Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Bryony Rheam awarded a 2017 Miles Morland Scholarship

Zimbabwean writer Bryony Rheam has been selected as one of the 5 new Morland Writing Scholars for 2017. There were a record 550 entries from writers from across Africa, which was reduced to a shortlist of 21 before the final 5 were chosen by the judges on the basis of a book proposal and a sample of their writing. One of those chosen, Eritrea's Alemseged Tesfai, plans to write a history of Eritrea, the other four, - Bryony, South Africa's Fatima Kola and Nigeria's Elnathan John and Eloghosa Osunde - are to produce novels. Bryony Rheam is to write an historical crime fiction featuring a psychiatric hospital in Bulawayo, in which she will explore the treatment of those suffering mental illness and the complex dynamics of power, colonial society and migration.

The Miles Morland Foundation’s main aim is to support entities in Africa which allow Africans to get their voices better heard. It is particularly interested in supporting African writing and African literature.

Bryony Rheam's debut novel
 This September Sun, published by amaBooks,  won 'Best First Book' at the Zimbabwe Book Publishers Awards and was chosen as a set text for 'A' level Literature in English for Zimbabwe schools. The novel was subsequently published in Kenya and in the United Kingdom, where it topped the Amazon UK sales charts as an e-book. Bryony has had many short stories published, including most recently in Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories. She is also a winner of the international 'Write your own Christie' writing competition and her second novel All Come to Dust, a murder mystery set in Bulawayo, is to be published in 2018 by amaBooks.

Amongst previous writers selected for the Morland Scholarships is Zimbabwean writer Percy Zvomuya for his planned biography of Robert Mugabe.

The judges for this year were Zimbabwean Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, the Chair, accompanied by Olufemi Terry and Muthoni Garland. Below are Ellah’s comments on the new Scholars.

"In this 5th year of the Morland Writing Scholarships it was hugely gratifying to see such an upswing in the number of submissions. We considered a 21 person shortlist with applicants from nine African countries. We were delighted by the range in choice of subject and approach and deeply impressed by the writing skill and ambition this shortlist represented.

We focused on the potential each application promised. Faced with excellence on all fronts, we found ourselves focused on several key questions. Is this a book that will achieve publication and find readers across the continent and beyond? Does the subject matter feel urgent and necessary? Has the author found the best form for the telling of this story? Does the submission show innovation and ambition?

This is an exhilarating list that bears witness to a wide range of thematic concerns and one that illustrates the ambition and promise of several generations of writers. We wish the scholars a busy and productive year." 

Monday, November 27, 2017

'Together' one of 'The Best Books of the Mugabe Years'

Together: Stories and Poems by Julius Chingono and John Eppel has been chosen by Sarah Ladipo Manyika for her list of the ten best books of the Mugabe years.

She comments: 'In some ways, the two authors featured in this collection could not be more different: Chingono, now deceased, was a black Zimbabwean who worked as a rock blaster in the mines, whereas Eppel is a white Zimbabwean who taught English literature. Both, however, were born in the 1940s and lived through every decade of the Mugabe era. In their works of fiction and poetry, one sees their shared love of language, a deep concern for the poor and, in spite of hardships, a great sense of humor. Together, Zimbabwean.'

Together has had many excellent reviews, including from Liesl Jobson of Fine Music Radio:

'‘Together’ is perhaps the most remarkable book I’ve read in the last year, lending credence to the certainty that stories insist on being told, especially those stories that the authorities deny... It will shake you to your core, exploring as it does the travesties of justice done to the authors’ fellow countrymen and women under the rule of Robert Mugabe.' 

from Philo Ikonye on Pambazuka:
'Many women – as Eppel shows so clearly – and men too, have had the worst that could have ever happened to them, and so it is time to acknowledge and congratulate those who would still write and act without fear. Eppel and Chingono deserve every attention.'
from Hazel Barnes in The Witness:

'The stories and poems in this ­brilliant volume will hit you in the gut with horror even as you relish their intelligent analysis and ­cogent wit.'
from the Mid-West Book Review:

'two writers in Zimbabwe who come together to share different world perspectives, united in their disgust at the abuse of power for greed and hopes for their people. A fine assortment of fiction and poetry, highly recommended.'

