"Because Sadness is Beautiful?: In Conversation with Tanaka Chidora"

Updated: May 20, 2021


I curate my best wounds into poetry

and leave the worst ones as salt lines on the cheeks;

so, we can safely say both the best and the worst

leave monuments behind:

syntactic lines for lips to kiss at every syllable

and salt lines for those who receive thrills

from gazing at lacerations left on withered cheeks.

TM: Tendai Machingaidze TC: Tanaka Chidora

Tanaka Chidora

TM: Tell us about yourself - where you grew up, your family, where you studied, where you are now?

TC: I was born in the 80s when the euphoria for Zimbabwe’s independence was still enough to offset any lingering visions of dystopia. But the memories I have are really of the 90s – the village in Masvingo; a brief stint in Chinhoyi’s Chikonohono; then another brief stint in some grass-thatched huts that huddled at the outskirts of Chinhoyi (looking back, I am sure they constituted a squatter camp); then the village which, for many years, became the only place I knew until a kind aunt whisked me to the city because, according to her, there were better schools there.

The village has a lot of fond memories, including Grandmother whom we buried last year. She appears on the cover photo of my poetry collection, Because Sadness is Beautiful? I will talk about this photo later. I also remember Mudhara Matanya whose voice I usually use in my Shona poems which I am writing in what I think is pure Karanga (ChiVhitori). I remember the names too: Mudhara Dambu (my no-nonsense uncle who is late now), Mudhara Rori, Mudhara Maths, Mudhara Ngipongipo, Mbuya VaChikara (my paternal grandmother whose Hwisiri hymns were usually sung while hoeing her groundnut patch), Mbuya Mai Shabanie (I need to ask my uncles where that name came from)… Hell, my own father was/is nicknamed Jeke. His namesake was/is nicknamed Chigubhu. I am sure the nicknames had to do with the notorious village brew which Mbuya VaMaganga (may she rest in peace) brewed with a skill that defied her notorious short-sightedness. I remember the fights while herding cattle, the interminable hunger that gnawed at my insides because Mother would have locked all her doors as punishment for my refusal to go to church. I remember many things that happened, some good, some sad, until the city happened many years later.

The city is actually Magaba Hostels in Mbare which, in my first novel for which I am the agent and still hunting for a publisher, appears as Magamba Hostels (the pun is really unintended). This too has its memories, like that time when I visited an aunt who lived North of Samora and I didn’t know what to do with a clean toilet because in Magaba no one really worried about those things. In the morning, I would commute (and sometimes walk) to school in Mt Pleasant and come back to Magaba in the evening. It was like a tale of two cities. I became the butt of many jokes at school because of my Masvingo accent and the fact that I lived in Magaba.

I stayed in Magaba until I got married and later received my MA in Literature from the University of Zimbabwe. I later acquired my PhD in Literature from the University of the Free State, South Africa. Since 2014, I have been teaching Popular Culture and Literature, and Theories of Literature, at the University of Zimbabwe. I aslo taught Creative Writing after the publication of my first poetry collection. Additionally, I had a brief, semester-long stint at Goethe University, Germany, where I taught Afrodiasporic Writing in English. I am now in the process of calling time on my career at the University of Zimbabwe and moving to MSU where I will be involved in a lot of research work at their Language Institute.

TM: Why poetry? Please tell us about your writing journey – where you began, your inspiration, where you are now. What authors have influenced your writing?

TC: Poetry came to me. Besides the fact that I, at one time, spent a whole weekend with David Mungoshi, Memory Chirere, Ignatius Mabasa, Philani Nyoni and Mercy Dhliwayo who all inspired me to write, I want to say poetry, as you see it in Because Sadness is Beautiful? actually came to me when I desperately needed it.

