The Interview with Tendai Rinos Mwanaka Page Two
by Anthony Watkins
AW: You seem to have traveled around and gotten close to the people and the politics in many countries.
TRM: I haven’t really travelled that much . . . only in the Southern Africa part, physically, that is. I don’t like travelling. I am more of a territorial person, but I compensate for that with my literary travels, connecting with writers and poets all over the world.
AW: How has this affected both your writing and your publishing?
TRM: You get to understand writings from all over the world through connections, issues that are in many worlds’ poetry, and you learn from them, adapt your writing, and strengthen your voice.
AW: Where do you see the strongest new poetry communities on the continent?
TRM: South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Zimbabwe have always been the dominant English-speaking countries, literarily speaking, but I am overjoyed with the intensity in literature happening in countries like Uganda, Ghana, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, etc. As for Portuguese in Africa it’s mostly Angola and Mozambique, and for French in Africa, its Cameroon, DRC, Ivory Coast, etc.
AW: Speaking of politics, where is it dangerous to be a public poet? Where is it safest? Where are poets most encouraged?
TRM: South Africa has more freedoms generally speaking, but we are seeing a lot of public poets coming from all over the continent. There is always danger from political establishments in Africa, but a lot of politicians are becoming increasingly indifferent to being criticized by their poets and are content just ignoring them and their grievances, making the work of cultural practitioners a bit safer. African governments don’t support the arts like, say, the US government does. Our artists are ignored as long as we stay within our territory of writing, publishing, and reading to the small literary market, but when a poet is so big he can touch a chunk of the electorate with his work then he becomes a target of these politicians. The only way I feel I can be safe is to avoid public spaces. Up to now I have not known how to enter that space, but other poets have done so and have great careers as public poets. A lot of poets in Africa are more book poets.
AW: As an outsider, following along with you, some of my other African friends, and the western media, I get a patchwork of what is happening in places like Nigeria and Zimbabwe, and now in South Africa. Where are the bright spots? And where are the places where things are falling apart?
TRM: There are a lot of bright spots, like Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, Ghana, etc. There are a few countries that are struggling, of which Zimbabwe is one. I can’t say falling apart . . . I still have a sense it’s a matter of time, the right environment, the right leaders, and then it will start ticking. Remember, a few years ago Rwanda went through a genocide and now it’s a shining beacon, despite lack of real democracy. Africa is a bit complex to talk about in terms of democracy, good governance, and development. What a westerner thinks about those issues might not really apply here or work with our situation. The biggest ask is whether democracy will work in Africa the way it has in the western world. Maybe we really need some kind of African democracy, one we look at with African eyes. There are a lot of countries the world over that are prospering without western democracy, countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Rwanda, etc. I have a feeling the west demands a textbook kind of democracy from African countries, yet they don’t even have that kind of democracy in their own countries. Look, for instance, at your country. Your vote is controlled by an electoral college, a few rich white men control your democracy. I think it’s more valuable to insist on development from our politicians now. We need development.
AW: How does this affect both the writing of poets and the life of publishing in various places?
TRM: Young poets from Africa are inspired by our political situation and write directly to power. The majority still write from westerly eyes on issues to do with democracy, good governance, even development. We are controlled by the western media, are we not? They tell us what is right and what is wrong. We are still controlled by western religions, and they tell us what is right and what is not. We are controlled by western technology, and it’s awash with western-centric ways of doing things. It’s hard for African poets to find their original voices, their original stories.
AW: What are your most recent publishing ventures? Who are the poets? Do you still find time to write?
TRM: It’s hard to find time to write nowadays but I compensate for that with other arts. I do love to draw and do a bit of music, mbira inspired music, but here and there I still write something new. I am currently editing, with my co-editorial team, Daniel and Nsah, the Best New African Poets 2019 Anthology, and before year’s end I want to do another anthology specifically focused on the place I have called home for the past 25 years, Chitungwiza . . . it’s Zimbabwe’s biggest ghetto township.
AW: Thank you, Tendai.
Then I realized I also needed to do intercontinental anthologies, whereby writers from, let’s say Africa and Latin America, can transact around a topic or issue and produce writings (essays, poetry, plays, stories, etc.) which we will publish. We have done two volumes for Latin American and African writers, and two volumes for African and North American writers. In the first one, Africanization and Americanization Anthology Vol 1, we even published leading theorists and poets, Professor Barbara Foley’s essay on Richard Wright, and also several household poets like A.D. Winans, Tim Hall, Nat Turner, and C. Leigh McInnes. We’ve done one volume for African and European writers. We focused on UK and Ireland in this volume, Africa, UK and Ireland: Writing Politics and Knowledge Production Vol 1. Next year we intend to focus on another European country (I love the eastern European writing scene) or maybe Russia. Last is one volume of Asian and African writers, Writing Language, Culture and Development, Africa Vs Asia Vol 1, which is a multi-lingual, translational anthology with 13 African and Asian languages like Japanese, Chinese, Yoruba, Shona, Korean, etc., plus English. Next year we will be doing a second volume of African and Asian writers. Amid all these, I am also publishing my individual books and running my publishing company, as well as editorial tasks and several artistic endeavors.
