Zimbabwean researcher and co-author of ‘The Enduring Life of Exploitation’, Lennon Mhishi, enjoyed stories even before he could read: ‘My entry into storytelling was in the village, where my maternal grandmother, Ambuya, would share different stories based on Shona folkore.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Before I could read, my entry into storytelling was in the village, where my maternal grandmother, Ambuya, would share different stories based on Shona folkore. She was my entry into the world of stories, and magic, and imagining otherwise. When I could read, I had a wide range of books that were available to me, especially being in the Highfield township. My mother, being a teacher, was always keen to bring home different kinds of literature in English and Shona, and to take us to the Harare International Book Fair in the early 90s. In the background were the books by Enid Blyton, the Ladybird series (I think it was called), the Famous Five type stories, which, looking back, were more my mother trying to recreate her own childhood reading. The books available to me were a convergence of a colonial literature as well as a then-budding post-independence (currently contentious) children’s literature space in Zimbabwe. I was drawn to the folktales, what we call ‘ngano’ in Shona, stories of the hare and the baboon, the human-animal world, and the foundations of these stories on orality and a telling of the world that centred us. Many names I have since forgotten. Then, of course, I had access to the Oliver Twist and Hard Times by Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, type of books. Musaemura Zimunya’s Country Dawns and City Lights introduced me to poetry at an early age. There were a series of books called Room at The Top by UNICEF, which were more motivational I think. Not sure how much room is at the top in our African politics! Shona literature was always present. Patrick Chakaipa’s Karikoga Gumiremiseve stands out. So does Gonzo Musengezi’s Zvairwadza Vasara. Throughout high school, my worldview was being shaped by the literature I had studied, from Nikolai Gogol, Chinua Achebe, Mariama Bâ, to Arthur Miller, Willie Chigidi and Charles Mungoshi. I was fortunate to grow up with a Zimbabwean education system of that time, and a curious and supportive group of people around me who enabled this discovery.
What book from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger and why?
I would want to share a book with stories from Shona folklore, because they have remained a significant anchoring for storytelling for me, and also because I think they constitute a rich and magical, philosophical as well as playful array of worlds. They are as universal as stories of other people and places shared in folklore elsewhere.
Before I could read, my entry into storytelling was in the village, where my maternal grandmother, Ambuya, would share different stories based on Shona folkore. She was my entry into the world of stories, and magic, and imagining otherwise.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
I am trying to think of the literature that has been formative for me. Maybe it would be turning one of the Shona classics into a play, or a film. I am inspired here by Aaron Chiundura Moyo, who worked on Shona literature and drama. Patrick Chakaipa’s Karikoga Gumiremiseve would make a fascinating screenplay. I think it is important to continue to tell complex Zimbabwean and African stories in multiple forms. History and the present are already littered with vultures that feed off African lives.
What’s the last book/article you disagreed with, and why?
I have not been brave enough or availed with much time recently, to adequately engage literature with ideas I am vehemently opposed to. I will say, of course, I often sit quietly with disagreement on a fair amount of authoritative claims about Zimbabwe or Africa. After all, knowledge and truth claims are often not separate from other planetary relations of power. Rather than name a text, I would say I am one of many contending with certain forms of epistemic and other kinds of coloniality
I think it is important to continue to tell complex Zimbabwean and African stories in multiple forms. History and the present are already littered with vultures who feed off African lives.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga’s Transient Workspaces made me think differently about colonial archives, science and technology and Zimbabwean indigenous cosmologies. I realized it is possible to find a vocabulary to articulate these tensions and to recuperate elsewheres of scientific knowledge as centres, not margins, of their own worlds.
What’s one way the pandemic has changed your reading tastes/habits?
The pandemic has collapsed time for me in a massive way. I spent an inordinate amount of time reading, then avoiding reading, about pandemics. As most things went online, I did gain knowledge of a lot of literature from webinars I attended, or signed up for but ended up not attending (there are a lot of these; the heart wants what the mind cannot contain!). So effectively, I read less than I would want to, and spend more time worrying about an impending apocalypse!
Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga’s Transient Workspaces made me think differently about colonial archives, science and technology and Zimbabwean indigenous cosmologies.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I want a writing process. I hope to have one someday. A cave to retreat to would be a good start. Or a nice cabin in the woods. Currently, my writing process is an enmeshed writing and editing that follows no particular order or form. I am grateful for you Republic editors who will turn this interview into something hopefully legible.
And what’s more important to you: the story/topic or how it is written?