Before that weekend with the poets mentioned above, I had, for a long time, immersed myself in the following collections: Cemetery of Mind (Dambudzo Marechera), Blind Moon (Chenjerai Hove), Kingfisher, Jikinya and other Poems (Musaemura Zimunya - I especially like the poem ‘Jikinya’; it’s a masterpiece), Bhuku Risina Basa (Memory Chirere), Live Like an Artist (David Mungoshi), The People Look like Flowers at Last (Charles Bukowski), Rhyme and Resistance (Onai Mushava), and Philtrum (Philani Nyoni). In the course of my studies, I had, of course, read lots of poems, but the list above represents those collections that left an indelible mark on the surface of my creativity. Later on, I subscribed to Rattle Magazine which is in the habit of sending all these beautiful poems to my mailbox. Those too have shaped my view of poetry and how I go about my craft.

But, like I said, poetry came to me when I desperately needed it, especially towards the end of 2018 when I first experienced what it meant to be depressed. I am saying this for the first time. At first, I said to myself, look, you graduated with a PhD this year. You have been working hard for three years and suddenly, you find yourself with nothing to do, with no research to wake up to in the middle of the night. That is why you are depressed, hello! But when things got worse, when I started breaking down and crying in other people’s inboxes in the middle of the night (a few of my friends remember these crying bouts – they happened faithfully for many months), I knew I had to do something about it.

Depression is not something we really talk about in Zimbabwe. I mean, why would a Zimbabwean suffer from such a disease? Are you fighting with your wife? No. Are you unemployed? No. Are you broke? No. Are you taking illegal drugs? No. Why the hell are you depressed then? In a country like ours, it’s really difficult to find a way out of depression. So, I found myself writing poetry. And I had to title the collection, Because Sadness is Beautiful? This was me trying to transform this very desolate and lonely space into something that people could read and respond to with likes and all those happy emojis.

My depression had affected my progress with my novel, Magamba Hostels, so poetry offered something more immediate for my urgent need. Later on, I figured that, maybe I could, since I had done a lot of advance publicity for my unfinished novel, use the collection as a trailer to the novel. So, you will find that there are two poems dedicated to Magamba Hostels (the novel and its subject matter) and Magamba Hostels (the place) in the collection. What I was trying to do was give my readers something to gnaw at while I finished my novel in peace (the peace is relative of course, you know, living Zimbabwean in current times). Eighteen months after the compilation of Because Sadness is Beautiful? my novel was complete. It has been reviewed by a couple of reviewers who have encouraged me to go on and publish it. In fact, one of the reviewers said that he wouldn’t be worried, even for a minute, if I published the novel in its current form, word for word. So that’s some really positive stuff there.

I have also published a single short story, ‘Days of the Sun’, in Chitungwiza Mushamukuru: An anthology from Zimbabwe’s biggest ghetto town. It’s set in Chitungwiza (as are all subsequent short stories) where I currently reside. The short story combines prose and poetry and has two temporal settings – the past and the present. I also have a couple of poems in Zimbolicious (2020) and Best New African Poets (2019).

TM: Your debut poetry book is titled “Because Sadness is Beautiful?” Why did you choose this title? What is your vision behind the collection of poems? Is there a special meaning behind the book cover?

TC: Like I said, the poems in that collection were written during that period when I desperately wanted to hold on to something. So, you will see that even where I am talking about my country, there is something perceptibly personal about it. When my publisher read the collection for the first time, he said, look, these poems can behave the way you want your poems to behave if arranged well. They can become a narrative. And yes, when I rearranged them, there was the narrative – depression, Zimbabwe, Magamba, Grandmother, Mother, Father, death, love, broken hearts and all: everything arranged in such a way that words gave form to ME.

The title of the collection is something that developed later after I had written many of the poems that now appear in the collection. Initially, I had titled it The Dying City, but after realising that I was in each poem, either as a spectator or persona, I decided to find a title that was closer to where I was. I then held a Facebook poll with my readers and Because Sadness is Beautiful? was endorsed.

