Saturday, 20 June 2020

No 105: Beyond racism? Zimbabwe's newest fiction

Can we speak of a “new wave” of Zimbabwean fiction? Maybe I’ve just accidentally discovered the novels that have appeared recently, but 2018 seems to have been a particularly fruitful year. Notably, these are only novels internationally published and available to me; works produced within Zimbabwe are harder to obtain, including those in Shona and Ndebele. So this toe-dip is no basis for generalisation, but certain features of this batch are interesting.

Some names are new, some better established. Many have been incorporated into an intriguing little compilation by Tinashe Mushakavanhu and Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats (2018). This is an eclectic collage of grainy-chic photographs in brick-red and yellow, extracts and how-to-write homilies from Zimbabwean writers old and new, ranging from Doris Lessing to John Eppel, Yvonne Vera to Faith Nyamabuya, and dozens of others. Mushakavanhu, working out of New York and Johannesburg, has been producing other samizdat publications, too, and is set to field a re-evaluation of 1970s bad boy of literature, Dambudzo Marechera.

Marechera’s wildly talented influence on the younger set is not at all reflected in the novels I discuss here, perhaps precisely because they are ‘mainstream’, published outside Zimbabwe.  Almost all of these writers live abroad now, or have done so for long periods. I wonder how this affects how they write, and what kind of editing attention they receive. As with some slightly earlier novels, such as Panashe Chigumadzi’s Sweet Medicine, and short story collections like NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (2013) and Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory (2015), there seems to be a notional list of approved ‘national issues’ or tropes – the violent and/or unfaithful husband, the incestuous uncle, the AIDS sufferer, the lure and pressure of the transnational, the teenage pregnancy, and so on – which must be ‘ticked off’ before the closing page. Which is not to say these problems don’t exist, or that it’s not vital to probe them, or that these books aren’t good at doing so. But it does tend to make these fictions just a bit (to use a sophisticated lit.crit. term) samey.

Most interestingly, I find, is how all these novels treat racial questions and presences. Consciousness of colonialist racism and material culture is recognised as pervasive, but it’s treated with a kind of ecumenical, or perhaps multicultural touch, a decentralised inclusiveness beyond or outside the angst and aggression, victimhoodery and oversimplification characteristic of so many race exchanges in South Africa and, right now, the (Dis)United States. It’s a tone established by earlier novels like – to take just one example – Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare (2010), in which a white client of said hairdresser, a woman displaced by the farm seizures, is depicted with the same empathy as any other character. This has become easier, perhaps, where numerically whites have dwindled to a miniscule minority.

Though all these novelists are thoroughly ‘internationalised’, the only genuine ‘outsider’ is C B George. This is the closely-guarded pen name for someone said to have worked in southern Africa for some years and now living in London. He/she describes The Death of Rex Nhongo (Quercus, 2015) as a “loose-limbed thriller”. The primary crime question – who, if anyone, did kill the real-life Rex Nhongo, aka Solomon Mujuru, in 2011? – is neither really central to the novel, nor is it any more resolved than it has been in real life. (Anthropologist Joost Fontein has explored and theorised this in exhaustive detail in article in the journal Kronos.)  George’s story rather weighs in on the interlinked intimacies of five married couples, all of whom are touched one way or another by the passage of a gun which may or may not have been used in the Mujuru murder. The characters range from poor to rich, from Shona to English and African-American, from taxi-driver to Central Intelligence Organisation officer. It’s cleverly plotted and authentically observed, unfolding against the backdrop of economic collapse and Mugabe’s oppressive regime. It’s a cool outsider’s view in some ways, not allowing one’s sympathies to settle on any one character for long. It comes down particularly hard on foreigners, pretentious embassy wallahs and cushioned NGO operatives – more so than on the regime itself. Domestic dynamics are parsed more analytically than politics. Perhaps the closest it comes to the latter is the British Jerry Jones’ self-critical impulse to “reorder the inexplicable into a Western equation of coincidence, autosuggestion and psychological trauma”, making sense within “an eloquent and meaningful narrative”, such as one that “explains” Mujuru’s death. “This latter story is not Jerry’s own, but it can also be appropriated. It doesn’t matter who owns what any more: small but elaborate lies are necessary to underpin the megalithic icebergs, which necessarily remain mostly below the surface.”  A fluid and deceptive world. With the exception of odd interpolations in the voice of one small girl, whose invented ‘pidgin’ feels awkward and largely irrelevant to the plot, it’s a strong and readable novel.

A clutch of novels emanate from Bulawayo. The only one published in Zimbabwe, by the only author of this batch still resident, is the ever-prolific John Eppel’s The Boy Who Loved Camping (Weaver, 2019). It’s a more mature-audience story than it sounds, an affecting but slightly uncharacteristically bland story that was eviscerated (Eppel tells me) by his editors of his usual raunchy humour and savage satire. In its economical sweep from a 1950s childhood, through the liberation war, into a transnational later life, the protagonist Tom’s life in some respects parallels the author’s. Landing up in England, Tom experiences alienation every bit as intense as any back in liberated Zimbabwe; such alienation is not necessarily predicated on race or racism.

