The growing free literary spaces

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espite some perceived challenges of working as a scribe, there is also a beautiful side whose benefits outshine the downside of this noble trade.

One of the many advantages is the opportunity to interact and learn from some of the finest thinkers and brains present in this generation. Last week, one such opportunity befell me when I had the chance to have some relaxed chat with literary icon Ken Lipenga.

His political indulgencies may have overlapped his colossal contributions in the local literature spheres. But still that does not diminish the efforts he made in the area and befittingly he remains a figure to look up to in the eyes of many in that regard.

In 1981, he published a compilation of short stories, Waiting For a Turn and in 1986 he was back on the scene with Of “been-tos” and Messiahs: Millenialism in Armah’s Fiction. He is one person who has not denied a free flow of his artistic imaginations. 

What brought me close to this mighty warrior of the pen is the selection of his 1974 poem, The Death of An Idea, to lead the yet-to-be released local anthology which has pulled together a total of 50 authors.

He did not hide his surprise when he was contacted about the project and when it was made known to him that the title of his poem was the one to grace the cover of the compilation.

“I believe in honesty, so let me shock you by publicly admitting here that I almost completely forgot about this piece till I was contacted by Alfred Msadala recently. I particularly thank him for reconnecting me with one of my early efforts,” he said.

That is the power of a good literal workmanship. It is hard to erase the wonderfully crafted verses, phrases, rhymes, rhythm and metaphors which provoke deep sense of thought in the minds of people years after they were laid down.

When asked of what he makes of the recent feat his work has registered, in a full modesty flight, Lipenga refused to attach any personal glory to himself. He said he is not good at interpreting his own writings. Instead he pictured himself as a painter, who after his work is done, he moves on.

However, the literary guru appeared to be caught in a mixture of emotions as he recalled how the situation was at the time he wrote the poem as a student at Chancellor College during the one-party era.

He said: “I can tell you that at the time I was writing, as a young student at Chancellor College, the environment in our country was not exactly good for thinking or being suspected of thinking. One of the people mentioned as being present when the poem was being discussed is Mupa Shumba.

“He was one of my lecturers, to whom bad things happened at that time along with many other good people.”

His recollection painted a vivid picture of how artistic growth and free flow of ideas was stifled during the   Banda one-party rule. What a sad period it was when free thought was not only suppressed but also mistaken as a seed to give birth to political revolt.

Fast-forward to 2019, Lipenga is almost a happy man with the change that has been registered since the ushering in of democratic rule in Malawi. He said in the biggest tool writers need is not promotion but freedom.

“All writers need is the freedom to think and provoke, which I think to a large extent we have in Malawi,” he said.

And the local anthology project, being championed by Msadala and team, which is set for official release on June 30, is one of the testimonies of the growing free literary spaces that the country is enjoying at the moment.

Let the local creatives write and write till the space is flooded and shame the awful past that threatened our growth for long.   n

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