Philani A Nyoni was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe sometime in the last century. He has authored five books: “Once A Lover Always A Fool” (2012), “Hewn From Rock” (2014) with John Eppel, “Mars His Sword” (2016) and ‘Philtrum’ (2017), “Ett Kräs bön” (2019) in Sweden, a translation of “The Sod’s Prayer”.
He is also published in two international anthologies: “Splinters Of A Mirage Dawn, Migrant Poetry from South Africa” and “The Gonjun Pin And Others Stories” (the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing Anthology). His poetry was used in narrating the award-winning short film ‘Jane The Ghost’. He has received two National Arts Merit Awards (Zimbabwe) for poetry (literature and spoken-word), his short story ‘Celestial Incest’ was shortlisted for the African Writers’ Award in 2018 and the Afritondo Short Story Prize (2020). He is also a World Record holding sonneteer.
BY GERRY SIKAZWE
This conversation took place between one of Zambia’s tall buildings, the Government Complex in Lusaka, and somewhere in the Savannah in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe via email, Google Docs, and WhatsApp.
Gerry: Hello Philani. If I was honoured to add a statement to your biography, I would say you are a skunk with a terrible smell. An agenda to rid the settled state of the blindly religious or political in society, more especially that of those wielding religious or political power as they greedily see fit. When did it occur to you to not follow the common teachings or leadings of politics and religion as blindly and silently as many do? And lastly, did poetry inspire this sensitivity to the falsehood that is commonplace in most religious teachings and political leadings?
Philani: That’s an interesting turn of phrase right there. My departure from organised religion was gradual. I think everyone who participates in it is aware of the glaring contradictions and hypocrisies within these institutions. My family on my mother’s side are devout Catholics. My grandfather built the church at Regina Mundi Mission in Gweru. They were so devout that my aunts and uncles all have the names of saints, from Nicholas, the eldest, who is living, among them, right through to Francesca, Philomena, my mother, and so forth. Even my middle name, Amadeus, is testament to that proud heritage.
I spent a lot of my schooling years in Seventh Day Adventist schools, so you can understand the constant antagonism between these forces: during the week I was taught that Saturday is the Lord’s Day, but Sunday was church.
It’s inconceivable to think that a child can go through their entire schooling learning the Bible alone in Religious and Moral Education. I think it’s a crime, constitutionally and morally, to do so. I believe spiritual freedom and developing our languages is the next frontier of independence. Are we saying there was/is no morality in African indigenous systems of knowledge? During the Second World War, it is alleged there was a proposition to cut funding to the arts and Churchill responded, “what will we be fighting for, if we did not fight for our way of life, then what did we fight for?”
I was at church schools and we read the Bible everyday. I went on to study it in depth all six years in high school and I assure you, it’s hard to remain a Christian if you read that book seriously. I also studied history and I could not reconcile the deeds of the colonizer, in particular, with the message of peace.
Somewhere around the age of fifteen, I got introduced to Marechera. That is also the period when my history teacher, Emmanuel Mpofu, recognised my writing talent. However, I was writing pornography at the time (there is no other word for it) and so began a mission to supply me with inspiration. Some of the books were Walter Rodney’s ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ and ‘Devil On The Cross’ by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I remember a passage from the latter’s, a song that went, “I will knock-a-knock the devil on the cross.” I remember how Ngugi treated the parable of the talents with reference to colonialism and neo-colonialism. From Marechera, I remember another song, “Bloody whites; first they had the Bible and we had the land, then they had the land and we had the Bible.” Slowly, I began to think it treasonous for an African to subscribe to such teachings that were used to rape his people. I took the stance of Chief Hateuy before they set him on fire: I want no heaven among people who have done such things.
Gerry: The curse of knowing much, in your case, must come with some pressure to share what you think and what you know. Last year in March, you had a poetic monodrama entitled “The Passions of Black Jesus.” Your line of work of evangelizing truthhood must indeed feel like you are a (Black) Jesus. Do you ever feel like a Black Jesus? And does your evangelism of uncommon truths as explicitly served in your poem, “African Thoughts”, featured on Badilisha Poetry X-Change ever wear you down?
…Often I say these things and my own people
Get cross and want to crucify me,
They call me sacrilegious ’cause I have the balls
To read the Bible upside-down
And say what it’s saying when it’s saying
What they are not saying it’s saying…
Philani: Yes, ‘The Passions of Black Jesus’ was a great success, I’m saddened I only got to perform it once but I’m grateful because if Harare International Literature Festival had not asked for it I might still be coddling it in the vault with other works I feel are not ready. LitFest Harare was sponsoring a slot at the International Theatre Festival Harare and asked if I had another monodrama like my 2016 Naughty By Nature produced ‘Diary of Madness’ so I dusted up “BJ”, as the script is affectionately known among my friends.
However, I’ve had time to work on it further. I recently completed a major part of “The Missions of Black Jesus,” the next part after ‘The Passions…’ So even without paying work, Covid-19 has also been a blessing.The new product which I’m currently titling “The Testament of Black Jesus” should come up to about seventy pages, but it’s painful writing and research that goes into it. The style and tone I’ve chosen for it are also incredibly difficult to produce.