In contrast to Eppel, Graham Lang was born and raised in pre-independence Zimbabwe but subsequently emigrated to Australia; he now practices art in Tasmania. I’ve written elsewhere about his robust novel of the post-2000 farm seizures, Place of Birth (2006), and have belatedly caught up with his next novel, Lettah’s Gift (2011). As in the previous work, a white ex-Rhodesian returns to the country of his birth, finding a very different situation from what he remembers from his childhood. The premise is less dramatic than in Place of Birth: Frank Cole has to deliver a bequest from his deceased mother to erstwhile beloved family servant Lettah. It’s a kaleidescopic portrayal of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, very much about the self-defeating ambiguities of memory and attempted redemption. Characters ranging from the ugly, cryptic policeman Chombo to the conservative and equally dubious white farmer Brak, are portrayed with satisfying ambiguity. In both novels the protagonists’ emigrĂ© status (reflecting the author’s own) enables rather more robust, not to say embittered, critiques of both colonial and present governmental abuses than we find in most other fictions.

Modern Bulawayo is depicted from a different angle by Sue Nyathi, who was raised and educated there (Eppel was one of her teachers). Her first novel, The Polygamist, which I haven’t read, has been described as “pulp”. The Gold-diggers (Pan Macmillan, 2018) is a cut above that, I think, though the romantic and action bits do drift towards the Mills & Boon end of the stylistic spectrum. The sentences are short and texturally ordinary, digestible as Smarties. It’s interestingly premised, however, on the passengers of a single minibus trip, whose varied careers, unfolding between Bulawayo and Johannesburg, crisscross through the novel. There’s some rich detail of both cities, and a strand of biting critique of the metaphorical “gold-diggers”, the venal and the shameless profiteers of contemporary society, trailing misery, success and deprivation in equal measure.

The minibus driver’s family was slaughtered  in the 1980s massacres of Ndebele civilians known as Gukurahundi. Gukurahundi, overlaying the effects of colonialism and civil war, haunts all these novels, complexly integrated with the backdrop of post-independence misgovernance, hyperinflation, electricity and water shortages, and so on. But the focus is rather on domestic and family affairs, on individual fortunes as the characters swim through modernity.  Little overt judgement is passed either on past racism or present ills: not that critique is absent, but both aspects seem to just take their place amongst many cultural issues that must be negotiated.

At the foot of the cover of Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s intriguingly-titled The Theory of Flight (Penguin, 2018) appear  two hands, one dark-skinned, one pale. This reflects the (excuse the phrase) even-handed fashion in which race is (ditto) handled. There is so-called miscegenation, and mixtures of generosity and meanness on all sides. Postcolonial anxieties persist, to be sure, but politics is deliberately displaced into the realm of the everyday: “Real revolutions happen on farms, in workshops, in garages and in basements, usually in the middle of nowhere, propelled simply by the need to realise a dream.” The central dream here is one character’s quixotic desire to build an aeroplane and fly. This first novel won the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize in 2019, the judges charmed, I imagine, by its injection of South American-style magic realism, its sly humour, and the clever interlacing of its sundry characters’ lives. As with The Gold-diggers, perhaps too many characters: the eye and the empathy can’t settle, and it feels as if Ndlovu is aiming for an epic reach on too small a canvas. Underlying grimness is rather defanged by the arch levity of the delivery and a somewhat irresolute plot. Still, an enjoyable read from a writer who, one hopes, will continue to take flight.

Another promising debut novel, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone (Atlantic Books, 2018) shows some similarities. It’s also set in Bulawayo, and also revolves largely around a disappearance during Gukurahundi. There is another white man fathering himself upon black women, muddying the racial waters. There is a similar panoply of characters, and a plot which spirals repeatedly and fragmentarily through past and present. This is very mod, and might at a stretch be said to reflect the shattered national consciousness, but this old man wonders: Whatever happened to telling a good old story from A to B? In this case, some potential suspense is lost, with characters still chewing over questions already answered a hundred pages earlier. Tshuma’s tone is more sombre than Ndlovu’s, her critiques of both colonialism and post-independence misgovernance a bit sharper. Tshuma writes, not very originally but succinctly: “The past was an overpowering presence, too present and not past, as it should have been, cannibalizing our present, mutating our future.” Yet the writing itself seems to have moved beyond such entrapment, even if the future looks less than rosy. House of Stone is a substantial piece, no question, but I wonder if any novel could live up to the overweening hype the PR machine has generated. If Tshuma gets better, as she well might, there will be no adjectives, because the superlatives have all been used up. Not to mention the rather self-congratulatory introduction and interview included in this edition. This kind of thing does young writers few favours, in my view.