Sarah Ladipo Manyika's list can be found at http://www.ozy.com/good-sht/from-zimbabwe-the-best-books-of-the-mugabe-years/82285#.WhQXpt8NoT4.facebook

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The 2017 Morland Writing Scholarship shortlist

Congratulations to all the writers shortlisted for the 2017 Morland Writing Scholarships, particularly those who have been published by amaBooks:

Bryony Rheam  (Zimbabwe) (novel: This September Sun, short stories: 'The Queue' from Short Writings from Bulawayo; 'Something About Tea' from Short Writings from Bulawayo II; 'The Rhythm of Life' from Short Writings from Bulawayo III; 'Miss Parker and The Tugboat' from Long Time Coming; 'The Piano Tuner' from Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe; 'Moving on' from Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories)

Gothataone Moeng (Botswana) (short story: 'Who Knows What Season Tomorrow Brings' from Long Time Coming)

Cheryl Ntumy (Ghana) (short story: 'Princess Sailendra of Malindi' in Lusaka Punk)

Kiprop Kimutae (Kenya) (short story: 'The Storymage' in The Goddess of Mtwara)

Elnathan John (Nigeria) (short stories: 'Walking' in The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things; 'Bayan Layi' in A Memory This Size; 'Flying' in Lusaka Punk and 'Running' in The Gonjon Pin)

And the press statement from the Miles Morland Foundation (https://milesmorlandfoundation.com/morland-writing-scholarship-2017-shortlist/):

The Miles Morland Foundation is delighted to announce the shortlist for the 2017 Morland Writing Scholarships. Of the twenty-one names, six are from South Africa, four each from Nigeria and Kenya, two from Cameroon and one each from Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Gambia and Botswana.

It is always difficult to choose the shortlist. The standard of writing increases every year, making the pool to choose from ever wider. We had nearly 550 entries this year, is our highest number to date, with writers applying from 30 countries. We are excited by the array of talent we have on our shortlist, ranging from writers in their twenties to one in his seventies. Once more we have seen the energy, originality, and wit in our entries that characterises so much of modern African writing. We are also heartened to see six non-fiction candidates on the shortlist from one last year.

The judges, with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey from Zimbabwe in the chair, assisted by Femi Terry from Sierra Leone, and Muthoni Garland from Kenya, will meet on Dec 4th to select the 2017 Scholars. Their names will be announced shortly afterwards. Writers awarded a fiction scholarship will each receive £18,000, paid over the course of a year to allow them to take time off to write the book they have proposed. Non-fiction writers may be given £27,000 over the course of eighteen months, if they need to do additional research.

Shortlist for the Morland Writing Scholarships for 2017:

Alemseged Tesfai – Eritrea
Bryony Rheam – Zimbabwe
Cheryl Ntumy – Ghana
Clementine Ewokolo Burnley – Cameroon
Dayo Forster – Gambia
Elizabeth McGregor – South Africa
Elnathan John – Nigeria
Eloghosa Osunde – Nigeria
Fatima Kola – South Africa
Fred Khumalo – South Africa
Gloria Mwaniga – Kenya
Gothataone Moeng – Botswana
Kiprop Kimutai – Kenya
Megan Ross – South Africa
Muthoni wa Gichuru – Kenya
Nana Nkweti – Cameroon
Palesa Deejay Manaleng – South Africa
Sitawa Namwalie – Kenya
Tsholofelo Wesi – South Africa
Ukamaka Olisakwe – Nigeria
Umar Turaki – Nigeria

