The new short story anthology by Weaver Press, Women Writing Zimbabwe, delivers the high quality readers have come to associate with the publisher’s products. It contains fifteen stories by fifteen strong female voices of Zimbabwean literature. When I recieved the book last week, I was in the middle of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Selected Poems of Derek Walcott, but I have since set the two Nobels aside for an adventure into the rich terrain of the newest Weaver stories.
So far, I have read Zvisinei Sandi’s “In Memory of the Nose Brigade”, Petina Gappah’s “In the Heart of the Golden Triangle”, Valerie Tagwira’s “Mainini Grace’s Promise”, Pat Brickhill’s “Senzeni’s Nativity”, Sarah Manyika’s “Mr Wonder”, and Rumbi Katedza’s “Snowflakes in Winter”. Sandi’s story would bring back memories to anyone who remembers the USA/UBA days at the University of Zimbabwe in its satirization of the life of the Nose Brigades versus the SRB (Strong/Severe Rural Background) girls on campus. I wasn’t involved in much campus social life as a student at the UZ, but I remember the conficting values of those students who considered themselves worldly with those who oozed a certain too-rural aura, two camps that tended not to mix, except around exam time, when study groups were formed to balance out potential (some SRB’s tended to be useful resources at such times), but this is just the surface of what the story really deals with: in its simplicity, it exposes the false sense of security, hence the deep-set insecurities of girls who considered themselves more important than the rural grade. Sandi does a good job of exposing some of the superficialities of the Nose Brigades in their efforts to act different and superior–the SRB’s get the last laugh.
Gappah, wow, what a narrator she can create, sharp like a razor and still managing to make you laugh while your heart bleeds. She experiments with the second person narrative point of view, giving the narrator an intrusive quality, much like a violation of your readerly space, because the story she tells could easily sound like your story, then you become aware of the gender differences between you and the narrator and you understand the protagonist as a person who could easily be your sister, niece, aunt. In a humorous way, Gappah exposes the deterioration of family relationships in the context wealth, where the wife knows of the husband’s extra-marital affairs, but her main concern is that he better carry condoms around in order not to bring the dreaded diseases home. The “small house” (that is, the mistress) ,no, that does not bother her that much, and even if it did, she met this man as his mistress, so then she focuses on enjoying the wealth.
This theme of wealth and the deterioration of morality is also the focus of Manyika’s story, whose narrator is satirical in her indictment of the moral decay. “Mr Wonder” starts in Avondale, Harare, and takes us to San Francisco (familiar terrain: Golden Gate Park, twenty-hour fitness) and back to Harare. Through some emotional and marital blackmail, the wife is able to make the husband purchase her an American vacation. Of course, that works for him since he will have all the time to meet new women back home, while the wife in the USA flirts with young, handsome males. Meanwhile, the family driver who is made to accompany her discovers that he can use his religion to raise money as an African guru. When he is about to settle in a San Francisco of dollars, the family returns to Zimbabwe, and his dreams are derailed. The story returns to Zimbabwe too soon, and too playfully, but the reader is required to fill in the gaps. I would have wanted to see more of San Francisco, perhaps the woman actually getting in an affair that works, creating a “small house” of her own. Still, the linguistic acrobatics of the story and the richness of the implied possibilities make this story worth investing fitfteen minutes in reading it.
Pat Brickhill’s story was at first frustratingly slow and nearly pointless, until I realized that these distinct qualities are the source of its strength. It is not deceptively simple; it is different, focused on giving ordinary details about ordinary characters doing ordinary things. It pulls you in with its opening: “Parched roadside, grass, crackling leaves.” Then we are taken to a village, where, it seems, the narrator is intent on showing everything she sees on the terrain and the lifestyle of the villagers, until hers becomes cute story about caring and loving, the desire to raise and care for a child. Oh, when you see that it celebrates life for life’s sake, you want to read on, and before you know it, the story is beginning to interest you, even though you remember that you wanted to stop reading it on page two. By the time you finish you want to defend your rationale for having spent nearly thirty minutes reading it, but now you are holding a new baby with the characters. Who would dare say that’s a bad thing? Life portrayed; life celebrated.
I first read Tagwira’s story when it first came out on African Writing Online, and I remember its shocking ending. It is the kind of story you read and you become really upset. I can see it causing some to cry. The Mainini’s sin in this story is her state of victimization, and to Sarai, the niece, Mainini cannot be a victim of HIV/AIDS, a kind of how-dare-you turn of events. Her promise was to continue taking care of the orphaned Sarai and her siblings. Tagwira is a true advocate of the impoverished and AIDS-stricken, a voice of the disadvantaged.
Rumbi Katedza’s “Snowflakes in Winter” is the story of Zimbabwe’s Diaspora, exposing the lives of Zimbabweans away from home. After the story takes the reader through the challenges of life away from home, the assault on cultural values that can easily happen, the restlessness and the confusion, it ends by emphacising the importance of family. Like most of the other stories, it has an element of humor that’s almost unbelievable given the circumstances the characters are in.
That’s what makes Zimbabwean literature breathtaking, that while it may send you to tears, some of those tears might just the creeping in of joy, when one feels the tug of hope even where hope seems impossible. This is a book of diverse stories that demonstrate to the reader that the fictional characters coming out troubled Zimbabwe have much to teach the world about endurance, impossible joy, and hope.