I don’t feel like Jesus at all, I do not aspire to be strung up on a tree for the things I say. The spirit of the project is to demystify Jesus; he is the son of man, not the son of God in this work. If we take away the alleged divinity, Jesus was a guy who stood for social justice, was against organised religion and institutional oppression and was executed for it by the colonial authority. A lot of his teachings and miracles even coincide with Buddhism and other religions throughout the world. A friend and writer, Leroy M. Ndlovu, often says these guys had the same message: don’t be an asshole, which is one way of interpreting the golden rule.
“I have friends in government who understand and appreciate what I do, we talk about these things and that for me is a great place to be. Being a patriot means loyalty to the country, not necessarily its government. I like to remember who I was before everything started, and that way I don’t get swept by the current when things start happening and the cognac comes out.”
Gerry: One of your successful books in terms of readership and sharpness of the message, ‘Philtrum’, which contains messages directed at the late Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, has placed you well among the radical and yet timely critical voices on (Southern) African Governance. Why does it bother you so much that Zimbabwe and Africa be led right?
Philani: Ever since I was inducted into the “African writer” school of thought I’ve learnt the traditions of speaking truth to power. Whitewashed Jesus once said, ‘to whom much is given, much shall be required.’ It comes back to me writing my pornography at fifteen; shall I be silent while all this goes on, things that affect me, the people around me and my home? I’d rather use my voice to contribute the little I can because the enemies of our people and our livelihood are relentless.
On the other hand, it’s just art. I can’t choose what inspires me; when things happen, I see and respond. Such as in the case of ‘Philtrum’, sometimes they get published. Literature is only a mirror, and when it offends, it’s because the deed it has witnessed is offensive.
Gerry: “Literature is only a mirror…” This indeed I agree with. I tend to see a pattern in many, if not all, literary works. They all endeavour to report or forecast the reality of their writers and readers. In “The Calling”, again featured on Badilisha Poetry X-change, you preached the following:
…Many serpents will come unto thee,
Some bearing the likeness of a friend,
They shall strike with their forked tongues
But pay no attention to the torturous
Taunting and teasing that attempts to tame thee,
Yours is the gift of fierce articulation,
Be the torch of the nation, wear your heart
On your sleeve and pack a hearty punch!
Philani: I love that poem; it’s more of an affirmation to the self about to embark on a journey, and reminding him to remember what’s important. The more you wade, the more lines get blurred; it’s important to remember why one started out in the first place. You won’t imagine how many times I was told to shut up on my journey. I lost a lot of opportunities because of my content, but it was worth it. I don’t want to be successful at the cost of my soul. And it has been remarkable. After being longlisted for the Afritondo Short Story Prize, I got a call from the current Minister of Sports, Arts & Recreation, Kirsty Coventry, congratulating me, and thanking me for my service to my country. When I got off the phone with her, I told my girlfriend, who I’d just spoken to, and she said that I looked like I’d seen a ghost. Obviously she (Kirsty Coventry) is the first Olympic gold medalist I’ve ever spoken to, but I was taken aback for quite a while. In the past, when the government finds my phone number, it is to issue warnings. I have friends in government who understand and appreciate what I do, we talk about these things and that for me is a great place to be. Being a patriot means loyalty to the country, not necessarily its government. I like to remember who I was before everything started, and that way I don’t get swept by the current when things start happening and the cognac comes out.
Gerry: You have been called, in some spaces, Dambudzo Marechera’s reincarnate, partly because he too was an evangelist of truthhood, but also because you do not hide your admiration of him and his works. How has Marechera, and other writers of his marrow, inspired your writing?
Philani: I don’t know if there will ever be another Marechera, but then Marechera means different things to different people. Marechera liberated a lot of my ideas; he was the only guy in the room with the balls to say ‘hey, this carpet is uneven’ then roll it up, carefully, and unveil all the shit they’d swept under it. It was Marechera, alongside guys like Charles Mungoshi and Stanley Nyamfukudza, who were disillusioned with independence while everyone else in the early years was glossing over the ineffectiveness of the government of the day. That’s one reason for the comparison; I’m also not a fan of shutting up in the corner while things go wrong. The other is often the freedom with language; we both do not flinch from using obscene language to describe obscene instances, so before I offend you with my words, remember I’m only mirroring offensive circumstances. Surprisingly, Marechera and I were both heavily inspired by Ngugi. He says in an interview, he discovered black people could – or were allowed – to write books while at St Augustine Mission around the same age I discovered Ngugi as well.
