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Defining the short story



Often you hear students clumsily say “a short story is a small novel.” The more desperate ones indicate that a short story is an incomplete novel! It is as if a short story comes as a result of a writer’s failed attempt to write a novel.
You get a feeling that the general society thinks that every writer has to write a novel to become a real writer. I have met some writers who actually believe that. It may offend as there are many writers out there who have been writing and publishing nothing but short stories all their lives. It is a form that gives them strength.

Some more technical voices say that a short story is usually a brief prose narrative working with a specific idea, few characters in a single locality and is able to be read in one sitting.
It is clear that short narratives and tales had existed for centuries in one form or another but the ‘short story’ proper emerged in a blitzkrieg of 19th-century magazine publishing, reached its apotheosis with Chekhov, and became one of the great 20th-century art forms.

It is important to explore the various dynamics in defining the short story and even try pursuing the history of the short story itself as given by various key scholars. Abrams, M. H in 1999 gives what appears to me like a straightforward definition statement on the short story:
“A short story is a piece of prose fiction, which can be read in a single sitting. Emerging from earlier oral storytelling traditions in the 17th century, the short story has grown to encompass a body of work so diverse as to defy easy characterisation. At its most prototypical, the short story features a small cast of named characters, and focuses on a self-contained incident with the intent of evoking a “single effect” or mood. In doing so, short stories make use of plot, resonance, and other dynamic components to a far greater degree than is typical of an anecdote, yet to a far lesser degree than a novel.”

However, according to scholar Viorcio Patea, writing in 2012, one unique feature of studies on the short story is that those like Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melvillie and Antony Chekhov, who theorised about the short story genre in the nineteenth century, were not critics but practitioners themselves.
It means that unlike the novel, the short story theory is mainly coming from amongst insiders. This renders short story theory as a thoroughly peer reviewed enterprise because short story theory erupts from practice. It is defined right at its source by its very producers.

Viorica Patea further points out that the short story stretches back from fables, romance, folktales and ballads, but the short story as we know it today, “has suffered a theoretical neglect in comparison with other genres like poetry, drama, the epic and novel. The short story tends to be a melting point of all these genres…”
It is apparent that although people have written short stories for hundreds of years, it was not until the nineteenth century that the short story came to be seen as a genre in its own right. Nineteenth century critics and writers discussed the short stories in ways that encouraged readers to think about them as separate from novels. The subject matter, form and general characteristics of the short story came under close consideration and by the end of the nineteenth century, the short story as we know it today had become a well developed form in Europe and North America.

It is Charles May’s view that “a genre only truly comes into being when the conventions that constitute it are articulated within the larger conceptual context of literature as a whole.” You will notice that this did not happen for the short story until 1846 and the years later than that.
Charles May describes Poe as “the first short story theorist who brought into discussion issues of form, style, length and design of the short story.” May further states that, “Poe’s critical comments on the short story towards the middle of the nineteenth century, are responsible for the birth of the short story as a unique genre.”

Indeed, as JC Lawrence intimates, it was not until 1846 when Edgar Allan Poe aptly described the short story as a short piece of prose fiction meant to produce a single effect and being brief enough in length to be able to be read in one sitting.
Poe writes of the short story in a review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales and describes it, in his own words, as a prose narrative that is able to bring out ‘a certain unique single effect to be wrought out.’ Firstly, Edgar Allan Poe dismisses the notion of the writer’s artistic intuition at the moment of writing and argues that good writing is methodical and analytical, not spontaneous.

Secondly, Paul argues that a good piece of writing should be short and should be facilitated by the limit of a single setting. Poe may also have been referring to poetry or creative writing in general but he also noted that the short story is superior to the novel for this reason.
Thirdly, Poe wrote that a good tale should be produced only after the author has decided how it is to end and which emotional response or effect he wishes to create, commonly known as “the unity of effect.”

