Connect with us


Childhood trauma amongst writers



Someone once remarked that certain writers need to have had lots of childhood trauma to write great works, or something to that effect. That is not to mean that every piece of writing is exactly an autobiography. The strong assumption is that every writer has suffered a trauma or benefited from unusual experiences of mental excitement in their childhood which eventually turns the individual into a writer or these moments turn up constantly in the writer’s work. Put differently, art may reflect the artist’s past distress and injuries. No wonder we have themes of violence, suffering, pain and loss running through the greatest works of literature. Below I capture the intimate moments when a couple of writers have spoken on record about important definitive moments in their childhoods. If you have read some of their works, these narratives could be very revealing and instructive. Toni Morrison: As indicated by David Streitfeld on October 8, 1993, throughout Morrison’s novels, she does not use whites for main characters. Often this black American woman writer is criticised for this. She explains her choice of characters by saying, “We’ve had the first rush of black entertainment, where blacks were writing for whites, and whites were encouraging this kind of self-flagellation. Now we can get down to the craft of writing, where black people are talking to black people.” When Toni Morrison was very young, her family’s landlord actually set fire to the house in which the Morrisons lived when her parents fell behind with the rent. And the house burnt while they were inside it! Although Toni Morrison’s family escaped unhurt, they reacted to this absurd form of crudeness, monumental crudeness, not with resignation but with laughter. This, says Toni Morrison, “is how you can distance yourself from the act and take your life back. You take your integrity back.” She describes this incident thus: “It was this hysterical, out-of-the-ordinary, bizarre form of evil. If you internalized it, you’d be truly and thoroughly depressed because that’s how much your life meant. For $4 a month, somebody would just burn you to a crisp.” It is no wonder that each of her novels highlights the struggles of black people to rediscover and maintain connections to their cultural history and mythology—to their “ancestor”. Morrison’s first novel and first masterpiece, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970 when she was 39. She wrote it while working at Random House raising two children on her own. Her other poetic prose were ‘Sula’ (1973), ‘Song of Solomon’ (1977), and ‘Tar Baby’ (1981). Beloved, the novel that brought Toni the most attention, was published in 1987 and was a huge hit, spending 25 weeks on The New York Times best-sellers list. It won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Toni completed her Beloved Trilogy with Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997). A year after the release of Jazz, Toni was given the Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the first black woman to win it. However, even adulthood trauma drove Morrison. While at Howard, she met and married a Jamaican architect with whom she had two sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. Unhappy in her marriage, Morrison began to write fiction in the early 1960s as an escape of sorts. She says, “It was as though I had nothing left but my imagination. I had no will, no judgment, no perspective, no power, no authority, no self, just this brutal sense of irony, melancholy, and a trembling respect for words. I wrote like someone with a dirty habit.” Yvonne Vera talks to Grace Mutandwa, 2003: I was born in Bulawayo on 19 September, 1964 and attended Mzilikazi High School… My first school prize was in Grade Seven when I was presented with a pair of scissors for the best needlework. The art of needlework often required the patience of good stitching. I still love the creativity of cutting, sewing, choosing fabrics for their emotion and mood. I love the smell of new fabric. When I look at someone, I try to understand what their mode of dress and fabric announces. Clothes have been the greatest adornment in most human societies, our language for courtship, relaxation, celebration and even grief… At that stage, I was overweight and when I went to the stage to get my prize others laughed at me… I have worked as a cotton picker in Chegutu, on the farms as a child. This was my first paid work. I’ve been a waitress in a fast-food chicken and ribs place and in Italian restaurants… This is in line with Vera’s very elaborate writing that betrays her deep observation which comes out almost as if her writings are like paintings. Here is her description of an African township in one of her novels: “The land is bare and sparse with dots of short bush. Here, a thorn. Here, a bird. Just dots of living across this stretching flat land. Then further; fields and fields of dry waving grass, and no trees. On the other side, beyond the stunted bushes, is Makokoba, within it is Sidojiwe E2, Jukwa Street, Bambanani, L Road, D Square, and Banda Road, and many more. A black location. The houses tiny shelters, like the shrubs. Around them, tall trees introduced one by one after each row of houses, standing on guard against an anticipated accident, some incident of fracture, like breaking bone. In