A Zimbabwean Writer in Exile

Paris and the Norwegian city of Stavanger have both spelled home to exiled poet, novelist and journalist Chenjerai Hove since he fled his native Zimbabwe in 2001. That was when he finally used the air ticket to London that Salman Rushdie had bought for him and insisted he carry around with him at all times.

The literary, journalistic and political activities of Chenjerai Hove (pronounced Chen-je-rai Ho-vey, “Chen” for short) had led to his house being broken into and computers, along with discs containing unpublished works, stolen. At that time, his family had already begun receiving threats and he knew he was under constant police surveillance, but it wasn’t until November 2001, when he started receiving death threats and he realised he was being framed for drug-smuggling that, reluctantly, he made the move. He has been in exile ever since.

He has lived in England and France, has acquired permanent resident status in Norway, and is spending two years in Miami. I used my own recent stay in South Florida, where I was researching Miami’s immigrant population in general, to interview this special migrant, the first to be taken on as writer-in-residence by Miami Dade College’s Florida Center for the Literary Arts, as part of their new City of Refuge program. The program is aided by funding from the Knight Foundation—created by the original owners of the Miami Herald Newspapers to foster freedom of expression and organised by Miami Dade College. The college has become a member of ICORN, the Norwegian-based international refugee shelter organisation for writers founded by Salman Rushdie, and is the first US city to implement the program.

Before meeting with Chenjerai Hove, I asked director Alina Interián why the Florida Center for the Literary Arts had chosen him to be their first beneficiary:

Our advisory group found in Hove someone who has been a teacher for most of his life and is also a prolific writer. Having founded a book fair in Harare, we considered he was particularly suited to take part in our own International Book Fair. In addition, he is very much at home in the oral tradition, so he has a lot of similarities with us. In that respect he will be very useful to us, as an important part of our program is theatre.

Wearing a colourful black-and-orange traditional shirt, fifty-four-year-old Hove told me, in his soft-spoken voice, of his nine years of exile. London had been a very short stay indeed. Rushdie got him quickly over to Paris when he realised Hove was heading for an internment camp. He was found work in Rambouillet, doing readings in the library, and was asked to write books for children.

“It’s not easy to write in a language and about a place you don’t know,” explains Hove;

When Rambouillet library asked me for children’s stories, the hardest part was naming nature. How can you write about flowers and trees you can’t even put a name to, for which your language has no name? That is the exiled writer’s problem. He must write about things he knows. That’s why I stick to writing about home. In that respect, my writing hasn’t changed, I always set my writing at home.

For Hove, who gives a special place in his writing to nature and the relationship between earth and sky, between nature and humans, this must be one of the hardest parts of exile, being away from the nature to which you relate personally, to which myth and legend have been attached in your mind since childhood. Nevertheless, if you press him further, the exiled Zimbabwean will, on reflection, admit to one positive influence of his years away from home. “I no longer take things for granted. When I hear the song of the birds or children playing in the street, or see sand, water, or a beautiful landscape, this makes me nostalgic for home. Nostalgia helps me to see my own country in a fresher way.”

Chenjerai Hove left France, again, in a hurry:

I was beginning to settle; I was writing for Le Monde Diplomatique and had been appearing on France 5. My books were being published in French. Then a professor friend of mine at Bordeaux University contacted me to warn me that France was not going to renew my visa. I could not believe it. I carried round with me a good letter from Nicolas Sarkozy, Minister of the Interior at the time, so I thought I was okay. But business is business. The French government wanted to step in and grab the opportunities left by the UK and Germany, who were then refusing to deal with Mugabe. What I was writing in Le Monde Diplomatique about election corruption did not please the Mugabe government, so I had become an obstacle to their negotiations. When Mugabe came to Paris, I got a phone call telling me to keep away from central Paris. Maybe they thought I was going to make a demonstration, but I had no reason to want to see him!

At this point, the Norwegian branch of PEN stepped in. Following a further initiative by Salman Rushdie, the International Parliament of Writers (IPW) had, in 1994, established an international network of cities prepared to shelter persecuted writers. Stavanger, Kristiansand and Oslo all joined the Norwegian program. In 2004, sensing that Hove was about to be deported back to Zimbabwe, Stavanger offered to become the city of refuge where he could next set down his bags.

In fact, says Hove, France never made any lasting deals with Zimbabwe. “They were into French language proposals, spreading ‘la francophonie’ in English-speaking Africa. The educational publishers Hatier were commissioned to produce books for teaching French in primary schools.” Hove leant back in his chair and laughed:

“Okay,” I asked a friend of mine at the Paris embassy, “you have the books, but how are you going to teach the language if none of the rural teachers speaks French? Who is going to go and live in a hut with no electricity miles from anywhere? It’s like the hospitals. They suddenly filled with doctors from Zaire, whom no one could understand. The French language project never got off the ground.