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

6 Awkward Questions With Zimbabwean Writers #2: Bryony Rheam

Reproduced from James Arnett's  blog: jarnettphd.weebly.com/fulbright-2017-2018/

In the latest instalment of “Six Awkward Questions”, Bulawayo author Bryony Rheam offers thoughtful responses to the admittedly awkward questions. Rheam is the author of the elegant and acclaimed This September Sunpublished by amaBooks; a number of her short stories have appeared in anthologies, including amaBooks’ latest, Moving On; her story of the strain of exile and the tensions it inscribes in families gives us the anthology its title. She describes herself below as the “number one fan” of Agatha Christie, and she is appropriately at work on a crime thriller, which is in the editing process and edging towards print – keep your eyes open!

describe your favourite novel or writer using synaesthetic terms

It has to be Virginia Woolf.  I love her because I relate to her so well.  She was deeply unhappy and, of course, famously committed suicide.  Yet she has this amazing ability to see the beauty of the world and capture it so well.  This trembling, transient beauty comes with the knowledge that nothing lasts; everything dies - but that is part of the beauty as well. The strength of her writing is that she illuminates those tiny, fleeting moments that most of us take for granted, but which make up daily life.

what are some metaphors for your relationship to African writing?

The first would be roadworks with lots of 'detour' signs. Another would be looking for the seventh floor only to be told that the lift only goes to the sixth and I'm not allowed to take the stairs.  I don't really know where I am as an African writer.  I was born in Zimbabwe and have lived most of my life here, but I am white so I don't fit in with the majority and people are also a bit suspicious of white writers. I feel sometimes as though I am muscling in on a space which is not mine.  One of the criticisms of This September Sun was that weren't enough black characters, even though it was essentially a story about a family.  Now if I was to write a book with mainly black characters, I would be accused of appropriation.  Either way, I don't win.
But, on a more positive note, another metaphor would be a wide open space because I think there is a lot of opportunity, a chance to do something different because African literature is coming to a stage of opening up. 

assuming a utopian arc, what is the best thing about Africa in the future?

​I think it's expanding, developing and going forward in a way in which literature from the West is not.  As long as African writers push ahead and challenge Western ideas of Africa - poverty, famine, disease - by writing what they want, then I think we will see great things.  Many British and American writers have become very cynical about the world and this is reflected in the type of books coming out.  I think, to paraphrase Scott Fitzgerald, we have a great capacity for optimism, for seeing a brighter future and not getting stuck in all this angst that the others are.

what habits aid writing most and least?

I love getting up early in the morning and just enjoying the silence if nothing else.  Walking is great for getting ideas and sorting out problems!  I think the staff at Hillside Dams might think I am slightly unbalanced as I walk round talking to myself.  Taking the dogs with me helps me look a little more sane.  I also enjoy meditation, both for the discipline and the peace of mind it lends me. The worst thing to do is to get onto Facebook.  It's best left alone if you want to get anything done.  You think you'll just have a peek, but suddenly a whole hour has gone by and really it's rarely very interesting.

how do you do it?

​I start off with my trusty notepad and pen and just sit and write.  I have another notebook for good lines that come to me, but I have no idea where they are going or what they are about.  I can't say I have a set routine as some days I go and teach and some days I have something I have to do in town. I do have to write in the mornings though; I just can't think in the afternoon, especially if it is very hot.  Also, the afternoons see me running around after my children and making supper.

what is the most exciting book you've read in the past six months?

Unfortunately, I don't read as much as I want to. At the moment I am reading an Agatha Christie - you know I'm her number one fan, don't you? - called The Secret of Chimneys. It actually begins in Bulawayo with two friends meeting after a while apart.  One of them is running desultory tours to Matopos and is bored out of his mind and the other is a hunter/prospector of the Indiana Jones ilk.  The latter pays the former to take some documents to England for him and pretend he is him (hope that makes sense!).  It turns out the documents are diaries of a Count from some weird Eastern European country with a fictional name.  I am enjoying it because it is an early spy thriller, a bit like The Thirty Nine Steps

Friday, November 17, 2017

Tendai Huchu shares the Nommo Award for an African Speculative Short Story

Tendai Huchu has shared the inaugural Nommo Award for Best Short Story, which was presented on November 16 during the Ake Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria, for his story 'The Marriage Plot'. Tendai shared the award with Lesley Nneka Arimah, for her story 'Who Will Greet You At Home'.