From the rest of Poe’s definition of a short story, scholar Mary Louis Pratt is largely captivated around the idea of a “single effect to be wrought.” This means that a short story is a concentrated form of narrative prose fiction in all its elements like setting, character, length, purpose and language. This is better illuminated by Brander Mathews who postulates in 1963 that “the short story deals with a single character, a single event, a single emotion, or the series of emotions called forth by a single situation.” The word ‘single’ indeed sets aside the short story from the other forms.

J. A. Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms of 1999 defines the short story as a brief prose narrative working with a specific idea, few characters in a single locality and is able to be read in one sitting. The idea of it being consumed in one sitting, links the short story with the appearance of journals and magazines. With no periodical market for the novel in the US, writers of fiction in the first half of the 19th century borrowed the form of the short tale from German authors such as Wilhelm Kleist and E. Hoffmann and altered the form to suit American newspapers. The result was the literary form we now know as the short story
In 2011, D. Fulton proposed that in contemporary usage, the term short story most often refers to a work of fiction no shorter than 1 000 and no longer than 20 000 words. Stories of fewer than 1 000 words are sometimes referred to as “short short stories”.

As recent as 1992, J. Brown writes that short narratives and tales had existed for centuries in one form or another but the short story emerged as a stand-alone genre in the 19th-century in Europe and the United States with the rise of the magazine and the journal publishing, to become became one of the great 20th-century art forms.
Brown further argues that the technology for printing was improving and cheap magazines were widely read. Many of the Victorian novels we now think of as single volumes were originally published as serial magazines.

In line with the above, that is why Frank O’Connor considers the short story to be both an essentially ‘modern art’, attuned to ‘modern conditions – to printing, science, and individual religion’, and, in its anti-traditionalist versions, a distinctly literary one that will persist for as long as ‘culture’ survives the onslaught of ‘mass civilization.’ The reason for its pre-eminence in the twentieth century, O’Connor argues, is that it manages to embody ‘our own attitude to life’.

There are indications that in the United States, the development and rise of the short story were the result of simple market forces which forced out the serialised novel from magazines and periodicals and replaced them with short stories.
Because urban populations in America were so unstable, with workers moving from city to city in search of new lands and employment, newspapers found that serializing novels was now bad business.

Advertisement space was worthless alongside a chapter from a novel that no one lived in town long enough to read. In Europe, British novelists like Dickens and Trollope had published their novels first in serial form, and then collected the chapters together to sell as single books. American novelists had very few venues for serialization, which is why the shape of the American literary novel differs so radically from its British counterpart: chapters from serialized novels read like “episodes of soap operas—each chapter opens with a crisis that is soon resolved and closes with the introduction of a new crisis or cliff hanger which will be resolved at the beginning of the next instalment.”

In America, the short story, which could be read in one sitting, became more preferable to serialised novels. That is how the short story may have won the place in periodicals and magazines.
O’Connor Frank makes another important observation on the short story. He says the basic difference between the novel and the short story is that in the latter we always find “lonely voices of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society.” He actually associates the short story with rebellion as it gives space to key individual characters throughout the narrative. O’Connor feels that the protagonist of the short story “is less an individual with whom the reader can identify than a submerged population group; that is, someone outside the social mainstream.” It pays attention to particular troubled individuals in a society that is trying to submerge them.

As Mary Louise illuminates in a theoretical discussion in 1981, presents eight very illuminating ways that the short story is different from the novel. These are as follows: 1. where the novel tells a life, the short story tells a fragment of a life. 2. The short story deals with a single thing. The novel deals with many things. 3. The short story is a sample; the novel is the whole hog. 4. The novel is a whole text, the short story is not. 5. The short story is often the genre used to introduce new subject matters into the literary arena. 6. The short story lends itself to orality. The novel affirms writtenness, using the authoritative voices of writing. 7. The novel has its origins in history, the short story in anecdote and folklore. 8. The short story’s generic status is the widespread tendency for it to be viewed as a craft rather than an art.

Julio Cortazar’s definition of the short story is however most graphic and therefore revealing: “the short story resembles the photograph, which isolates a fragment from the whole, circumscribes it, and paradoxically uses its limitation in order to open it up…”
Nearly every Southern African writer who has become prominent today started with short-stories or has a short story collection somewhere along the way. 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.