Tsitsi Dangarembga isn’t exactly new on the block: her rightly acclaimed first novel, Nervous Conditions, was published way back in 1987. After pursuing a career in film production, she eventually followed up with The Book of Not, which took the life of the first novel’s protagonist, Tambudzai Sigauke, into adulthood. Now, Dangarembga extends this fictional biography into a third novel, This Mournable Body (Jacana, 2018). We follow the tribulations of Tambu and her extended family into her early middle age under Mugabe’s regime, with its perpetual undercurrents of neglect, corruption and patronage, electricity and fuel shortages, and disruptive farm seizures. It’s generally indeed a mournful and mournable situation as Tambu flounders between jobs in an ad agency, teaching, and tourism business, collapsing more than once into near-psychotic breakdown – another ‘nervous condition’ meant slyly, perhaps, to reflect the muddled breakdown of the country in general. As in the other novels I discuss here, direct and overt critique of the government is avoided: I don’t think Mugabe himself is mentioned once. We still await, as far as I know, a substantial novel that really gets at the core of that regime with forensic courage.

Neither The Book of Not nor This Mournable Body quite match up to the sharpness of postcolonial critique and psychological focus of Nervous Conditions, and the first half of Mournable feels distinctly meandering. Instead of the conventional first- or third-person narration, Dangarembga has chosen the rarely-used second person “you” – as if Tambu is speaking to herself as an other. It takes some getting used to, but eventually seems appropriate to Tambu’s self-suffocating inner disjunctions: the passages describing her hallucinatory breakdown are I think the most arresting in the book. There are other moments of brilliance, too: she describes Tambu’s mother’s gnarled joints as “thick as bulbs ready for planting”; “the tongues of discoloured tennis shoes loll forward as though from a throat”.  Postcolonial racial issues are present – the older generation critiques Tambu’s dodgy acquisition of “Englishness”, making her potentially “nothing but a foreigner visiting”; her tourism boss is a white school contemporary; her cousin Nyasha has married an edgy German; the echoes of white rule and culture pervade society, variously accepted, adapted, and resisted. But the racial aspects are again just one of many ambient problems, neither more nor less remarkable than many others, neither ignored nor centralised. All this is particularly fascinating in the context of the world-wide post-George Floyd anti-racism protests; it’s as if Zimbabwe, while in some ways regressing to forms of medieval warlordism and impoverishment, shot through with threads of techno-modernity, has already moved past all that; as if, persistent cultural ambiguities notwithstanding, a certain egalitarianism has been achieved – one all might aspire to.

All the above novels suffer, if that’s the word, from a certain issues-driven studiousness, a constraint reflected in the mode of social realism. Forays beyond this mirror-of-society style remain rare. But one writer who is proving more adventurous is Petina Gappah. She exhibited considerable deftness in her earlier collections of short stories, The Book of Memory (2015) and Rotten Row (2016). She showed herself capable, for instance, of thinking her way, not without empathy, into the headspace and argot of Rhodesia’s last white hangman. Now she has published a novel which she regards as the culmination of her writing career: Out of Darkness, Shining Light (Faber, 2019). This is narrated from the points of view of two of the 69 people, almost all Africans, who chose to transport David Livingstone’s decayed remains from Ujiji, where he had died, to the East African coast, a gruelling trek, so that he could be taken home to England to be buried. It’s in any view an instance of extraordinary cross-racial loyalty and self-sacrifice for a personage often regarded as a harbinger of colonialism, despite his antipathy to the slave-trade. Gappah imagines into the light the personalities, struggles and arguments of the bearers themselves, otherwise all but lost to history. She deploys an English-language voice for her Zanzibari main narrator Halima which, if just occasionally too derivative of the Cockney “innit”, the Ulster “so it was”, and other ‘working-class’ quirks, is innovative and convincing. The characters are vivacious and complex, the background research self-evidently intensive, the implicit critiques razor-edged but even-handed, the language bewitchingly rich, as this opening paragraph shows:

It is strange, is it not, how the things you know will happen do not ever happen the way you think they will happen when they do happen? On the morning that we found him, I was woken by a dream of cloves. The familiar, sweetly cloying smell came so abruptly to my nose that I might have been back at the spice market in Zanzibar, a slim-limbed girl again, supposedly learning how to pick out the best for the Liwali’s kitchen, but really standing first on one leg, then the other, and my mother saying, but, Halima, you don’t listen, which was true because I was paying more attention to the sounds of the day – the call of the muezzin, the cries of the auctioneers at the slave market, the donkeys braying in protest, the packs of dogs snarling over the corpses of slaves outside the customs house, and the screeching laughter of children.

That sets up the story with beautiful economy. And it’s refreshing to find a Zimbabwean taking other parts of the globe as her creative stamping-ground, beyond the generally claustrophobic preoccupation with ‘being Zimbabwean’, without necessarily abandoning relevant themes.  

There may be something in Tinashe Mushakavanhu’s observation that much Zimbabwean writing remains insufficiently “introspective”.  And it would be naive, of course, to hope that racism is, or ever will be, somehow eradicated. Yet the confident, well-read intelligence of all this writing in itself seems to me to indicate a move beyond the conventional, the sloganeering obsession with racism, into a more secure and nuanced sense of selfhood, even as the future is depicted as still mired in uncertainty.


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