By Rabhelani Mguni
In a world overshadowed by the vulnerabilities of the human heart, where conflicts unfold and narratives of war strip away the essence of being, art and literature emerge as beacons of grace and salvation. As wars rage on, literature plays a pivotal role, reminding us of our shared humanity and the pursuit of beauty amid chaos. In the deafening noise of propaganda, Rabhelani Mguni explores how literature restores the voices of victims, rulers, and neutrals, revealing the universal quest for happiness.
In a world where our delusions and weaknesses of heart render us vulnerable to the wretched state we constantly find ourselves in, art and literature have been the symbols of permanent grace and salvation loitering close by. I have seen wars start, end, pause, and continue, and I have witnessed how literature takes up the role of constantly reminding us that we still have time to redeem ourselves. In all the conflicts I have read about, witnessed, and been told about, literature has had a role in bringing the focus back to the people and the essence of being human.
In times of hopelessness and desperation, it can be difficult to see how storytelling and artwork might be of any use. Literature - in its oral and written form - looks like temporary art pieces that will be soon eclipsed out of relevance by other works of art. To perceive literature in this manner, to assume prose is temporary in meaning and poetry is just a song like all songs is to miss the very essence of literature. The message of literary works concerning conflicts does not change. Literature humanizes the parties involved and centers humanity against the political nuances of militarism. At the height of troubled times, it acts as a reassurance, promising the return of innocence and different times.
When wars happen, the raging debate over who is good and who is evil is bound to happen. The newspapers yell and print both atrocities and victories. One way or the other the press, that is news media in this instance, assumes the role of being an echo chamber for political propaganda and correctness. In all this deafening written and spoken noise, the people play the role of statistics that prove and validate the beliefs of the powerful. Death is quantified and weighted. On the global chess board, it becomes a valuable asset, and perhaps also cause, to those whose interests and profits increase with the the rising numbers of corpses. We see all this in the media, but one thing is always missing from the narratives of war: the beauty of living.
In these narratives, people affected by conflict are often stripped of the very essence of being, namely their capacity to love and live. There is little to no mention of the victims of war as people who have ordinary lives, rather, they are cast as ideological actors. This narrative is visible on both sides of the conflict. When love and ordinary livelihood are mentioned, it is only as a validation of the beliefs of the one party, and the assumption of "others" as savages. All wars have the "civilized peoples" and the "savages", no simple human being just getting by and living to the fullness. This is the narrative that runs the day.
It takes literature to remind us in all the stages of the conflict what exists on all sides: victims, rulers, and neutrals. There are humans who are all simply just on a quest to find beauty and experience the full pursuit of happiness. 'Half of A Yellow Sun' comes into mind when I think about the sanctity of literature in giving people their lives amidst the nuances of war; it is easier to conceive of the Biafran War through the carefully curated political images, rarely lives, of the leading men and the number of the dead rather than confront the rapture to the ordinary struggle to be alive and happy that the war caused. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses storytelling to give back humanity not only to the Igbo but the civilians on the other side of the conflict reminding us how, in the end, we will still be humans, but an engagement with the baser instinct of the powerful is what loses us our collective beauty of life. Writers and poets constantly and continuously gift us with works that condemn, warn, and then offer a reward for our goodness when we reject the wretched instinct of violence.
When the Israel-Palestine conflict began and the rhetoric of 'flattening Gaza', 'savages', and the emergence of anti-Semitic ideations started I went back to two poems 'Dulce Et Decorum Est' and 'What They Did Yesterday Afternoon'. The poets, Wilfred Owen and Warsan Shire, call upon all peoples to hear and see the suffering of people who are just like them in all ways, indulge us in the memory and commemoration of the sanctity of choosing peace and community, and reject the celebration of the rapturous and atrocious fruits of conflict. They, like many writers before them, remind us to be alive is to experience beauty and humanity together.
Literature makes the reader reckon with the unchanged state of the world and the present circumstances that undermine the race to an ideal society. Art and literature offer us guidance to our own salvation from this wretched state that takes away the very meaning of life. In literature, we find a promise of redemption if only we listen to the innocence that lurks in our hearts. All the drama, poetry, and prose compel us to the pursuit of happiness and complete life. The completeness of life is something that involves the freedom and comfort of all people without the desolation of that of others. In 'Native Son’ Richard Wright reminds us, the readers and the rest of the society, about the complex beauty of being alive and what the meaning of beauty and life are.
The stories told through poetry and prose render unto us the rare and sacred opportunity to indulge in investigative judgment, a continual evaluation of our lives and the ideals we seek to establish. In all the eras of our existence art and literature have been constant and steadfast in acting as mirrors from which we could appraise our lives and seek understanding on how to become and remain human. In times of conflict, we need literature and art for the raw truths about beauty and the constant presence of our salvation if we decide to choose peace. Literature and art are the Bibles for all humanity guiding us towards a paradise of harmony and joy.
About the Writer
Rabhelani Mguni is a writer and essayist from Bulawayo. He is an undergraduate Gender Studies student with Nehanda Center for Gender and Cultural Studies at the Great Zimbabwe University. His works are influenced by his interests in liberation theology, beauty, love, feminism, social justice, pacifism and storytelling. His writings have appeared in publications such as: Lolwe, Novelty Fiction Gazette (March 2022 Spring Issue), Kalahari Review, Odd Magazine and Olongo Africa.