There is also this poem, ‘The Bee Sting in the Eye’ by Valvis. That poem made me think about how a lot of terrible beauty is born out of very sad moments. It was also at that time that I wrote the piece, ‘Creativity in Desolation’ on my blog. So, yea, the odds were really against The Dying City as a title of this collection.

The title, as you might have seen, is a question which I am not in any way trying to answer. One reviewer complained about this, but I think poetry should, through its terrible beauty, show, then the reader figures out what’s going on without being guided by the dictatorship of the author. My depression was not beautiful. But poetry, even when inspired by sadness, is damn beautiful.

Now, as to the picture on the cover...It’s one of those pictures from way back that suddenly re-appears in your life after many decades, after you have done a lot of photoshopping and editing of pictures and posting them on social media to tell stories that are correct, too correct. Suddenly, something raw, something that inspires raw, unedited emotion appears and you fall in love with it because of the sentimental value it has, because Grandmother (who, having succumbed to interminable amnesia, no longer remembers you, and dies a year later) is there in the picture, because you remember the day the picture was taken by some visitors who had come from the city with their city smell and bread and Vaseline (you were in Grade 3 and wearing your only sensible clothes which doubled as your school uniform), because you realise many years later that the things you miss about the past are not all rosy. The picture is some kind of distillation of everything that has led to this present moment, and you realise it’s not something that has to be explained in a very sensible way with all the coordinates in place. So, the title of your collection becomes a question, Because Sadness is Beautiful?

The picture also came to be my cover because my publisher wanted something personal since most of the poems lead back to me. I had unsuccessfully surfed the internet for an image that was both sad and beautiful when my publisher called and asked, do you have a picture from way back? That was when it dawned on me that the photograph that Mbuya Mai Valentine had unearthed during the Easter holidays of 2018 was the perfect thing.

TM: You work at the University of Zimbabwe. What courses do you teach? How do you go about shaping the voices of upcoming writers and literary critics? With the economic struggles of our country, and in turn the degradation of the book industry, what are the future prospects of those studying literature and creative writing in Zimbabwe?

TC: For six years, I taught Theories of Literature; and Popular Culture and Literature. Those never changed. More courses were added here and there depending on the available staff. These include African Literature; Literature and Social Movements; and, later on after the publication of my poetry collection, Creative Writing. Because of this experience and the exposure it has brought, I have worked with many writers as an editor and book reviewer (first, for The Herald, Newsday, Southern Times, and, later, for my blog: I have also worked with arts organisations like The National Arts Council of Zimbabwe (NACZ) and so on.

On a normal day, I encounter many poems that are hurriedly posted into my Whatsapp or Facebook inboxes by enthusiastic writers (some of them, to be honest, are a tasteless bouquet). At first, I used to indulge all and sundry, until the clutter of work made that impossible. These days I ask the question: how do you know me? Usually, the answer is: I have read about you in the newspaper and I know you have a collection titled Because Sadness is Beautiful? (sometimes I am told that the title is Sadness is Beautiful). Have you read the collection? I ask. No, I haven’t (I usually bluetick the last response and move on with my cluttered life. I mean, if you don’t want to read my published work, how do you expect me to read your unpublished writing for free?).

But, I have also seen young poets whose reading habits are very encouraging, not just because they have read my collection (it’s a bonus if they have), but also because we can actually have a mind-stretching conversation during which they throw in all these wonderful titles they would have read. I am talking about young poets like Tafadzwa Chiwanza whose No Bird is Singing Now? is deeply philosophical, beautiful and too sad for a poet of his! I don’t know if the question mark at the end of his title is a product of my influence, hahahahaha! But I am sure I have influenced many young poets.

I belong to various Whatsapp groups where many of them are being nurtured. I single out the Gourd of Consciousness group (led by Khumbulani Muleya) which has given many young poets a taste of what it means to be published in a national newspaper and popular online magazines, and to appear on radio to talk about their work. I have also made some of my poems accessible by occasionally posting them on Facebook with accompanying images for effect. I am glad to say that I have responded to calls by some excited readers to wean myself from social media coyness and really be out there. Since then, I have come across many people who have told me that they are inspired by what I am doing on social media. That is really encouraging.