Hove, who began writing in his native Shona, and also speaks other African languages, came into the international public eye with his poetic novel Bones, for which he won the 1989 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. As well as continuing to write in both languages, he regularly moves between the worlds of poetry, fiction and journalism. He is currently working on a memoir. I asked him how he managed to combine all of these. “I don’t write in one language, with a translator sitting beside me translating into another,” he says. “I know of some African writers who do that, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the story which dictates the language choice. As for my approach, I don’t believe in the distinction between fiction and reality.”

In the 1980s, Jan Kees van de Werk, a publisher well known in the Netherlands for his Dutch editions of African literature, commissioned from Chenjerai Hove a series of articles on life in Harare, to appear in the Dutch press. In his preface to Shebeen Tales, Messages from Harare (1989), the English book form edition of the same essays, van de Werk quoted Hove on his view of writing: “I believe that fiction is a very thin slice of reality … So much happens in human life. When we try to depict this in our stories, it will inevitably look more like fiction than reality. I don’t want to keep fiction and reality apart.”

Where did he see himself then in relation to the Western tradition of the universality of literature?

If you look at Ancestors, which is the closest of my books to real life, it is both fiction and fact. I don’t believe in the universality of life, not in the philosophical sense. I consider myself to be a cultural realist. Each individual is different, particular, you can’t generalise, I search for the particular in relation to myself, the writer. I don’t honestly believe I have ever written for a particular readership though. I have written because I felt the need to write.

Ancestors is a novel in which natural forces and ghosts of ancestors combine to witness the destruction of ancestral lands and the imposition of a market-economy form of agriculture—feeding not the “belly of the man”, but as the newly-arrived English District Officer explains, the far more important “belly of the purse”. It is the work of a writer not only at home with Chinua Achebe’s post-colonial fiction but also with the zoomorphic world of Latin American literature. The traditional backcloth is in many ways reminiscent of Guatemalan author Miguel Angel Asturias’s Men of Maize, again an ancestral lands-theft novel, in which the indigenous Maya population considers maize sacred because man himself is sacred and made of maize, which should be harvested only according to the needs of the belly, not the purse. Was I right? Achebe, Hove replied, was certainly not only an influence, but a friend, as had been the assassinated Nigerian writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa. As for Latin American literature, he boasted “probably the largest Latin American library in all Harare”. Over Asturias, though, he shook his head. “Among my favourites are Carlos Fuentes, in particular his Old Gringo, and Mario Vargas Llosa, whose Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter I admire for its portrayal of an exploited writer. Both authors have been important influences in my writing.” In addition, Ancestors gives women a voice they are often denied, an aspect of his writing not only limited to his fiction. In his journalism, Hove also lets the poor and the underprivileged, drunks on the street, prostitutes, taxi drivers, express themselves.

Hove has just completed a new novel, Others, still in search of a publisher, and is hoping to find editors in the UK and South Africa”

It deals with violence, with the false perception we all have that if it is others who are suffering, it is a distant thing. It is about events in Zimbabwe between 1982 and1987. I portray two groups of characters in the novel: one caught up in political violence, another not feeling concerned, because they are not directly affected. When violence spreads to this group’s part of the country, they realise they should have tried to stop the course of events, but it’s too late. Mugabe sent the army to massacre over 20,000 innocent villagers among the small ethnic group living in one part of the country. Nobody from the rest of the country protested, but by 1999, Mugabe knew that he was now unpopular everywhere. He dispatched the army throughout the whole country to inflict violence on anyone suspected of being a member of the new opposition party. Hundreds were killed and are still being killed and tortured. People now realise they should have stopped the violence when it was in the other part of the country, because all of them, not just the “others”, are victims now.

I asked Hove how he reconciled himself with the ambiguous situation of the African writer, writing for people who belonged to an oral tradition, who still had high illiteracy figures and for whom reading remained an elitist activity. Weren’t the majority of his readers in fact non-Africans? “The real problem is what I call the new illiterates, those with university degrees, but who never read a book,” said Hove, with a touch of impatience in his voice;

But that is not a problem confined to Zimbabwe or indeed to Africa. Take my novel, Bones. In Norway, people buy it and put it on their bookshelves. And that’s where it will stay, signed but unread. In Africa, if someone has a book, in a month it has passed around so many people that it is already looking shabby. And people are really excited about getting hold of a book to read. So I think I probably have more purchasers of my books outside my home country, but more readers at home!

Until he left for exile, Hove was also actively involved in publishing, and had been published by almost every publisher in Zimbabwe—Zimbabwe Publishing House, Mambo Press, College Press, Weaver Press, Baobab Books, now closed down by the government.

Hove, who resigned from a teaching career to devote himself to writing, found that even his work as an editor also brought its problems:

During the time I was working for Mambo Press, I did not want my books published by my own publishing house, where I was the literary editor. Then I worked for Zimbabwe Publishing House and was again publishing with other publishers for ethical reasons. I lost my job at ZPH after the boss discovered that I had published Bones with Baobab Books and not with ZPH. We had a big argument, in which I reminded him that I was not a writer-in-residence but a literary editor and that nothing in my contract said I should publish with them. He was furious and nasty, and that led to my resignation.

