LEGENDARY Zimbabwean writer Charles Mungoshi turned 70 on December 2, 2017. Mungoshi handles a broad range of literary genres and styles in a way that is very rarely surpassed by many in the so-called Third World today.
By Memory Chirere
His literary profile is compact. He is a novelist, poet, short-story writer, playwright, film scriptwriter, actor, editor, translator, and consultant.
While each of the other prominent writers of Zimbabwe like Yvonne Vera, Dambudzo Marechera, Shimmer Chinodya, Aaron Chiundura Moyo and Ndabezinhle Sigogo, have tended to write in English or Shona or Ndebele only, Mungoshi has written convincingly and continuously in both Shona and English.
In 1975 alone, for instance, Mungoshi published two books: Waiting for the Rain (a novel in English) and Ndiko Kupindana Kwemazuva (a novel in Shona).
These two works exude separate amazing qualities that one wonders how they could have been written “back to back.”
That ambidexterity was no fluke because later, in 1980, Mungoshi repeated a similar feat, publishing Inongova Njakenjake (a play in Shona) and Some Kinds of Wounds (a short-story collection in English).
It is as if Mungoshi writes simultaneously with two pens — one in the left hand and the other in the right hand!
In fact, between 1970 and 2000, a period of 30 years, Mungoshi made an average of one major publication in every one and a half years and won a prize of sorts for each of them.
In 2004, Zimbabwe 75 Best Books, a project meant to come up with the best books ever to come out of Zimbabwe, Mungoshi appeared in the top five lists in both English and Shona categories — a feat completed by no other Zimbabwean writer.
The late Ruzvidzo Mupfudza, a short-story writer and essayist, even joked in The Daily Mirror of the same week that had any of Mungoshi’s works been translated to Ndebele, he could also have led in that category!
On March 3, 2006, Mungoshi appeared in the final list of the recipients of the Silver Jubilee Literary Awards, alongside Shona novelist Chiundura Moyo, pathfinder literary critic, George Kahari and Ndebele novelists Ndabezinhle Sigogo and Barbara Nkala.
He had beaten other hot nominees: fellow writers like Chenjerai Hove, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Mordekai Hamutyinei, Thompson Tsodzo, Pathisa Nyathi, Ben Sibenke and the late Marechera and Yvonne Vera.
If the novel as in Makunun’unu Maodzamoyo (1970) or Waiting for the Rain (1975) offers the man a wider axis to explore and develop ideas, maybe Mungoshi’s shorter bursts of inspiration find acute expression in shorter fiction as in Coming of the Dry Season (1972), Some Kinds of Wounds (1980) and Walking Still (1997).
When that is done, the man does not linger long and suffer, for he also broke into poetry in The Milkman Doesn’t Only Deliver Milk (1981).
Feeling maybe trapped with traditional literary forms, he could, and as happened in 1992 with Abide with Me, 1995 with The Axe and Gwatakwata, Children Video Picture Book 1997, get into writing for the screen.
Not apologising for it, or looking back, he can go into acting itself. For instance, he appears in plays as “the journalist”
in Ndabve Zera, “the storekeeper” in Makunun’unu Maodzamoyo and as Trebonius in Julius Ceasar (produced by Andrew Shaw).
When it suits him, he can also hit the road and present papers in Zimbabwe and across the globe.
The numerous invitations he has received are testimony to his status as an unofficial cultural ambassador of Zimbabwe.
He has been Visiting Lecturer at the University of Florida in the 2000 Spring Semester and Resource Person at Netherlands’ Groningen Children’s Book Year Workshop in 1996.
Mungoshi’s profile shows that from 1980 to 1990, he did not go for a year without giving a paper in places like the University of Florida, Iowa, Durham University, Amsterdam, New Zealand, Australia, Cambridge University and many more.
Mungoshi is not very well known as a poet, arguably because he writes less verse. However, his single poetry anthology, The Milkman Doesn’t Only Deliver Milk is deep and revealing.
He refers to poetry in one interview as “only a sideline, a mere finger exercise” in his continuing endeavour to condense language to a spare state of fine precision.
His poetry exudes the styles and philosophies of his more celebrated prose.
The greatest strength of Mungoshi literature is the life-like feel he has for people.
He has sympathy for the underdog, without overwriting. His characters belong to believable circumstances, place and time and are endearing.
With the use of deceptively simple language and plot comparable only to Mozambique’s Luis Honwana’s and maybe South-Africa’s Ezekiel Mphahlele’s too, Mungoshi tells stories about things you did not quite know about people you know.
For Mungoshi, writing is not external. It is participatory. It is not a profession or hobby. It is life. He says about writing parts of Waiting for the Rain: “I was living in it (the story didn’t happen in the past). It is a drum. It is happening, it is playing now.”
And maybe unknown to him, Mungoshi helped introduce and popularise the techniques of psychological realism and stream of consciousness in Zimbabwean literatures.
At the attainment of Zimbabwe’s independence, African scholars in the Department of English at the University of Zimbabwe found Mungoshi’s quantity and quality of work very useful in arguing for a course on works by Africans in English language.
The Rhodesian academics had often argued that there were not enough of such works to be studied in schools, colleges and at university levels.
A research conducted recently on the same department alone had very interesting revelations. Mungoshi’s works have been translated to numerous non-European languages: Waiting for the Rain from English to Hungarian (1978), Norwegian (1980) and Russian (1983), Coming of the Dry Season from English to Russian (1985) The Setting Sun and the Rolling World, from English to Japanese (1995) Stories from a Shona Childhood from English to Swiss (1996) and German (1988), Walking Still from English to Swiss (2006).
Born to a rural farming community in Chivhu on December 2, 1947, Mungoshi has very humble origins and has remained down-to-earth despite his international stature.
Until the time he fell ill recently, he had travelled across Zimbabwe, mentoring young and new writers, sometimes for no fee.
Records at the Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Women Writers Association can bear testimony.
He has mentored or directly influenced younger writers, among them Ignatius Mabasa, Ruzvidzo Mupfudza, Albert Nyathi, Joice Mutiti, Lawrence Hoba, Chiedza Musengezi, Thabisani Ndlovu, myself and others. His style of writing has become a brand.
In honour of his amazing ambidexterity and depth, the University of Zimbabwe conferred an honorary doctorate degree (Doctor of Letters-DLitt) on him on November 14, 2003.
The essence of Mungoshi literature is about grappling with the issues of home, identity and belonging in the changing times.
Mungoshi’s writings have also tended to evoke that strong sense of “Zimbabweaness”.