Thursday, January 26, 2017

New Opportunity for Zimbabwean Literature
January 25, 2017
Stanely Mushava

For sceptics, Primary and Secondary Education Minister Dr Lazarus Dokora is always racing against the sun with so little broken but so much to fix. The minister, whose initiatives have sharply polarised opinion in education and culture circles, complains about rogue artists bent on painting his beard longer than it is.

The race which will brand his feet this year is the new curriculum framework, launched last week amid varying levels of preparedness in schools across the country.

The curriculum, which is set to be implemented in phases over the next five years, did not exactly steam off to a supersonic start, owing to logistical challenges such as availability of content and teacher capacity.

But if Dr Dokora’s grand design for basic education is slow-moving, it is probably because it has the weight of history on its shoulders, including the possibility of creating new shelf space for Zimbabwean literature. Besides giving a nod to talent development and economically synced instruction in schools, the new curriculum will have a major spin-off effect on related industries particularly the book sector.

Dr Dokora, himself a published poet, literature aficionado and recurring speaker at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF), has commissioned writers and publishers to meet the literary needs of the new curriculum, with special emphasis on indigenous languages.

Extending an invitation for all-new books, the minister said: “Publishers cannot take a book that was being used before, change the cover and call it new. We are not going to transform on old classics.”

At the 30th anniversary of the country’s flagship literary festival, the minister promised that the curriculum would incentivise new activity in the book sector comparable to the days of the Literature Bureau.

It was a significant promise because Zimbabwe’s literary arena was (and still is) on shifting ground, with mainline publishers mostly focusing on textbooks, and creative writers left to make do with self-publishing – a frugal, bootstrap alternative with many pitfalls. Now major publishers have once again opened their doors to creative writers and there is hope that the rigours and disciplines of this renewed partnership will improve the quality and accessibility of Zimbabwean literature.

“We have extended invitations to creative writers in local languages. The response has generally been low for all local languages except for Shona. Hopefully, as literature in local languages is now a stand alone learning area in the new curriculum, we will see more creative works in local languages,” said ZPH publishing manager Munyaradzi Mbire.

ZPH Publishers is soliciting fiction, drama and poetry manuscripts in Ndebele, Shona, Shangani, Tonga and English, a significant development considering that major publishers have been almost exclusively interested in textbooks.

Zimbabwe International Book Fair Association (ZIBFA) chairperson and noted publisher Blazio Giniyo Tafireyi said the new curriculum was a welcome opportunity for both writers and publishers to create anew.

“All languages now have the literature coverage which increase the demand for creative writings. The study of literature helps you know and understand a people. This is important for the nation and should have happened earlier,” Tafireyi said.

He pointed out that although publishers are collaborating well with all departments at the education ministry, there are challenges on both sides including inadequate funding. Tafireyi said general publishers have not been previously keen on creative writing because the area is a loss leader and survival informs publishers how much they can carry.

“I expect the change will be equal to the expanded business opportunities, nothing more. This is, however, a welcome expansion. The new effort will be sustained adequately. It is true that we almost exclusively focused on schools because this is the only customer we had. Business sense is not what you enjoy but what you can sell. The distribution system is under pressure and under threat from a number of factors including bankruptcy,” Tafireyi said.

He blamed depressed business opportunities caused by reduced business and increased participants, disorganisation and opacity within procurement and distribution systems for limiting publishers’ options.

“From 2009, the procurement systems have become the single biggest risk to the book distribution system, threatening it with extinction. Transparency and accountability are key in successful procurement, their absence is catastrophic to the book distribution system. Piracy is another threat which government can solve overnight by simply arresting the criminal called a book pirate found at every street intersection,” he said, blaming these challenges for impeding publishers from taking up more creative writers over the years.

“The ministry has worked hard with limited resources and I think the achievement is credible and they need to finish the job which is almost done. There are opportunities to be exploited but we all need to work hard, even when resources are limited,” Tafireyi said.

Zimbabwe Writers Association (ZWA) secretary general Memory Chirere said there was bound to be a wide array of scripts to meet the challenge of the new curriculum since most authors are practising people, always writing or thinking about their craft.

Chirere, however, hinted that the expectations of the curriculum maybe be prescriptive whereas creative writers tend to be unguided creators.

“We still can’t tell whether being pushed to write for the syllabus contribute or not to the destruction of our literature,” he said alluding to Tanaka Chidora’s 2016 ZIBF paper which raised the same questions.

“Writers do not always write for the syllabus. Writing for the syllabus is a special way of writing and can be both challenging and exciting. Let those who can, go into it.

“In a challenging economy such as ours, publishers tend to chase the available opportunities, sometimes at the expense of quality. Literature as a canon may actually suffer. Already the local writers discuss something called the Zimsec aesthetics. You can’t avoid it totally,” he said.

Noted literary critic Dr Tinashe Mushakavanhu was even less enthusiastic. “Why should a country’s creative writing culture be aligned to the curriculum development process? This is a demonstrable fact that Zimbabwean publishers are primarily driven by profits, not the intellectual capital they’re actively seeking to exploit.

