Friday, June 24, 2011

Book 66, Malawi: "Of Chameleons and Gods" by Jack Mapanje

I’m back in Singapore, and ready to catch up on my reading! Opportunities in South Africa were surprisingly slack – only finished Long Walk to Freedom because my movie monitor malfunctioned during the Emirates flight home, on the leg between Dubai and Colombo.

Back when I was planning the trip, I was wondering if I oughta download development celeb William Kamkwamba's The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, or else check out Jack Mapanje’s Beasts of Nalunga from the library and stow it along. Then I decided I’d bank on the possibility that I might find some of the first-generation greats in a South African bookstore: David Rubadiri or Frank Chipasula – only to discover that:

1) Books are really expensive in South Africa,

2) The storehands at V&A Waterfront in Cape Town and that hip little university joint in Stellenbosch have little knowledge of African lit (they thought Mia Couto was a woman, sniff sniff).

But back at NLB, I discovered that Central Lending owns this book, which was the first to catapult Mapanje to commercial success when published in 1981 (although his incarceration without charges from 1987-1991 made him famous, if you can call it fame, considering that I’d never heard of him till this project).

And it’s good. Really eloquent, passionate stuff, with a lot of personalized references to friends a la Frank O’Hara, a tinge of the hermeticism and experimentation of Arthur Yap, though never quite as academic and lofty as Wole Soyinka or Edwin Thumboo; plus of course the outrage of the third-world liberationist betrayed that’s so common to postcolonial lit.

He honestly sounds like the kind of guy you’d like as your creative writing teacher. (Maybe I’m thinking like this ‘cos I’m typing on the way to NTU, where I’m delivering a poetry reading and handing in my claim forms for exam marking. Or maybe I just need a mentor myself.)

It’s the vibrancy of Mapanje’s words and symbols that really captivates me. Chameleons, nsolo trees, the murders at Chilombwe, calabashes, dagga, ancestral shields, and the imaginary Chief Kwangala, a Yao word which means dancing frantically. How can we approximate this in Singapore literature?

(Of special interest are the references to Chingwe’s Hole, a hole on the verdant Zomba Plateau where wrongdoers were flung in punishment and the supposed source of the Namitembo River. A whole section of the book is titled “Re-entering Chingwe’s Hole”; confronting the juxtaposition of horror, beauty and fertility that is post-independence Africa.)

I’m less keen, however, about the obligatory “I’m dislocated in London” poems, given that I’ve read a few similar ones now. Or maybe I’m just hungry for exotica? Maybe I just want my writers glowing with Afro anger instead of Euro malaise?

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:

Visiting Zomba Plateau

Could I have come back to you to wince
Under the blur of your negatives,
To sit before braziers without the glow
Of charcoal, to cringe at your rivers
That without their hippos and crocs
Merely trickle gratingly down, to watch
Dragonflies that no longer fascinate and
Puff-adders that have lost their puff?
Where is your charming hyena tail –
Praying mantis who cares for prayers once?
Where is the spirit that touched the hearts
Lightly – chameleon colours of home?
Where is your creation myth? Have I come
To witness the carving and jingling only of
Your bloated images and piddling mirrors?

Next book: Mia Couto’s The Last Flight of the Flamingo, from Mozambique.

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