Ghosting, Literary Archives & Tracing A Life
My first encounter with Phillip Zhuwao was on campus, at Midlands State University,
× MSU as it is commonly known was established in 2000. It was formerly Gweru Teacher's College. The teacher training facilities and infrastructures were the foundation of a new fledgling university in post-independence Zimbabwe when the government attempted to open Higher Education opportunities to a new generation.
× Marechera's first book, The House of Hunger, was published to critical acclaim in 1978, and remains a critical text often used as a political treatise or manifesto in underground counterculture movements in Zimbabwe.
× A dubious private bank, Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe, or commonly referred to as CBZ, is known for managing lucrative government tenders.
× Though a common name in Zimbabwe, Tinashe is now also a globally recognised name: The American singer-songwriter, dancer, record producer, and actress, Tinashe, is a pop cultural phenomenon born to a Zimbabwean father and Danish mother in the USA. Another phenomenon is Tinashe Nengomasha, a footballing star who dazzled in the South African Premier Soccer League and is often a well-known point of reference.
Patrick would later bring me a copy of Southern Times--a newspaper venture between Namibia and Zimbabwe. There was a centre spread piece on ‘Marecheramania and Zimbabwean Literature’
I started searching for him, in the university library, bookshops, on the Internet, everywhere. He was nowhere to be found, and felt like a completely made up person, entirely invented. How could this be? A Google search always brings up Patrick Zhuwao, a nephew of Robert Mugabe, but they are not directly related. I found an obscure mention of him from the South African publisher, Robert Berold,
× A selection of Zhuwao’s poems was featured in State of the Nation: Contemporary Zimbabwean Poetry (2009) edited by Tinashe Mushakavanhu and David Nettleingham.
× Letters from Zhuwao to Berold on his death-bed, shared by his younger brother
Biographical details are slippery things in Zhuwao’s life story. In fact, not much is known about him. I have yet to see even a photograph of him. Some reports
Zhuwao was born in 1971 to immigrant parents. His father was originally from Zambia, while his mother's family came from Mozambique. And he was born in Zimbabwe. His life was a crossroad of cultures. This contributed to his disorientation. He felt within himself a number of different identities and it was the tension between these that he mined to such good effect.
The challenge of Zhuwao’s archive is that it is scant – prominent in neither Higher Education, nor transnational sites of public memory, nor even in family records. This means that Zhuwao must be found via historical traces in the social sphere and recomposed using the local knowledges of key participants in his life and career.
× Only two sisters from Zhuwao's family are still alive - one lives in Zimbabwe, and the other in South Africa.
Ten years after knowing about Zhuwao and his writings, and after many persuasions, Robert Berold, finally decided to release Sunrise Poison under his Deep South
× For more than two decades, Deep South, run by Robert Berold, has been publishing bold and risk-taking South[ern] African poetry, regardless of its 'marketability'.
We had the launch of Sunrise Poison upstairs in a bar whose name I don’t remember: there was a sizable audience, half of them students of the creative writing programme, and the other half, the local literati. There was an inevitable question waiting for the publisher, how much of this book was really Zhuwao as it was being released after twenty years since his death? Berold insisted the book had originally been prepared in consultation with Zhuwao himself. A year before his passing, in 1996, Zhuwao had spent a month at Berold’s farm at the outskirts of Grahamstown/Makhanda, and another few months living with the poet Alan Finlay in Honeydew, Johannesburg. The trip, his only long distance journey by train, was his last lap, which has since fortified his place in literary history. After returning to Harare, Zhuwao struggled with paranoia and depression, induced by alcoholism and addiction to morphine, and he was soon dead. Some of the edits of these early first drafts between Zhuwao and Berold are now deposited at the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature.
× A catalogue of the Zhuwao holdings at the Amazwi Museum, South Africa
I was asked to DJ afterwards,
I did not set out to look for them. It happened gradually when I started digging into archives in every city I have lived in, on three continents. I meet these characters who lead me to other characters and their stories are too fantastical to ignore. But, Marechera has been central to this quest of knowing and unknowing. It is his archive, partially hidden in Berlin, that taught me to start wrangling with the gatekeepers and knowledge appropriators.
So far Zhuwao has been insulated from the extravagant fancies that have led many Marechera starry eyed chroniclers astray. Zhuwao is hardly known in his home country, let alone elsewhere, apart from Grahamstown/Makhanda. His only published book, Sunrise Poison, has not sold well but is remarkably collected in many libraries across the world.
When copies of Sunrise Poison were at the brink of being pulped at a commercial warehouse in Cape Town, because the book was not selling at all, I bought them all, hundreds and hundreds of them. The boxes are now stacked in a corner at my sister’s flat in Johannesburg because in my quest to meet Phillip Zhuwao, he has now recruited me to spread his message too.
Tinashe Mushakavanhu is a Junior Research Fellow in African & Comparative Literature at St Anne's College, University of Oxford. He holds a PhD in English from the University of Kent. Since 2016 he has been a researcher for readingzimbabwe.com a digital archive collecting, cataloguing, digitizing and making available information on books about Zimbabwe from the 1950s to the present. He is working on book/archival projects on literary figures from Zimbabwe such as Dambudzo Marechera, Derek Huggins, Ndabaningi Sithole and Yvonne Vera.