also reconcile, reclaim and establish new selves. The physical scape in the poem then, is by and large symbolic of what has occurred internally within such a society during this prolonged season that has not quite ended. While it is not always palatable, history’s shadow will often hover over the future.

Continue reading “History’s Shadow Will Often Hover over the Future”

Coming of Age in Zimbabwe

The first time I read Nervous Conditions, Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga’s seminal first novel, I was an undergraduate student at the University of California, Davis, enrolled in a course on African womanhood (this was in 2004). The course was called “Women in Africa.” Professor Moradewun Adejunmobi taught the course and Nervous Conditions was on the syllabus, along with several other works of African feminist fiction like Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter and Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood.

I began the course with a mixture of curiosity and arrogance. It was my first time taking a course that mentioned me in its title. I am an African woman who grew up in Cameroon. I once was “a woman in Africa.” I once was a girl in Africa. The class had to be about me! And because of this, I felt curious to see what the course could teach me about myself. But I also felt that I already knew a thing or two about African womanhood and wouldn’t be learning anything new.

That course quickly erased my arrogance and amplified my curiosity. The books we read transformed me. I did not just read those books. I inhaled them. I consumed them as if they were pills that had the power to cure me of an illness I suffered from. I was especially taken by Nervous Conditions because, unlike the other novels assigned to us, this novel had a young woman as narrator. I emerged from that course — from those books, especially Nervous Conditions — a changed woman, a woman with a lot of questions about her life.

A few months later, in my very first semester of graduate school at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), I enrolled in a course called “African Women” and was re-united with Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel. I read it a second time and felt the same way I felt the first time I read it. I felt that the book was, in so many ways, about me, about my own family, about our struggles. It’s been ten years since 2004, a decade of living and learning now tucked securely in my past. Today, as I complete my third reading of Nervous Conditions, I am more convinced than ever that this book captures the essence of my life story.

I am Tambu, the main character. I am telling my life story, working my mind around it and through it, trying to understand the things that have happened and are happening to me. I am the girl who is not afraid to fight with her brother, to challenge him when he tells her that he is more worthy of great things. Tambu’s voice is my voice. Tambu’s mind is my mind, trying to impose some order on all that seems senseless. I am Tambu mulling over ideas of feminine decorum and notions of decency, as well as patriarchal status differences between male and female relatives. Tambu’s long, dense paragraphs of fluid prose — narration oftentimes unpunctuated in various places, breathless, hurried — is my prose. I lose myself in Tambu’s words, and I find myself in them, at the same time. I lose myself, because I find myself. I lose my sense of being separate from the narrator. I become the women in the story. I am not only Tambu. I am every woman in her family. Their trials and tribulations are my own.

I am Tambu’s cousin Nyasha. I am Nyasha asking profound and heartbreaking questions, interrogating reality constantly. I am Nyasha challenging male authority, turning patriarchy on its head. I am Nyasha confronting my father, fighting with him. I am pushing against the boundaries of women’s worlds, failing to explode those walls or transcend them, and internalizing my grief and disappointment. I am Nyasha using my mind to try to break out of the varied but similar prisons of gender, race, class, colonialism, patrilineage, and age/generation. I am looking for answers and solutions, reading countless books, becoming mired in a mental bog of facts, histories, injustices, and tragedies. I am the young intellectual immersed in a sanity-annihilating world of extreme academia and perpetual education. I am Nyasha losing her mind.

I am Tambu’s aunt Lucia being bold and fearless. I am Lucia using my voice so confidently that it frightens men; I understand that a woman’s voice is a powerfully liberating instrument. I am Lucia showing that a woman owns her body. But I am also Tambu’s mother, whose body has been given over to her husband and his lineage, and whose older children have been taken away, offered up to the voracious cause of education and a financially secure future for the family. I am Tambu’s other aunt (Ma Chido, married to Tambu’s uncle Babamukuru), whose education and employment and marital status have not been able to assure her of a peaceful life or assure her daughter, Nyasha, of a life safe from physical and psychological harm.

I am all these women, but I am especially the two young women, Tambu and Nyasha. I am these schoolgirls, pursuing their studies passionately. Growing my mind in the classroom and beyond, learning to think for myself. I am a young woman who, having been given the opportunity to become educated, can now prove to myself and a doubting world that I am intelligent, capable, and worthy of greatness. I must believe that I am worthy of freedom, of the chance to choose a life in which my fate is not bound to that of a man or what a man might wish for me. I am free to think and speak for myself, free to build a new way of life for myself–a life I am willing to work hard for, to slave over my books for, and beyond that, a life in which I fight to always perceive reality accurately, a life in which I comprehend the world I live in with clarity. I create a life in which I engage with the struggles of every human being, the struggles of women and Africans–struggles that are individual and collective battles for a full, authentic, and self-determining existence. I fight to be recognized as a human and to be valued as such.

