The voice of the people

The voice of the people

In apologia, the author wrote, “I know my work may offend some readers, especially those whose opinions on Shakespeare are based more in their hearts than in the unbiased reality that criticism is. I know many might not see eye to eye with me, it is only fair that they do so. Each individual is entitled to their own opinions and ideas. They are allowed to rip my ideas to shreds if need be…”

This, I believe, was just an essay written by a mind that had yet to enter the reality of the battlefield literary criticism is. Opinion and judgement should not be made based on emotion, the former being subject to personal perspective and the latter being the only the reserve of those ladies and gentlemen that wear horsehair wigs and swing gavels. Any acts of literary criticism should serve as guides for future encounters for the student kind or if one is no longer in class, the criticism of literature should be done for the purposes of reigniting the fires of appreciation or to enlighten the reader to unfolding realities in their contemporary world. Such acts of criticism should serve to hone one’s skill with regard to the craft of writing and adjust one’s vision when it comes to performing literature’s salient act: observation amidst discomfort.

Comfort hardly ever makes the individual, but adversity, given in a manner meant to build, defines the individual. Just give an honest, real judgement based more on reality than the reverence and adoration with which so many look upon the magnificent literary writer or observer. From time to time go out and feel the air of reality, go out of the comfort zone existence provides for some of us.

“Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral…” these words said by Kahlil Gibran one of the best poets the last century birthed.
Judging a work, putting it through the analysis, and coming up with conclusions is quite a hard task to perform. It is hard to criticise a letter published a few minutes ago. It is even harder to put forward any critiques on one that is a few centuries old.

It has had its run through the mill of scathing criticism, was in its time contemporary battered and bruised by scores of critics. It has seen battles in the literary fields fought and lost, but it still came out victorious and with the spoils of these wars comes the large numbers of followers who look upon it with the same reverence many religious effigies are given. It is hard to break these ecumenical beliefs and convince the believers otherwise.

It is a task one has to perform at this moment in time when such literature has reached a status of a pseudo-religion for its followers and critics alike. Words of any man need to be put into question with regard to the realities we are experiencing at a given point in time. In this endeavour, there are no gods or demi-gods: all are questioned according to their words. This is the act of literary criticism with which many works should be approached. We do not question deeds in this instance, we question only the words written in black ink and on white paper.

It must be understood that a man’s works perused after he is long gone into the land of the dead is a task many might consider unfair, unjust, and sometimes plain unnecessary. The main reason may be that he is not there to defend himself or to clarify some of the meanings behind his words in the works his body, soul and mind churned forth for the reader or spectator’s consumption. He is not there to defend himself, and so, should be left alone.

But, one may ask: should this occur in this manner? That a man’s works should be left alone to languish in the dark and damp simply because he is dead? I do not think so. A man has three lives; the one in his mother’s womb, the one he currently lives, and the one after it. Posthumously a man is still regarded by his fellow beings as a man. His memory is still cherished; his legacy still lives on in whatever works he left. It is for the living to share the dowry in whatever ways they find appropriate.

What belongs to the dead is for the living to share verbally, physically and psychologically. This is the task the everyday critic is faced with, and we have to bear with them if their forensic findings are not to the masses’ expectations.

As aforementioned, the task of the critic differs not from that of the coroner. The truth must be found, posthumously. The task is the same; done with the same mortician precision and judgement. The body on the slab is what differs. This time it is not a corpse but only Shakespeare’s or some other writer’s words and the possible meanings behind them.

“How common is the common, if the common man can draw no common sense out of it.”(Author’s own quote) Shakespeare has over the centuries been read by many and yet, he is understood by very few. They are too few for one to even think that the common man Shakespeare intended to touch in his message actually understands it. It is the duty of those individuals who have a claim to understanding this timeless writer, to pass the message forward to those who do not have the vaguest idea as to the meaning behind his words. The ultimate intention is simply to make the message to the common man simpler to make sense out of.

An example can be made of the literature of Zimbabwe, a country which is in the author’s view the master of the house when it comes to southern African literatures. South Africa, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, Angola, Namibia, Swaziland, Uganda, Malawi and other southern African countries have produced their literatures; but Zimbabwe has remained the most prolific and diverse in literary terms amongst all of them. Like all other African literatures, the literature of this country just north of South Africa has had to go through the same process of development or metamorphosis.

The article explores the essence of the various pre-colonial literatures, the colonial literature, the post-colonial literature and the contemporary literature of Zimbabwe still shows strength even in the current times. What should be perused in this discussion is aimed at finding out the changes in thought and movement of literature over the years. From the days of Marechera to these days that find giants such as Tsitsi Dangarembga being questioned for their words by authorities, it is perhaps the right time to understand how the history of a country is defined by the type of literature its authors write.

