Onai Mushava reading a book, Shortly after the publication of "Rhyme and Resistance" in 2019
Onai Mushava shortly after the publication of "Rhyme and Resistance" in 2019
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Bishop of Bohemia – Onai Mushava on living the poet’s life 

Onai Mushava is one of the rising stars of Zimbabwean poetry. He opens up on his influences, writing rituals and living the poet’s life in a wide-ranging interview with Givemore Manyenga.

I find him sitting outside his office at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST), a laptop carelessly balanced in his lap. You needed not ask who this light-skinned young man is, if only because his white t-shirt advertises him with the cover of Survivors Café the poetry collection book that landed him a National Arts Merit Award (NAMA) for Outstanding Fiction Book in 2018. As he notices this writer come towards him, he stretches his hand and wryly smiles, simultaneously making sure his laptop does not fall off him. “I forgot my keys at home,” he gives an excuse before I even asks why he is sitting outside. “We are going to have to find a place downstairs where we can sit and chat,” he advises.

We head downstairs into the NUST garden and pick a spot. It’s just after midday, a day after winter-heralding rains. The weather outside is not all that friendly.  We shrug it off and get on with our interview. Ants that survive on chunks passed on by picnickers in the garden sense the invasion of their territory and take no time registering their distaste for us. We have to constantly wipe them away from our shoes and trousers. As I am about to say something, I am interrupted by my interviewee’s phone, which vibrates vigorously before he puts away the call.

“That’s my pastor; I hope he has not found out some mischief involving my name.” At least that is something to take note of from his social life. He later tells me that he compulsively takes to church like a tranquilliser. A self-confessed serial church-hopper between spells of dark isolation, he has just joined the newest Nigerian church in town, Redeemed Christian Church of God, and subjects pieces of the church music kit to disastrous home practice. All this adds up to the restless streak that cracks his calm persona once he starts speaking.

I have dedicated the afternoon to picking the brain of award-winning author and journalist, Stanely Mushava. A new first name, Onai, has just replaced his given name, on his new 2019 book, Rhyme and Resistance. He is finishing his stint as tutorial assistant in the NUST Journalism and Media Studies. Somewhat leaner than his 28 years, with a boyish haircut,  he can be easily mistaken for an undergraduate. The artist from Chiwara village, in Gutu, is in the high day of creative powers but recognition is only beginning to come his way, with journalism and literary nominations.

The plough of nostalgia

“There is not much outside the writing, really. It’s all I have been doing since I was 13,” he says when I ask him to tell me about himself. From just spending a few minutes with him, you find out that apart from literature there is indeed not much to talk about in his life. Or that is what he makes me believe. I strongly believe it’s a case of keeping to his artistic shell. Is he a literature whiz?

“That’s been suggested. What I am more sure of is that old-fashioned picture of a socially awkward dude buried up to the neck in books in some lost part of town,” he says and laughs a bit. He thinks naivety and nostalgia get him going. “I like to control the writing process but – I don’t know – I have always had this naive dimension. Like I am dreaming through life on my feet and I have lost the remote control.

The cover of Onai Mushava’s book “Rhyme and Resistance”. The book was published in 2019

“You know, like crashing back to a suburb that opened worlds for me when I was broke and torn by young love, only to wind up crazier, stuck and even more broke. That – can I say refusing to grow up in an endless nostalgic relapse? – that has kept me writing. A bit of blue, a bit of black, a binge of fantastic dreams to push back the poverty of my immediate surroundings,” I let him go on and on.

“This is what I am doing. I am trying to invent new things as far as literature is concerned. My paths to writing have always been isolation and sacrifice. I may come out of my basement to push my name and all that when I think I have built something new that I want you to see. What’s more likely, though, I think I have been set in my ways for too long,” he pauses with a smile that comes as an assurance that my stay is welcome.

As you spend more time with Stanely, or Onai as he now calls himself, you notice that despite admitting to being introverted or, to christen it a little, anti-social, he enjoys talking as much as he enjoys writing. He quibbles with me on that observation. “I would say, that confirms my quietness. I can spend weeks locked up, basically reading and writing, so you can imagine the bad luck of the first person to talk with me.” He is one person who if you do not ask them to stop talking can go on and on just like what he does with his long poems.

