The social landscape in Zimbabwe today is so riven by the predatory violence of the powerful that even the simplest of civic or communal or familial activities seems endangered. The appearance of any literature at all in such a context seems miraculous. Yet the fact is that Zimbabwean literature has gained impressive critical mass over the course of the past two decades. Such authors as Chenjerai Hove, Shimmer Chinodya and the recently deceased Yvonne Vera have garnered international acclaim for their harrowing commentaries on the human costs of the ‘war of liberation’ that eventually ended white-minority rule in Zimbabwe in 1980, and, increasingly more important, on the brutality and social devastation of Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship during the 1990s and the current decade. The concern has been to ensure that a counter-memory of what has happened survives – that, in limit cases, the truth is not buried along with the bodies of those murdered by the government forces. The focus of the writing has tended to fall on what lies on the ‘other side’ of the silence enforced by state domination. This is not a ‘political’ writing in the conventional sense, but a writing whose politicality has to be measured with reference to the contamination and poisoning of the sphere of the political in the order presided over by Mugabe.
The two volumes under review here spring from the Intwasa (Spring) Arts Festival that has been held in the SiNdebele-speaking city of Bulawayo each September since 2005. The Festival has always sought the participation of writers from outside Zimbabwe – and the work of several of these, among them Véronique Tadjo, the highly regarded novelist from Côte D’Ivoire, and the Britons Owen Sheers and Joelle Taylor, is included in the two collections. (One presumes that the presence of these consecrated and institutionally well-connected contributors from outside Zimbabwe helps to ensure that Mugabe’s dead hand is kept off the proceedings, lending them a degree of autonomy that might not have been permitted otherwise.) The Zimbabwean authors themselves whose work is featured include such established and regionally (if not quite internationally) well known figures as Julius Chingono, Chirikure Chirikure, John Eppel, and Albert Nyathi, as well as two of the most exciting of the emergent writers from the country, the London-based Brian Chikwava (winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2004, and whose first novel, Harare North, has just been published, by Jonathan Cape, to uniformly enthusiastic reviews), and the Geneva-based Petina Gappah, whose 2009 short-story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, published by Faber, has received very favourable notices, and whose first novel, The Book of Memory, is eagerly awaited).
Both the poetry and the short-fiction disclose the saturating effect of the social crisis in Zimbabwe. Content and form alike are subject to heteronomous determination. The poem that opens Intwasa Poetry, Julius Chingono’s ‘About words’, establishes immediately not so much that what one says can get one into trouble, but rather that, in the prevailing context, words have the dense materiality of goods: they can ‘slip’ or ‘slide away’, potentially wounding their users or their receivers: ‘Handle with care/this side up/contains words/Stand well away/falling words/when mouths open’. By the same token, casual recitation in the first of the short-stories anthologised in Long Time Coming, Sandisile Tshuma’s ‘Arrested Development’, quickly introduces us to the mind-set that one needs to adopt in order to inure oneself to what otherwise would have to be experienced as severe shock, unsettling disturbance, fear, or despair. The cost of a short taxi-ride is eight hundred thousand dollars: ‘prices are so crazy nowadays that I don’t even know if that’s reasonable or not’, our narrator tells us. ‘I have a feeling it’s not and the other passengers don’t seem to be comfortable with it either, but it is not in the nature of a Zimbabwean to question or complain’. A page further on, she responds to a further outrageous development with ‘Okay, I am not even going to try and understand the reasoning involved’.
Register in the short stories shifts from blank naturalism to formal social realism, from the carnivalesque to the self-consciously melodramatic, from the fine chisel of irony to the sledgehammers of lampoon and parody. John Eppel’s ‘The Awards Ceremony’ begins on, and sustains, its note of high burlesque:
Two patriots, a glorious son and a glorious daughter, were to be honoured this sunny late-winter day, July 28, 2007. They were to receive Zimbabwe’s second highest civilian merit award: the Tupperware Cross (rust-free, water-resistant, availably only at the most respectable retail outlets). And there to pin the medals on his chest and her breast (I’ll fumble this one) was none other than the Deputy Minister of Borrowdale Shopping Centre, Comrade Colonel Dolo d’Ingati-Swatibumbum.
Subject matter ranges widely, too: many of the stories are concerned with the rigours, hardships, impossibilities and, indeed, absurdities, of everyday life in Zimbabwe today; others address state violence explicitly; or introduce drought and the destruction of the environment, unemployment and the shortage of housing as indices of the corruption and patent criminality of the political order. Haunting many of the stories (and central to Gappah’s ‘The Cracked, Pink Lips of Rosie’s Bridegroom’) is the spectre of AIDS.
Much of the verse in Intwasa Poetry is impressive: moving, imaginative and resourceful. Chingono’s ‘It denotes’ juxtaposes images of the body in pain or under duress with punctuation marks, thereby enabling a connection to be established between writing and the socially dispossessed: ‘And when you find me/coiled/my head between my legs/round like a full stop/it denotes – /stop and tender first aid/subject freezing’. Chirikure’s ‘Dancing mother’ allows shock to do the work of criticism: ‘that rugged, shrivelled woman/dancing with a vigorous smile/just for a cup or two of home brew/is my mother, beacon of my life/the IMF structured her dignity’. Shock is, indeed, a pre-eminent means through which the poets featured here attempt to conjure new insights into being. There is also, as might have been anticipated, a recoding of the language of nature and the countryside, whether inhabited or not. Eppel’s ‘Waiting’, for instance, has the falling frangipani leaves in early April reminding him ‘that the day has come and gone for ballots/to be counted, results announced, and I’m/afraid that change will never come’.
Neil Lazarus is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick University. He has published widely on African and other ‘postcolonial’ writings and has just completed a new monograph, The Political Unconscious: Towards a Reconstruction of Postcolonial Literary Studies.