Now and again, a Zimbabwean writer comes along and transcends readers minds with the offerings of their writing. Philani Amadeus Nyoni’s (PAN) poetry knows no boundaries, his voice is established and he handles his work with care and authority.
I met PAN for drinks in Bulawayo, on a day when the long awaited rains had finally given way. Our conversations are grounded and humorous, our silence is comfortable and thoughtful. He has clout, plenty of it and he is boldly fearless. I want to cocoon him in an impenetrable fortress, but his poetry is as free as the African eagle that looms over Matebeleland, and he asks that we, his readers let him be, because at his best he is writing poetry. Philani is as feisty as he is controlled, he is ahead of his time and he chooses to write within the bounds of his homeland, surrounded by the spirits of those who came before him and paved the way for intriguing writers and readers alike.
PAN talks to Dorcas Gwata, Director of Tribal Sands:
PAN, your work, your art is a readers treat, how did you find the pen, or did the pen find you?
Thank you, I do what I can. My relationship with the pen was a gradual courtship. I was wooed at an early age; in fact, I can remember the first time I said it out loud that I wanted to write. I was ten, talking to Babili. Even then I was deeply aware of my ability to use words in a unique way. In fact when I changed schools in third grade, I was supposed to repeat the second because they felt I was not ready for their vigorous curriculum. One of the interviewers strongly opposed the motion on the basis of my exceptional reading.
Five years later I wrote my first poem. I will not go into the details of who was who, but there was a writer on a park bench, another walked with me. He is dead and somehow I was aware of his presence and absence. He was narrating something to me about the other writer (they were great friends in this life). The words kept ringing in my head when I woke up. I wrote them down and stood back and said, “wow, I can write poetry!”
Your personality, and sense of freedom stand out as much as your writing, do we as readers understand you in the light that you want to be understood?
The funny thing about that is I hadn’t noticed this until I got a signed copy of “More Than A Woman” by Ericah Gwetai (Yvonne Vera’s mother) signed. The MC had arbitrarily decided I should read a few pages at the launch and I happily complied. She wrote something similar to what you are accusing me of being and now I have to sit back and wonder.
I am a liberated person, I have always had a terrifying imagination and that wasn’t always my best friend growing up. It was always scraping against society, authority, religious prescriptions everything else. At some point I hated myself because of the ease with which I seemed to get into trouble. When we are younger nobody wants to be different; some people never grow out of it. My liberation came from the acceptance that I am what I am; I should not be afraid to be.
Yet I try not to be the artwork, once a writer becomes too recognisable then he cannot be a writer, a writer should be read not heard, or seen.
Many are comparing you to the late Dambudzo Marechera, and your writing reflects that quality, does this come with a sense of responsibility?
Yes indeed it does. Marechera represents different things to different people. When my mother makes the comparison it’s an unequivocal insult, when John Eppel, Dr. Drew Shaw or Memory Chirere make the comparison it’s probably the highest compliment on the Zimbabwean literary landscape .
Being compared to genius is not easy, but what I know is that I have to break away from the negative stereotype associated with Marechera and uphold the positive. The world (worse off Zimbabwe and Africa) was not ready for him; he was a couple of decades premature. I think ‘Mindblast’ best argues his life, especially after a return to the newly founded Zimbabwe.
The biggest responsibility I have is to redeem his name and those of all writers. when I am done, the names of writers will not be used as insults.
They say your first book is in fact your biography, in this regard was ‘Once a lover, always a fool’ your story and your vulnerability?
Writing is a lot of things including catharsis. The best stories are written in blood. In fact when I started writing it I was writing a long letter to a lover. I would sit on the fire escape every night and write one or three poems about her. This was the source for The Light Pages. Essentially I wrote it over three years but to turn it into a book, or an Opus (Lord forbid I should write just ‘another book of love poems!’) took three months. For trivia’s sake: parts of the first two sections were once distributed at a pamphlet called ‘My Love In Black And White’ which could fit in a shirt pocket. My friends liked it but I felt it had no soul. I spent three month carving a soul for it and what came out was ‘Once A Lover Always A Fool’.
John Eppel wrote a beautiful introduction of you in your latest book ‘Mars his sword’, how did you come to work with John?
John and I first encountered each other’s work some eleven years ago, at least I encountered his then. I was studying literature at O Level. One of my set books was ‘Many People Many Voices’ and John wrote a commentary to it. I was a year into writing poetry then, John’s interpretations were so familiar to my spirit I felt he had found the words I was aching to put out, I had found a kindred spirit. A year later he would judge the Girls College Literary (inter-schools) Competition. I would submit and be awarded ‘First Class’ for poetry. The following year I received ‘Honours’ and the ‘Best Poem’ award in the seniors category for a poem called, ‘Shakespeare’.