Talking of his influences and inspirations, he says he attributes most of it to music, which he says is a form of art that easily blends with poetry. His 2019 book, Rhyme and Resistance, has poems themed around a number of Zimbabwean musicians, Oliver Mtukudzi, Michael Lannas, whom he has been working with on a poetry collection, Thomas Mapfumo, Paradzai Mesi, Biggie Tembo, Leonard Dembo, Alick Macheso, the Zimdancehall movement, and others. He is struggling to complete his Masters thesis on Pan-Africanist hip-hop and half-jokingly wishes he had stuck to sungura, the genre of his boyhood in Gutu and Buhera.

The commitment to the underclass you find in most of my poems, I get a lot of that from sungura

Sungura comes up often as he discusses the grounding for his poems. “Even the commitment to the underclass you find in most of my poems, I get a lot of that from sungura. The lyrics can be domestic but the culture, it’s very much immersed in the everyday struggle. I am a latecomer to hip hop. It’s a poetry form that has shaken me in the past two years. I have borrowed a lot from the artists. Jay Electronica, Nas, Posty, Kendrick, I owe them my shift towards a more postmodern approach to poetry.”

Facing up to the system

The previous year, 2018, Mushava won a NAMA for Outstanding Fiction Book, something that he says helped put his name out there as he had been largely working in isolation. He does not shy away from expressing his economic struggles through art and speaking for other youths who may be in his position. This comes through as he begins another monologue on his award-winning debut.

Onai Mushava NAMA Outstanding Fiction Book acceptance speech (2018)
Onai Mushava NAMA Outstanding Fiction Book acceptance speech (2018)

“Survivors Café,” he poses for a second, probably to breathe in as he prepares to give a lengthy lecture on how the book came about.

“The picture I have of the book is bare life on the edge of town. I think that’s how the title imposed itself on the book. It was end of 2016. I had just left the daily newspaper I had worked from the time I entered the industry in 2013. I had been burnt out for a long time. I felt I had prematurely hit my ceiling, like I had lost my spirit in a work culture which emphasised seniority and performativity. So I just woke up and walked out without a clear plan.

“Bad business decision. Paying gigs were hard to come by, but I was equally unwilling to walk back through a door that was still open for me. That’s when I just had this burst of creativity. I guess it was combination of hard times, falling in and out of love, and recapturing a wonder I had lost.

“By the time the book came out in December, I was significantly in debt, raking up poetry to stay on the good graces of the landlady, putting off computer repairs, and telling my girlfriend’s aunt which job search emails I was banking on for marriage, you know these visits where the other family does due diligence and all. The book sales were a disaster but the book immediately went into a second edition with new poems about precarity.”

Cover of Onai Mushava's book Survivors Cafe published in 2016
Cover of Onai Mushava’s book Survivors Cafe published in 2016

Mushava found that his audience and the literature press gravitated towards those poems about broke days, as if the book had found itself through failure. From there it was one step to profiling Zimbabwe’s bleak politics. Some of the more celebrated poems from the book, “Coffee with the Pope”, “Blue-Roof Freestyle” and “No Country for Young Men” took a decidedly political drift. In “Blue-Roof Freestyle”, Mushava impersonated Robert Mugabe at the end of his 37-year rule:

The country was tense like silence between funeral songs 

As traitors planted discord into the notation of history gongs

Seeing as there were no water canisters to douse the mob

I pissed on the restless crowd from the State House balcony

They tip-toed before the screen to be loosened from tyranny

But I sized them for children ranged around me for a lullaby

And set about droning their minds to sleep with a long speech

Stripping their war chest save for a bloody motion to impeach

If you think Karma is a bitch, better know Bob is her pimp

Half-literate placards in the street can only scare a wimp

These people have lived under the shadow of a petticoat

Who fooled them to gamble with a Machiavellian cutthroat

The poem is not all that optimistic as Mushava quickly warns that Zimbabweans are celebrating change without change:

Innocents are buzzing for a feast in the mouth of a Crocodile

Plotters bitching around my name can’t help biting my style

Power lights the same node in the brain as cocaine and sex

Who would miss that having been my student of five decades…

If the worship of man doesn’t follow me to waterless plains

A Frankenstein will uncage before journalists say ‘Amen’

History will remain a rosary with a bead for each liberator

And a cross for the Leviathan in the incubator 

Written with a fusion of loose lingo and historical commitment, Mushava’s poems speak to people of all age groups. With the benefit of five-year retrospect to a changeless Zimbabwe under Emmerson Mnangagwa, it was safe for the poet to have been a grumpy reactionary, after all.

