21 August 2017

Zimbabwe: Curating Zim's Intellectual Record

interview

It is one thing to point out problems as a critic and a whole other domain to take charge and provide the solution. Tinashe Mushakavanhu, a leading Zimbabwean literary critic, earned notoriety for routinely check-listing problems and antagonising cultural institutions during his stint as a columnist. Now he has stepped up to be part of the solution. His new project, Reading Zimbabwe, is a digital repository of Zimbabwe's intellectual record, currently hosting references to 1 119 Zimbabwean books written by 773 authors published in 114 cities by 311 publishers.

The repository emphasises the fact that truth cannot be determined from a single source and aims to present readers with a complete reference of the country's literary strivings across categories. Literature Today's Stanely Mushava (SM) sat down with the curator (TM) for insight into the project.

 Can you introduce us to the crew behind Reading Zimbabwe?

Reading Zimbabwe was initiated by a writer and a graphic designer. Tinashe Mushakavanhu and Nontsikelelo Mutiti are Zimbabwean born educators. Mushakavanhu has a PhD in English from University of Kent while Mutiti holds an MFA from Yale Art School. They are founding collaborators of Black Chalk, a creative agency that brings together writers, artists, designers, academics, technologists with a mutual interest in publishing and archiving, curating conversations, facilitating teaching residencies and participating in exhibitions. What animates all these activities is the effort to engender a new culture of reading. Between them, they have spent years teaching in Africa, Europe and the US.

Does undertaking a project of this kind require special attachment to Zimbabwean writing. What experiences as a reader convinced you that it was important to curate Zimbabwe's intellectual record from start to finish?

The strength of this project is not so much in its wholeness, but in the gaps and patterns it establishes. That exile inspired the project is in itself a significant factor. Exile gives one distance and perspective.

In fact, Reading Zimbabwe was a response to a series of conversations that took place at nightly salons we hosted at our Brooklyn apartment with our own peers after realising that we don't know what Zimbabwe is. Even though we were interested in American politics and the effects of the Trump presidency, Zimbabwe consumed us. The realisation that we have no official or cultural dress code, we predominantly use English as our lingua franca, and we currently have no official currency concerned us.

What sort of changes are you looking to effect with Reading Zimbabwe?

This project is a labour of love -- love for stories and books, love for knowledge and creativity, love for education, love for self and country. If other young Zimbabweans can share with us this love, it is the more worthwhile.

Why is it important for the reader to have a full picture, to determine for truth from multiple sources?

For us, Reading Zimbabwe, is more than just an archive or database? -- ? it is a platform, a library, a community. We are interested in the evolution of histories and the emerging new narratives around Zimbabwe? -- ? as an idea, an imaginary, a place, a people.

We are not interested in one truth, but truths. In order to think about and represent Zimbabwe differently, we need, not only a new set of questions, but new set of tools; new practices and methodologies that allow us to harness the inventiveness, the generative resilience and the agility with which we live.

Did you bring any insight about the reading culture in Zimbabwe to this project; possibly research about how people are reading, what they are reading?

Look, Zimbabweans read, but mostly to pass school examinations. Evidence is on the streets, the photocopies of books you find being sold are school textbooks. Reading for pleasure is an expensive exercise under the current economy.

As such the politics of the belly takes precedence over the politics of the mind. With this project, we were interested in making visible the many writings that contribute in how we look and talk about ourselves as a country and as a people, and also how non-Zimbabweans frame us in their own writings.

As you collated this data, did you develop inferences about writing patterns in Zimbabwe, for example, at what point was such a type of writing dominant, what genres are coming up and which ones are suffering?

As with any database, when you crunch the figures and segment them according to such variables as place of production, author gender, genres, victors and villains, languages, race, local versus international, years of conception or publication and so on, an intricate web emerges that complicates the project called Zimbabwe.

What about the availability of the books. Which books are not as easy to access now and what can be done to bring them back into the flow?

Zimbabwe was once at the vanguard of African literature but now a book desert. As a country we have not yet fully adopted new technologies and Reading Zimbabwe embraces the digital and social cultures fully. We are rolling out our social media presence, specifically on Twitter, Instagram and SoundCloud.

You mention that reading is freedom. What can be done to ensure that intellectual resources are equally available to citizens. Not everyone, for example, will be able to access your digital tools because of connectivity or even electricity issues. What can be done to bridge that divide?

Reading Zimbabwe started out largely as a virtual project. The ultimate aim now is to build a physical people's library to complement poorly resourced libraries in Zimbabwe. The People's Library will double up as a community centre and literary hub. We endeavour to collect most of the books on this site in their physical form and be led to many other relevant books that we still don't know exist and make them accessible to a community of readers that needs them. And while at the surface the project looks like it's only indexed in English, a quarter of the content on Reading Zimbabwe is in Shona and Ndebele as we also strive to preserve the integrity of literatures produced in the vernacular.

You have lived and worked in New York, perhaps the media and book publishing capital and attended international book fairs, interacting with other culture practices. Is there something Zimbabwean literature can appropriate from these spaces?

Our work as Black Chalk, the team behind this project, is purposively collaborative. We draw on the intersecting practices through which we stylise and conduct our lives. We are interested in mapping, to understand and make visible our own realities and imaginaries; and publish and share knowledge across platforms -- in print, music, via exhibitions, lectures and performances. We need to break away from monolithic practices.

What does the future of Reading Zimbabwe look like?

The next step for us is to scale. For instance, Reading Zimbabwe is one of the first African projects to be accepted in the New Inc programme at the New Museum in New York.

This unique year long incubation fellowship supports projects at the intersection of art and culture, technology and entrepreneurship to become viable and sustainable entities.

We are excited to take Reading Zimbabwe to the frontiers of global culture in the 21st century.

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