Other winners at the Nommo Awards were Tade Thompson's Rosewater, as Best Novel, Nnedi Okorafor's Binti, as Best Novella, and Chimurenga's 'Chronic: The Corpse Exhibition and Older Graphic Stories', as Best Comic or Graphic Novel.

The Nommo Awards are decided by voting amongst the members of the African Speculative Fiction Society, and are open to all African writers.

Tendai Huchu's second novel The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician is published by amaBooks, who have also recently included his short story 'The Library of the Dead', a speculative fiction piece, in their latest anthology, Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories. 'amaBooks are presently involved in a  workshop, led by American academic James Arnett, for potential speculative fiction writers in Bulawayo.

The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician is also available from Parthian Press in the UK, Ohio University Press in North America, Farafina in Nigeria, Peter Hammer in Germany and through jamalon.com. Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories is available in North America through africanbookscollective.com, elsewhere through jamalon.com, and will soon be available through Parthian Press in the UK. Both books are available in South Africa at African Flavour Books (Johannesburg), Bridge Books (Johannesburg), Clarke's Bookshop (Cape Town), Love Books (Johannesburg), The Book Cottage (Hermanus) and The Book Lounge (Cape Town).

Lesley Nneka Arimah's short story anthology What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky was named as one of the most anticipated books of 2017 by Time Magazine, Elle, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe and others, and is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize.

Tendai Huchu's 'The Marriage Plot' can be read at https://omenana.com/2016/03/25/the-marriage-plot/

Monday, November 13, 2017

6 Awkward Questions With Zimbabwean Writers: Tariro Ndoro

James Arnett will be posting occasional interviews with Zimbabwean writers, all with the same six-question format. From his blog: jarnettphd.weebly.com/fulbright-2017-2018/

Tariro Ndoro (tarirondoro.wordpress.com) is an emerging Zimbabwean short story writer and poet, whose story “The Travellers” in amaBooks' most recent collection of Zimbabwean literature, Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories, caught my eye. I had the pleasure of interviewing her as part of a panel on the collection at Intwasa Arts Festival in Bulawayo in October 2017. Her depiction of the economic and social end-of-the-road in the person of a bored Chicken Inn employee in “The Travellers” really humanizes the social and economic difficulties that Zimbabweans – and Southern Africans, generally - are currently facing. Her poetry and her prose alike explore scenes like this one from Cape Town in her poem “Transport”: “across from me, sleeping on the bubbling yellow foam / of the tattered prison grey seat, a tattered young man / and his tired sister both travel to their dead end jobs.” For every protestation that 2017 is not the new 2008 in Zimbabwe, Ndoro answers with another searching portrait of those whose minor suffering belies ongoing, everyday realities. Do I stay or do I go now?

describe your favourite novel or writer using synaesthetic terms

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Definitely. This work was pretty revelatory for me. A warm, relatable book, and at the same time creepy and claustrophobic and painful. I love the different motifs Roy sets up and how they all tie up in the end as well as her several streams of consciousness.

what are four [two] metaphors for your relationship to African writing?

A stuffy room, mainly because there seems to be this culture of having an elite few African writers that are the flagships for African literature, which means a lot of emerging writers feel like they have no voice at all or no story to add to the ongoing narrative.
A good meal that ended before I was done eating, when I find a story that's particularly fresh and good -- for instance, a lot of Lesley Nneka Arimah's work.

assuming a utopian arc, what is the best thing about Africa in the future?

Self actualisation. It seems we're going through an African Renaissance. The natural hair revolution, African literary ezines giving the ordinary African more access to African lit... If all goes well, ten years from now, we'll be an actualised continent and the stereotypes that hold my generation of POCs back won’t hinder my children (I hope).

what habits aid writing most and least?