I think both are significant. Take, for instance, the questions around knowledge and the D word that shall not be named, and the dangers of cooptation and the move towards neutralization (because who in this space will relinquish power willingly?). In different ways, both the topic and the way the topic is written about matter. The shifts (desired, refused, performed as sleight of hand) in hierarchies, relationships, forms and practices of knowledge-making are inseparable from the planetary material conditions around land, borders, water, labour and other ways of being (not THE human, and therefore Black?) in the world. And in this moment, the algorithm, which is to say the different ways that power is constituted. At least, as far as the ‘topic’ and ‘writing’ are concerned, one might even argue that the colonial here cannot be ‘written’ out of existence, so the way we choose to write into being other possibilities is important. So what then is this organism for an African living with the hostilities of borders, the fictions of the ‘postcolonial’, confronting tyrannies and the vagaries of accumulation, in Africa and the dispersed? Yet there is also writing of how we can relate and share this planet better, beauty, joy and livingness, which is material in itself, especially for Black life, and against abjection. So, both matter.
I want a writing process. I hope to have one some day. Currently my writing process is an enmeshed writing and editing that follows no particular order or form.
What’s a common misconception about modern slavery in Sub-Saharan Africa?
That slavery and slavery-like practices are in the past. I think we tend to exceptionalize and sensationalize a lot about ‘Africa’. This point has been made many times. Think Binyavanga’s How to Write About Africa. Even saying ‘sub-Saharan Africa’ is a struggle, but we occupy worlds of language and categories of being subjected to history and power. There is always a danger of locating exploitation within ‘cultures,’ ‘traditions’ or practices branded ‘African’. That is not to say certain traditions aren’t exploitative. Yet, conversations about modern slavery that are reductive or rely on statistics or ideas of prevalence alone tend to ignore the afterlives of slavery and colonialism that shape vulnerabilities to exploitation in the present. They simultaneously reproduce that idea of an Africa outside the current planetary relations and hierarchies of extraction and accumulation. I see these intersecting with context-specific factors to produce the kinds of precarity, exploitation and ultimately disposability that characterize aspects of what we call modern slavery.
What three books/texts should be on everyone’s bookshelves?
Hard one, there are lots of three’s. I will pick, with a lot of guilt and omission, Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning, Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of my Mother, and Katherine McKittrick’s Dear Science and Other Stories.
Why did you choose those three books? What do you think people will learn from them?
I have found a lot of beauty in the writing in these three books. I chose them because of how they made me feel when I read them; the worlds crafted within them and the telling of stories of Black life. I am not sure what others who read them will learn from them. I would not want to presume there will be something to learn for everyone, but I would hope the books open up someone who hasn’t read them to other ways of thinking and imagining. I will say, especially for Dear Science and Other Stories, that it has been part of sustaining my thinking about Black methods and practices of knowledge-making and sharing. There is a lot of generosity in the work for me.
I think we tend to exceptionalize and sensationalize a lot about ‘Africa’.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I think people who have been generous to me with writing advice, or that I can seek it from, have all shared meaningful things. It is difficult to pick one. I guess I will pick one where a friend shared with me that there is room for both clarity and opacity in different kinds of writing.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I am interested in a lot, which gets me in trouble often when I am expected to be singularly focused. There is much more comfort for me in reading, than writing, or sharing what I have read. I am working on this to survive academia! I am mostly reading about Black life, the planetary experiences of those racialized as Black or Other. I have several books on the go, as reading has been slow. I don’t know when or if I will finish them all. Stuart Hall’s Familiar Stranger, Katherine McKittrick’s Dear Science and Other Stories, Tanya Talaga’s All Our Relations, re-reading Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning and The Sound of Culture by Louis Chude Sokei. I was listening to Pat Noxolo and Awino Okech a few weeks ago, so I am looking at some of their work. Most recent I have read on Zimbabwe is a new article by Thabani Mutambasere, on diaspora citizenship, a brilliant article by Thandi Loewenson and some funny short stories by Brian Chikwava and Farai Mudzingwa. I am also reading Austin Clarke’s Membering and loving it!
There is much more comfort for me in reading, than writing, or sharing what I have read.
What can we expect you to write about next?
There is work expected to come out of the Antislavery Knowledge Network: reflections on exploitation, regimes of visuality and questions of development and how we think or imagine success in this area.
I am hoping to develop some work I have put away for some years now, especially thinking on Zimbabwe. There are some collaborations on Black music, and I am also part of a network on Black Health and the Humanities where some writing will come out of.
I have been anguishing over an essay, which I am now collaborating on with Congolese artist, Maurice Mbikayi. It began its life as a review, but I felt I would benefit from playing with form, and taking seriously the visual possibilities working with Maurice brings. The essay is tentatively titled ‘Sounds and Sketches of the South in Four Parts’ merging artistic renderings and some tentative articulations around music in southern Africa, freedom dreams, postcolonial immunities, the search for the beautiful and, to borrow from Langston Hughes, the withering, like a raisin in the sun, of some of these freedom dreams
Question from Abimbola Alaba: What book have you refused to read, and why?
Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. Not refused per se, I guess a strong hesitancy, because the people I have met who have tried to explain his ideas favourably and to convince me to read it have strengthened my… hesitancy.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
Do you have a specific reader in mind when you write?⎈
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