It is a testament to Tsitsi Dangarembga’s phenomenal literary gift that I–a woman from Cameroon — can read her book about a girl in Zimbabwe, feel that it is my story, and draw strength from it. Like the young women in Nervous Conditions, I must (as much as possible) decide what to do with my mind, heart, and body. I must chart the best paths for life. I must learn how to think for myself about men, women, power, and freedom. I must realize that education, as empowering as it may be, is no easy or uncomplicated solution to the problems of gender and social inequality. Ten years ago, Nervous Conditions compelled me to take ownership of my being, and today, it still does. I know what this means. It means that this story is timeless and the struggle for equality is far from over. Women’s words and stories can change the world. Tambu’s voice will continue to transform African women’s lives, one reader at a time.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

978-0954702335| 1997| Lynne Rienner Publishers

Review by Viola Allo

ViolaViola Allo is a Cameroonian-born poet and essayist based in the United States. Her first chapbook of poems, Bird From Africa, is included in the Eight New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set published in 2015 by Akashic Books and the African Poetry Book Fund. Viola resides in California and writes at her blog, Letters to Cameroon.

6 Amazing Books by African Women You Have to Read

So Long a Letter by Mariama BâSo Long a Letter is an epistolary novel written in the voice of Ramatoulaye, a Senegalese school teacher. Addressed to her best friend Aissatou, the letters chronicle Ramatoulaye’s emotional journey after her husband’s second marriage and his unexpected death. Considered a classic of contemporary African women’s literature, So Long a Letter is a must-read for anyone interested in African literature and the passage from colonialism to modernism in a Muslim country.

 

A Bit of Difference by Sefi AttaUsing the life of Deola Bello, a single auditor working for a British charity, Atta explores everything from Western perceptions of Africa and African women, to the contradictions inherent in social expectations for women and their abilities to meet, ignore, or defy set expectations.

[Read our interview with Sefi Atta here]

 

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieFifteen-year-old Kambili and her older brother Jaja lead a privileged life in Enugu, Nigeria. They live in a beautiful house, with a caring family, and attend an exclusive missionary school. They’re completely shielded from the troubles of the world. Yet, as Kambili reveals in her tender-voiced account, things are less perfect than they appear.

 

 

Maru by Bessie HeadA moving and magical tale of an orphaned girl, Margaret Cadmore, who goes to teach in a remote village in Botswana where her own people are kept as slaves. Her presence polarizes a community that does not see her people as human, and condemns her to the lonely life of an outcast. In the love story and intrigue that follows Head brilliantly combines a portrait of loneliness with a rich affirmation of the mystery and spirituality of life.

 

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga: This stunning first novel, set in colonial Rhodesia during the 1960s, centers on the coming of age of a teenage girl, Tambu, and her British-educated cousin Nyasha. Tambu, who yearns to be free of the constraints of her rural village, especially the predetermined lives of women, thinks her dreams have come true when her wealthy uncle offers to sponsor her education. But she soon learns that the education she receives at his mission school comes with a price.

July’s People by Nadine Godimer: Set against a fictional civil war during the aparatheid in South Africa, Godimer’s second novel covers a middle-class family of white liberals in South Africa fleeing the horrors of a large scale revolution started by blacks who then find safety in their black servant’s village.

Fiona Leonard: An Interview

The African Book Review hosted a live interview with Fiona Leonard, author of The Chicken Thief on Saturday, July 5th. Here’s a condensed version of our interview, filled with Fiona’s playlist of African songs she listens to when writing, the inspiration behind The Chicken Thief and her plans for her next books.

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Fiona Leonard

ABR: We’re hosting a live interview with ‪@FionaJLeonard author of ‪The Chicken Thief, a fun tale involving chickens, politics, & revolutionaries. Hi Fiona, you’re in Ghana right?

FIONA: Hi ‪@AfricanBkReview thanks so much for suggesting this! Yes, I’m in Accra, Ghana. I’ve been here for almost 5 years.

ABR: I know you’ve travelled around the world a bit. How did you land in Ghana?