AW: How did you come to poetry?
TRM: I think poetry came to me . . . I never thought, “I will be a poet/writer.” In Africa, back when we were growing up, that was reserved for well-to-do families or students from former group A schools. I went to little backwater rural schools up to my O level; we were limited in what we thought we could become. In my O level studies that’s when we started doing poetry, Shona poetry which was examinable as part of the Shona paper — that’s when I fell in love with poetry. I was a voracious reader by the time I went for my A levels, to the extent that instead of reading for exams in my A level years (I did Maths, Geography, and Accounting at A level) I was busy reading novels. I came to English poetry a bit later. There is this huge anthology of British and Irish poets (I am sorry I don’t remember the title), an over 1000-page collection of poetry I started reading at my local library in the Zengeza Chitungwiza Council library and loved reading. Thus I fell in love with Robert Browning, Hardy’s poetry (of course I loved his novels already), Milton (his Paradise Lost poem was a massive literary landscape for me), Spenser, and more, but poetry has always been there in my world. We grew up in traditional African setups where we would do ceremonies to appease ancestors and these ceremonies were simply poetry, the totemic praise songs and poetry. Later, at church, the Bible with its poetic writings was interesting to me. Show me one poet who didn’t go to Solomon’s wells in the Bible! So I come from all these merging influences and I suppose these shaped the poet that I became.
AW: How did you first come to publishing?
TRM: It was a really difficult journey for me. I started writing just after my A levels in 1994, and had three collections out by 1999, but finding a publisher was another ball game. For 12 years I tried to get these works published but failed until in 2006 when my first poem was published in a dubious poetry journal . . . but that gave me courage. It was not long before I started getting published in several places per year. At the height of the journaling of my work I was published in over 50 places a year . . . getting published was my university education. I learned to become a better writer from reading other writers I would discover in these journals. By the time I published my first collection of poetry, Voices From Exile, in 2010 (Lapwing Publications, UK), I had confidence in my voice and was soon publishing all over the world.
AW: Africa is a big and diverse place. How did you build the network you have?
TRM: By thinking of Africa as one country with diverse languages, races, religions, and cultures. I’m not afraid of trying to connect with someone across cultural differences — trying to work on an idea with someone. By nature, I am an open-minded, generous, patient person, and I am always willing to learn new things. In fact, I think highly of that which I haven’t been able to learn, that writer I haven’t read, that friend I haven’t made, so those who want to connect with me always find me open. Maybe that comes from my upbringing, where we were taught and practiced the adage, it takes a village to raise a child. This is what I still value. I believe it took a village to raise me up, so I have to be that village, me together with the several other experienced African poets have to raise the next generation of poets. There is really a great group of experienced poets of my generation who are doing their best to help impart experience to the next batch of African poets: poets like Mbizo Chirasha, Adjei Agyei-Baah, Harry Owen, Amitabh Mitra, Jabulani Mzinyathi, Kyle Allan, Crystal Warren, Wanjohi wa Makokha, and more.
AW: Tell us a bit about your own poetry and your inspiration.
TRM: My poetry can’t be pinpointed . . . I write across forms, styles, conventions . . . break them without care. So, I could say I am experimental by nature. As I noted I was inspired by Shona poetry which is my traditional poetry and songs, and also by the English canonical poetry of the past centuries. I love American poetry, East European poetry such as you would find in the Balkans region, Indian poetry, Latin American Spanish poets, traditional American Indian poetry, Israeli and Middle Eastern poetry, African griots tradition . . . anything poetic can inspire me. I am inspired by the young poets I have had the privilege to publish for the past five years too, poets like Kariuki wa Nyamu, Sibusiso Masilela, John Eppel (I can’t say he is young, but he is one of the Zimbabwean poets I love), Chenjerai Mhondera, Abigail George, Busisiwe Mahlangu, Christine Coates, Luciano Canhanga, Magno Domingos, Arja Salafranca, Domingoes Cupa, Tinashe Muchuri, Daniel Da Purificacao, Nsah Mala, Luc Kofi, Archie Swanson, and more.
Connections That Bind © Tendai Rinos Mwanaka
The Writer's Couch © Tendai Rinos Mwanaka