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The scandalous times of a book louse

- Wits Communications

Deborah Minors interviews Professor Robert Muponde on his new book, 'The Scandalous Times of a Book Louse: A Memoir of a Childhood'.

The scandalous times of a book louse

How did you come up with your book’s title? What is the story behind the title? 

RM: My experience of struggling to access book-based education, and my childhood obsession with the meaning and worlds in printed words - the book louse appeared to me both as a metaphor of that obsession with books and the printed word as well as a symbol of the much-needed irreverence towards book-bound colonial education. A book louse eats both the paper and the words in a revered book and creates a mouldy home in it. I was interested in the scandalous habits of a book louse as a nosy insect and a metaphor of curiosity and mocking fun. Also, I was keenly aware of my ‘mouldy’ environment, constructed both by the discarded newsprint that floated along village paths and schoolyards and the circumstances of dreadful want. Yet, like Janisse Ray in her stunning Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, I felt the need to cradle this crumbling place, even if it were a junkyard. Rusape is the place where my story-telling was born and nurtured.

What is the most ‘scandalous’ tale in the book? Why?

RM: There are many intriguing ‘scandalous tales’ in the book. They include the experience of paying school fees to access a repressive, colonial education, which subjected me to meaningless rhymes and choruses all day in class. The biggest scandal was the way Black teachers terrorised learners with ‘vocabulary’ by way of imparting education. Also, the questionable residue of Ubuntu in a society riven with conflict and anomie. Here I have in mind the egregious greed and roguery of Daniel, a hippo that was once a married human being, converted into a symbol of national attainment; and the figure of Herudhe, the crazy shaman and oral historian who goes from funeral to funeral, begging to be told the last words of the deceased.

There is also the persistent scandal of grim poverty and the normalisation of inherited loss. The scandal linked to ideas of liberation and freedom, which took fourteen years of bush war to realise, and only a few years to turn into an unending nightmare. Decolonisation itself turned into a matter of clicking the refresh button in order to relive forms of resilient colonial power, cherished for its drastic authority over dissenting citizens. 

One delicious, unspoken scandalous tale is the form of the memoir itself, which is cheered deafeningly by readers for the way it thrusts the middle finger at all the conventional ways of remembering and narrating a story. There are no Ten Commandments for writing a childhood memoir.

Elaborate on the process of writing this memoir – how did the idea come about?

RM: I could have written this memoir when I was in Grade Seven when it first occurred to me to write it. You will see that in the book itself, the fictional double of the author jots some notes and calls them The Consecutive Days Everything Went Wrong. That’s the kernel of the memoir. But the character destroys the manuscript to avoid being killed for it. Much later, when in Grade Nine, I resuscitated the idea and submitted the handwritten manuscript to a film production company that was in the country (Zimbabwe). The company politely advised me to send the manuscript to an address in New York, to train as a screenwriter, or to get a degree. Postage of the manuscript to New York by airmail amounted to what was then the equivalent of a term’s school fees. I couldn’t afford it. Nor could I understand what screenwriter meant. A degree was out of the question, given my situation where continuation with school had to be negotiated term by term. So, someone in the crowded house, where the young children shared socks, underwear, and a toothbrush, helped himself to the pages of the manuscript by rolling cigarettes with it. I was happy not to think about the manuscript for another ten years.

By then, I was writing short stories in which the character Ronald features prominently in an enigmatic role. It was only in 2015, the month that #FeesMustFall started, that the story rumbled and erupted, possessed me, and I had to quickly channel and chart it, as it was pouring out of my head like porridge in the story of the little magic pot. It took me two years in a trance-like state to write it. Eight drafts later, I was able to be myself again, when I submitted the manuscript to Penguin Random House, who squealed with delight. It took me a lifetime to come to a point when I could finally resurrect, reconstruct and convert The Consecutive Days Everything Went Wrong into The Scandalous Times of a Book Louse. By the time I started writing it, I was a full Professor of English, and by the time it was published I was the Wits Director of Postgraduate Affairs.

Robert Muponde is a Professor in the Department of English at Wits

To what extent did Creative Research inform your memoir?

RM: I was not conscious that I was doing creative research. First, I had lost two versions of the book. As time went by, I found myself having to depend on archival techniques to reconstruct my memories, and the objects and places associated with them. What was written had become oral, and had to become written again. As I grew older, and was seized by the impulse to look over my shoulder and gauge the distance covered, and plumb the meaning of certain pathways and digressions, I struggled with the form that the memoir would take.

