Saturday, July 4, 2009

Dancing with Life: Tales from the Township

Christopher Mlalazi

Published by 'amaBooks of Bulawayo  2008
ISBN 978-0-7974-3590-2

Dancing with Life is a collection of short stories by Christopher Mlalazi. He has had stories published in anthologies inside and outside Zimbabwe, but this is his first collection. Mlalazi himself dwells in one of the townships he so convincingly brings to vibrant life in his writing. Dancing with Life was featured book of the month for August 2008 on the African Books Collective Website, and the cover of the book is that of the cover of the African Books Collective catalogue for 2008. Dancing with Life won the 2009 Zimbabwe National Arts Merit Award for Outstanding First Published Creative Book. 

'Mlalazi is an important author whose work should be found in all serious collections of contemporary African literature. In addition, here is a title to be added to collections designed to inform readers of contemporary life in Africa through fiction writing.'

Paul H. Thomas, Hoover Institution

 ‘Christopher Mlalazi may well be the most promising younger writer in Zimbabwe today. His fiction captures the edgy energy of townships where young people have learned to be light on their feet, their dancing born of economic necessity and mocking disrespect for traditional authority. Mlalazi depicts contemporary life in Zimbabwe with an uncompromising determination to explore grievous social wounds and with a creative panache that will win him readers within and beyond his home country.’

Patricia Alden, Professor of African Literature, St. Lawrence University, USA 

 ‘Christopher Mlalazi is the rising voice of the ghetto, with all its violence, sharp anger, bitter protestations and tangible promise of a better tomorrow.’

Raisedon Baya, Writer and Columnist 

‘In this debut story collection, Christopher Mlalazi has achieved every writer’s dream:  he has written the stories of perfectly ordinary people in a way that makes their experiences universal. This collection sparkles with wit, sizzles with style and dances with life. It is a welcome addition to Zimbabwe’s growing canon and will be read and enjoyed for years to come.’

 Petina Gappah, Writer


Review from the African Book Publishing Record XXXV, no.1 2009

by Paul H. Thomas, Hoover Institution

The author of this collection of short stories hails from Zimbabwe where he is well-known as a poet, playwright and writer. His plays have been performed throughout Zimbabwe and he is also beginning to work on dramas for television. His writings have been published in several local and international short story anthologies, including Short Writings from Bulawayo III (Bulawayo: ‘amaBooks, 2006) (Caine Prize 2006 Anthology). For all of those who enjoy his writings and want to read more, his blog may be of interest.   

The stories found in Dancing with Life are easily read, entertaining and often filled with both sadness and humour. Although quite entertaining, their underlying value lies in the way in which Mlalazi reflects life in contemporary Zimbabwe, especially in the townships (although neither Zimbabwe itself nor any recognizable politician or person is ever specifically named).  It is not a pretty picture. Political corruption, stultifying poverty, family and societal breakdown, and violence, as day to day realities are the underlying themes of these stories.  There is anger and hopelessness (as well as joy and hope) all on display here in the way Zimbabweans living in the townships, but especially the youth, see their lives affected, diminished. We read these stories and cannot help but feel that people should not have to find themselves facing such a world, and we wonder how they can cope with all the vicissitudes they face.

Mlalazi is an important author whose work should be found in all serious collections of contemporary African literature. In addition, here is a title to be added to collections designed to inform readers of contemporary life in Africa through fiction writing.


Review from Words Etc June 2009

by Dan Wylie, Rhodes University

 This collection of eleven “tales from the township” extends what has become something of a tradition in post- independence Zimbabwean writing: vignettes of urban life, generally of the deprived classes, which focus on individual lives in the midst of economic decline and state terrorism. It’s a genre that seems to exist in the cracks between public imageries, to want to be a little inconspicuous. While generally avoiding overt political critique, these snapshots of the often shattered lives of township denizens nevertheless show the marks of political abuse in every daily transaction.

Christopher Mlalazi’s collection is like this, too. The stories vary between twenty and two pages, the characters are generally dislocated, their dilemmas torn between scratching out a living and pursuing relationships in an environment where families have collapsed, infidelity is endemic, and traditional spiritual beliefs persist into modern fragmentation. Some of the stories might be termed social realist; a couple are livelier in venturing into imaginative satire. At its best, this bites strongly.

In “Matchstick Man” the eponymous protagonist lights the fires of resistance to the state: “They beat the fire with acid statements in the state media. They tear gassed it, set police dogs on it, truncheoned it, shot at it, and, finally, the two lions subdued it at the palace door. They put it in a straitjacket, raked its face with their sharp claws, drawing blood, then carried it away still struggling to an unnamed grave deep in the sacred forest behind the palace, in which, it was rumoured, resided the maimed spirits of silencing.”

Another satirical squib, “Election Day”, lampoons an unnamed dictator’s terror of losing an election; while it’s quite funny, it relies on a fairly crude twist in the tail. Another brief vignette, “The Bulldozers are Coming”, is set against the background of Murambatsvina (Operation Clean-Up), like Valerie Tagwira’s recent novel, The Uncertainty of Hope. It portrays one woman’s personal tragedy as the direct result of government oppression, which is of course quite legitimate, even necessary, but it sacrifices complex individuality and characterisation for making its blunt point.

