THE National Arts Council of Zimbabwe (NACZ) has to be commended for establishing the annual National Arts Merit Awards (Nama) in recognition of the stars that shine in our often-neglected arts sector.
Between the lines with Phillip Chidavaenzi
But that is perhaps as far as it goes because after 14 years of existence – the longevity in itself a source of pride to the organisers – one is compelled to feel that the manner in which they have been doing it is crying out for fine-tuning to ensure that no one feels cheated.
To ask a sprinter to compete in a marathon race with long–distance runners would be unfair, but looking at the list of nominations for this year’s Literary Awards, one strongly feels that this is exactly what the NACZ have been doing.
Of course, some of these issues have been raised before, and NACZ director Elvas Mari admitted as much after the release of the nominations.
Mari said a lot has been said about the Nama, but he personally felt that the 14-year journey has been successful before calling on the corporate sector to throw its weight behind the country’s vibrant culture industry which is clearly pregnant with potential.
Notwithstanding that, I personally would say a revisit of the selection criteria is long overdue.
But while this sentiment might apply to all the categories, for the purposes of this column, I will simply train my gaze on the literary sector in which novels Shards (Cynthia Marangwanda-Banda), Revai (Ropafadzo Mupunga) and A Struggle Alike (Debra Vakira) were nominated in the Outstanding First Creative Published Work category.
The Outstanding Children’s Book category saw the nomination of Little Hare Stories – Big Trouble at the River (Enock Chihombori), Mombe Yamai (Chenjerai Mazambani) and Around the Fire – Folktales from Zimbabwe (edited by Raisedon Baya and Christopher Mlalazi).
In the Outstanding Fiction Book category, Mukoma’s Marriage and Other Stories (Emmanuel Sigauke), Bhuku Risina Basa Nokuti Rakanyorwa Masikati (Memory Chirere) and Writing Lives (edited by Irene Staunton) were nominated. These are very interesting – and equally controversial – nominations for the reasons that I will enumerate in this instalment. But let me categorically state that I hold no beef with any of these writers and editors as well as their publications.
My beef is with the organisers of the awards, particularly their reductive approach to the adjudication of literary works, whose integrity I believe needs to be protected.
Marangwanda’s Shards is an English novel that largely draws from post-modernistic approaches while Mupunga’s Revai is extensively a traditional Shona novel. Their comparative quality (which saw both of them nominated) is primarily is based on the fact that they are both novels.
But beyond that, there is nothing that can be compared between the two. The literary analytical approaches to English novels are not similar to those of the English novel.
And since the release of the list of nominees, I have been wondering how the NAMA adjudicators achieved that miraculous feat.
I would say the same applies to Chihombori’s Little Hare Stories – Big Trouble at the River and Mazambani’s Mombe Yamai for the same reasons I have just explained.
Sigauke’s Mukoma’s Marriage and Other Stories (single-authored collection of English stories), Chirere’s Bhuku Risina Basa Nokuti Rakanyorwa Masikati (single-authored Shona poetry anthology) and the multi-authored collection of short stories, Writing Lives feature in a category that would have presented serious headaches to self–respecting adjudicators.
Clearly, the analytical approaches to poetry are completely different from those used for short stories and I wonder how any competent literary critic would even dare to say this particular work is better than that one.
What criteria would have been used to compare Shona poetry and English stories? The two are poles apart in every respect! A collection of short stories written by several authors surely has an advantage over an anthology written by one person.
Different writers carry different skills, perspectives and abilities and bring a wealth of diversity to a book. It is a herculean task for a single author whose skill is limited to match that, and he comes into the game already handicapped.
Justice can be done if we are able to have sector specific categories that reflect the diversity in our literature. It is a great disservice to try and bunch together such diverse works of literature that can only be assessed using different parameters.
In closing, I would join hands with Mari in calling for the corporate sector to support the country’s book industry, which is under threat from new multi-media technologies but remains a critical component of our literary culture.
Till next week, let’s keep reading!