Another suggested reason, among many, is that 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.
It is no accident therefore that 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.

Memory Chirere

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Harnessing imagery in writing



All writing is imaginative. Every piece of writing reflects the artistry and mental resourcefulness of the writer.

Effective writing also reflects the colourfulness of the writer’s mind and heart; their ability to paint the world to the reader and their capacity or facility of taking the reader with them to beautiful mental and physical and picturesque journeys.

In this piece we focus on how we can hone our creative abilities through the use of imagery and the effect of using colourful and evocative imagery in writing. Let’s go! What if I say, “Learn to prepare wisely and meticulously in time,” you will still grasp the message in a very clear way, isn’t it? But would that be interesting and colourful?

But what if we put it in a colourful manner, “Make hay whilst the sun still shines,” you really grasp the colour and the full import of the message, isn’t it? That’s what imagery does to your writing; it allows you to feel, touch and smell what you are reading.

There is no doubt that the proverb, “make hay whilst the sun still shines” has taken you to the countryside, in a farming community. You hear the bleating of sheep and the neighing of horses.

At the same time, you visualise the good farmer gracefully at work, cutting grass which he is piling in orderly stacks, preparing fodder for his animals in the future. The sun’s rays buoy his attempts and ensure that the hay is prepared with care and colour.

Thus, the point of good imagery is to capture in full detail a world that allows the reader to grasp and enjoy using their five senses. Let me give you a small but beautiful extract which further drives home the point.

“With his machete he detached a brittle clod, broke it on a stone. It was full of dead twigs and the residue of dried roots that he crushed in his fingers.

“Look, there isn’t anything left. The water has dried up in the very entrails of the mountain. It’s not worth while looking any further. It’s useless.” Then, with sudden anger, “But why, damn it! Did you cut the woods down, the oaks, the mahogany trees, and everything that grow up there? Stupid people with no sense!”

Thando struggled for a moment to find words. “What else could we do, brother? We cleared it to get new wood. We cut it down for framework and beams for our hearts. We repaired the fences around our fields. We didn’t know ourselves. Ignorance and need go together, don’t they?”

The sun scratched the scorched back of the mountain with its shining fingernails. Along the dry ravine the earth panted. The countryside, baked in drought, began to sizzle.”

What a colourful piece! The extract aptly paints a countryside’s pulse and the rhythms of seasonal and climate change and how that affects the livelihood patterns of the inhabitants. Have you seen how the sun has been endowed with human-like features?

And the description of the earth assuming human-like features, for instance, “the earth panted.” No doubt, you have seen the earth subdued by the intensity of heat in a way that is similar to a person who is panting.

To paint excellent images the writer needs to have the gift of observation. He/she should be able to observe quite a panorama of things around him and immerse them in the soil of their imagination. Let’s see another good extract where you can discern the link between good images, excellent description and the power of observation.

“It’s in the morning, the fourth watch, to borrow from biblical discourse. It’s damp outside. I brace the slicing chilly weather to go outside. There is a drizzle, constant showers seeping deep down. I pace up at least 400 metres from my hood. I see lined-up, almost cubicle-like houses.

I keep walking, with a spring in the step buoyed by the damp aura wrought by the incessant downpours. I take a deep breath, and step back as it were.

I want to be deliberate. I want to take in everything in my environment; the colours, the diverse hues and plethora of landscape contours. I notice a woman, almost in her forties, from my eye-view assumptions. She is grabbing a basket clutched tenaciously almost close to her big bosom.

She is going to Mbare Musika, the famous agricultural market wherein she intends to buy items for her stall. Behind her, there is a big strapped baby covered in velvet. As she briskly walks, I see her jumping a poodle of water as she observes her stall. I also observe a man, clad in sportswear running trying to cure a big belly.

As I keep watching, I see a woman sweeping her small veranda. I keep walking. I see a woman, plump tending to her garden. She seems animated by the drizzle, thanks to the rains.

