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A letter to aspiring novelists



I am often invited to talk to young writers particularly about novel writing. In our part of the world, young writers want to write the novel because they think it is the real thing. We have an overdose of the novel in nearly all African universities. I often tell my guests that I am not a novelist. I advise them to go elsewhere. I only write short stories. I have published three collections of short stories in addition to my short stories in group anthologies. I also write and publish lots of poems. My profile has no novel! But they cannot leave me alone. The last group of writers asked me to come and talk about the novel from the point of view of a reader of novels! Defeated, I ended up obliging. Due to Covid-19, I wrote a whole letter to this group. Here it is: Dear aspiring novelists, I do not write novels because I am not energetic enough. I want to say a few words about the good and the bad novels that I have come across. Southern Africa has many fine novelists; Mofolo, Sinyangwe, Laguma, Brink, Pepetela, Chela, Ntaba, Vera, Hove, Head and many others. The region also has an army of aspiring authors. All these should get to hear the voices and concerns of us readers. My first novel was a little neat booklet about someone’s school days – Tom Brown or Tom Grey? You put the watering can aside and follow the trials and tribulations (forgive the cliché). You became Tom in school–boy tunic. Tom, jumping out through the window. Tom, spanking someone’s behind with a ruler. Tom here, Tom there. Or it could be Stevenson’s Treasure Island! You became that boy who goes out to sea to search for treasure in that book. Even if you had never seen the sea, you smelt it – salty, warm, gusty and all! It is about the telling-feeling–sweetness of the narration in ‘Treasure Island’, maybe. And then there were the ‘Mississippi books’ – Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It was nice sailing down that river of rivers. Sitting behind the fowl run or behind the store to which my father was a store-keeper, out in then Rhodesia’s rural Banket, I felt naughty, an imp, a trouble – making little fellow who has something of a half baked elder inside him. Tell me, how are such bewitching, compelling, mischievous… books conceived? Such books can be written only by novelists who can stop and listen attentively to the boys or girls inside all of us. Then I reluctantly got older than the ‘boy novel.’ In school we were bombarded with books. Some of those tough books went through you like water running through a sieve and when you get to the bottom of the page you don’t know what the first sentences of the page was about. Then there were hard books that could dwell, rather religiously, on buildings, rye fields and the weather until you began to ask, “For God’s sake, where are the people?” Books with grey dog–eared covers containing characters who talk about things you haven’t seen and might never see. Dear novelist, some novels bring death and lingering and the counting of the tick–tock of the clock on the school library wall. Damn scentless, soup–less, devil–authored novels! Let them pile on shelves and rot! But there were moments when a friend gave you a novel from a brother who got it from a friend who got it from an aunt – who was no longer in the country. When you got to your bed in the dormitory you said, let me see what I have here before lights out and – gone! The seemingly ordinary book swept you off your feet like a magical river. At lights-out you bought a candle from a bed mate or sneaked into the toilet to read, away from the sinister eye of the marauding boarding – master. “Where was this book all these years?” you whispered. Look: a young man, a worker, falls in love with his foreman’s daughter in the workers’ quarters and their love becomes the hottest thing each one of them has known. Now the girl doesn’t want her father to know and says to the young man, “Joe, if papa knows then that can as well be the end.” The boy is chilled – grilled, see? At work, the foreman says to the young man, “Boy, if you want time-off, go. I know you boys need that to see your girls.” God, he doesn’t know that he is talking to a potential son-in-law! The boy can’t believe it. “Oh, me, does he know that I go out with his daughter?” The youngster can only smile uncomfortably. His world-wise workmates, who cannot miss the irony, can only titter. A good novel indeed! Dear novelist, a novel called a novel brings a reader twice, thrice to the edge of the precipice. I want to grit my teeth when I read a novel. I want to groan and moan until my neighbours knock on my door to ask, “Is everything alright?” Or, there was this novel about love, passion, pain, passion… until you collapsed your legs and turned and hissed. A novel that unearthed the roasting sweet potato of the late teens in you! Novels made you feel delicious inside, letting you know that there isn’t your mother, father, brother, sisters, aunts… only in the world. Dear novelist, give the teens and those a little older such a novel and see if the money doesn’t come. At some stage, you actually say: I’m tired of this love road and the “living happily ever after” thing. For a change – you want a novel about war, hunger, revolution, crime, consciousness… and if some characters fall in love at some stage, well, let it be an additional surprise not just love for love’s sake. Dear novelist, I hope I am not prescribing. Who am I to do that? I’m only telling you how you could have tamed me (and people like me) if you intended to write the novel I could have bought and read at each stage in my short life. There should be novelty to a novel. In fact the literal meaning of “novel” is “unusual.” Even in the village, where I come from, the loose but useful theory is: tell a story if you have something unusual, new, to say. How can you come in my room and tell me