“It is sad that our publishers think that the Zimbabwean reading experience should be didactic and instructional. Writing for a curriculum is limiting, didactic and prescriptive. I fear for Zimbabwean literature,” Dr Mushakavanhu said.

Previous partnerships with Government such as the Literature Bureau created new spaces for writers. Mushakavanhu is, however, sceptical of publishers who only move when Government is holding their hands.

“When I hear the words Literature Bureau uttered with a sense of longing and a fondness for a return to the way things used to be, my heart sinks. The history of the Literature Bureau is steeped in the broader colonial project. We ought to break away from that past of miseducation, manipulation and censorship and forge new ways of thinking and framing ourselves that is true to our sensibility as a proud and beautiful people,” he observed.

Mushakavanhu lamented that, with the reluctance of publishers to support creative writing of their own accord, giving rise to the self-publishing alternative, Zimbabwe has become a country of gazillion writers and very few editors.

“The publishing process is necessary to ensure quality control and quality products. Unfortunately, the current self-publishing trend in Zimbabwe disrespects this very process. For as long as our books are not of the highest standard, we will not be at the vanguard of African literature any time soon, as we used to be,” he lamented.

He also rapped industry veterans for not grooming new blood and being clueless when it comes to “integrating their legacy publishing models with new digital technologies”.

“We need publishing visions that respond to the environment. According to the 2012 census, at least 70 percent of our population is under the age of 35 and our publishers are out of tune with this demographic. Food for thought. This generational disconnect needs not be part of our culture. It’s retrogressive. It’s painful to watch our peers in Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda run literary collectives, publishing companies, literary magazines while we are waiting for hand outs, NGO workshops. We are as capable to compete on the international stage,” Mushakavanhu said.

Veteran author and culture critic David Mungoshi said publishers should raise funds to enable them to mount their own workshops with writers before the writing starts.

“Publishers should also pay writing fees to each author for all approved work. Following this, publishers can recoup their expenses first before paying out royalties. All selected writers must have proper contracts. That’s absolutely necessary.

“Properly handled, the venture should have lots of advantages all round. For instance, the writing of fictional children’s books across the languages will be jump-started,” he observed.

Mungoshi lamented that following the death of children’s writer Steven Alumenda, the category has been in “a state of suspended animation despite the noble efforts of people like Ignatius Mabasa and Ignatius Musonza.”

“Many years ago during the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Education and Training (popularly known as The Nziramasanga Commission), writers organizations submitted a proposal to introduce literature at primary school.

“This is still a viable proposition which should be looked at very seriously. There are precedents in the Carribean islands and in Uganda. Stephen Alumenda’s books for children were set books in these two areas. That was why he had a Forex account and a visa card long before the multicurrency system began,” he pointed out.

Mungoshi also slammed publishers for relying on Government as their cash cow and, in the process, becoming “myopic in the main”.

“We need publishers to be more adventurous and enterprising. Look what the Pacesetters did. We need thrillers, romances and other genres to bring back the reading culture and even feed into video and film-making,” he said. “There is probably room also for graphic novels/ comics, especially in primary school. This would require graphics people, writers and illustrators to come together and coordinate a paradigm.

“Reading for pleasure feeds into reading for other purposes. Evidence from research shows that no reader who has achieved pleasure reading becomes a reluctant reader in later years. That of course, is very important when it comes to reading for study purposes,” Mungoshi said.

The novelist, poet and academic gave a nod to the new curriculum as a potential stimulus for previously undercanonised indigenous languages.

“As a result of work done by the Curriculum Development Unit (CDU) in the years following independence, orthographies and reading materials were developed in what were then known as the VETOKA languages: Venda, Tonga and Kalanga. This was later extended to Nambya, Shangaan and Sotho. Therefore, there is a template for use with the rest of the languages. Success will depend on resources, personnel and buy-in by all concerned. To an even larger extent, political will be pivotal in erasing or minimising the effects of diglossia,” said the veteran author.Children’s writer Edwin “Uncle Sipet” Msipa said the new creative spaces inspired by the new curriculum evokes the days of the Literature Bureau which played midwife to Zimbabwean writers who previously lacked the opportunity to publish.

“This curriculum-inspired content search is definitely set to open doors for creativity. Of late, production of books had been stalled. There were no incentives to motivate the writer. Some bookshops have closed. Libraries have limited numbers of local books with most of our books donated from outside the country,” Msipa said.

US-based writer Emmanuel Sigauke said the only problem may emerge during the editing process should editors censor content to meet curriculum specifications but an opportunity to make money could be welcome.

Sigauke is more generous with self-publishing which has been rising over the years to plug the content gap that has been occassioned by mainline players’ specialisation with textbooks. “In terms of rigour, maybe facilities and activities should be put in place to teach writers craft so they can produce higher quality work,” he said.

If the Literature Bureau was Day 1 for Zimbabwean publishing, the new curriculum may be Day 2, and the possibility of greater shelf space for literature in previously marginalised indigenous languages.


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