each street dream rubs against dream. Near and close.” Without A Name is arguably the most talked about of all Vera literature. Like Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Vera’s story is about Mazvita who travels across society, from one lover to another, in search of love, freedom and fulfilment. Her innocence is shattered much early in life when she is raped by a man in uniform. The touching moment in the text is when she kills her newly born baby and straps the corpse on her back and boards a bus back to her rural home. Under The Tongue, probably marks the maturation of Vera’s style and maybe that is why it is considered as her most ‘difficult’ novel. It is generally the story of a child who has been raped by her father and as a result loses her mother. There are suggestions that the mother kills the husband on discovering his crime and due to death or imprisonment, leaves the child Zhizha with her grandparents. This is a novel with a very haunting quality to it. Butterfly Burning is about a girl, Phephelapi who meets an older man, Fumbatha, in Bulawayo during the 1940’s. Their relationship offers the girl a certain measure of comfort but her pregnancy shatters her desire to become a nurse. A resultant abortion ruins her relationship with her man. After her second pregnancy she kills herself by dousing herself with paraffin and setting herself alight because again the pregnancy is connected with her failure to join nursing. This excruciating novel highlights the plight of ambitious women in a colonial set up. Yvonne Vera was an award-winning author from Zimbabwe. Her novels are known for their poetic prose, difficult subject-matter, and their strong women characters, and are firmly rooted in Zimbabwe’s difficult past. For these reasons, she has been widely studied and appreciated by those studying postcolonial African literature. Vera was born in Bulawayo, in what was then Southern Rhodesia, to Jerry Vera and Ericah Gwetai. At the age of eight, she worked as a cotton-picker near Hartley. She attended Mzilikazi High School and then taught English literature at Njube High School, both in Bulawayo. She died on April 7, 2005. Charles Mungoshi talks to Mai Palberg on 30 September 2003: I don’t know what else I should have become. I don’t know how these things come about, but I think my parents wanted me to be something else, and even as late as, well, just before Walking Still was published, which is about five years ago, my mother said, “I’d wish you’d burn your library.” Anyway, she didn’t mean it and some good things have happened also. It probably has got to do with having your nose in the book and hardly saying anything at all to anyone; I am talking about when I was growing up. But I always want to think that it was the loneliness, the way I grew up that led to my choice of career. It was not a career that I chose, I think it chose me. Traditionally in Shona culture you live in a round village and with the head of the kraal, somewhere there. But some time in the 1950s my father had to move from our village to start a farm of his own, a farm in the modern sense, with machines and all the modern technology, although not that productive. This farm was about 17-something acres and you could get out with 20, 25 to 30 head of cattle for the whole day, feeding on wild fruits and you did not come back home until probably five o’clock in the evening. So most of the time I was alone… And in school, when on Monday, Wednesday and Friday pupils stayed over after school – which closed at about 1 o’clock – to do sports or outdoor games, my father made sure that I didn’t join the other pupils in those games. My sisters being girls, I couldn’t herd cattle with them. I couldn’t work with them because they were women and they would be with our mother doing other things, so I was always almost on my own. When I was with my father, you can imagine the kind of conversation we had, “Pick that”, “Did I say to?”, “Did I tell you to?”, “Run!” and so on, so you would wish to be as far away from him as possible. So most of my life was really lived in my head and talking to trees and birds and animals. So I want to think the loneliness, being on my own, turned me sort of inside and the reading helped along. It wasn’t long before I thought, “Well, I think I can also write a story”. I think that’s what happened… As a result of the above, often in his short stories, Charles Mungoshi builds an inner world in his characters that, for all its energy, is kept secret (by the narrator) from other characters and sometimes from the reader and yet, these ‘silences’ and what underlie them are part of the fabric of the characters’ struggle to understand or relate to or to refute the views of other characters. In Literary Criticism, Interior Monologue, also known as the Stream of Consciousness, is a narrative mode or device that depicts the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind of a character. Mungoshi’s silences in his writings, as in his childhood, become worlds of subterranean narratives that teach us that there is always an undercurrent dialogue that is going on between people at all times. By the time he died in 2019, Mungoshi had become one of Zimbabwe’s internationally recognised writers. Memory Chirere

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Copyright © 2022. The Post Newspaper. All Rights Reserved