about how a cow moos at her calf and expect I, son of a chief, to listen? Please, novelists, enchant me, perplex me, woo me with an inside-out story and win my attention. Hey, tell me about a man who laughs at his mother’s funeral, a hare that chased a dog, or the singer who forgets his song whilst on stage… Come on, haunt me, tease me, mind blast me and blast a mine in the ears of my mind, novelist! I want my novelist to taunt me with the tightness of plot as in Hemingway’s novella, The Old Man and the Sea. Here events do not change cataclysmically like winter weather. Only the old man and the fishing boat are being towed away by a big fish which they’ve caught. In that wonderful novel, the fish’s fate is the old man’s and the boat’s. There is also this somnambulant side to the flow of events and you begin to think-feel that the old man is praying to the fish to agree to be caught and when you come to the end – the boat anchored on the shore and the fish (half flesh, half skeleton) you say, these two have exhausted each other. There is no real winner between fish and old man. I’m saying – events in a novel or a novella should be arranged and handled in such a way that numbs the reader like a lullaby. My novelist should waylay me with, if he wishes, sustained tension as in Dambudzo Marechera’s novella The House of Hunger. From the moment the narrator says, “I packed my things and left,” he can’t let you go. The high pitched events that exude loss, injury, sorrow, excitement, dirt, grit, madness, shamelessness… are Marechera’s. The book sustains its ‘kingdom’ and paraphernalia and compels you to think that it must have been written in one breath, in one sitting and in one minute by a mind seized by something more tumultuous than an August whirl-wind. There is also Albert Camus of The Outsider. Here what is sustained unbelievably is the central character’s ennui and detachment from matters we deem emotional. The point is, don’t write novels that make me say, see, this chapter is tense – it must have been written on a mid-month Friday when the author was broke and angry. And, look – this is a Sunday chapter; the author must have been at peace with the world. No! Don’t do that to me, novelist. Cook it up. Be organic, please. Then there is characterisation. Sometimes you read a novel and say, besides killing each other in the end, I don’t think these persons in this novel are people at all. You go out into the corridor of your flat and you know that such people can’t be here either. That is bad enough! You see, you want characters in a novel to be both deeply felt and varied. You want to say, see there is such a guy like this one, back in my village. A guy like Beaukes or Elias from In The Fog of The Season’s end float about like people next door. They are both familiar and unique. Charles Mungoshi’s Garabha of Waiting for the Rain is such a wonder. He can be the peripheral man, but, if you wish, and can look at him closely, he is immensely talented and can make serious and important social comments. Yes, he makes you want to cry out and say, “God, why do you make the most talented amongst us sometimes the most vulnerable and helpless? God, stop this!” Dear novelist, please make each of your characters an embodiment of a type or types that we can identify with. Sadly, sometimes you read a novel and say, to hell with this author and all authors like him. Why do they look at life this way? Can’t they see this and that and this, here? I am talking about novels with provincial perspectives. Novels that appeal only to a specific epoch in history. Damn bubble gum novels! A good novel should be ‘universal.’ It should be able to show the human potential and transcend the sole ideology of its author. It should also be able to live beyond the interest of a few readers. For instance, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is set somewhere in Nigeria’s Igboland where we haven’t been to, but, the life of the people of Umuofia and the struggles they have with European intruders are like stories of the same historic period from Kenya, Lesotho, Zululand etc. The story’s prowess is in its refusal to be only an Igbo story. Everyone knows an Okwonkwo somewhere in the past and present. Yvonne Vera’s Without A Name is one such novel with a universal appeal. The central character is a woman of suspect sanity but her ability to raise issues like greed, love, hatred, pretence etc. reminds you of the personal moments you have gone through these emotions. The story sets you off into a train of introspective questions: Really, haven’t I surprised people with some of my wayward ways? I have met teachers of literature, who when closing a novel, at the end of a fiery session, pause, adjust their goggles and say, “Good novel, but, in our situation, what does this novel) amount to?” A simple question, isn’t it, dear novelist? I agree that a novel cannot do many things, especially give answers to our problems. However, I will persuade you to begin to think that a good novel should, at least, show a certain way of doing or not doing things. You get this philosophy through what the author’s preferred characters are doing well or badly. There should be, conscious or unconsciously, characters and events in a good novel, which carry the author’s vision and high messages about life. Reading Achebe’s Arrow of God, I thought I felt that the message was that in the process of life, power silently and saliently moves centre and those who have it must negotiate so that they remain at least central bargaining stake holders in their communities. On that note, I’m always perplexed with the collective ultimate meaning of Zora Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God. This is a tremendous novel which I enjoy but, I always ask: Does the novel celebrate joy seekers at the expense of dream makers like Joe Stark? Goodbye Yours, Memory Chirere

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