Zimbabwean poet, literary critic, and academic
Tanaka Chidora is a Zimbabwean poet, literary critic, and academic who teaches Creative Writing and Theories of Literature at the Department of English at the University of Zimbabwe. His poetry collection Because Sadness is Beautiful? is out now. Tendai Rinos Mwanaka, from Mwanaka Media and Publishing, interviews him on his life and writing.
Tendai Rinos Mwanaka (TRM): Who is Tanaka Chidora?
Tanaka Chidora (TC): I am an academic, literary critic, blogger, and writer. I have a single collection of poems titled Because Sadness is Beautiful? and a short story that appears in Chitungwiza Mushamukuru: An Anthology from Zimbabwe’s Biggest Ghetto Town. I am currently working on my first novel and a collection of short stories.
TRM: Where were you born? Give us an idea about your early childhood and how it influenced your writing.
TC: I was born in Masvingo and spent half of my childhood in the village and the other half in Mbare, Harare. One of the things that the village afforded me as a writer is its expansive landscape, which made me appreciate how the landscape cannot be divorced from my understanding of myself and the world I live in. So you will see that in my prose. I try by all means to make the landscape a character, a person. Remember that in ‘Days of the Sun,’ a short story that was published in your anthology (Chitungwiza Mushamukuru), I paint these graphic pictures of the Chigovanyika landscape. The ability to use imagery to describe the landscape was honed in the village where all these vistas were there to be captured. But the truth is, the ghetto of Mbare gave me a certain sensitivity to what it feels like to be human and to live on the margins. So my poems and prose hugely focus on life on the margins, so that the aesthetic that drives my writing is really a ghetto aesthetic, but this time from an insider’s perspective.
TRM: So how do you strike a balance between the village character and the ghetto character, or how do you supress the other... how do you deal with the disjunction, do you compartmentalise?
TC: In poetry, it’s easier to merge the two. I write one piece that captures the boiling turmoil of the ghetto and another nostalgic one that captures the vanishing idyll of the village. I haven’t tried yet to merge the two in a work of prose. The novel I am working on is set in the ghetto. The second prospective novel features the diaries of a commuter aboard the ZUPCO bus, which is still an urban setting. But since the diaries are not just about what happens before boarding the ZUPCO and aboard the ZUPCO, but feature the commuter’s remembrances, there are chances that the narrative will feature village scenes, especially those that are triggered by the events in the city. It’s different with the Shona poems that I am working on though. So far, many of the poems I have written in Shona feature a village voice — slow, measured, so that in the mind of the reader, it’s a broke pensioner recounting his past life, especially his past village life, while imbibing opaque beer at the village township.
TRM: And who is this village pensioner?
TC: [He laughs.] That’s a good question. It’s an imaginary character whose voice I use in my Shona poems. The voice is an amalgamation of the many voices of the elderly pensioners who now stay in the village but who I encountered during my childhood in the village — the uncle who used to work for the Cold Storage Commission back in the good old days of the old currency, when a single pay cheque was enough to afford him a drinking binge that would last for weeks while still taking care of the family; the retired headmaster who still behaves like a headmaster at family gatherings and funerals; the Wenera returnee with exotic paraphernalia like a bicycle and an Okapi knife; the guy who used to work for the NRZ and was the first to own a television in the village; the retired gonyeti driver with unbelievable tales of escapades in foreign lands... But the voice is also mine, created specifically to imagine what I will look like 30 years from now if the current hiccups persist: a retired academic reading stale newspapers on the verandah of a crumbling bottle store while reminiscing on the good old days of academic conferences and trips to foreign lands to the astounded disbelief of young village voyeurs!
TRM: What is your writing process(es) like? How do you come to a writing or how does a writing come to you... And how do you get to the point when you say, ‘Here is what I have created’?
TC: Writing comes to me. I really do not look for it. Like Bukowski, I believe that if it really requires that I should go shopping for it, then it’s not meant for me. It should come to me, find asylum in me and cry for me to get it out onto the laptop’s screen. It’s the waiting though that requires a bit of patience because sometimes it feels like it will never come. You really need to be perceptive enough to be able to recognise the tell-tale signs of its presence when it eventually comes. Sometimes it comes as a word, a phrase, an event. I still remember when we were having a WhatsApp conversation with a friend in 2018 and he mentioned, in passing, something about armed peace. That phrase triggered something in me and I held on to it like it was a lifeline or something. When I finally wrote a poem with the same title, I dedicated it to him. Sometimes it comes when you are watching a movie, or after an argument with your spouse, or after your boss behaves like a Pharisee of sorts. There are times when it comes when you are sad (I love that one!), angry, or when something is raging inside you and you want to send the Gadarene swine somewhere. Writing becomes the exorcism you are desperate for. When I am happy, I sing. Hehehehehe!
