Exiled poet talks about the power of words, responsibility of writing

Human rights activist, intellectual, author and Zimbabwean poet Chenjerai Hove gave a lecture Oct. 28, “Exile And Patronage: Making Art In Cities of Refuge,” in which he spoke about the curses and blessings of exile. An exile living in Norway, the talk was just one of multiple stops on Hove’s speaking and engagement tour of Miami.

The lecture was hosted by the FIU Center for the Humanities in an Urban Environment, Besty-South Beach and Exile Studies Program in the Department of English. It is the third event in the “Exile, the Arts and Patronage” lecture series launched in Spring 2013.

Chenjerai Hove, Zimbabwean human rights activist, author and intellectual, addressed the FIU and local communities.

“One single line of poetry can cause an entire revolution,” says Chenjerai Hove, who spoke at FIU Oct. 28 and will lead a panel discussion at FIU Wednesday, Oct. 30.

Hove recounted how his very first experience with exile came at 2 years of age when his oldest sister, Agnes,  was “sent into exile.” Hove’s father had offered Agnes as a wife to a man who was old enough to be her grandfather — a practice that still is common in Zimbabwe. Hove’s mother and aunt sold all their valuables and worked feverishly to send Agnes off to a different part of the country to escape being married off. Hove wouldn’t learn of  his sister’s whereabouts until almost 20 years later.

“I learned about exile in a very interesting way,” Hove said. “Agnes was my best friend. She would take care of me when my mother worked and always carried me on her hip. She practically raised me. She would tell me stories about birds and animals and would sing to me. All of a sudden, she wasn’t there. My mother refused to tell me what happened. So, it was as if she had died.”

Hove went on to discuss the importance of language and geography in the formation of identity. According to Hove, where you are born — your geography — is the place where you first hear the sound of another human voice, of birds signing, of the wind blowing. It is also the place where the colors you begin to know first come into your eyes.

“That’s an immense part of our identity we take for granted,” Hove said.

Language is a crucial part of our personal and collective identity. According to Hove, it is the instrument through which we name, dominate and own things — language is about power. Language gives humans the capacity to name themselves and name their future.

“If you can’t name and individualize yourself, you’re totally annihilated from the face of the earth. If you can’t name yourself, you won’t know yourself — you’re a stranger to yourself. If you can’t name yourself then you can’t name your destiny.”

Drawing upon the time-honored saying “The pen is mightier than the sword,” Hove reminded writers of their responsibilities to themselves and to their community.

“In Africa, the politicians will shoot you for writing things they don’t agree with. They try to occupy your mind — your imagination and creativity. That’s when conflict arises,” Hove said. “It’s the responsibility of each writer to search for the possibilities of life. Writers and artists aren’t the only ones with a monopoly on what is said and created in a public forum. Others are entitled to participate in the public dialogue. So [writers and artists] have a responsibility to make sure others are heard when they can’t speak for themselves.

“Sometimes, writers can be dangerously naive. One single line of poetry can cause an entire revolution,” he continued. “If you believe in the power of words, in the power of language to own and control, you need to acknowledge its fragility too. Words are like an egg. In all their power, they are also fragile.”

In 2001, Hove was forced to leave his homeland under the threat of death from the regime of President Robert Mugabe. A fierce opponent of the white-minority rule, Mugabe assumed office as president in 1987. His policies have increasingly elicited domestic and international denunciation. Detractors blame him for the country’s economic freefall, rigged political elections and involvement in foreign conflict; they also denounce his policies as racist against Zimbabwe’s white minority, unfavorable toward homosexuals, and corrupt and brutally repressive.

“Some people say ‘Home Sweet Home,’ but I say ‘Homeless Sweet Home,'” Hove said. “You don’t realize the importance of home until you have left. You’ll only know how beautiful your country is until you’ve left it.”

Hove will also lead a panel discussion on key issues in exile studies titled “Exile, the Humanities and Globalization” Wednesday, Oct. 30, in Green Library (GL) 220. It is scheduled for 4 p.m. and is free and open to the public. The event is co-sponsored by the FIU African & African Diaspora Studies Program.