Steve Chimombo is one of Malawi’s leading writers, having published poetry, short stories, drama, and a novel over the past three decades. His most well-known work is Napolo and the Python: Selected Poetry, published in Heinemann’s prestigious African Writers Series in 1994. His other titles include The Rainmaker (1978) and Wachiona Ndani? (1983), two plays; The Hyena Wears Darkness (2006), a collection of short fiction; The Wrath of Napolo (2000), a novel; Malawian Oral Literature: The Aesthetics of Indigenous Arts (1988), an academic study; The Culture of Democracy: Language, Literature, the Arts and Politics in Malawi, 1992–94 (1996), a collection of political essays co-authored with his wife, Moira Chimombo; and AIDS Artists and Authors—Popular Responses to the Epidemic: 1985–2006 (2007), a volume that addresses the question of cultural engagement with the HIV/AIDS pandemic over the past two decades. Unlike many of his peers, such as Jack Mapanje and Felix Mnthali, who went into political exile, Chimombo has lived and worked in Malawi for much of his career, having taught at Chancellor College, the University of Malawi, for close to three decades. He has also been involved in the establishment of different organizations, specifically Malawi PEN and the Malawi Writers’ Union (MAWU), and he has been the editor and publisher of WASI, one of the few magazines committed to the arts in Malawi.
This conversation was recorded in June 2007 in Zomba, where Chimombo lives with his family. Divided into two sections—one on contemporary Malawian literature and a second on his personal development as a writer—this interview highlights the possibilities and constraints of writing in Malawi today, but by extension elsewhere in Africa, where financial support can be limited, audiences are small, publishing venues are few, and book stores are in decline. Chimombo also discusses the changes that have taken hold since 1994—when Hastings Kamuzu Banda stepped down, having been president of Malawi since independence in 1964—as well as the impact HIV/AIDS has had on artistic production. Overall, this conversation engages with trends in Malawian literature over the past several decades, in addition to offering a portrait of Chimombo’s own involvement within this context of growth and change.
On Malawian Literature Today—Writing and Publishing in the Post-Banda Era
: What is the current state of Malawian literature today?
: Since 1994—that is, after Dr. Banda’s republic, the first republic—seven novels have appeared so far in English, some of them by authors who were writing during Banda’s day, some of them new. For example, B. M. Kayira’s Tremors of the Jungle (1996) portrayed a riot at a university campus that ends with the protagonist going into exile. James Ng’ombe, who was quite prolific and wrote two or three novels during the Banda days, has written Madala’s Children (1996), a saga of a family caught up in the politics of Banda, in which brother turns upon brother. He wrote another novel on the same family in 2005, Madala’s Grandchildren. It’s a sequel focusing on the grandchildren’s domestic problems, but in the context of the political scene; the protagonist is also caught up in the politics of succession of the third republic under Bingu wa Mutharika. Another novel by Felix Mnthali is Yoranivyoto (1998), which is a reconstruction of the story of a woman who chooses to remain single when she is so young. It turns out that it is because her husband was in detention. Both Mnthali and Kayira are writing in exile. Mnthali was detained during the Banda days, but doesn’t appear to want to come back.
An interesting development during this period has been the appearance of writing by members of the local Asian community. One novel called Intensity of a Dream (2000) by Shan Sacranie addresses the participation of Asians in the politics of independence, a topic that has never been tackled by a Malawian before. Intensity of a Dream is basically about two young men—one Asian, the other white—who are involved in the politics of independence in Malawi, which I find very interesting indeed.