I hear another woman, especially her piercing voice, she is selling floor polish. Her voice fills the air. As I drown in the sweet voice, I notice a man staggering. He is filthy. He could have calloused the whole night. He is holding a Black Label quart, speaking gibberish in the air. I keep watching.”

So here were are! Writing is a matter of painting with words, carving images and allowing the reader to experience the impact of all the senses so as to fully grasp the sense of what is put across.

Vuso Mhlanga teaches at the University of Zimbabwe. For almost a decade and half he taught English language and Literature in English at high school.

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Politicians’ propensity to score own goals



Lesotho politicians are often in the habit of scoring own goals. For example, look at the circus that took place in the country at the opening of parliament after the winter break. These events remind me of the article that I wrote with the title ‘Scoring own goals’.

This article appeared in this publication dated March 18 – 24, 2021. It argued that Lesotho’s politicians had a propensity to score own goals.

Many say that education and academia should not involve themselves in politics. This belief is a fallacy. The two are intrinsically intertwined. Education and politics link in a complex way.

For instance, parliament is an organ that passes laws that govern and guide national education policies. The interconnectedness includes the curricula that educational institutions and schools teach. Now, if the National Assembly’s focus is misplaced, important legislative decisions may stall or be derailed by lack of action.

I must make a disclaimer though. I am not promoting any view about a political party. I am writing this article purely as a concerned citizen.

I revisit the own goal tendency of those in authority by assessing the drama that unfolded in politics and governance. I review the recent events that culminated in the failed vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Sam Matekane and his government.

I use arguments from research to demonstrate the fluidity of Lesotho’s democracy. Some politicians often take advantage of this fluidity for selfish gain. I contest that the Prime Minister and his government should treat their adversities as stepping stones to meeting their targets.

A constitution is a living document. Accordingly, to keep Lesotho’s constitution alive, current and relevant, parliament should regularly amend it.

However, in so doing, parliament must be careful that tinkering with the country’s constitution does not compromise the essence of democracy they champion. National and democratic principles must form the dogma that underpins the improvements and amendment exercises.

Personal aspirations, ambitions and creed must not underpin the amendments.

The recent events in and out of the National Assembly make one question the perceptions of the different roles players in the democratic playground in Lesotho have.

First, there was a vote of no confidence that the Speaker ruled to defer subject to the high court’s decision.

Second, there was the allegedly drunken MP’s own goal.

The third is the press conference led by the Commissioner of the Lesotho Mounted Police Services flanked by the head of the Lesotho Defence Force and the Director General of the National Security Services.

It is already a hat trick of own goals. Fourth, there was the statement of the Prime Minister claiming an attempted coup.

The fifth own goal is the moratorium that prevented parliament from holding a vote of no confidence against the Prime Minister before the lapse of three years of his inauguration.

The sixth is the practice of shirking responsibility by MPs. MPs often refer political matters to the national courts for decisions. The seventh, and the mother of all own goals, is the electoral system that Lesotho elected to pursue. The National Assembly has 120 MPs. There are 80 MPs representing constituencies and 40 proportional representatives.

The Commonwealth suggested that Lesotho review the modalities of the PR nominations. Sekatle and the Commonwealth agree that the PR system introduced plurality but at a cost. The cost is what scholars and commentators term minority rights and coalitions.

Also, it compromises accountability and transparency. It undermines the collective intelligence of the voters. Chief Jonathan warned against coalition governments by citing their instability. Political instability plagues Lesotho today.
Sekatle and the Commonwealth cited the overreliance on a threshold in awarding PR seats in parliament, cheapening them.

The PR system ballooned parliament unnecessarily. By comparison, Botswana had a population of 2.6 million in (2021). Lesotho had 2.3 million (2021). Botswana parliament currently has 65 seats, and Lesotho has 120.

A consequence emanating from the PR system in Lesotho is a hung parliament. Since 2012, there has not been an outright majority in the National Assembly. The results yielded chaos. Over that period, PMs constantly look over their shoulders. All these coalitions imploded.