Reading. Reading the classics for structure, reading the contemporaries for inspiration and reading outside of my forte to prevent stagnation. Daydreaming also helps and giving myself writing targets (eg 1000 words a day).

how do you do it?

I love it. I know this isn't really an answer -- but it is the love I have for stories and story-telling that drives my search for the greatest short story, my love for the word that makes me struggle with my own fear of the blank page and the discouragement brought on by rejection slips. On a practical note, though, I probably spend about one or two hours [a day] writing until I run out of steam, then I go back to reading and editing until I find some form of inspiration to write a new work.

what is the most exciting book you've read in the past six months?

This is a hard question. I haven't read a whole lot of books in a while. I feel like I've been reading short stories. The God of Small Things was pretty exciting. I read it this year but I'm not sure when. I've also started reading Kate Zambreno's Green Girl and that's pretty exciting as well; I love the pace of the book and also the streams of consciousness Zambreno constructs.

James Arnett holds a Fulbright Core Teaching/Research Fellowship to Zimbabwe, 2017-2018. He is teaching at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and conducting research on the city's literary history, its cultural infrastructure, and its outlets for creative writing.

Friday, October 13, 2017

In Memory and Rememory: An American Appreciation of Yvonne Vera

from https://jarnettphd.weebly.com/fulbright-2017-2018/in-memory-and-rememory-an-american-appreciation-of-yvonne-vera
Reproduced with the permission of James Arnett

