THE POWER OF WRITING
By Chenjerai Hove
The word ‘power’ always makes me jittery, nervous. All sorts of connotations flood my mind and heart. Witch power? Whose power? Power for what purpose? Who are the victims and the victimizers in this power? For, in my works, I perceive my characters as either victims of power or victimizer, or even those who are unsure of what they are.
In a succinct analysis of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s portrayal of power in ‘autumn of the Patriarch’ Indian critic, Alok Bhalla, describes «power as a desolating pestilence”. Indeed, power can be a disease, an aliment that devours the tissue around it as it engulfs the whole body, body social and body politic and body cultural.
As I looked at the topic, I immediately remembered a confrontation I had many years ago as a young, 30-year old President of the Zimbabwe Writers Union, The Minister of Culture had mad a speech on public television in which he ordered writers to write socialist novels, poems and plays. When I challenged him to write a model «socialist novel»or poem, he was furious with me.
‘How dare you challenge me in public like that? I was elected by voters, thousands of them. Who elected you?’ he fumed at me.
I was initially cowed down by it all, but eventually I regenerated my courage. ‘Sir, how long is your mandate?’ I asked.
‘Of course, five years, and I have to deliver,’ he swore at me.
I quickly reminded him that my electorate was my conscience, and my conscience elected me for life, not five years. And from then on, his officials were instructed to find the means and reasons for which I could be arrested.
We were talking about different shades of power. He was talking about ‘power as a desolating pestilence’. Political power as quantified in numbers. He wanted to impose his definition of culture on me as a writer, to force me and other writers to receive literary recipes from him despite the fact that he is incapable of writing his own speeches.
We were already deep into the unfathomable game of constituencies. His was the constituency of physical things; mine was the constituency of the human imagination, the many landscapes, which make us much more than the number of roads or schools, or bridges the minister could build.
For, in his realm of power, the politician can insist on building a bridge where there is not even a river.
Armed with political power, the politician strives to attain the ultimate, the hearts and minds of the people. But when he tries to get there, he/she discovers the writer, the artist, has been there for a long time. The constituency of the mind and human feelings and beautiful emotions was never the province of political power.
To write is to fight the burden of silence. Communication or death by silence, the writer seems to say.
Language is essentially inherited from others, from society, from family and friends. And the writer borrows it from his/her times, freshens it up and gives it back to society as if to say: ‘Here, receive a new language I have created from the one you gave me’.
That is the difference between humans and other species. A lion will roar the same way it roared thousands of years ago. A cockerel will crow in the same manner it did hundreds of years ago. But humans will use language in different ways every day, moulding and re-moulding it to describe their new desires and destinies. Thus, new identities are created, new dreams dreamt, and new pillars of visions are born.
As we write our books in the solitude of our small spaces, we remember that we, as writers, are memory-keepers. We record the dreams of our times and those to come. We are witnesses who stand up and say: look, I saw, recorded it beautifully, a history, which I soften, neglected by historians.
Writers record the vicissitudes of human joys and sorrows, human doubt and hope. Literature is a celebration, an acknowledgement of the encounters we have made and are still to make as we laugh, cry and yearn for that which makes us better human beings.
Literature searches for multifaceted possibilities of life. It argues through the portrayals of different characters and landscapes of history, emotions, human thought and madness.
The story, the poem, the play, the song, is all memory. They fight the disease of amnesia witch so afflicts many in our modern societies, especially those with the power of physical constituencies. New words, beautifully crafted into story, poem or whatever, become the jewels of human endeavour to survive.
We live in dangerous times where dictators of all sorts specialise in transforming men, women and children into corpses, and turn flower gardens into graveyards. Faced with those who daily perfect the technology of torture and murder, the writer, the word, becomes fragile.
The Malian poet, Ahmed Baba, of many centuries ago, exiled from his homeland, Djenne, and living in exile in Tombactou, was asked what he wished to send to his friends back home. He thought briefly and said: ‘Take my word to my friends so they continue to remember me’.
Since the task of writer is to write well, it also means literary activity is an endless search, a journey, sometimes without maps, but a journey. While the politician holds what he/she calls ‘the truth’, a write writes in order to search for truths, to doubt it if he thinks he/she has ever found it. The numerous characters in a novel are all diverse sides of truths that are equally valid. As the Igbo of Nigeria say, if you want to know a masked spirit, you must look at it from all angles.