Democracy is about the majority. Politicians must be persuasive to attract votes to achieve the majority. In other words, the PR system rewards failure.

The own goals cause stagnation. MPs score these own goals by serving their selfish interests. They waste time and energy on trivial things. And yet, they receive full-time salaries and earn allowances such as sittings and petrol allowances. How, then, would one explain that the external urging of parliament had to engage in the reforms exercise?

Today, reforms are lying latent. Politicians use the reform programme as an excuse for ensuring that they retain or access power. In the recent correspondences to SADC, the government and the opposition cite reforms and democracy to justify their actions. But as I write this article, there is nothing much that is happening along the lines of these very reforms. Why?

The starting point of any achievement is desire and definitiveness of purpose. The definitiveness of purpose is more than goal setting. It is one’s roadmap to achieving the overall objectives. Elsewhere, I took the definition of desire as explained by the author, Wallace Wattles.

According to Wattles, ‘Desire is possibility seeking expression, or function seeking performance’. All desires began as a thought. Expressing their desires through a manifesto is a means by which parties attempt to concretise them (their desires).

The starting point of an election campaign is the expression of political intentions and goals through manifestos. A manifesto is a public declaration of aims and policy by a political party or candidate. Political parties express their desires for what they will do in their manifestos.

After elections, these desires become the guiding principles and laws. Politically mature voters would then elect political candidates based on these manifestos.

Who instigated and drove the reforms in Lesotho? The contemporary history of Lesotho reveals that external forces pushed the reforms. Basotho merely reacted. They do not own the reform process. High on the list of their drivers are SADC, the US through AGOA and the European Union.

The practice contradicts Wattles’ definition. According to Wattles definition, desire must emanate from inside the individual, or in our case, from Basotho and be expressed outward through actions.

I do not want to comment too much about the involvement of the security agencies in politics. In my view, the relevant bodies, namely, the Law Society of Lesotho, the media and the opposition parties dealt with their involvement adequately.

Former PM Leabua Jonathan often described democracy as the government of the people by the people. But, the meaning of the construct of democracy is fluid and elusive, depending on the position of governance in Lesotho’s political arena.

Authors Hughes, Kroehler and Vander Zanden explain that democracy is a system in which the powers of government derive from the consent of the governed, namely the masses who vote, in which regular constitutional avenues exist for changing government officials.

The authors characterise the system as one which permits the population a significant voice in decision-making through the people’s right to choose among contenders for political office. Also, the system allows for a broad, relatively equal citizenship among the populace.

Lastly, it affords the citizenry protection from arbitrary state action.

Now, the question is whether the recent activities fit all the three criterias. Are the actions of the MPs who moved for the vote of no confidence in the PM’s government acting in line with Lesotho’s constitution and democracy?

This definition of democracy says that regular constitutional avenues exist for changing government officials. The no confidence vote exists in Lesotho’s constitution. But the PM and his security agencies questioned this. They claim the move by the members of the opposition to dethrone the government was a coup attempt.

The drama began when an MP from the ruling Revolution for Prosperity (RFP), Thabo Moea MP, sought an order from the High Court to delay the motion of no confidence against the Prime Minister until after the completion of the reforms process.

The opposition contests that the prayer by Moea stifles a democratic process for self-serving ends. Subsequently, the Speaker cited this impending case to defer the matter.

The constitution of Lesotho stipulates that the legislature is to pass laws, the executive is to approve and execute them, and the judiciary is to expound and enforce them. But a scholar, Nwafor, claims that the courts in Lesotho often intrude into the functions of the other arms of government.

Lesotho ‘s constitution confers powers on three arms of government in such a manner as would ensure cooperation and coordination in governance. The courts ought to bear in mind that the effective discharge of the responsibilities of the courts largely depends on the effectiveness of the other arms of government.

Nwafor brings up the issue of encroachment. He asserts that the powers of the different arms of government in such a manner would guarantee a coordinated discharge of government responsibilities to the nation. But, parliament overly relies on the courts to make political decisions. The practice encourages the risk of overreaching.