TRM: And you are also an academic. You said writing comes to you naturally. Do you think art/creativity can be taught then?
TC: That’s a tough one because I actually teach creative writing at the university. But the thing is, while teaching, I can see that this one has it in them, that one doesn’t. I think teaching merely reinforces what is already in existence in an individual. If it’s not there, if we have to move heaven and earth to plant it in a person, we have to admit that it’s not there. A student may pass my course but go on to avoid writing like it’s a plague or something. Do you know why that happens? Because that student has not been called to write. Writing is a calling. But then, sometimes a potential writer may not be aware of what is inside. Such a writer needs a teacher to lead them by the hand and unveil to them the gem that lies hidden inside.
TRM: What do you teach them?
TC: I can’t say I teach them how to create. I don’t think that can be taught. I expose them to various artistic creations with the hope that somewhere along the way, they discover their voices and create their own pieces. When they bring those pieces to me, and I discover that their pieces can be improved by reading so-and-so’s work, I advise them to do so. That way, they own their voices. I don’t like imposing my voice on students’ work. They will end up creating the world in my own image, and that is the worst kind of dictatorship.
TRM: But as someone looking from outside, why do most of the ‘taught creative writing writers’ write the same way? How does a teacher avoid being a teacher when he is teaching?
TC: I am not sure about the assertion that taught creative writers write the same way, but I believe that teaching people how to write creates stuff that has an acquired taste. Very mechanical stuff. As a teacher, I am aware of the multifarious stirrings of the human mind and I must be open-minded enough to accept that my way is not the only way. My students are teachers in their own right! Sometimes they come up with these amazing pieces from which I learn a thing or two. One of the things that I have always tried to inculcate in my students is that during my lectures, we create together. We write together. We sometimes create these crazy pieces in which each of us contributes a single sentence or line. We call it ‘The Thing Without a Name’ (obviously inspired by Naipaul). The idea came when my creative friend (Millicent Yedwa) and I decided to write a poem titled ‘Tales of a Cat in its Ninth Life.’ We are still writing that poem. But what interested me was the fact that each of us interpreted the title differently, and so what we have are alternating verses that read like two alternating worlds. This means we cannot see the world using the same eyes. Creative writing is simply describing the world the way we see it. So I can’t impose my way of seeing things. I have to let go and let inspiration lead. And that’s where things become really interesting!
TRM: Okay, let’s go back to the ghetto character. How do you convert garbage into art? Ghetto life is grim and ungraceful... by what process do you turn it into aesthetics?
TC: I think literature by its very nature utilises dystopian conditions to create terrifying beauty. That’s what it does. Look at my anthology, published under your stable. I wrote those poems in 2018 and 2019 when the country and individual lives were undergoing serious changes, largely in the negative (except for a few lives). My philosophy is: when confronted with such grim realities, what should a writer do? Cry?
So writing becomes a way of creating order out of the chaos of life, a way of trying to find meaning in this otherwise complicated existence of ours.
As a Zimbabwean, this should be familiar. Writing, for a Zimbabwean writer like me, is the only home possible. And if writing is a home, it has to be beautiful, so that even if I am capturing the grim reality of Mbare, I have to do it in a beautiful way, you know, that beauty that is so raw and honest that a reader would want to embark on a trip to Mbare to see for themselves.
So even where I am describing death (and I have done so when I wrote two poems about my grandmother’s death), I have to redeem a certain beauty from it. I hate mourning and wailing. Take coronavirus for instance. Most of the poems I have read should not be allowed to get into a hospital ward where coronavirus patients are being treated. They will die from the mourning contained therein. Something must be redeemed from the drudgery of this life. Writing affords us that opportunity.
TRM: What are your interests outside literature and writing?
TC: I love music. I love listening to music; I love creating it. When my young brother was still alive, I would occasionally visit his studio and we would create music for fun. I actually have a couple of songs that we made from those occasional visits to the studio. But since his passing, I haven’t really done any music.
TRM: You were close to your young brother?
TC: Very close. He actually was not my blood brother. He was this talented young man who stayed in Mbare but looked up to me as a brother. He was on his way to something really big and international when his life was cut short at the tender age of 25. I wrote a poem for him titled ‘Nostalgia (to Leeroy Nyamande).’ It’s there in Because Sadness is Beautiful?