I suppose we will save the rest for the memoirs, but right now, let me say John has been the strongest influence on my writing. Our views on writing and the writer are very similar it was refreshing to work with someone who understands. It was also an endorsement of sanity when I began and in recent years he has been someone I could turn to when I had doubts or radical ideas. He has been part of every work I have produced, from editing, to co-writing and now providing a blurb. I am honoured to work with him, most importantly learn from him in this life.
You write within the bounds of your own country, and push the very boundaries that contain you, why have you chosen to live and write in Zimbabwe?
Choice is an interesting word when one must wear the title ‘Zimbabwean’ on one’s tongue and name wherever one may wander. I was born here, I lived here until I was nineteen and returned at twenty-few. I suppose the question becomes ‘why come back to a rathole’?
If I ever leave Zimbabwe again it will not be because I was driven out, but because I chose to pursue something which Zimbabwe could not give me. I never worked well with bullies, even those with uniforms or fancy offices.
Our home-girl No Violet Bulawayo blew us away with her book ‘We Need New Names’, and she continues to flourish in so many ways, what does her success mean to you?
I have nothing but love for Nonviolet, although one my characters fired a shot at her in ‘The Sonneteer’, a short story in the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing anthology and some people ascribed that opinion to me. No Violet’s personal recommendation is the reason why I was in that book; why would I shoot the hand that fed me? It was my mischievous way of shouting out. Besides, the other character (whose opinion I think matters more) comes to her defence!
I have my reservations on ‘We Need New Names’, naturally because I am close to the source so a voice in my head will keep interrupting the story. If she had written the first part from Zimbabwe and not in foreign residency Darling’s story in Paradise would have been very different. No Violet acknowledges this in her writing style; she leans more on technique and abstraction in that part than in the second. Ultimately it’s a story and as it is deserves to contend the biggest writing prize in the world and make the history she made. You cannot take away the finesse of her writing, the emotion in both the writer and the reader. Reading ‘Names’ is as close to a religious experience some will ever have.
What disheartens me though is the architecture around her. How long shall we have to move to the West to tell our stories? How long shall we have to receive ‘education’ in the form of MFAs in Creative writing before we actually write our stories? And why must we always thrive on the painful ones? This is an African problem, the tag of ‘African literature’ and all its insinuations. In this regard, ‘We Need New Names’ is nothing new.
None the less it’s a story of hope, it’s a whisper saying, ‘Zimbabwe, we are not forgotten’.
Some say, to read well, one’s belly must be full. How do we foster a reading culture in Africa in the midst of all our challenges?
First we need to break down the elitism that exists in literature. When we begin writing and publishing for the community we will change that. A copy of ‘We Need New Names’ costs $25 in Bulawayo, isn’t that a tragedy, when people can’t afford to read their own story? Yet, I can provide distributors with my next book, slightly thicker for less than half of that on the same paper.
It’s not her fault, it’s the infrastructure around her. But I am sure her publishers have sound justification. For those of us who feel there is a problem in that setup the onus is on us to devise new architecture. The question is ‘contemporary reality’, who are we writing for? When that is said answered everything else will fall in place.
You have received many Awards over the years including the 2016 National Arts Merit Award, what is your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement has to be setting a World Record with what has been compiled into the book ‘Mars His Sword'; doubling the sonnets left by William Shakespeare at half his age of death. A naive interpretation would be ‘killing Shakespeare’ but anyone who knows old Billy knows he is more than a few sonnets. And anyone who knows me knows I do not stand on the bones of giants but on their shoulders.
The process took a lot of discipline, it wasn’t intentional but I turned around one day and realized I had gone that far. I had pushed myself beyond what any human being has ever done, at least on record, and that’s a comforting thought. At my death I will fall like the pugilist sinking beneath a knock-out blow but content in losing the match because he has knocked out his opponent’s tooth; knowing that because of him, he will never be the same, even if he wears dentures.
What is your ideal writers retreat?
The make-up of a writer is against the concept of a utopia; I will write wherever I find myself.
Philani Amadeus Nyoni, thank you very much for talking to me on Tribal Sands.
Philani’s books are available for sale in the UK and beyond. Please contact Dorcas Gwata on firstname.lastname@example.org for sales.
Dorcas Gwata, Director of Tribal Sands, all rights reserved.