The PR electoral system denies Basotho the right to choose their representatives among contenders for political office. Instead, parties ‘hand pick’ these representatives in the pretext of the constituency elections outcomes. Often, these PR members are the ones who lost their constituency elections.

These are the politicians whose constituencies rejected them. They represent their parties and not the voters. They do not account to the voters.

Both the PM and the opposition made presentations to SADC. They overlooked the electorate. Why would SADC have power and not the electorate that elected the politicians to office? Running to SADC, an outside organisation, to settle Lesotho’s internal problems is not a solution. It is scoring an own goal. Lesotho, with its 57 years of independence, should be able to solve its internal problems.

Nonetheless, I have a completely different take from Mokhothu on the issue of the protest march by the RFP. It is unimportant to find the instigator of the protest march. The people to persuade are the voters, the people who put governments into power in a democracy, not external bodies such as SADC.

Napoleon Hill’s creed reads: ‘Every adversity brings a seed of equivalent or more benefit’. Any business person knows that business is a solution to an economic problem. So, the PM and his colleagues in his party who are business people must look at the adversity emanating from the opposition as a seed of equivalent or better benefit.

The government must dig deep to find how the problem may benefit them.
They must identify their failures and use them as stepping stones to success.

Elsewhere, I presented the views of an American scholar and activist, Anderson, who suggested that marginalised communities must cease granting candidates blank cheques. Instead, the electorate must draw their expectations and demand the campaigning party or candidate promise to meet them.

This practice is called quid pro quo. It enforces accountability and transparency.

You scratch my back, and I scratch yours. Quid pro quo is an example of one of the universal laws that demonstrate reciprocity. Reciprocity is the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. The universal law is the Law of Cause and Effect. It means that for every effect, there is an equal cause. You plant a seed, so shall you reap.

Both the government and the opposition ran to SADC for help. Remember, Matekane is a successful businessman. He has, on more than one occasion, explained that he wanted to use his prowess in business to take Lesotho forward. As a businessman, Matekane has faith in his ability.

Words that come to mind here include self-confidence and trust in himself. He believes in himself. Running to SADC does not display this faith in his ability to deal with problems emanating from his opposition.

Hill argues that riches, or any form of success and achievement, begin with a thought. Faith removes limitations. Matekane must apply his faith as a businessman to become a successful politician.

To summarise, the article explores the events emanating from the fiasco of the no-confidence motion. The individuals who ought to champion constitutional democracy in Lesotho betrayed Basotho by scoring hordes of own goals.

I explored the meaning of concepts that helped me unpack some of these own goals. These were democracy, faith and desire. Also, I coupled these with scholarly research views on the constitution of Lesotho.

I contest that while the opposition may argue that they are within their rights to ruffle the government, the PM must use different tactics. He must display faith and confidence in himself and trust Basotho.

The move to influence the voters to back him deserves a big WOW! He must hold more campaigns to persuade voters to support his government. Voters may make or break him.

MPs waste time in discussing trivial issues that have no bearing on the national agenda. Often, they focus on self-serving matters. The RFP promised to refocus Lesotho towards national development and improving the quality of life.

The article also shows that the PR system does not benefit Lesotho. It diminishes accountability and the principle of quid pro quo. Also, it ballooned the numbers in parliament unnecessarily. It increased political instability by forging formations of coalition.

Politicians must refrain from abusing the judiciary by making them make political decisions. Involving the courts in making political decisions leads to encroachment. Encroachment defies democracy.

In conclusion, Matekane must not allow his detractors to derail his mandate. The same is true for the opposition leaders who attempt to dethrone him. No party campaigned on removing sitting PMs.

Also, the MPs must take the responsibilities that Basotho entrusted them with. It is high time that they make the political decisions instead of shifting them to the judiciary or external bodies.

Matekane, his business associates and technocrats in his government should revisit attributes that made them successful. One such attribute is their faith in their abilities. They must remember that riches (and success) begin with a thought, and faith removes limitations.