In the poem “african farmer’s son in Europe”, from the collection Blind Moon (2003), written in exile in Paris, but published in Harare (by Weaver Press), the poet Hove relates how rain in Europe—where rains “disturb the peace and are cursed by the French”—sparks off in him an urgent need to plant things. It takes him a while to find a bag of earth, but at the end of the day he is satisfied that “at least i will grow a tomato / for the sake of faith / in the soil.” This poem, in its apparent simplicity, speaks volumes about one of the predominant themes of Hove’s work: the suffering generated by exile from the soil.

Ancestors, which Hove considers his most autobiographical work, is about the tragedy of colonialism, of expulsion from ancestral lands to a rootless life in the big city. The narrator, who hears the stories of his ancestors, watches helpless as generation after generation give away a part of themselves, be it a child sold into an arranged marriage and sent to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), or “the hearer” himself, the young boy narrator who hears and relays the tales of his ancestors and who, at the end of the novel, leaves home with his family to settle in the city. In the novel’s multi-layered perspectives, voices, and time-shifts—alongside the blend of reality and fiction, Hove draws together present past and future—you can understand his admiration of Fuentes.

When I took leave of Chenjerai Hove in the lobby of Miami Dade College, I had the feeling of a lonely man, coping with what had been his choice, speaking his mind and paying the heavy penalty of being far from family and out of touch with children he had not been able to watch growing up. The beginning of his stay in Miami had been marred by the death of his mother, and the impossibility of returning home to carry out traditional funeral ceremonies. But as Pablo Cartaya, the City of Refuge Project Co-ordinator explained:

He has embraced our incredibly diverse populations here in Miami, and when his mother died shortly after he arrived, staff and students came together for a commemorative mass for her. He was extremely touched by that, and I think generally, he is very happy to be here. He’s thrown himself into meeting pupils and lecturing, and is very much appreciated. His arrival coincided with the Haiti earthquake, and students were impressed that he took part in a lot of fund-gathering activities too.

A few months on, the initial excitement over, I wondered how, after Paris and Stavanger, he was actually settling in to this new exile. How does a writer cope with such frequent changes? Is it stimulating or disturbing? How does he find a writing rhythm? It was in our continued conversation by e-mail that I found some of the answers. I saw for one thing that his e-mails were sent very early in the morning. The reason was not insomnia, but the fact that the college is situated directly under the flight path to Miami International Airport. He was getting up very early in the morning, to beat the planes and write in peace.

I was writing at the same time about relief work to Haiti from South Florida, and Dr Arthur Fournier of Miami University Medical School explained to me why Haiti was far more African than other Caribbean islands: early independence from the French had meant that ex-slave populations had left the plantations and moved into rural areas, thus keeping their language and spiritual traditions. I was intrigued to know if Hove felt this difference. Confirmation came back in his first e-mail:   

little haiti is a place indeed, that is where i do my shopping for african foods on 54th. there is a good supermarket there where i was surprised that goat heads were so popular that you need to book them in advance. i understand they are used for ritual purposes, but at home i used to make good goat soup, no rituals.

As this was the first e-mail, I thought that maybe Hove wasn’t used to the computer, but when the next came in the same capital-free format, I asked him why. He had met American poet and feminist, bell hooks, who does the same, even for her pen-name. She argued, Hove told me, that capital letters were a symbol of male domination because the Bible says that God created man first, and so the first letter of sentences begins with a big male letter. “i agreed with her, and also discovered that typing capital letters wastes a lot of my time.” He uses this format for his poetry, though not for his prose.

In one of his Shebeen Tales, Hove relates how, as you walk from the centre of Harare out towards the suburbs, the surface of the roads deteriorates, and the price of a pair of shoes can suddenly be halved simply by crossing to the opposite pavement. Accents change, people dress differently, you move through a series of totally different worlds that don’t relate to each other. Hove may find the same phenomenon as he takes the bus north-west from sparkling downtown Miami, with its green-glassed skyscrapers, its brand new performing arts centres and its seafront Intercontinental Hotel, out to the broad leafy streets of Little Haiti where he can revive his French and order his goat heads. Miami with its well over 60 per cent immigrant population may prove to be a stimulating place to live and write in. Or as “Chen” put it himself in a later e-mail: “i find little haiti more african than the rest. i find it more vibrant just like our main township in harare called mbare. i actually call little haiti the mbare of miami.”

A sign that this new city of refuge feels like home.

Jacqueline Karp is a British writer and journalist, based in France. She has recently edited Reporting from Palestine, 1943­–44, by Barbara Board (Five Leaves Publications), a contemporary account by a war correspondent during the Palestine Mandate.

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