Now, let us talk about the power of literature, the power of fragility of the word, written or spoken, from the pen or mouth of the artist. Sometimes I think words are fragile, the writer is a fragile as his/or her words wich are easily blown away by the turbulent winds.
In my poem titled ‘Book’, I end by expressing my doubts about the power of the word, books:
‘I will not write another book,
I will only dream,
For, books burn
In the heart
In the mind.’
(From ‘Rainbows in the Dust’, 1998)
Faced the burdens of illiteracy, economic collapse, and torturous censorship, sometimes the writer is tempted to think writing is a futile exercise.
But then, I hear the voice from many years ago, the voice of a poet friend:
‘Oh, a book,
What a universe.
And transforms human conscience.’
By transforming one human conscience, by shaping the dreams and aspirations of one person, the book becomes the architect of the human soul. For a book, a novel, a poem, is asked by the reader to come home, to be with the reader, to subvert the thinking and emotions of the reader in order to create a new, different and open perspective or perspectives on life. The book is normally not forced down the throat of the reader.
A good novel is subversive. It subverts the value systems, beliefs and traditions, which the reader sometimes thinks sacrosanct. In The literature, the individual searches for his or her individuality, but ends up discovering the collective identity of all human beings, the flower of what it is to be human, to be free.
Why, then is good literature so enchanting? It can enchant the reader to a point where they might even cry as their favourite character dies prematurely. A book can make people dance in celebration of e new vision, a transformed life. Its effect on the reader is unknowable. The new images, metaphors and sagas created by the writer from the ordinary things of life become new flowers in the gardens of the reader’s imagination.
The writer does not create in a vacuum. He/she has language created by the human condition, and wants to use it to communicate, first with himself/herself, but then in the process discovering ‘the other’ out there who immediately resonates with the old words fumigated by new inspiration into becoming a new language.
While Western philosophers claimed that man’s mission on earth is to conquer nature, African philosophers said a person’s mission on earth is to harmonize with other aspects of nature. The writer recognizes that and so makes trees and animals talk, dream and aspire to a better and comfortable life.
To write to name. And most of the time, to name is to dominate.
The writer seeks to explore the vagaries of the human obsession with dominance over other aspects of life. The political, social and environmental problems we face today are born of this obsession to name and dominate. Literature seeks to reject this dominance, which brings amongst our midst, unheard of diseases of social, psychological and emotional disequilibrium. Literature, of essence, fights against the fragmentation of human life. It seeks to draw a total map of human life: its misery and solitude, its deep wounds and its hopes.
Even as we mourn our dead decapitated and mutilated by dictators and tyrants’ new technology of torture, literature reminds us that we are not alone: we have words to name the beauty of the remnants of our hopes and visions. Wounded society is returned to its essential humanity by words, by music, by dance and the paintings, which draw the map of our desire to be free once more, to reclaim the beauty of joy.
I can claim also that a well-written and inspirited piece of writing is magic. People love magic. They want to enchanted by that which seems simple but complex. The trade of the magician is also the trade of the writer, to enchant, to mesmerised, to inspire.
Almost a century ago, readers were enchanted by H.G. well’s short story,‘The Machine Stops’. Wells was warning society against the obsession with machines and technology. And today, when the computer, the washing machine, the dishwasher breaks down, it is enough to render the occupants of the house completely useless.
The writer’s task is also to see, to write and to warn. But the warnings they give to their societies often force them into the exile of geographical distance from the motherland, but worst of all, the exile from the society which nourishes their daily creativity. Sometimes their search for our multiple identities becomes blurred by the hunger to break those borders, which stifle the fertility of the mind and heart; the landscapes are part of us until we die.
Writing gives us the capacity to water the flowers of our hope, to paint the many complex colours of possibilities. It celebrates life’s strengths as well as its fragility.
The Power of Writing is one of three text published in a newly released book
by Zimbabwean author Chenjerai Hove. It was originaly a speech
delivered by Hove at the ICORN General Assembly in Barcelona in April