At first, I thought like an academic, that perhaps I could do a personal essay devoted to the study of my life up to a certain point. However, after some months of critical thinking, I resolved that I did not like to present myself to my own pen as an object of critical study. I was aware of the dangers of narcissism and the excesses of auto ethnography. It then occurred to me that perhaps I could do another book on childhood studies, having published Some Kinds of Childhood: Images of History and Resistance in Zimbabwean Literature. The book would then be a critical study meant to fill the gaps identified in Some Kinds of Childhood, but with a focus on alternative sources and materials and forms.

I wrote the first five pages of what I initially called Ecology of Childhood but puked when I read the prose, as it was stilted, hardcore ‘academic’, and choking in lengthy footnotes and references. Then it occurred to me to do a cross-over genre, refracting and repositioning my own experiences, but addressing a dual audience: the average academic and the general literate public. I’m now very happy about this choice of form, as it has enabled the book to be bought and read by a diverse range of readers, across disciplines and fashions, who enjoy the prose for its aesthetic effects and the ‘ideas’ hidden in it for message. There is certainly a substructure of ideas and theories lying beneath the stories, as I intended to rupture certain discursive spaces and routines, but it does not interfere with a reader’s enjoyment of the memoir as fiction or ‘history’ or ‘scholarship’.

The creative research helped me to bend and reorient the conventions of both creative and academic writing. I immersed myself in the communities in which I grew up, interviewing people, collecting objects and memories. There were also instances of audience participation in the reconstruction and positioning of some recollections when some people I grew up with instructed me not to exclude particular events and stories that we had co-created - or for which they remembered me most. The plot itself is influenced not only by the glut of events and disparate episodes that make up a life, but an epiphany I had lately.

I recently realised my subconscious admiration for unexpected and wandering beginnings and endings. In July, I came across something I had published in 1999, when I was still struggling out of my academic diapers. It was a comment on one of Dambudzo Marechera’s children’s stories called Fuzzy Goo’s Guide to the Earth. I wrote: “Because it is a rather grim, peripatetic story with too long a tether, it wanders, uninhibited, over all places, gathering what it can, without settling into any conventional mould or committing itself to any ritual related to departure or arrival. It begins anywhere, proceeds everywhere and ends anyhow, sending chills along the viewer’s spine with each turn or footfall. In that way, Marechera forestalls that tendency of form to arrest – an ultimate rejection of rigidity through insistent dissent”. If I had presented the manuscript of the memoir to a Creative Writing Department as a research proposal, I would have proffered this quotation as my ‘creative method’. 

Did you anticipate that your memoir would become a best-seller?

RM: I was astonished when my book was chosen as one of the ‘nine fiction titles’ to feature in the Exclusive Books’ 25 Winter Warming Reads I was amazed when it featured in their annual, much-awaited Homebru book-promotion campaign. The memoir succeeded because it transcended the parochial concerns of ethnic origin and boundaries of genre, space and time.   

What tips do you have for imminent authors who might want to write a memoir? 

RM: First, be truthful to yourself. Second, beware the risks that come with baring your soul to the world.  Third, in each of us is a mine of experiences that can be shared, in small or big measure, and it can make a difference. So, there is no life or experience too small - what counts is what it means for you, and what it might mean for others.

Your previous book Zimbabwe: New Approaches to Literature and Culture has become the canonical go-to for anyone beginning explorations of Zimbabwean literature. How does your memoir fit into your expansive oeuvre?

RM: Versions of Zimbabwe was designed to undo boundaries of thought and culture, race and history. It succeeded in causing the undoing of forms of cultural and intellectual apartheid that colonial and postcolonial politics in Zimbabwe entrenched. Much of my intellectual work concerns itself with fomenting and instigating redress in its various forms. So, The Book Louse is perhaps bolder in presenting its intentions, which are meant to counter the proliferating forms of unedifying biographies and memoirs whose motivation is to present the Big Man (whether in politics or business) as the only man with history. I think that there has been an unchecked abuse of the power of the book in that regard. Less chest-beating is required for an honest self-interrogation of all levels of African society to flourish, as the book louse does in a forest of print. 

What’s next from you as an author and as an academic?

RM: Once an author, one is always dogged by ideas that cry for expression. I believe that my journey has only begun. The idea of the next book is always scary, but I’m ready now to start research on The Lost Tales of Papati Hiyayi. As an academic, I realise that some of the work we do, with all the rigour and funding that goes into it, is too hardcore to reach some readers and audiences who might be interested in the insights that it generates. So, sometimes, certain forms of academic writing can only have impact on one’s small circle of friends. I would like to pursue forms of research and writing that have an impact on my discipline as well as a broader range of readers and writers.