Strategies in Survival
When Frank Chipasula, Professor and former Judge William Holmes Cook Professor of Africana Studies, left Malawi one night in May of 1973, he could not know that his exile would stretch 41 years and counting into the future. When he and spouse Stella returned safely for the first time, more than 20 years after his initial departure, his exile was made complete. The very language had changed, and suddenly the couple found themselves strangers in the world. The terrible realization that he had lost an irrecoverable home world, despite the ability to return to his motherland, colors his days and nights and, unavoidably, inflects his written works.
The Rain Storm
for JamesThe rain washed the coat of the wind,dusted the nose of the mountain,licked the blood off its peak,and rinsed the fish oils across the tarmac. Here the road that had left us behindstopped and waited for us, asked uswhere we had beenwhen they skinned the land. Then the road, braving the rain,slithered between the mountains,leaving us to marvel and to musewhere the thin tarmac was leading us. And we wondered where the rain had been,this rain that left drops of dreamsin our palms to sow in the soil of our hearts. Under the eaves of the sky we setOur open minds and filled themWith the purity that fell from heaven.
Yet Chipasula is wary of romanticizing exile, of the solipsism of sorrow. His work ranges from powerful political indictment to more tender praises. Internationally acclaimed for having collected, edited, and introduced poetry from various African countries to the rest of the world, in addition to his own poems he has also written extensively in other genres—novels, short stories, plays, and journal articles. He has edited anthologies of African letters and manages Brown Turtle Press, an independent literary press that he founded with his stipend from the Cook Professorship in Makanda, Illinois dedicated to the discovery of new voices, the rediscovery of those marginalized by literary fashion, and more recently to poetry in translation from Central and South America and the Caribbean. https://brownturtlepress.squarespace.com/
His poetry anthologies celebrate voices from continental Africa and its major islands. These include: When My Brothers Come Home: Poems from Central and Southern Africa (1985), A Decade in Poetry: An Anthology of Zambian Poetry (1991), The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry (coedited with Stella Chipasula, 1995), and Bending the Bow: An Anthology of African Love Poetry (2009).
In his yet unpublished memoir, Frank Chipasula refers to himself as “a fighter of sorts,” and Malawians as champions of survival—“survival champions of the world.” The young man who dared pen a momentous and thinly disguised poem to a despot, publishing the first volume of poetry in English by a Malawian, would continue to write biting poems, focusing especially on the corruption and violence in his motherland.
It was possible to write such poems only many years later, as Chipasula had to lie low for a time in order to protect the family and friends he had left behind in Malawi, believing he was dead. How many men or women have had to disappear, as he did, allowing their most intimate relations to assume the worst, even to mourn them at a wake? He recounts taking only a few items with him the night he fled, making sure his university hostel room looked as though he expected to return shortly—and then vanishing. The only person who knew his secret—and affected mourning—was his future spouse, Stella. She left to join him in neighboring Zambia a year later only when demands about Frank’s whereabouts became too insistent for her to parry.
As the Chipasulas describe what everyday life was like before they fled Malawi, they gesture to the dining room windows and ask you to imagine life as they knew it, where President-for-Life Banda’s men and women—Special Branch—routinely stood outside your dwelling listening in. “People kept their windows open in order to see who was eavesdropping on their conversations.” Nor could one object to or acknowledge the intrusion; the smart person feigned inattention to the man or woman in the window, and merely turned conversation to safe topics, like the weather.
A scholar and writer living under constant threat of arrest and detention, or worse, develops strategies of survival. Chipasula never kept a notebook until much later, when it was safe to do so, and began a lifelong practice of writing on scraps of paper, which enabled him to hide his scholarship in plain sight. As his rooms were regularly searched when he went out, he could not afford to leave any obvious collection of material. Also, several expatriate faculty members at Chancellor College, University of Malawi, who befriended him, took turns caching his typescripts, themselves risking possible deportation from the country. Chipasula would “visit” his own work to make any needed emendations. In this way, he was able to throw Special Branch off his trail for a time.
As the government would search for emigrants in Zambia, it was necessary to continue the practice even after his exodus. After a time, this expedient measure became habit. Stella Chipasula: “He writes anywhere!” As a young bride in Zambia, Stella—who would later co-edit their collection of African women’s poetry—learned not to toss the handful of wrappers and napkins she would discover in her new husband’s pockets on washday. Says Professor Chipasula simply, “Words matter where we come from.”
Despite being included in numerous international poetry anthologies and literary biographical dictionaries, such as Contemporary Authors, The Facts on file Companion to World Poetry 1900 to the Present, and Dictionary of Literary Biography (Vol. 360): Twentieth-Century African Writers, still Chipasula avers, “I’m not even a poet yet.” Yet written in even longhand on what is essentially a scrap of paper are these extraordinary lines from “At My Wake,” for his late mother:I sat in my mother’s tear-drop, and watched as tears droppeddown her cheeks. I hid in the reedsof her eyelashes, sneaked into her forced smile as she squinted and searchedfor her lost son, behind the lost sun—not sunken, not dead, for deathis never an easy thing. [ . . . ]
Traditional song is every African child’s first exposure to poetry, what each hears strapped to her or his mother’s back. There are songs with anticolonialist themes, yes, but “we also sing love songs, of course.” Beyond the songs and poems of despair which chronicle a history of domination, Chipasula the wary exile insists on revealing more of the Malawian experience to the world. Because the land and people are also beautiful; because there is much more water in the well.
In recent years Professor Chipasula has given himself to the collection and exploration of marginalized African poetry, fiction, and art, while he edits no less than six long-completed novel manuscripts and his memoir for publication under Stella’s urging eye. A teacher of literature—his dissertation concerned Yeats’s plays—Chipasula teaches African and African American letters at SIU in addition to his own writing and research. He is wont to tell students that in order to write well, they must first read well. He grew up around books and book-making, and his book-lined study is testament to his own devotion to reading. Passionate in the classroom, he is also known to play for students recordings of the jazz or blues pieces referred to in texts, and connect readings to subjects in many other fields.
Comfortable in making of the world many compendia, Chipasula’s own work is taught in the US, Canada, Africa, Europe, and Asia as one of the serious voices in African literature. According to Chipasula, “my best teachers have been my own students from diverse cultural backgrounds, who have gone on to become professors of English and Francophone African literatures, attorneys, business people, and successful professionals in many fields.”
On the rim of memory, of a lost world, Frank Chipasula shares not only a small piece of the African Diaspora, but his hope for the future, much of which he pins on his students understanding the power of the written word.
L. A. Brown