By David Mungoshi
Chris Chinaire is a new addition to the impressive list of writers from Zimbabwe. That aside, the finesse and the aplomb of his debut book is highly impressive! Chinaire writes with obvious ease and the images he conjures up are vivid and unforgettable. Biographies are, in the main, not so easy to write. There is always a question lingering in the background: What makes you think that your life is worth talking about?
Some books perish on the cover, killed by the lacklustre titles which can hardly ever excite a prospective reader’s imagination – titles so predictable and commonplace that they become the kind of “stuff” that you only see in passing through the corner of one disinterested eye. You give it just one perfunctory fleeting glance and you are done. Happily, Chris Chinaire’s book does not allow you to be that casual with it. It is a must-read oozing with sincerity and appeal. While Chinaire in not talking about adopting a laissez faire attitude to life and its complexities, he is also definitely not being prescriptive. The tone throughout is desirous of self-discovery and humaneness.
I find ‘In My Son’s Corner’ both irresistible and inviting. The imagery evoked by the title is quite stunningly appropriate. Nowhere are mutual relationships as vividly portrayed as they are in the boxing ring. The boxer and his team are an organic unit. The people in the boxer’s corner are both his cheer squad and his critical eye. In between rounds they tell him what to do and what not to do and they also tell him what his opponent is trying to do. Despite all the exhortation, the boxer still makes free choices in the ring. Chinaire allows his son the same kind of latitude. The boxer gets to feel that they are with him and are there for him, watching his progress and recommending tactics. In ‘In My Son’s Corner’ we see Chinaire and Ruvheneko, his son, as the pair in a corner whispering together about tactics and the vicissitudes of life that Ruvheneko must learn to navigate his way around.
Chinaire’s book is essentially directed at parents, although initially he entertains the idea of making the book speak to the children of those who, like him, have emigrated to the United Kingdom and other places in search of a more fulfilling life than is materially possible at home. Thus, in some ways, ‘In My Son’s Corner’ becomes a sort of “home thoughts from abroad’ book. In his late teens, Ruvheneko, taken abroad during his early infancy, prevails upon his father to put thought to paper on the important topic of raising children in a foreign land. The fact that in the end Chinaire writes the kind of book that his son suggests he writes is reflective of the camaraderie between father and son. It is a give and take situation for both of them and they learn together as they go. In the end, although Chinaire undertakes to write the book that his son thinks he should write, a book based on their real life experiences, he prefaces the story with the observation:
No book could ever hold a complete account of how he was
raised; contrary to his belief, the task will never be complete.
This book is a selection of the major factors I responded to.
Significantly, Chinaire asserts:
Going back in time and piecing together the highs and lows
of fatherhood was not too difficult. Every event had been
mentally catalogued and internally indexed by place, emotion
sound, smell, and countless other attributes.
Chinaire gleefully captures the agony and the ecstasy evident in the manner in which parents cope with the successes of their children and failures of the children of others. How the parent behaves in such situations can be the start of sportsmanship. Chinaire recalls one such hilarious incident from Ruvheneko’s early school experiences:
The smell of dust could trigger a replay of a three-legged race at a
Year 2 sports event that my son and his friend, Rio had effortlessly
won. I can still feel the discomfort of feeling excited for him while
aiding a helpless mother console one of his less agile friends.
Initially, Chinaire had narrowed down fatherhood to three primary roles: provider, protector and teacher. However, as he warms to the task of writing the book, he has to admit that the three roles are a very severe summary of what is expected of a father. In his own words Chinaire says:
I was a permanent presence in his corner of life’s boxing ring.
Much as I would have liked to fight for him and even shield him,
only he could engage in the battle for his life.
How very apt! These are the lessons that Chinaire says life can tutor all parents in.
The universe that Chinaire describes in his book is one in which several anomalies held sway. Ruvheneko grows up in an environment enamoured with expediency. It was a time when everyone:
only consumed what was palatable to their tastes;
had become adept at directing the spotlight on
snippets of the truth;
According to Chinaire, the prevalence of half-truths and other aberrations meant that historical commentary could not be taken for granted. It is these realisations that in the end become the core of Ruvheneko’s informal curriculum at home. It is these things that incubate the nascent thinker and analyst in Ruvheneko. In all this Chinaire acquits himself very well as a non-formal teacher. He never rams anything down Ruvheneko’s throat, and allows him to flesh out what seems to him to be most cogent in any situation.
With the passage of time Ruvheneko, of his own accord, comes to the realisation that “the world order wasn’t as it should be largely because Africa had been diverted off its natural course.” Thus, through encouragement from his parents Ruvheneko learns to question the notion of a single narrative and develops the healthy habit of sieving things for himself. It is not surprising, therefore that at some stage one of Ruvheneko’s teachers says to Chinaire:
“Your son is different from most students. He won’t accept anything that hasn’t been explained to
his satisfaction. I prepare lessons with him in mind. He is one of my favourite students.”
Invariably, as was always going to happen with time, racism began to rear its ugly face and Ruvheneko had to find a way of coping with the monster. During Ruvheneko’s Year 2, a teacher ‘singled him out for impromptu career guidance.’
“Your people are good with their hands,” he was told. “When you grow up, look for a job that involves using your hands.”
This brought back the ‘unpleasant memories of his first year at nursery school in West London where a nursery school teacher had asked one of the aids to inform us that our son had learning difficulties.’
With time Ruvheneko learns that life is terminal and also learns that we are all our brother’s keeper as it were. Thus on a visit to Zimbabwe, the ‘sight of homeless children of all ages in the streets of Harare shook him. Every child had an untold story with a common end. He gave some of them food and money but sensed a lot more needed to be done.’
That visit to Zimbabwe and that experience with homeless children in Harare made Ruvheneko begin to think he should become Zimbabwe’s president one day.
Probably the most challenging of things for Zimbabwean parents abroad is the idea of sex education. Chinaire recalls a hilarious incident in which Ruvheneko says girls have no privates. In that situation he does what most Zimbabwean men back home are not likely to do, ever. He gives his son his first lesson in sex education.
What I also find quite endearing, is the manner in which Ruvheneko teaches his father the language of the young people in parts of London. It takes some explanation from Ruvheneko for Chinaire to understand what the furore is all about even though he understands there is a girl at the centre of it. A boy who is incensed that his girl prefers Ruvheneko fumes:
“How could you pick this freshie over me?”
“It means fresh off a boat, like a slave ship,” Ruvheneko explained.
‘In My Son’s Corner’ is a jewel of a book which is ‘unputdownable.’ For most parents it can be a veritable manual. I recommend the book without any hesitation or reservation whatsoever. Something tells me that we have just welcomed onto the scene an accomplished new writer who writes admirably about difficult things without mystifying them. The story he writes becomes everybody’s story.
The open-endedness of Chinaire’s book makes it wholesome and removes any inclinations towards pedantry. Because he raises a considerable number of questions and possibilities, I feel that a sequel of some kind may be in order.