In this interview, JOHN CHIRWA engaged a Malawian lecturer at Birkbeck College of the University of London, Dr Mpalive Msiska, on the passing of writer, critic and Chancellor College academic Professor Steve Chimombo.
As someone who has worked with Steve Chimombo at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi, how best do you remember him?
It is very sad indeed that Steve is no longer with us. My deepest condolences to Moira and the family. He was so full of energy and life that you somehow expected and wished him to go on longer. I remember him as a young enthusiastic lecturer who had just returned from the University of Leeds with an MA and very much in a hurry to get things done. He was regularly at the Writer’s Group where he would punctuate his comments by lazily taking a puff at his 555 cigarettes. I particularly recall his easy laughter which had the effect of lightening the mood, especially at the Writer’s Workshop. I got to know him better when we were colleagues in the English Department [at Chancellor College] and, by then, he had returned from his doctoral studies at Columbia University in the US. He was most devoted to his job and his family—the two most important things in his life.
What would you say about his style of writing because some quarters say he is the only one who developed a theory for appreciating Malawian arts?
His style changed dramatically with his Napolo Poems and the play The Rainmaker. Most of us found it difficult to understand what he was attempting to do: the syntax was complex and also there were lots of neologisms that one had great difficulty comprehending. There were words like ‘chaosis’ which one could decipher, but still feel that one had not quite nailed down their meanings firmly. For me, it was seeing the production of The Rainmaker at the Chirunga Open Air Theatre in Zomba that began to clarify what Steve might have been up to. There was something of Wole Soyinka’s creative violation and re-invention of the received tongue: Soyinka’s phrase ‘softcreamy natives’ was being banded-about liberally among students and staff at that time. While Chimombo was ‘deutomatising the English language, to borrow from the Russian Formalists, he was equally transforming Chichewa.
The latter was being incorporated into the former and vice-versa in what might be described as a ‘dialogic’ tension. So, in Napolo Poems, there are phrases such as: ‘gubudu, gubudu, gubudu,’ suggesting that the poet was not content with representing the world within the strictures of the English language and so sought to fill in the expressive gaps with his mother-tongue. He frequently uses Chichewa onomatopoeia [sound-words] to enhance the meaning of English words. It is impossible to convey the complexity of his use of such forms in a brief discussion such as this. That is certainly an aspect of his writing that needs further research, especially by colleagues in Linguistics.
How relevant was his style to the cultural aspect of Malawi?
Chimombo used his writing to explore the linguistic and cultural hybridity of modern Malawi. He had himself used the word ‘cultural hybridity’ in his review of a stage production in the late 1970s. In his plays and poems, Chimombo evinces a rigorous attempt to think bi-culturally in a process in which the English language and culture begin to be diminished by the density of the indigenous metaphysical and cosmological frames. Central to his work are the Chewa or Nyanja myths of origin at Kapirinthiwa.
He wove into that the history, geology and myths surrounding Chingwe’s hole at Zomba plateau. It is in this context that we can say that he evolved and practised an indigenising aesthetic which employed the received literary tradition as one the means for fashioning a new aesthetic idiom as well as well a metaphysical structure, thus extending the universality of Modernism as much as that of Malawian orature. In short and to borrow a phrase from Chinua Achebe, Steve made the English language bear the burden of his distinctive Malawian and African experience: his ancestors such as Mbona, the gods of Kapirinthiwa and his particular inhabitation of a Post-colonial Anglophone modernity. In this context, his Malawian Oral Literature can be read as his cultural and aesthetic manifesto.
How do you relate his writings to the Kamuzu Banda regime which informed his writings?
Chimombo, like most of Malawians living and working in Malawi during the Banda regime could not produce writing that directly challenged the regime. So, most of our writers who were uncomfortable with the system developed what might be called strategies of camouflage and these varied with each writer and sometimes the cover was blown off and the writer ended up in trouble. That is exactly what happened to our colleague Jack Mapanje and, much earlier, to Frank Chipasula and Felix Mnthali. I have elsewhere described Chimombo’s style as ‘subterranean subversion.’ I was fascinated by his use of Chingwe’s hole in Zomba as a metaphorical geological site, from which to interrogate what was happening in the world above, that is, the terrestrial national formation. I concede that this strategy can be read as a sort of withdrawal from the world, but, in my view, it is a radical use of oral tradition that challenges hegemonic power. Thus, Chimombo can also be regarded as continuing that practice of using oral tradition politically and philosophically that we see in writers from other parts of Africa, such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.
What should present writers learn from his life?
The greatest lesson from Chimombo’s work and life for younger writers is that they should read the work of very good writers and learn from them: Chimombo’s early poetry does show his apprenticeship and his admiration for poets such as T.S Eliot. Having done that, however, they should work out seriously what their style should be. What Chimombo has shown in the huge effort he put in developing a distinct aesthetic is that style is not just something that happens while you are writing, but that you have to think about and perhaps practice it too before you begin to get your work in the public domain. Looking back, Chimombo used the Writers’ Group as a workshop for his work effectively.
How do you think Malawi has lost following his passing?
Malawi has lost a huge cultural and intellectual figure. Steve, in both his work and life, has shown that it is important to study and learn, but, above all, that to really leave a mark on the world one has to clear one’s own path, parting the tall or short grass; perhaps, avoiding one or two obstacles here and there on the way.
So long as it is one’s own pathway and it is guided by a selfless pursuit of truth, one stands a better chance of reaching the point, from where one can make an original and effective contribution and, perhaps, a lasting one too. I am sure, there might have been things that Steve still wanted to accomplish, but I think he must have left with a definite sense of self-fulfilment. He was one of the brightest stars in our cultural firmament and his absence will be noticeable for a long, long time, but he will shine on in his magical and incandescent work. n