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The art of bad writing

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I have always wondered why there is a disconnect between the self-deprecating humour of our people and our art.

The kind of conversation I recently had with a taxi driver I have nicknamed “Dembo” (he plays the same Leonard Dembo CD 24/7, 365 days a year) will never be found in any novel or play or poem.

But my beef this week is not with music (which has always tended to be closer to our dreams and language than all other art forms).

It is about bad writing in poetry, theatre and prose.

In the past few years I have watched some Zimbabwean plays and watched poets recite their work.

In many cases it has not been an elevating experience.

While we do have a few good writers, poets and playwrights, the larger landscape requires radical surgery.

The last decade has witnessed the emergence of some dynamic young people doing amazing performance poetry and music.

But I have also seen my fair share of mediocrity.

I have been to venues where I could not escape because I had parked myself furthest from the exit and also politeness demands that we applaud everything that comes our way.

It is touching when people recite their poems and they invite their parents to witness poetry on stage.

But I can also imagine the pain of the same supporters:

“How can we tell this dear child that this is not his/her stuff?”

I have suffered also, dear reader, suffered some really bad moments.

Two things have influenced the young voices’ work for better or worse: hip-hop and the late writer and poet, Dambudzo Marechera.

African-American music has had an enormous influence on us for seven decades: from blues, jazz, rock’n’roll, disco, rap to hip-hop, we have been faithful carbon copies.

A copy is a copy is a copy . . . it can never be better than the original.

Still we have persisted.

As youths in the early 80s we strongly believed our being born in the township was a major geographical error by the Almighty.

We belonged to the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn . . . Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, Grandmaster Mel Mel, Run DMC, NWA and others defined for us what music was and should be.

A different generation and those with SRB (strong rural background) could take their Zimbabwean music and enjoy it on Radio Two.

For those born in the 80s and 90s, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G, Dr Dre, Snoop, Nas and more have had a defining influence.

Marechera speaks for my generation when he says:

“Shona was part of the ghetto demon I was trying to escape.

The English language was automatically connected with the plush and seeming splendour of the white side of town.

I took to the English language as a duck takes to water.”

Macherera is a writer more talked about than read.

The enduring image of the rebel living on the fringes of society showing the middle finger to authorities and all is highly influential.

There is nothing wrong with inspiration coming from your idols but every writer has got to find their own voice.

What you have currently in the main in poetry is a rather inane projection of the ego:

I am the voice of my generation
The trailblazer of the nation
I have come to bring reason
For all season
What?

OK, I made up part of that but you get the gist.

It is like we are back to the kind of stuff that was churned by the Rhodesia Literature Bureau — not-so-nuanced moralistic Shona and Ndebele novels.

Let me take a brief detour before coming back to the heart of the matter.

“I must be cruel, only to be kind”, says Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Well, at Rujeko Primary School someone was quite kind in a brutal way to me.

I lasted just about 10 minutes in the football first team.

Our coach, a fearsome man who was also our carpentry teacher, was known for his “words as bullets”.

He took no prisoners.

“Your brother was a good footballer here but how come you can’t play?”

I could not answer for the sins of my father.

The carpenter-cum-coach looked at my naked, dusty foot and spat to the side.

I was never seen again near the football practice ground.

I only surfaced at official matches, safely hidden in the crowd of blue-uniform-clad learners.

Maybe we don’t need to go Mr Carpenter’s route with our aspiring poet-musicians, writers and playwrights.

It is possible we could assist by telling aspiring writers the truth: pain is not poetry.

Just because you suffered from a toothache or some other dastardly experience does not translate into a great work of art.

As the great American writer Toni Morrison says:

“I think some aspects of writing can be taught. Obviously you can’t teach vision or talent.”

In a country where we have always lacked sound career guidance and where we currently face a very high rate of unemployment, most Zimbabweans have had to fumble into a career.

Most of us have had to find ourselves, like a school kid trying to get help with homework from illiterate parents.

I hope we are not all thinking that if there are no opportunities we can all just stumble into the arts.

Spare us the pain. Please.

Chris Kabwato is the publisher of www.zimbabweinpictures.com

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