The short story tradition

The short story tradition

Luis Honwana’s We killed Mangy-Dog and other stories

Mozambican writer Luis Bernardo Honwana’s only short story book is called We killed Mangy-Dog and other stories. It is a very small book of only seven short-short stories. In the bookshops and libraries, one could easily bypass it in search of “bigger” books.

Published first in Portuguese in 1964 and translated into English for African writers series by Dorothy Guedes in 1969, this book of “Mozambican stories,” is a pathfinder of sorts in the Southern African anti-colonial short story writing traditions.

The uninitiated might not know that while the novel is prominent in East and West African writing in non-African languages, the short story is arguably “the genre of Southern Africa” and Honwana of Mozambique is a trendsetter in that regard.

Nearly every Southern African writer who has become prominent today started with short-stories or has a short story collection somewhere along the way. Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, Charles Mungoshi’s Coming of the Dry Season, Njabulo Ndebele’s Fools and Other Stories, Ezekiel Mphahlele’s Corner B, Alan Paton’s Debbie Go Home and many others are short stories books.

Even the so called novels from Southern African tend to be merely long-short stories sometimes called novellas. One only has to see the very thin volumes of ‘novels’ like Gordimer’s July’s People and Laguma’s In The Fog of The Season’s End. The short-story is “the genre of Southern Africa” and the reasons for this are yet to be properly established.

Maybe the very obvious reason is that colonial Southern Africa quickly developed a vigorous magazine and periodical culture whose limited space tended to attract the publication of shorter forms like the poem and the short-story. Both Honwana and Mungoshi’s short-stories first appeared in magazines in both Rhodesia and Mozambique. It is with the short story that the Southern African writers tend to cut their teeth.

The very acute nature of colonialism in Southern Africa demanded that the writer be subtle and muffled and the best form to do that in is usually the short-story.

The short-story of Southern Africa tends to be of a relatively shorter length when compared to short-stories from other parts of the world. The author is under some pressure to tell his story in as short a space as possible. In fact these stories reminds one of letters. Honwana’s “The hands of the Blacks” is just about three pages but the burden and depth of that story is infinite.

The narrator in this kind of short story is usually a child. The child grows up alongside the development of the short story collection. The child in these short stories is a clever technique to suggest a certain innocence when, in fact, these children lead the reader into very important issues.

Most anti-colonial short-stories from colonial Southern Africa tend to end in an inconclusive way. They merely hazard a suggestion or just wander into a king of poetic haziness. They disappear into the matter or vegetation like some skilled guerilla fighters. Njabulo Ndebele’s “The Test” ends with:
He felt, warm, deep inside him…
But, strangely enough, he wished
he could turn round as many
times as possible… And as he slid
into deep sleep, he smiled, feeling
so much alive.

This kind of tradition has however stuck forever. Even more contemporary short-story writers of the region still use it long after anti-colonialism.
The short-story has also become more attractive as it imitates, only in technical ways, both the high school composition and the traditional folk-tale. It has a special attraction for the new writer but it develops into an addiction. In Zimbabwe, Mungoshi has actually returned to the short story after his several prize-winning novels. Stanley Nyamfukudza even wrote two short story books after his more prominent novel, The Non Believer’s Journey.

Born in Maputo in the early 1940s the only visible tradition in black Portuguese writing was poetry – because poems tend to escape censorship more easily – Honwana first trained as a journalist. Being conscious of both art and politics, he got the mentorship of Jose Craveirinha, the great Mozambican poet and got involved with FRELIMO, for which he got jailed between 1964 and 67.

Using a style akin to those of American mid century realist writers like Steinbeck, Caldwell and Hemmingway, Honwana developed a very sensitive style of short story writing. He feels deeply into character, the weather, birds and animals. Being a painter and journalist with close leanings to film, Honwana draws meaningful and memorable pictures in his stories:

            Mangy-dog had blue eyes with 
            no shine in them at all, but
            they were enormous and always
            filled with tears that trickle
            down his muzzle.  They frightened
            me, those eyes, so big, and looking
            at me like someone asking for 
            something without wanting to 
            say it.

That eye for detail and an in-depth sympathy for animals is also evident in Mungoshi’s “Shadows on the Wall” when the boy narrator watches chickens moving in from the rain:

            One by one, our chickens began
            to come out of the cold.
            There is something in a cold
            chicken’s voice that asks for
            something you don’t know how 
            to give, something more than corn.

In the Southern African anti colonial short-story the human victims see their own victimhood in animals. In Honwana’s “We killed Mangy-Dog” the boy narrator sympathises with the sickly dog. The dog is an outsider, a thing of the fringes which rots as it lives.

In this community where the divisions between black and white are synonymous with rich and poor, the moving-dead dog symbolizes the sickness of society and the long and painful journey to justice. Followed and described intensely by the boy-narrator, the dog stands for inherent vulnerability. By the time the dog gets executed, one feels that the boys have killed a fellow human being.

The story that “pretends” to talk about a sickly dog is internally talking about the segregative nature of Portuguese assimilation and especially how blacks stay in the fringes.
The issues of land and social space are also very central to the Southern African anti-colonial short-story. Sometimes they are expressed as cause of an overwhelming vulnerability. In Honwana’s “Nhinguitimo” one Virgula Oito is deeply connected to his land in the Valley of Goana. The narrator says Oito would launch into “a description of his maize, his beans, his groundnuts, his cabbages, his potatoes” and “his black earth of the valley.”
Oito goes on and on until he learns that the white man wants to acquire his land. He goes into a frenzy.

But, the move to take over Goana from the natives is put in motion. As portrayed in many other Southern African short-stories, the native will not do anything, at least in the interim. Even his colleagues cannot help Oito. Ironically he attacks his fellow black men and the whole administrative settlement is thrown into disarray. There is an outburst of emotion with no seemingly useful and constructive action.

In Honwana’s “Dino” a whiteman seduces a man’s daughter right in front of the father. After the public sexual act, the white man gives the father (Madala) a bottle of wine. After casting “his eyes upon the anxious faces surrounding him,” Madala “swallows” (the wine) “in one gulp, allowing a good part of it to wet his beard and run down his neck.”
This could be clearly one of the most pathetic moments in Southern-African Literature when the white man is not content with only driving the black worker like a horse but also rapes and ravishes his daughter.

Being very short in length, this kind of story tends only to go round an episode and a single character. It cannot suggest “revolution” in an obvious and progressive way as the novel would. If anything, this kind of short-story depends on lining up victims in order for the reader to see through the victimizer. In “Dina” the white man’s level of inhumanity – ravishing a girl in front of her father – leaves the reader with a never-ending revulsion. The stage for revolt is therefore well set.

When one goes through the seven short stories of Honwana, one senses an effect brought forward by “piling” and “cumulating”. The Southern African anti-colonial short story, in that regard, makes its point collectively and not individually. That is achievable because these stories tend to come in collections.

For instance although Mungoshi’s Coming of the Dry Season seems light and readable, the stories are arranged to “score” a pyramid effect. The first story is “a boy’s story” but by the time you reach “The Accident,” you realise that you have a Nationalist book in your hands.

Although Luis Bernardo Honwana’s name is not frequently referred to, he set into motion a very rich short story tradition whose variations are discernible throughout Southern Africa. He brought poetry to prose. He brought useful simplicity to the written word. Above all, he brought useful understatement and ambiguity to the local short story. Some of his characters say simple things which, however, call for reading… reading and re-reading.

  • Memory Chirere is a Zimbabwean writer. He is with the University of Zimbabwe where he lectures in Literature.
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