[speech given by James Arnett at Pamberi Trust's 'Celebration of Yvonne Vera,' Harare, National Gallery, October 3, 2017]
In Memory
    There is no question that Yvonne Vera’s work holds a special place in both Zimbabwean and African literature. But by virtue of her lyricism, her ambition to depict a broad sweeps of histories otherwise swept under the rug, her literature is a truly world literature – uncovering common humanity, carving out a space for the experience of women under colonial violences, revealing and reevaluating, too, the societies meant to give black African women rights and shelter. She spares no one, but her voice is not overwhelming or condemning. Like Nonceba’s survival in
 The Stone Virgins, there is a way through history, a way to live with and past the terrible violences that continue to haunt contemporary Zimbabwe.
   In this way, I see a tremendous affinity between Vera’s work and those of the American Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. Her mother, Ericah Gwetai, makes mention of the fact that Vera re-read The Bluest Eye every year on her birthday; that novel, about the essential confusion about growing up black and abused, in a world that fetishized whiteness and power, has clear echoes all across Vera’s work, which poignantly looks at the racial dynamics intertwined with colonial dynamics in Rhodesia’s, and then Zimbabwe’s, 20th century. Both women write of the heinous violences inflicted on the most vulnerabled – and I use this in the past tense to foreground that vulnerability to violence is anything but essential, but rather something ideologically imposed. And both women skirt the usually bland celebratory bromides about women’s strength.
    In October 2017, I attended the Women, Wine, and Words event as part of Bulawayo’s Intwasa Arts Festival. Five talented female poets from Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, and the UK came together to perform their work. One of the common threads that ran through almost all of the poets’ work was this: “I’m tired” – tired of many things – of being underappreciated and rhetorically overvalued, denigrated and vaunted simultaneously. Indigo Williams’s take on this theme was particularly poignant; she began by talking about how, paradoxically, it is frustrating and wonderful to be taken as a “strong black woman.” But what of the days, she wondered, when it was hard to get out of bed? What of the times when her vulnerability was at the fore, and strength something hard to muster? How does one live in between strength and vulnerability without being consumed?
    Vera’s work, like Morrison’s, isn’t afraid of boasting of the resilience of women and also depicting their vulnerability. Vera gives us women that fight as much as they can – as much as can be expected – and break, too. No one can stand the onslaught of dehumanizing violence without cracking, and Vera’s lyrical novels assemble those broken pieces into something like stained glass – illuminating and awe-inspiring.
We Need New Names
    “Muzhanje is the name of a fruit from Chimanimani, in the eastern highlands, whose seed this man has brought stuck to the bottom of his pocket, then planted it in her mouth like a gift, days and days after they have met. She has stopped considering time and only considers him.” (
Stone Virgins 43)
    The passion with which Vera writes characters whose lives have already been – or about to be – ruthlessly scarred by violence and by history – serves as a tonic to run-of-the-mill arguments that representations of violence are abstractly dehumanizing. The way Vera writes violence does precisely the opposite – it renders their humanity palpable and real, not dominated by their place in history, but continuous with history, running alongside it, occasionally, cruelly, pierced by it.
    The opening section of
 The Stone Virgins – the lull before the violence consumes us – depicts Kezi, and the Thandabantu Store, and Thenjiwe, and her lover. Thenjiwe hones in on her lover, full of him: “She brings home the man who gives her all her hips, who embraces her foot, who collects her shadow and places it right back in her body as though it were a missing part of herself, and she lets him gaze into her eyes till they both see stars through their tears. In the deep dark pool of her eyes the man sees places he has never been, she has never been” (SV 43). He has brought this strange fruit to her – the muzhanje, the name Thenjiwe chooses for her dream child, impossibly conceived in mind only.
    She understands this native fruit – native, unlike the “Host of eucaplytus trees redolent; their scent euphoric,” or the jacarandas casting their blooms over Bulawayo’s streets, or the “fusion of dahlias, petunias, asters, red salvia and mauve petrea bushes” in Centenary Park, each of these plants an importation, a colonial transplant from the Antipodes and Caribbean and the reaches of the British Empire (
SV 10). There can be a beauty in these transplants, Vera observes, but the muzhanje is the fruit that ignites Thenjiwe’s fascination. It is local and not – brought from a distant within, exotically local.
    The colonial place names that open
 The Stone Virgins, its catalogue of Selborne, Fort, Main, Grey, Abercorn, Fife, Rhodes, Borrow streets, depict Bulawayo as it could officially be known and indexed, not unlike the catalogue of imported flowers that brighten Centenary Park. But that Bulawayo is one that is ultimately condemned to living as the past, a town prey to the homogenizing urban forces that render cities similar. Instead, Thenjiwe’s lover wants to taste the real place, not ‘Rhodesia,’ but Zimbabwe: to see “more than Bulawayo, after coming all the way from Chimanimani he wanted to see the Mopani shrubs, the Mtshwankela, the Dololenkonyane, the balancing Matopo Hills, the gigantic anthills of Kezi.” (45)
