Although the piece was just under a hundred words, it took me over an hour to write it. I sat back and smiled. Why not? I had successfully drawn on the coaching and exercises over the years on how to summarise and I was proud of the final product.
Today, there was my bio tucked at the end of the Short Writings from Bulawayo anthology.
‘Honey,’ I said holding up the anthology, ‘would you…’
‘I’m Honey today?’ my wife asked. ‘What do you want?’
‘Well, nothing. I just thought you may want to sample the anthology containing the story you helped me write. You edited the story and so no need for you to read it again. But check my bio – brilliant, even if I’m saying it myself.’
She took the anthology and read my bio. Like a parent scrutinising the school report of her poor performing child, she scowled and frowned.
‘Is this the best you could do?’ Shock and disappointment competed against each other to be the dominant tone of her voice.
‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘All these words and you don’t mention me?’
‘I did. I saved the best for the last. Read the last sentence. ‘Mzana is married and has…’’
‘Married to who?’ she flared up. ‘Any name could be slotted in there. Besides, the Bible says, ‘be the head, not the tail.’ What am I doing at the tail end of the bio? You should have started: Mzana is married to Naume who was born in…’
‘Honey, the editor gave me a maximum of a hundred words.’
‘I don’t want all of them. Just forty and you take the rest.’
The wise often advise that married men should not run to their mothers every time they disagree with their wives but I was not going to let my moment of glory pass without a family member celebrating with me. I grabbed my book and drove straight to my mother. She was staying with her sister.
‘Mother,’ I said after greetings, ‘I know you wanted me to be a pastor but I’ve done the next best thing. I’m a writer. Like a pastor, my job is mainly interacting with people. With other writers, I’ve written this anthology. You can read your son’s bio.’ I gave her the book.
‘Well done,’ Mother and Younger Mother nodded. (In Ndebele your mother’s younger sister is your Younger Mother).
She started reading but quickly threw down the book on the coffee table and took a deep breath. ‘So you think it’s more important to tell your readers where you were born and not who your mother is?’ Mother managed to remain calm but there was no doubt she was seething inside.
‘Of course it is important that readers know about you,’ I said, ‘but here I wanted to be in line with the title of the anthology. The writings are by Bulawayo people and so I wanted readers to know that that is where I was born.’
‘And not who your mother is?’ Her mouth and eyes remained wide open.
‘Younger Mother,’ I appealed, ‘help me explain to your sister how these things work.’
Younger Mother took the book and read the whole bio after which she sighed.
‘I’m afraid I agree with my sister. Son, this is what you should have written: Mzana was birthed by Margaret Mthimkhulu, nee Gama, the elder sister of Violet Khumalo. Violet was born on…’
‘Er…Younger Mother, the bio should be about me.’
‘I know. We will get to you.’
I shook my head. ‘A thousand words later? I don’t have the luxury.’
‘But you have the luxury of boasting that you were born at Mpilo Hospital?’ Mother asked.
In a flash, I knew where I had gone wrong. First, I only asked women to celebrate with me. Let’s face it, women tend to be too sentimental and at times miss the bigger picture. Secondly, I had only approached relatives. Relatives often struggle to see you as an individual. They identify with you to the extent that they can’t understand how you can achieve anything without their involvement. They then take half the credit of whatever you achieve. Finally, I had not given my would-be cheerers a chance to absorb what they had read. I demanded comments before they had taken in the beauty of my prose.
I corrected all three mistakes the following morning.
My boss was male and not a relative. The only two ancestors we shared were Adam and Eve. Anthology in hand, I was at his office before he settled down.
‘Aah!’ he exclaimed raising an eyebrow and turning over the anthology, ‘so you are an author?’
‘Well, I try,’ I said with a smile.
‘Amazing! I thought authors were intelligent people. Not that you are dull,’ he quickly added, ‘but you are not exactly the intellectual type.’
I stood up. ‘I know you are a busy man and so I suggest you just read the bio for now.’ He nodded and I left.
An hour later, he walked into my office. ‘Interesting, your bio is interesting.’ Standing, he gazed out of the window at Plumtree Road about a hundred metres away. The sound of traffic was filtering into the office.
‘Just interesting?’ I couldn’t hide my disappointment.
‘Tell me, are you ashamed of your employer?’ he asked.
‘Of course not. Whatever gave you that idea?’
‘Why then did you not squeeze in a line about your company? You could have written: ‘Mzana works for Dunlop Zimbabwe Limited’ but you chose not to.’
‘That smacks of advertising,’ I said, ‘and that’s discouraged.’
‘Point taken, you could have said you work for a leading tyre manufacturing giant situated on corner of Plumtree and Dunlop Roads.’
‘That would still be advertising.’
‘And obviously advertising your company embarrasses you.’ He paced the floor before continuing. ‘You see, for our company profile it would be nice to have an author as staff. That would show we are not just manufacturers. We have created an environment in which some of our staff members make intellectual achievements. We promote the nation’s arts. But what can we do if our staff member thinks the company’s name will soil his book?’ He shook his head and spread out his hands helplessly before striding out.
‘Is there any way one can write a bio that pleases just one person close to him?’ I later asked Jane Morris.
‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘As the anthology’s editor I gave myself 200 words for my bio. Brian (her husband) read it and was not impressed.’