Occasionally, I have also given Zoom readings like at Off the Wall Poetry, a very vibrant South African-based poetry club. The idea is to be heard as much as possible and hopefully help another enthusiastic and upcoming poet one way or the other.

As for the reading/writing climate in Zimbabwe, I belong to various book clubs and writing groups. The enthusiasm is there; what is lacking is the support network. An author has to do everything from writing to marketing, and I do not think such a scenario is sustainable. Many of our writers really get acknowledged locally when they publish and become famous outside, which goes to show how the current settings are not healthy for a career in Zimbabwe dedicated solely to writing without any major side-hustles. In fact, let me rearrange it thus: writing is the side-hustle. Universities used to nurture the culture of reading and also provide a platform for writers to be famous, especially because of the existence of English and African Languages Departments where literature was being read and studied. But with the current belief that literature is not central to innovation and industrialisation, and the subsequent crumbling of these departments at some local universities, the support network has been heavily compromised. So, the prospects are not very encouraging, but I am convinced that the sector will survive, especially because of the dedication and hard work of some people who still believe in literature.

TM: Tell us about your work as a literary critic. What books/writers would you recommend to those wanting to delve into Zimbabwean literature for the first time?

TC: Zimbabwe is a vast country with incredible talent. It also incorporates the Zimbabwean diaspora which, as you are aware, has been doing extremely amazing work and giving us something to be proud of, especially at a time when things to be proud of are hard to locate. Thus, I cannot give a truly representative list of Zimbabwean writing without being influenced by my own biases. But, I get disappointed when talking to a wannabe Zimbabwean writer who proudly tells me that he/she hasn’t read the Mungoshis, Marechera, Hove, Vera, Dangarembga, Zimunya, Chinodya, Nyamufukudza, Chiundura Moyo, Tsodzo and so on. These are the godfathers and godmothers who created the tradition of Zimbabwean writing! I haven’t spoken of the generation that follows, the whole line up to the present day … writers with an international following. I usually ask them, so, who the hell have you been reading?

As a critic and academic, I am also involved in lots of research that focus on new publications or re-readings of old ones. For instance, I have published three different papers on Chenjerai Hove’s Bones and am currently working on a fourth publication. The good thing about academic publications is that they are like adverts; they direct academics’ focus towards particular writings; in this case, literary texts. I also review books on my blog. A new review attracts around ninety readers some of whom go on to ask where they can get the book.

TM: What other works have you written? Are you currently working on any new writing projects? Where can readers access your work?

TC: As I mentioned earlier, I have a published short story titled ‘Days of the Sun’. Other unpublished ones include ‘Where Death Naps’, ‘The Anatomy of Grief’, How not to be an Angry Zimbabwean Woman … or Entanglements’, and ‘Tales of a Cat in its Ninth Life’ (this one started as a writing duet with a friend and after the excitement of starting had fizzled out, I decided to convert it into a short story. Please don’t tell her…yet).

I am still writing poems, this time in both Shona and English, and occasionally posting one or two on Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I already have the titles in my mind but I cannot be certain about them. Titles change. Who remembers The Dying City? I have also finished working on my first novel and the reviews are back. Right now, I am surfing the internet for agents and publishers and approaching them and pitching my work. This is a very recent development so I am still waiting for the first responses.

Because Sadness is Beautiful? is being distributed internationally by African Books Collective. This means it can be purchased on the African Books Collective website. It’s available on Amazon as well. We also have a distribution channel that has been set up specifically for those who are in Zimbabwe. The number to get in touch with is +263785467289. For the local market, we are also coming up with a deal that involves Book Fantastics, a local mobile bookshop that is doing amazing work. I will be posting the details on my Facebook page and Twitter handle soon.

164 views0 comments