“You look at how things are arranged, talk about newspapers, the same people with something to sell are the ones with something to hide,” Mushava says with a voice full of excitement. “Look at publishing, the internet, the academy; everything gets institutionalised in the name of being alternative. Art, for me, becomes the one expression where I don’t have to answer to anyone. I don’t babyseat my inner child when I write poetry,” he boasts.

You are told you do not have the vocabulary to qualify you to talk about the economy yet when you go home it’s the economy in all its ugliness you find occupying your room

“Most of us down here have a lot to say about the kind of things pushed down to us without consultation. Platforms you hear are the ones with privilege enough to be heard. You are told you do not have the vocabulary to qualify you to talk about the economy yet when you go home it’s the economy in all its ugliness you find occupying your room,” he says with a tired smile.

Paying dues

Asked about the role played by the great Zimbabwean writers, Charles Mungoshi and Dambudzo Marechera, Stanely has nothing but praise for the late icons. He wishes the contribution made by the recently deceased Charles Mungoshi had been rewarded accordingly. If it were up to him, Mungoshi would have been given the National Hero status, but perhaps this is twisted too, because narratives and decisions about national heroes in Zimbabwe are internal decisions of the ruling Zanu PF.

Dambudzo Marechera with writer Charles Mungoshi in the Msasa Bar of Hotel Norfolk, Fourth Street (now: Simon Muzenda Street), Central Harare.
Dambudzo Marechera with writer Charles Mungoshi in the Msasa Bar of Hotel Norfolk, Fourth Street (now: Simon Muzenda Street), Central Harare, 29 May 1987. Credit: Ernst Schade

“He is someone we put out as a model of what every other writer was trying to be. But if you look at it, the logic for naming Oliver Mtukudzi a hero doesn’t apply to Charles Mungoshi because this is a game of numbers and populism. Dambudzo, Chenjerai, Freedom, Alexander, Charles, name them, these are guys who all deserved more. Few Zimbabweans, including the rulers, will be able to match that,” says Mushava, betraying signs of concern that we will be forgotten when mortality catches up with him.

As far as paying his dues, he also mentions that he has started immersing his new poetry in theory. Guy Debord and Slavoj Zizek are especially important to him at the time. Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou and Ghanaian novelist Kojo Laing are his current favourites. He occasionally rereads the former’s Black Bazaar and the latter’s Search Sweet Country. While Christian, Marxist and Pan-Africanist attitudes are easy to pick in his poems, he says he is a late convert to postmodernism. It’s easy to notice that Stanely has more to share with the world, not just through poetry but also through word of mouth.

Sitting behind a computer. Zimbabwe Independence Day (2014) shift at The Herald
Independence Day (2014) shift at The Herald Newspaper.

Before I realise it, it’s already evening. I check the time and say goodbye to our “rookie” as Mushava sticks to calling himself. Stanely talks as much as he writes. Non-stop! The more time you spend with him, the more you find that he has already stolen your show.

Apart from talking about intellectual and artistic issues, Mushava is also full of dad jokes and laughter. His laugh does not last for long as if something instantly reminds him as soon as he starts laughing to relapse into bitter self-awareness or to grasp at an as yet vague idea for his next poem. During my conversation with him, I have to constantly remind him that the purpose of my visit is not to talk about books but to get up-close and personal with him. However, writing and the man seem inseparable.

To say he is introverted and antisocial, though he admits to the charges himself, is surely ungenerous because he loves to talk and communicates with his audiences, especially on Facebook, giving them a constant bites of his new poetry and concepts about his forthcoming books.

There is a lot to be heard about this proud anti-establishmentarian and Pan-Africanist. May 2019, the time of my initial interview with Mushava, is a million years away now, with lockdown inbetween. He says he is still that 13-year old Gutu boy herding cattle with a satchel of novels, literature columns and unfinished novels. I have since come around to a second interview about his unsurprisingly psychological second book, Rhyme and Resistance, which had just been released when we first talked. He is working in a different direction for his third poetry book, The Dark Hammering of Heavy Metal When Electric Mermaids Sing to Me, and dabbling into science fiction for his first novel.

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