Mlalazi’s prose is generally serviceable rather than inventive. The undeniable courage of societal and political critique – in Mlalazi’s case from an occasionally explicitly Ndebele viewpoint – is pervasive, but falls short of a far-reaching historical density, and of ever daring to actually name the ultimate culprits: Mugabe and his party henchmen. This work is still a little shy, a little fearful of retribution, a little unambitious in its scope. Still, it is also not just about politics, but centrally about the tangled lives of ordinary people.

That said, Mlalazi has extended himself further than many of his contemporaries, and observed his world sharply. One looks forward to more writing from this new talent. 


 Review from The Zimbabwean March 7 2009

by Beaven Tapureta

Reading Dancing with Life is like walking on a suspended tightrope, arms of the mind spread apart so as not to lose equilibrium, looking down on Mlalazi’s characters as they struggle to survive in today’s Zimbabwe.

You certainly don’t want to fall into their lives, but you are transported right into the township.

As you finish the first story, Broken Wings, you can’t help the tears forming in your eyes. Nozitha the teenage caregiver suffers right in front of you. She collects the family ration of food aid and takes care of her mother and grandmother who are both AIDS victims. Her grandfather Siziba is too weak to help himself. Abisha, a food aid worker, as if he cares, asks, “Where is God then? Tell me, you who believe, when people as young as this girl have to suffer like this.”

But, he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing - he rapes Nozitha, after tempting her with a bottle of cooking oil that she would already have received had Sibiya, the village’s party supremo, not demanded from Nozitha her grandfather’s ruling party membership card, which she did not have with her. As a girl child exposed to the vagaries of politicized food aid and hypocrisy, Nozitha embodies, frighteningly, the suffering of Zimbabwe’s women.  AIDS has come to devour all, directly or indirectly, and now left are only too many Nozithas, just too many ‘mothers of enemies’, orphans of the endless war.

Election Day satirically exposes a leader who seems rash. Instead of accepting advice from his personal advisor about what was happening outside, His Excellency says to him, “Now, let me give you some free advice, my personal advisor. Your assessment of the povo is very wrong, just like judging the sweetness of an orange by its skin or that of a woman by the shape of her hips.” But, come Election Day, the household of His Excellency is in panic. Knowing that her husband’s fate will also be her own, Modi thinks of sneaking to “the coffee plantation in South America or the castle in Belgium.” But in a twist of the plot, the ‘impossible’ happens; Modi’s husband wins the election.

The Border Jumper illustrates vividly what happens when there is strife and people are disillusioned, made to believe that nothing good will ever come from their own land. Zenzo and Vusa represent the shattered dreams of young people crossing to South Africa through illegal means, despite the crocodiles in the Limpopo, the patrolling police and the demanding ‘guides’, hoping to find new hope on the other side of the border. Mbedzi, who guides the illegal migrants, knows why he must play his part. He prays to the departed spirits to “also grant them a safe haven from the poverty they are fleeing.”

One of the unforgettable episodes in recent Zimbabwe history, Operation Murambatsvina, or Operation Clean Up, is featured in The Bulldozers Are Coming. As always, it is the women who carry the brunt of the suffering and pain. Left alone at home, her husband far away, the woman in the story is confronted with a moment of indecision. The bulldozers will not be lenient, she has to act fast. Even the old woman next door has already started to pull the roof down on her own to try to save her few possessions. Here, the author shows a world ruined, a place of misery.

The title story, Dancing with Life, pictures the life of Mxolisi, representative of the many disillusioned, unemployed ex-university students in Zimbabwe. At 21, Mxolisi chain smokes marijuana, and plays hide and seek with the police. He knows that it is the economic meltdown that has put him in this jam, forcing him to dance with life.

Mlalazi’s writing is particularly outstanding when he uses humour to tackle serious themes, such as in the stories Eeish!, When The Fish Caught Him, A Heart in My Hole and Fragments. In Eeish! Ndla lives through his father’s drunkenness and his memory of witnessing his mother’s infidelity. He befriends a white soldier in the Zimbabwean army, Craig, who moves into the township. Craig encourages him to join the army or the National Youth Service. Ndla is unimpressed: “And throw stones at the white farmers while the children of chiefs get premature potbellies at Fort Hare University?”

The story titled The Matchstick Man is allegorical and complex, with the Matchstick Man fighting for his freedom from the ‘granite bull’, ‘lions in diamond-studded leather collars’, ‘cockroaches carrying AK47 rifles’ and ‘obese gun-toting rats’. Matchstick Man is a rebel. When the fire engine is sent to put out Matchstick Man’s fire, he responds, “Where is the fire? For I do not see it.” And he is told, “It’s in your crazy head!”

Dancing With Life engages the mind, ruffles it, and uses the language of today’s Zimbabwe, township life booming with crime, prostitution, joy, misery, and naked political falsehoods. 



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