One of the main aspects that define Zimbabwean literature is its hybridity; a factor of the metamorphosis of the literature over the eras and epochs of this country’s history.
“The hybridity of Zimbabwean literature can be witnessed in the fictional texts of Chenjerai Hove, Yvonne Vera, and Charles Mungoshi. Each writer negotiates native culture by employing a colonialist technique: the use of English…” Sharpe, J. Hybridity is just one facet of the crystal Zimbabwean literature is to the author but there are other facets that can be discussed.

The literature of Zimbabwe can be more easily understood if it is criticised within the context of African and world literatures, with the focus on the wider literatures before narrowing down to the literature of this country. Metamorphosis in entomology is the development of the subject (or insect) through the various stages of growth. From the conception of the insect as an egg, to its being a larva, pupa and then finally an imago; all these are the stages of an insect’s metamorphosis and, the literature of the African continent has gone through a development that has been marked by clear stages.

From the earliest days of the griots, the storytellers and folklorists (these are the days when the literature was more than less in its egg stage for it was contained within the shell of the ethnic, tribal and cultural shell and remained in more ways than one unseen and unheard by the rest of the world), drove the oral tradition or literature of the African continent and preserved this literature for the next stage in the metamorphosis; the advent of the outsider.

This outsider came in with his literature and the periods of colonialism and slavery mark the pupal stage of the development of African literature both on the African mainland and the Diaspora. The post-independence period is an age that sees the literature of the African continent fully matured into an imago of literary diversity. It is a fact that a century of writing has just passed and yet the literature is still relatively young and is therefore still possessed of the curiosity of a child, it goes out to explore the myriad alleyways of expression literature offers.

The literature of Zimbabwe is one of these literatures and has had to go through the same metamorphosis. It does not matter whether the literature is Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone; the development has been the same and the themes explored are in more ways than one similar for, the experience of the peoples of the African continent has been more than less the same. The age of colonialism and slavery left the most prominent mark on the literature of the continent and, it had a profound effect on the method of expression in literary terms.

There is a clearly marked shift from the indigenous oral tradition practised in most countries on the continent to the European literary writing style brought on by the advent of colonialism.
The European script and language came in as some kind of confluence of the rivers of African literary expression; the gaps between the different ethnic groups and their languages could now be bridged by the one European language of the colonist. The literature of the continent in European languages then began and, it remained bottled within the confines of Western literary rules and regulations until the post-independence era. After this period, the African literary writer, scholar or artist could explore the full span of expression and, this freedom saw the literature coming out as full blown with writers like Marechera and Dangaremba exploring new themes for the benefit of forcing the individual to rethink and to adapt to the changes in the world.

The age of colonialism brought with it a marked change in the mode of economic and literary production and, it also brought about a wider view of world culture on the part of the African individual. Where there had only been social communism as the primary mode of economic production, the European colonist brought in capitalism. Where there had been communal gatherings by villagers listening to the griot or folklorist reciting a tale, legend or a myth, the European put the book in the hand of the individual to read on their own. And, where the men of the community could sit at the village council the whole day discussing various community issues, the European introduced the concept of working the whole day for a living in the mines and factories in the city.

In this, the manner in which the sedentary life of the continent marked by periodical battles over grazing and habitual territory changed along with the way people viewed themselves. The change in the mode of production meant that the literature of the African continent had to change or otherwise face imminent extinction. The change in the perspective of the African as an individual brought new ways of exploring the themes presented by his everyday life in the face of new and unfolding realities.

The African who left the village to go work in the city eventually developed a spirit of individualism, a sense of personal independence from village traditions and a strong will towards self-government. Having been taught in the vocational skills of the mission schools of the colony, the universities overseas and those established by the missionaries in their quest to civilise the indigenous peoples, he had picked up the European concept of liberty and freewill.

Political parties and labour unions developed from these voluntary associations and the anti-system mentality of the liberated African was born. A new ideology of liberation, freedom and equality began in earnest and, the city Africans returning to the village from the city carried the ideas of independence and nationalism that weakened the existing governing structures of the colonist.

There was a larger demand for democracy and, the ideologies behind the movements had to have a voice; the writer naturally became the voice of the people. Before then, movements like the African Renaissance, the Back-to-Africa Movement and others had served to stoke the fires of liberation and freedom in the African. There are boots and truncheons crunching people’s skulls in Zimbabwe at this moment.

There is need therefore to understand through literature how this era will pass or whether it will be yet another piece of African writing to be read and forgotten. I hope not, for the plight of the country affects us all as Africans under post-independence-liberation-movement-governance-and-rule.

Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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