I have made several attempts to write creatively – but there is something that I have discovered in my writing. Inspiration almost always comes to me in my mother language – no matter where I am. I have tried to convert the lines that have come to me in my native language into English to try and please as well as show those around me that I am a writer across languages, but my lines in English are never the same as they come to me in Shona.
I have had the opportunity to occasionally work with an organisation that serves to help develop creative talent in young writers called the Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe. My main job with BWAZ is to help upcoming writers improve their writing through workshops. I have realised one thing in all the years I have worked with these young writers and that has helped me realise that perhaps research should be done into inspiration and the language to use when writing.
I have read a good number of manuscripts by young men and women in Zimbabwe and have reached a conclusion that there is talent in Zimbabwe, but a good number of the young writers are writing in the wrong language. You see, the cancer of colonialism has spread in Zimbabwe to such an extent that most people feel it is fashionable to speak and write in English. Yet, the sad thing is that a good number of Zimbabweans will never be able to tame that foreign language. It takes a few exceptional individuals like the late Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera who once said about his use of the English language – I took to the English Language the way a duck takes to water. And indeed his use of the English idiom shows that.
I have many a time been asked by my own people – why do you write in Shona especially when you have travelled far and wide? I have not found a clear straight direct answer, and I have been thinking of an answer to this question and now I think I may make an attempt.
The Language I Cry In
There are so many reasons why I write in Shona which is one of the two main languages spoken in Zimbabwe. I have spoken the language from birth until now. It is the language I think, dream, cry and laugh in. Because I have this language that I do not have to fight with when I need to express myself, I feel it is folly for me to try and express myself in a language that does not come to me naturally. I feel I am not talented with the language the way Dambudzo Marechera was.
For me, writing in Shona is liberating. When I courted my wife I did that in Shona and I still remember the conversation very well. All poetry!
As a student, I spent three years in Norway doing my Masters and after that I went to the United States for one and half years on a Fulbright Scholarship to teach. One thing that I still vividly recall in those years abroad was how tired I got after being a slave to languages that were not mine, languages that have their own rules. I missed very simple things like Kwaziso/Ukubingelelana on the then Radio 2. It was when I was in Norway that my award winning novel Mapenzi was born. I supposed I did not have problems writing the novel because after spending the day listening to Norwegian and talking in English, the characters in my novel would take me back home and would talk to me in a beautiful language that I understood. The novel became a means of escape from English and Norwegian, from the isolation of language.
My novel allowed me in the coldest of Norwegian winters to slip away and join my folk at my grandfather’s farm where I grew up herding cattle and was in constant touch with the soil, trees and insects. The novel allowed me to revisit stories I grew up listening to that featured Hare and Baboon as the main characters - a fantasy world in which animals interacted with human beings but reflecting real-life situations in the human world.
I think that one’s childhood plays a big part in how they develop as artists. What I write, and who I am is mainly a result of my interaction with the thick bushes, the imposing Pfura and Mavhuradonha mountains, their barking baboons, the rivers – the fragrances of nature and the carefree laughter of women coming from the well to fetch water, and even the lowing of a cow that has been separated from its calf as the sun went down. The beauty of my people's language brought out through the storytelling evenings, the riddles, proverbs, songs, dances, games - all so difficult to anglicise are so dear to me.
My first serious attempt at creative writing was in Shona when I was in form one. I remember classmates accusing me of having plagiarised the story I had written for the creative writing exercise. Fortunately, my teacher defended me and challenged my classmates to bring the book from which I had plagiarised the story. Instead, my Shona teacher asked me to go and read my story to teachers in the school staff room. I still recall my tiny voice silencing about fifteen or so teachers who were in the staff room. That experience gave me confidence, and I have felt that Shona is my language that can do and say what I want and how I want it.
As I continued exploring writing, I used to also read a lot of Zimbabwean novels in Shona and English. I vividly remember the beauty of Shona novels especially those written by Charles Mungoshi and Patrick Chakaipa in particular. Charles has a special way of telling stories in a very simple manner. I also recall that because of my love for Shona.
We are faced with a dilemma in Zimbabwe. We speak and write in English alongside our indigenous languages, but we can’t be called masters of the English language or of our mother languages. English is a foreign language which we love and abuse so much.
Besides writing in Shona because it is my language and I love it, I think the experience I got while assessing manuscripts for the Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe made me feel the need to help young writers de-mystify the language.
Most budding writers feel that if you write in Shona you are not worth mentioning. Besides, most of them have been to schools that make it a punishable offence to speak in any other language that is not English. Yet, one will see that a lot of these young writers we have may show flashes of brilliance but lack the ability to enslave the English language to say what they want to say. Sadly, it is not just the English language, but also even their own mother languages. The grammatical, spelling and poor sentence construction is shocking. The result is what Alan Paton stated in his novel Cry the Beloved Country that – The tragedy is not that things are broken, the tragedy is that thy cannot be mended! Despising our languages in preference of English has become institutionalised such that undoing it will need a good policy that will be implemented yesterday.
Copyright © Ignatius Mabasa, Harare, Zimbabwe