Writer, Landscapes, Historicoscapes and Society

By Chenjerai Hove

Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, in one of his poems titled ‘I am explaining a few things’ wrote:

‘And you will ask:

Why doesn’t his poetry speak of dreams and leaves

And the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.

Come and see

The blood in the streets.

Come and see the blood

In the streets.’

Right from the onset, the writer becomes a recorder of events, of the beauty and ugliness of his/her own land, of spaces local and distant, some kind of dreamer whose task is to see, record and warn. The writer names the landscape as well as the history which is steeped in that landscape. I write about small geographical spaces and try to trace those seemingly small histories which become big as I trace the visions which have been created out of the small geographical spaces. In my fiction and poetry, I try to enlarge small dreams dreamt in small places so they can once again be recognised as particularities which make the essential components of universality. The universal is in the particular. It is the small voices in the orchestra which make the totality of the musical piece.

The writer has a dual responsibility: he/she is a citizen. All civic duties are also a writer’s task. If there is a public protest or demonstration against the boss at work, the writer also makes the placard to carry along the street. If all the citizens decide to go on a hunger strike, the writer is also duty-bound to go on strike, to protest.

But then the writer is also an artist, a person with certain artistic skills, as wordsmith, master of language, which are basically related to communication, public and personal communication. It would seem that means every citizen who has skills has the duty and responsibility to use them for the public good. For, to publish is to make something public, to make something available for the public. That immediately makes one accountable to this ‘public’ just as the carpenter is responsible for creating new and comfortable chairs for the public to sit on. The carpenter would not be of any public interest if he made chairs and tables only for himself and his wife. But because he makes them for us all, he has a duty to know what it is that makes a chair comfortable to sit in. Why not the writer and his skills also?

To write is to invent words, a new language for each artistic work the writer embarks on. The writer receives language from society, which is always a historical and geographical phenomenon, uses his imagination to re-fresh and re-energize it, and then returns that language to society in the form of a book, as if to say, ‘thank you for the language, but look, I have re-created it for us all.’ Language as a social system is always changing with history and geographical spaces it occupies. And the writer helps to change that language. In the process the writer changes society and society changes its geographical, emotional and psychological landscapes.

We know that language is a system of arranging ideas and thoughts. So, by inventing a new language, new words and metaphors/images, the writer helps shape the way society sees the world, the way the individual sees himself/herself in the world.

Thus, language becomes vision, a way of aspiring to be, a way of dreaming in the world, a cosmovision. Human geography is also the geography of human language as society struggles to name and –re-name its multifaceted geographies and historicoscapes

We can also think of a writer as ‘a mirror of society,’ holding a mirror in front of the reader so society can see itself in a different way. Human beings are a queer mixture of gold and dust, the beautiful and the ugly, the fresh and the rotten. We need a mirror to show those images of our souls and bodies so that we are warned of impending doom or impending celebration. Language celebrates the blooming of a flower as well as that same flower’s death.

Alongside other artists, the writer is a visionary who is able to see how and when the society is decaying or regenerating. His/her task is to see, to record and to warn. He can only do that because it is in his realm to do so.

Chinua Achebe, the famed Nigerian novelist and social critic, has aptly called a writer ‘the sensitive point of the community.’

I tend to seriously believe that a good and effective writer is essentially subversive. Look at how people read books. The reader decides not to buy a dress or a shirt, goes into a bookstore, carefully selects the book to buy, takes it home, sits in the silence of their room, and says to the book: ‘come, I would like you to seduce me with a new world.’

‘A book, what a universe, it informs, forms and transforms human conscience,’ a poet once exclaimed. That is what I mean by subversion, to infiltrate the human imagination and reshape it in order that the world is never the same after reading this particular book with its many voices, characters, histories and landscapes.

More often than not, a reader is likely to learn more about the inner happenings of society from novels, poems and dramas of that country than from history books. History books often talk about the powerful rulers and warriors of society.

Literature talks of the aspirations and dreams of small people, thus making them occupy bigger spaces and places in life. That is where true history is found, in the societal movements which have changed our historical and geographical landscapes, our very souls.

Did I say ‘true history’? For the writer, there are ‘truths’ not ‘the truth’ as some people want to tell us. The writer makes society doubt itself, its values and experiences, its perceptions and ambitions.

A person who wants to know the mountain must look at it from all possible positions: the mountain top, the valley or even from the deep waters of the river nearby.

The moment the capacity to doubt our actions is absent, we begin to decay. Literature is about doubt, about the search for possibilities and truths in all their shapes.

As a writer, I am always fascinated by human memory, and history is, indeed, memory. I can say the writer is society’s memory keeper, a recorder of the sagas that emerge in song, poetry, stories and social dramas of any epoch. As a writer, I always think of myself and other writers as the unacknowledged historians of every society. As a historical artist, whenever I arrive in a country for the first time, I search for the best literary works of the land in order to read the real history of real people as they strive to re-shape their own history in their own way, their own blood and breath. True history is not about heroes or those important people who rule. I see the ordinary people as the true makers of history. In all my novels and poems, I record this unwritten history, the history of the voiceless who never dream of appearing on the front pages of the national newspapers.

© Chenjerai Hove, 2008

First Published in Meet Magazine, vol. 6 (L’Histoire ou La Geographie), Saint-Nazaire, France 2008