I have read a lot of books and they continue to inspire me. John Eppel has been a constant light on my path. We are just about the last two people in the country who care to write in form and love the fourteen-liner. I also discovered him around the time I discovered Marechera and Ngugi. There was Charles Mungoshi at the time. The other Mungoshi, David, remains a close friend and colleague up to this day. Chirikure Chirikure has been a strong influence on my life and work since 2013; he is one of the few artists to carry poetry on the page and on stage like I do, alongside people like Elizabeth Muchemwa and Batsirai Chigama. I studied a lot of Shakespeare as well, by the stick and voluntarily. I love me some Salman Rushdie, ‘Midnight’s Children’ over ‘Satanic Verses’ of course, Borges when I’m feeling brave, my Bukowski and Steinbeck, throw in some Athol Fugard, Nabokov, Gibran and Nietzche. It’s hard to pin down a single or handful of influences; I learn something from every writer, even if it’s what not to do.
Gerry: Looking at Marechera’s impact on your life and writing, do you worry about how you inspire current poets and writers, and those in the future? You wrote in your poem, “Africa Speaks”:
…My past is inglorious; I was smelted in violence;
But my future shall be glorious: I was forged in defiance!
Where their speech is rain, mine will be hail,
And those that seek my blood may they stumble as they fail!
Philani: There is a funny story behind the authoring of that poem, I’m certain I wrote it in 2010. I do worry, sometimes, but then quickly banish the thought, because that’s not my primary role. My role is to live my life to the fullest and hope whatever squirrel remains will guide the next person stumbling along that path.
Gerry: For one who seems and sounds radical, how is it that you fare well in the arena of romantic poetry too, like in your National Merit Award winning book, ‘Once A Lover Always A Fool’? Your poetry book of sonnets ‘Mars His Sword’ is arguably the only African written book of sonnets to have surpassed Shakespeare’s. How do you juggle between the revolutionary tone and the romantic tone?
Philani: I don’t choose what inspires me. I am a lover, yes. I am also an artist with words. I am a citizen who reads the newspaper and shakes his head. Each of my works is a themed collection, so “Once A Lover Always A Fool” was a collection of love poetry, “Mars His Sword” was my take on the sonnet, and “Philtrum” was a take on Robert Mugabe’s life and career. I write just about everyday of my life, on different things, I try to enjoy writing now as I did when I started out. It’s when you decide to create a book that things get a bit mechanical. My first book was intentionally a collection of love poems, because I did not want to be typecast as a protest or political poet. I wanted to make my bones in the industry as a good writer, and I think it was successful. I received the National Arts Merit Award for it at twenty-three, because frankly it is a phenomenal work, even if I do say so myself.
“Mars His Sword” started when I was practising the sonnet. I felt it was the hardest form for me at the time, so I consistently wrote in that form; any idea I had, and soon I was reinventing or updating it. Whether other people agree with the result or not is not my problem. I woke up one day with about 400 sonnets and thought it would make a nice collection to commemorate Shakespeare’s 400 year aniversary, so I published 308. We exist in a long tradition, and I was acknowledging that.
My life as a writer is an attempt to make sense of the world and keep a record of things that happen to and around me. My success or lack thereof comes from there: I write for a personal need primarily, then I share with everyone else from there as opposed to writing what I am required by the imagined audience, the publisher, the government or the world. Like Biko, ‘I write what I like’, and feel.
Gerry: 308 sonnets, now that is a record-breaking feat! I have had the opportunity of watching you perform your poetry and another of reading your poetry. Of the two, performing or writing, which one do you enjoy the most?
Philani: Consider the writer as a car manufacturer: a lot of my page work can be regarded as concept vehicles, the stage is like practical vehicles. Sometimes I’m driving in the F1, sometimes it’s a vehicle you can use to get to point B. I try to make the distinction between performance and page poetry in the writing process, although there are great crossovers and the final version of ‘The Testament of Black Jesus’ will be one of those, insh’Allah. Both have their joys; when I write good I understand what Arnold Schwatznegger meant in ‘Pumping Iron’: ‘it’s like an orgasm’, and the rush on stage is a drug on its own.
Gerry: It is exceptionally brilliant how you command both forms of poetry so well. Congratulations, by the way, on the recent translation of your book “The Sod’s Prayer” into Swedish! Any new work we should look out for, from you this year?
Philani: Unlikely; most of the material in my other books has taken about three years to create, and a couple of months to fine tune. I’m at different stages with two projects and it’s starting to look like I might put out new work from 2021 through to 2023, so buckle up and open your wallets!
Gerry: Thank you for finding the time to chat with me!
Philani: It’s been a pleasure!
Gerry Sikazwe is a Zambian poet, literary blogger, and a creative writing coach. He is the author of Words That Matter (Mwanaka Publishers, 2018), a poetry collection.
His works have been featured in print magazines, newspapers, anthologies and online literary sites including Kalahari Review, Nthanda Review, AfricanWriter.com, Dissident Voice, In Between Hangovers, Spillwords.com, Sprinkle Storiez, AfroCabin, Pierian Journal, Tipton Poetry Journal (33), Mamba (7), Best of Africa, Best New African Poets 2018 Anthology, Times of Zambia (Sunday Edition 2017), Zambia Daily Mail (Friday Edition 2019), and many more. He writes and reads poetry from Lusaka.