...A look at Alfred Msadala's ‘War Drums are Beating: Discourses of the Anti-Hill’
In literature, everyone appears to be faking life. Even permanent structures, such as houses and roads and government establishments, seem temporary.
Ironically, one ‘excavator’ has discovered bits of truth from the make-believe— or fictitious—stories and lives found in literature. The excavator happens to be writer and Malawi PEN president, Alfred Msadala.
The experienced writer has compiled the hidden truths behind the veil of fiction books in his latest book, ‘War Drums are Beating: Discourses of the Anti-Hill’.
“I have heard that, sometimes, it is difficult to connect authors to their work of fiction, and that the persona in a work of art may not necessarily serve as a reflection of the author’s life. But this depends on the type of book one is dealing with,” says Msadala, justifying how he still managed to excavate the truth about authors from the actions of personae in the portrayed authors’ works.
“For example, that argument may work when it comes to the publication of non-fiction books. Let’s take the example of the author of a Physics book. The book can, definitely, not reflect the author’s life because it’s about set truths. All the reader may appreciate is the fact that the author has deep knowledge of Physics.
“However, when an author comes up with a work of fiction, their life is, somehow, reflected in it. This is so because some experiences [of the writer] may be flashed upon in fiction books,” says Msadala.
Some of the 140 writers whose works have been portrayed in the 450-page book are Bessie Head, Jolly Max Ntaba, Yvonnie Vera, Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain, Rhoda Zulu, Brighton Uledi-Kamanga, Gil-Won Lee.
Msadala says, by bringing into the mix local and international writers, he has squeezed Malawi and the world into 450 pages.
From the way Msadala has analysed the work of, say, Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangrembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’, one quickly appreciates the fact that Msadala is able to excavate some bits of reality from the author’s fictitious personae by relating to the time the works of art were published.
For instance, he looks at the authors’ real life: their historical background, their real inner struggles about, say, apartheid, feminism. That’s where the truth comes in. Apartheid [in South Africa] was, for example, just a border away from Dangrembga’s Zimbabwe; feminism was, and is, real, and, most importantly, the author is real.
This applies to Kenyan writer, Ngumi Kibera’s book ‘Beyond the Darkness’, too. In the book, Kibera depicts life in some of the rural parts of Kenya by carefully depicting the troubles endured by a girl in a single-parent situation.
Through the narrative, Msadala is able to pick out issues such as challenges faced by the girl child, largely fuelled by stereotypes, moral decadence, as well as governance issues. Msadala is, therefore, able to analyse the storms in the author’s life through the struggles encountered by the girl.
That’s not all, though. Msadala also employs the universality of the issues— say, governance— in drawing comparisons with Malawi. He says Malawi also faces governance issues; that the Malawian girl child sometimes finds herself in a similar situation to the persona in ‘Beyond the Darkness’; and that the police do not always care.
If they [police] care; then, there is nobody to take care of them [police officers] themselves.
“The difference between this book and my other books is that, this time, I want to reach out to non-literary minds. You know people often say that literature is, sometimes, too technical and that, sometimes, it doesn’t address those who are not immersed in it. So, what I have done is to take literary works to the so-called literally minds,” Msadala says, adding:
“As far as I am concerned, this is a celebration of Malawian writers— I have actually discussed over 100 of them in the book— and this is a unique and rare occasion where most writers of my age will converge [at the launch]. Again, the book serves as a meeting point in the sense that, while some of the featured authors are still alive and others are dead, the dead and the living have been brought together in the book. So, while reunion of the dead and living is impossible in real life; I have made it possible in the book.”
Some of the points raised in ‘War Drums are Beating: Discourses of the Anti-Hill’ will resonate with readers of Literary Talk column in The Sunday Times,one of Times Group’s publications.
“Of course, some of the articles have appeared in shortened form in The Sunday Times. But, in this case, readers will get the long version. Just that, now, I am looking at Literary Theory and analysing how it applies to the everyday life of human beings. Again, I am appealing to readers of all ages,” says Msadala, who started contributing to The Sunday Times in 2005.
Not that all featured authors are fiction writers, though. Under the topic ‘Colleagues’, one will find names such as James Chikago, who authored a book on One Village One Product; Emmanuel Chinunda, who has authored books on customer care, apart from being a columnist for Times Group; James Kalaile, who authored a book on lay magistrates; Qabaniso Malewezi; Mufunanji Magalasi; G.W. Gwengwe, among others.
Msadala says he decided to include them because they have inspired him— and Malawians— in one way or the other.
However, the problem associated with analysing the works of classic writers such as Thomas Hardy is that one runs the risk of repeating what others have already written somewhere in the world.
But Msadala says he sidesteps such risks by clinging to the boat of personal opinion.
“My writing is opinionated. I have tackled the issues the way they appeal to me personally. The way a work of art appeals to me will, definitely, differ from the way the same work of art appeals to society at large. I think that’s a safe net. Again, I have been very carefully in weighing how the issues fit our society. I believe that, by exposing some things, I may help bring solutions to them,” says Msadala.
While Msadala— who, apart from serving as Malawi Pen president, is also the president for Book Publishers Association of Malawi— is a well-published author with 14 books, one striking thing is that he had never published a Chichewa book.
“Of course, I am yet to publish a Chichewa book but I have some Chichewa published works. I have done a bit of poetry in Chichewa, a good example being ‘Kufa Saferana’. Some of my works, such as ‘Chaka China Chimodzi’ [One More Year], have been translated into Chichewa,” he admits.
‘Chaka China Chimodzi’ was translated by Wisdom Nkhoma in his [Nkhoma’s] book ‘Mphamvu ya Kondane ndi Nthano Zazifupi Zina’. The book was published by Chancellor College Publications.
But, maybe, his reluctance to make a foray into Chichewa book publication may be attributed to the fact that he is surrounded by more English books than those in other languages in the library he has turned into a literary world.
His working room is adorned the writings of Joseph Conrad, Jack Mapanje, John Chobe, , Homer, William Shakespeare, Mzati Mkolokosa (essay writing), Bronte Sisters, Chinua Achebe , Hangson Msiska, J.K. Rowling, Harry Porter, Tito Banda, David Lubadiri, Nixon Mindano, Henrik Ibsen, Jolly Max Ntaba.
Other notable publications are ‘Malawi: Lake of Stars’ by Frank Johnston and Michael Mutisunge Phoya, ‘Malawi Parliament’ by Henry Chimunthu Banda, ‘Pain and Love’ by Paul G. Paseli, ‘Barack Obama and African Diaspora’ by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, ‘I Will Try’ by Legson Kayira, ‘Malawi in Crisis: The 1950s/60 Nyasaland State of Emergency’, Legson Kayira’s ‘I Will Try’, among others.
Some of Msadala’s works include ‘Church of Christ the King at 50’, ‘Ten Tidal Waves’, ‘Sprouts of Dowa Hills’, ‘Mangadzi was Here and Other Stories’ (co-edited with Zondiwe Mbano), ‘Norwegian Literature: A Malawian Appraisal’, ‘Neighbour’s Wife’, ‘We Lost Track of Ausi’, ‘Destined for Great Things’, ‘One, Steve Chimombo’, and ‘Reminiscence’.
Whatever the case, Msadala has done the undoable: Uniting the living and the dead in a literary communion called ‘War Drums are Beating: Discourses of the Anti-Hill’.