Book: Writing Still New stories from Zimbabwe
Editor: Irene Staunton
Genre: Anthology of short stories
Publisher: Weaver Press 2003
There are 24 stories in this small volume, representing a wide range of experiences of Zimbabwe. Most of the 24 authors have been published before, and some of the names associated with Zimbabwe literature in English are there, such as Shimmer Chinodya, Yvonne Vera, Charles Mungoshi and Stanley Nyamufudza. Names associated with liberation struggle writing like Freedom Nyamubaya and Alexander Kanengoni are also there. Still, this is new writing, writing about the post independence era.
There are also a few writers who are originally from somewhere else: Canada, Northern Ireland, England and South Africa, not from Zimbabwe. They have made Zimbabwe their home and present a facet of Zimbabwe. I raise this because recently Henry Olonga was the subject of nothing short of a diatribe because of the ‘authenticity’ of his Zimbabwean identity. We have never had a slogan like ‘Zimbabwe belongs to those who live in it’ as the South Africans had for their struggle. The result has been that if one is not a thoroughbred Shona [is there such a thing?] you are just as likely to be considered foreign as someone arriving on a plane today. The trauma that Zimbabweans with ‘otherness’, be it Malawian, Zambian, Mozambican, South African, British etc have had to go through to defend their identities I hope will be the subject of future writings.
The styles are very different. There is the very racy writing of Brian Chikwava (Seventh Street Alchemy) describing life and life-style in ‘the Avenues’, to the very calm and story telling style of Chiedza Musengezi (Mukoma Amos). That is the beauty of short story anthologies. You get the varied spirit that is the country. Brian Chikwava won the UK-based Caine Prize for African Writing in 2004, for the story in this collection.
One story is ‘Maria’s Interview’ by Julius Chingono, whose published prose is mostly in Shona. It is about how a young girl of 18 yrs, goes for a job interview as a domestic. She is humiliated; if you have colour or tribal consciousness you would say, by one of her own. Shimmer Chinodya tells a complex story ‘Queues’ in which the main events are around petrol queues. Woven in that is how the history of Zimbabwe leads to the present state of affairs while inserting his thoughts of his affair with Rudo. Is his personal life also a bit of a queue, or queue jumping? Julius Chingono I had not read before and was moved to find out more about him. What I did find out was surprising. Poetry International (www.poetryinternational.org), on their website, have two diaries, each a week long of his life. A ‘week in the life of’ in Zim could make great theatre. One does not need a political soapbox.
Most of the stories are written in the first person. This lends them an autobiographical realism, and confronts some difficult issues honestly: like becoming aware of ones self identitification (Alexander Fuller), or realising that a ‘white farmer’ is a just person, like his own father, not a stereotype (Alexander Kanengoni), post natal depression (Yvonne Vera), bitter memories of being in the ‘camps’ (Freedom Nyamubaya), a child dying and family unable to help (Nevanji Madanhire), having someone with a disability in the family (Chiedza Musengezi). Kanengini’s position I find very interesting. He is praised very highly for his stories and novels about the liberation struggle, often presented as the ruling party writer, that he can talk without political party ranting from ‘the other side’ as it were. His story ‘His ugly reflection in the mirror’ is of a conversation he has with a ‘white commercial farmer’ [as comrade Chino would say] in the middle of a bean field on land that used to ‘belong’ to the farmer. He has been allocated it now. The farmer comes to talk, immediately the writer’s hackles are up, from previous experience with other white farmers, he is ready for a defensive parry. A bit like a mime doing an invisible glass act. He realises that this farmer has some understanding and sympathy for the land ‘reform’, but finds he is unable to reciprocate the gesture. All he can do is dig into the past of wrongs done. As the figure retreats he realises that this ‘white commercial farmer’ is just a person, ‘how like my late father he looks.’ I found myself reflecting on the depth of how antipathetic we must seem: from ‘black / white’, ‘Shona / Ndebele’ in the sixties and before, ‘ZANU / ZAPU’ in the seventies and eighties, ‘If you are not with us, you are against us’ Zvobgo said. Empathy is at the heart of being human.
The book starts with a story ‘Universal Remedy’ by Pat Brickhill. She is ‘nurtured’ by a woman who walks into her life one day and ends up keeping garden for. When she herself ends up leaving Zimbabwe for Britain, she ends up gardening too to anchor herself. A story that struck a cord when I heard that somebody’s ambuya, on coming to the UK, wanted a proper ‘badza’ to work the allotments or else she would rather go back to Zimbabwe. While I read this I was thinking of those Zimbabweans in the UK with allotments or farms. To be seen on the farmers’ market circuit in Sussex is a Zimbabwean woman who has been farming in the area for many years. At the Zimfest 2004 was a family selling meilies they grow on their own land in England. The story of the land is continued in ‘Maize’ about a woman who gets resettled on a farm alone. This is by Memory Chirere. He is in the Department of English at UZ. Memory is a more robust defender of the land ‘reform’ than is Kanengoni. His story is not rooted in context. This woman is just there on this land on her own, how she got there with nothing is taken as given. She then has to deal with this man who keeps turning up; again there are no reference points. She looks after him when he turns up unconscious. They end up living together. If there ever was ‘social engineering’ then this is it. Dr Horace Campbell, a professor of African American studies and political science at Syracuse University, presented a scathing critique of President Robert Mugabe’s government in ‘The Black Commentator’, a web based African American magazine. Memory Chirere’s response was a spasm of invectives not befitting the dignity of a writer. Read it for yourself: http://www.blackcommentator.com/58/58.html .
The stories are beautiful. They evoked for many memories of my own experience. Short stories have that nature. Not being novels, where the whole fabric of the story is built for you, short stories are made special by what you the reader brings to them. The reader is part of the creative process. Because they are short the whole fruit is consumed at once but digested in the mind over a long period, someone has said. It was like that when I thought of the widows at the village when I was growing up who relied on relatives around them to help them work the land, when the woman in the story is alone because she is now resettled on a farm. You can see it (kurima nechibhakera). Then there is the child with polio. As a child there was a boy with epilepsy growing up our village. No one seemed to know what to do with him. His parents loved him very much. But as his convulsions became more frequent he became less manageable and suffered mentally. He would often wonder off and had the whole village after him. Eventually he was kept tied to the mango tree in the middle of the yard. My memory of him is of him sitting, drooling saliva with flies buzzing around him and a long tethering rope from his ankle to the base of the tree. Whereas Chiedza Musengezi’s story ends happily, sadly mine did not. The inspiring part of this story is that there was a time when we would believe [and still do with a certain mind set], that ‘this treatment is not available here’. The current world order does not accept that. Recently, conjoint twins from a rural area in Zimbabwe were separated in Canada. People travel the world for medical treatment. With a certain world view, why not? The other argument, not the reverse, is why not bring that home? The knowledge is there.
I enjoyed this little book immensely and feel a little sad that it is not on the bookshelf at my local bookstore for other people to read it well, to see another Zimbabwe, a Zimbabwe of the imagination. It has been reviewed widely in professional circles. Really, for the ordinary Zimbabwean reader, it holds up a mirror of the kind of people we really are. See it for yourself.
published in The Zimbabwean
22 – 28th July 2005