FIONA: My husband is Ghanaian (& Filipino). We’d been travelling for a year in the US & Canada and decided to…come to Ghana and spend some time here with his family. We originally thought it would only be for a year or so, but then we stuck around! It’s been a very creative 5 years for us

 

ABR: Especially with you just publishing a book! Tell us a bit about The Chicken Thief

FIONA: It tells the story of a young thief who accidentally rescues a war hero who has been held prisoner for 25 years. That sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to bring down the entire government

ABR: I think that’s what captured my attention when I first read the book, the intersection of harmless chicken and serious politics. I suspect there’s a funny anecdote behind why Alois (the main character) steals chickens? Why chickens? 

FIONA: One day when you have time Google ‘how to hypnotise chickens.’ I found it by accident and it really appealed to me. I loved the idea of someone who could do that. (Apparently Al Gore is a chicken hypnotizer of note!)

ABR: Wait what! I was a bit mind-blown by all the chicken-stealing details! And they’re all real? That’s awesome.

FIONA: Well, I can’t say I actually tested them, but everything I’ve read and watched suggest it’s possible!

ABR: So what was it like doing research for The Chicken Thief

FIONA: I lived in Zimbabwe for 3 years and travelled a lot in the region. I read widely especially about liberation struggles so that was a big part of it. And a lot came from talking to friends and people who had lived through those times. Plus the Internet is a godsend to writers!

ABR: Did that play a role in why ‪it’s set in Africa? 

FIONA: Definitely! There were so many stories I wanted to capture in some way.

ABR: What was it like, getting people to talk about the liberation struggles in Zimbabwe? Was it difficult? Or were people open?

FIONA: No, people talked about it. And there are great films like Flame, Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa (amongst many others) plus all the fascinating works out of South Africa. My story is all fiction though. It’s not a rendering of any particular event or person.

ABR: Fiction sometimes is able to capture the truths that nonfiction can’t. It reminds me of ‪Juan Gelman and ‪Ariel Dorfman, who wrote poems and stories during the Dirty War and disappearances in Argentina and Chile. It sometimes gets to the heart of an issue the way other sources can’t. Did that influence setting the novel in an unnamed African country?

FIONA: I left the country ambiguous, because I didn’t want people to bring preconceptions to the story, especially because the President is a character. I didn’t want people thinking ‘oh she means Mandela’ etc. He could be any one of many. It gives the reader power over the story. Reading should be a dynamic exchange, if you wanted to read this as a story about the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and someone else (reads it as a story about) Mozambique that’s fine with me!

ABR: Going back to Alois, I loved all the complexities he embodies. What ultimately, does he want?

FIONA: I’ve always felt this was a book about independence, both what it means for a country and for an individual. Alois is searching for that independence, finding his place out of the shadow of his father in particular and working out what he has to contribute to the world.

ABR: All your characters have a great sense of wanting to be more or do more for their country. Was it fun creating each character?

FIONA: Yes, I have a soft spot for them all. My family think I’m insane because I talk about the characters as if they are real, which of course they are. And they seem to resonate with readers. I mentioned on Facebook one day that I was thinking about killing one of them in book 2 and there was an outcry as people discussed who it couldn’t be!

ABR: I’m joining that outcry! Also, there’s going to be a second book? That’s exciting! What’s your writing regimen? Do you do anything to get you in the mood to write?

FIONA: Yes, the second book is finished and I’m a chapter and a half away from finishing the third. I try to write every day, 1000 – 1500 words. I have a playlist to fallback on when I can’t get my head into the write space. There’s a nice unintentional misspelling! I meant right space, but write space is true too!

ABR: SHARE? Please?

Continue reading “Fiona Leonard: An Interview”

Zimbabwe: Letter to my unborn child (excerpt) | Batsirai Chigama

Child
I want you to be proud in your skin
So comfortable no one can convince you otherwise
Be weary of brain-pickers i would say
Those who will pick on your brains with shamboks
Like they did on the backs of grandma
In the cotton plantations
Just like your daddy
You will be gifted with brawn
But child that does not mean you are to be a slave
And when you are old like these locks
Tying my world together, at 8
I want your world to be open
To  limitless possibility
I want you to be brave
Just like me when I brought you into this world
To labour for your own happiness
To strive to cut the fences, prejudices
Around the skin you will unashamedly be proud of
Child I seek you to find
All-weather wings
A heart as warm
I want you to find love
Give love
And above all, I want you to be you…

Batsirai E. Chigama is a spoken word poet from Zimbabwe. Her work has been featured in nine poetry anthologies in USA, England, New Zealand and Zimbabwe. Batsirai has participated in a number of festivals and her work is featured on Badilisha Poetry X-Change (Cape Town) and Indiefeed (USA). A published short-story writer, Batsirai also writes on the arts and culture in Zimbabwe, Zimbo Jam. Her website is http://www.batsiraichigama.maumbile.com/ 

Read the Full Poem Here