Dr Tholang Maqutu


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Painting mood effectively



Writing is not different from beautiful artwork. Just like a skilled painter holding a brush with its broad strokes, the writer occupies the same place and vocation in life. Writing is a work of painting life’s experiences, its hues and beautiful unfolding internal journeys. In this piece we focus on mood and how it can be achieved. Many students struggle with understanding and contemplating the scope and ambit of mood in writing.
It is hard to define and frame the scope of mood in writing. What really constitutes mood? Generally, mood encapsulates the totality of the “air” or “spirit” or “aura” that a certain work of art evokes in the human mind, feeling or sensibility. There is a certain dominant feature or streak associated with a certain work of art, place or person.

There is something which is evoked in our hearts which is associated with a certain place, person or event. Every place or event or person carries or imbues with him or her a certain mood or sensibility; and there is a panorama of sensibilities; for instance, a happy or sombre or whimsical mood. We will now focus on a certain extract and discern how it paints mood.

“He quickly rights himself and keeps walking, but there is an unsteadiness to his knees. He has been given many looks in this quarter – dirty ones, blank ones, sympathetic ones, annoyed ones. For the most part, he had learned to tolerate those than can be tolerated, and ignore those that should be ignored, but the look this woman gave him is not a look one gives to humans but to flies, ticks, cockroaches, fleas…Thato feels anger, then humiliation, then something nameless. If he were in his own country he would turn and confront the woman; but now he’s hurt, wounded, a part of him wishing he were invisible. Breathing evenly, he walks with care, only lifting his eyes once he reaches his own quarters, among his own people. He proceeds to his shack. He could stop by Thapelo’s, his neighbour, where he knows that men and women are already congregated to watch videos from home. Yet, no matter the promise of good fellowship and laughter, Thabo does not join them. Watching videos is a form of forgetting; the 2008 elections, the police with batons, the soldiers with guns, the militia with machetes. Do you remember? Limbs broken. Roofs blazing. I remember.”

This extract is characterised by the intensity of feeling and evokes feelings of sadness, despair and pain. The excerpt paints a harrowing and blood-curdling account which produces a sombre, dull and subdued mood. Thato, the protagonist in the story is in a foreign land. He was impelled to leave his country as a result of political violence which saw many people lose limbs and lives. He feels lonely and unwanted in the foreign land. He feels lost and alienated.

There are sentiments of xenophobia expressed through the glances of citizens of the foreign country he is in. Even if he were to entertain himself together with his countrymen residing in that foreign land, Thato still felt a deep and nagging feeling of being an outcast. Thus, we have made very deep and broad descriptions of the circumstances in which the protagonist finds himself with a view to demonstrate how mood is created in a narrative. The creation of mood feeds into the description of the character’s circumstances, his mindset and the space and place in which he finds himself.

Mood, as we have demonstrated from the portrayal of Thato’s experience, has a link with pathos. Pathos is that streak of sadness which pervades a story and creates empathy in the reader. The aim of effective writing is to move the reader and to impel him towards certain sensibilities which are of an affective kind. Mood, when effectively created, allows the reader to grasp meaning which is not directly said in the story or composition.

Meaning in a story is an interaction between the words in a text as read together with the effect of the words, the tone used and the created mood. There are certain words in a text which do not just communicate, but etches in the reader’s mind certain thoughts, viewpoints and feelings. These words would be so evocative. One such word describes Thato’s deepest sense of alienation in the extract given above.

The word describes him as nursing a wish of invisibility, he felt or wished he were ‘invisible.’ His wish for invisibility is of great importance. It portrays how he was deeply affected by the loathing expressed in the eyes of those looking at him with hate and disdain.

So, here we are! Creating a mood is a craft which takes time to acquire and hone. But when achieved, it makes effective reading and allows the reader to get meaning which goes beyond the text.

Vuso Mhlanga teaches at the University of Zimbabwe. For almost a decade and half he taught English language and Literature in English at high school. Send your comments and questions to:

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