Learning from Dambudzo and DeLillo

From Dambudzo’s Black Insider:

Language is like water. You can drink it. You can swim in it. You can drown in it. You can wear a snorkel in it. You can evaporate and become invisible with it…Some take it neat from rivers and wells. Some have it chemically treated and reservoired. Others have nothing but beers and Bloody Marys and wine but this too is a way of taking your water. The way you take your water is supposed to say a lot about you. It is supposed to reflect your history, your culture, your breeding, etc. It is supposed to show the extent to which you and your nation have developed or degenerated. Sometimes the word ‘primitive’ is applied to all those who take their alphabet neat from rivers, sewers, and natural scenery — sometimes this maybe described as the romantic imagination. The height of sophistication is actually to channel your water through a system of pipes right into your very own lavatory where you shake the hand of a machine and your shit and filthy manners disappear in a roaring of water. Being water you can spread diseases like bilharzia and thought. Thought is more fatal than bilharzia.

A powerful and memorable piece of writing.

In Chapter 5 of the ‘Waves and Radiation’ section of DeLillo’s White Noise, there is a strange supermarket scene where books are shown disrespect:

A woman fell into a rack of paperback books at the front of the store. A heavyset man emerged from the raised cubicle in the far corner and moved warily toward her, head tilted to get a clearer sightline. A checkout girl said, “Leon, parsley” and he answered as he approached the fallen woman, “Seventy-nine.” His breast pocket was crammed with felt-tip pens.

It’s like the fallen woman just had a bout with the rack of paperback books.

Then later on, the three main characters, Jack, Babette and Murray, engage in a strange and hilarious dialogue where they talk about ‘ads in the Ufologist Today’, ‘important hair’, etc. Then they make their way out of the supermarket:

The three of us left together, trying to maneuver our shopping carts between the paperback books scattered across the entrance.

Nobody cared about the books. The guys were too busy involved in their shopping — who cares about books?


In my short story Elephants Chained to Big Kennels, I tried to combine the Dambudzo and DeLillo ideas quoted above in the following scene:

Aeron then lifts a softcover that looks more like a loose-leaf pad and shows it to Erabus. The softcover is grubby and Erabus can smell the whiff of a wine on the corner of the cover because it is now under his nose.

‘That’s a 110-year-old Eselshoek. Mugabe was drinking it in his toilet,’ says Aeron.

Erabus wants to lean away from the book but he can’t because there is a moving mass of Nairobi bodies blocking his retreat. Cephas spies the power suits and even more powerful skirts army approaching and he sees a title typed on the soft cover, A Sunrise on a Murderous Day in Kampala.

‘By Dambooze Marechera. Yeah, baby, his last book never published. This only manuscript stolen from Mugabe’s toilet. And these are his fingerprints,’ Aeron says as she shows the finger stains to everyone.

‘He held it in his lap as he shat. This is how Marechera wanted his books read. While performing raw human arts like shitting. Fine alcohol ready at hand. Bob was always an avid reader.’

Suddenly, there is a push on Cephas and he dominoes into Erabus, who spills into Aeron, and the three of them tumble and Erabus licks sweat on Aeron’s armpits. A foot of power suit stamps on Cephas’ knee but the spider in him wriggles out. The power suit’s boot hits the ground and he loses balance. The even more powerful skirt next to him starts to wobble as the gyroscopic forces holding her five-inch stiletto heels in place are neutralized and she does something out of kung-fu, swinging her thighs outward, in exact and opposite directions. The slits in her even more powerful skirt part, showing the fine pink lace of her panties. And she lands in some sort of eastern-religion crouch where the five-inch stilettos keep her skin and clothes from touching the ground and she remains as antiseptic and germ free as in the morning when she came out of her shower and applied perfume in front of a smoky mirror. But one of the stilettos has landed next to Aeron’s arm and punctured Dambooze’s book right through the middle and Aeron, who is still holding the book, instinctively tears it from the stiletto’s clutch, sending feathers of paper floating low into the air.


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