TRM: I suppose writing the poem was your way of dealing with his loss? Is that your main way to deal with loss?
TC: “Grief tastes like sugar if we move our tongues along the right edges.” I have forgotten the name of the poet who said those words but I find them to be very apt. So yeah, writing poems is also my way of dealing with loss.
TRM: If he were alive what song would you like to do with him?
TC: ‘The things we do.’ It’s the last song I had written before his passing.
TRM: What kind of music do you like?
TC: Soul; lovers’ rock, 80s and 90s RnB, hip hop.
TRM: And in Zimbabwe... what is your favourite music?
TC: I am really selective. I like the Zimdancehall Movement for its raw and petulant delivery. But I do not like all of the artists in that movement. I like Poptain, Ras Caleb, Dadza D, Guspy Warrior, Kinnah, Seh Calaz, Freeman, Jay C, Celscious, DaRuler. I like Tocky Vibes too.
Outside the Zimdancehall movement, I like Ex Q, Trevor Dongo, Alexio Kawara, Nox, Charlie Kay, Rocqui, Kikky Badass, Blackbird, Junior Brown, Munetsi, Tehn Diamond, Noble Stylez, Ngoni Kambarami, etc.
There are particular urban grooves artists whom I wish would bounce back, like Sebede. I like Zim hip hop, especially where the flow is like the late King Pinn’s.
TRM: I was reading the latest academic work by Zvikomborero Kapuya, Not Yet Post Colonial: Essays on Ghetto Being, Cosmology and Space in Post Colonial Zimbabwe, where he dwelt on Zimdancehall music in one of the chapters. I also read an essay from Rumbidzai Doreen Tiwenga on Zimdancehall... I also read about your interest in the music... Why are the young Zimbabwe academics interested in this music that sounds to older listeners shallow most of the time? What is attracting you to this music?
TC: I think it’s the subversive potential of the music. Zimdancehall is a youthful genre, and for some of us whose youth era is fast disappearing in the turmoil of being Zimbabwean, this is it! It’s a way of throwing all decorum to the wind and confronting our realities with the raw, petulant, and vulgar tools at our disposal. So for some academics like myself, and those you have mentioned, there is this attempt to find revolutionary meaning in it even where some of the musicians might not be really aware of the philosophy driving their music.
TRM: What did you find is the philosophy that drives this music?
TC: It’s a philosophy that is developed from living on the margins for too long. The youth are touted as the future, yet for long they see that future being jeopardized by the politics of the elders. So what the Zimdancehall aesthetic does is to throw away the baby and the bathwater. In other words, they reject being programmed youths. And they do this by creating art at the margins and then coaxing themselves to the centre of the national imaginary using the tools that are at their disposal, in this case, music. Some of them may not be able to articulate this philosophy the way I am doing here, but many revolutionary acts were carried out by people who were not even aware of what they were doing.
TRM: What then is your job as an academic or critic?
TC: My job is to explain such musical phenomena and assign meaning to them.
TRM: What poem or poet do you hate?
TC: I don’t hate. But I do not like to see evidence of a poet trying too hard to impress the reader!
TRM: Are you scared of throwing a rotten egg on someone?
TC: Not really. But I am really incapable of hating a writer. I may not like their work, but hate them? No.
TRM: What poem or poet do you love?
TC: I love Bukowski and his philosophy of writing. If you look at his philosophy very closely, you will see that Bukowski believes that writing should not be hard labour. It should come naturally, by itself. If it’s not there, don’t force it. That is why I do not like pretentious pieces. A poet should not make poetry go where the poet has not been before.
TRM: What makes a great poem?
TC: The poet’s honesty. You should read a poem and commune with the poet’s soul, not something created outside the poet’s inner universe.
TRM: Tell us about the writing scene in your country.
TC: People are writing. We have all sorts of writers. What we do not have is a publishing industry. That one is dead. Really, really dead. So for many local authors, after writing a book, one has to think of how to push volumes. So you see most of them lugging suitcases full of copies of their most recent books. I don’t think a real industry should make writers do that. There should be people who concentrate on the publishing and marketing side while the writer concentrates on creating the product. But in Zimbabwe, such structures are dead.
TRM: What do you think destroyed those structures? And what can be done to rebuild them?
TC: Most things hinge on the economy, I guess.
TRM: If you were a poem what form will you be in?
TC: Free verse!
TRM: Thank you for the chat. Are there any parting words?
TC: Parting words? There ain’t no parting. Let’s just say, so long, and thanks for the chat.
TRM: Hahaha, okay man.