    Colonialism didn’t make Africa go away, not under its gridded streets and imported street names, nor under its imported jacaranda trees. Africa lived alongside imperial Africa, contained in the places whose names are not forgotten, nor replaced, the flora native and indigenous and resilient. The work of reclaiming spaces, Vera writes, is only partially about effacing the names of the colonizers who controlled and wrangled and dictated. It is also about recognizing that the old names were always
 thenames, no matter what dressing was applied.
Strange Fruit
    There is much strange fruit in Vera’s work – fruit that is literally strange, that compels consumption, like the native-but-distant muzhanje fruit. Thenjiwe wants to know all about it, suspects that there is something important, resilient, productive in it. “She rises...to ask him on what soil the muzhanje grows, how long before each new plant bears fruit, how fertile its branches, how broad its leaf. She rises to ask what kind of tree the seed comes from, the shape of its leaves, the size of its trunk, the shape of its branches, the colour of its bloom, the measure of its veins” (46). The muzhanje, Thenjiwe believes, may give her access to tradition and place in a way that street signs misdirected and obfuscate. She, like Alex Haley’s displaced Africans in America, wants to understand roots – literal and figurative. “Thenjiwe knows that the roots of trees have shapes more definite than leaves,” Vera writes in
 The Stone Virgins. The surface is merely coincidental to the way that the tree grows in ground, rooted in place. Thenjiwe, before the violence that forecloses her life, seeks the strength of rootedness, of rediscovering place, and of forging a real relationship to it, grounded in loving and knowing.
    This phrase “strange fruit” has a particularly American history; it is the name of the famous Billie Holliday song, penned by Abel Meeropol, it decries the American practice of extradjudicial killings of black men – a practice we historically call lynching, but these days I fear we just call “policing.” It metaphorized the lynched bodies of black men, darkly describing the methods of white supremacy to control and subjugate populations of color. Chester Himes, the African-American writer, remarked that “no one, no one, writes about violence the way Americans do. As a matter of fact for the simple reason that no one understand or expresses violence like the American civilians do. American violence is public life, it is a public way of life, it became a form...” But that isn’t exclusively true – black Zimbabwean writers have managed to develop a sophisticated language to describe the unspeakable, and Vera’s associative novels leave the reader breathless in the wake of horror, not unlike this moment in
 The Stone Virgins, the prevision of finality that afflicts Thenjiwe suddenly: “Muzhanje. Thenjiwe flicks the seed to the roof of her mouth and pushes the man aside, way off the bed. She has been hit by an illumination so profound, so total, she has to breathe deep and think about it some more. She wants to lie down, in silence.” (SV 44)
    But there is other strange fruit, too, in Vera, as in the grisly tableau that opens
 Butterfly Burning, of the mass hanging of men...”The dead men remain in the tree for days. Their legs tied together, their hands hanging close to their stomachs. Toes are turned down to the ground as though the body would leap to safety. The foot curls like a fist, facing down. The feet of dancers who have left the ground. Caught. Surprised by something in the air which they thought free. The limbs smooth and taut, of dancers in a song with no words spoken. A dance denied. A blossom in a wind. A dark elegy” (BB 11). It takes great creativity and fortitude to render such a horrific scene so approachable and, dare I say, beautiful. It is not a beauty that celebrates violence or death in any way, but one that, as I argued before, humanizes its victims. In this passage, seventeen men are lynched in 1896, strange fruit overripe, cut short by the overzealous, overreaching, paranoiac violence at the heart of the founding of Rhodesia. “It is not a place with large trees,” Vera writes with dismay and wonder, “This tree, like these deaths, is a surprise. Away from the Umguza River which sings a lullaby each morning whatever the season, there are no trees” (BB 12).
    Terence Ranger recalls of Vera their trip to the Cyrene Mission outside of Bulawayo, where she went to see the art and murals, and where Vera “saw for the first time the enlarged version of the photo of African men, captured in 1896 [during the Second Matabeleland War, as the English call it; the first Chimurenga as it should be known], hanging from a tree. She was astonished that the photograph fitted so exactly with her description of hanging men at the beginning of
 Butterfly Burning, the sense of the men swimming in the air, being as vivid in the photograph as in the book” (Petal Thoughts 90). Vera’s historical imagination was strong enough to conjure the horror of the scene, so in touch was she with history and culture, and with what Toni Morrison in Beloved, calls “re-memory.”
    In Morrison’s
 Beloved, when Sethe is escaping the unthinkable violence of her slave plantation, seeking to give birth to her last child in freedom, she encounters the kindly Amy Denver, who massages her feet, and remarks, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts,” a painful description and a prophecy.  Vera writes, continuing the gruesome scene, “[The women] are not allowed to touch the bodies. They do not grieve. It is better that the murdered are not returned to the living: the living are not dead. The women keep the most vital details of their men buried in their mouths” (BB 12). The women of Vera’s novel know that there is no live return from the space of the dead, no amelioration or respite, just names and impressions held silently until mourning breaks. Vera is also haunted by the permanence of violence, as if linked to troubled spots, crossroads of tribal, colonial, and nationalist violence.
   One of the things most relished and valued about Morrison’s work – and the work of most canonical African-American writers – is its unflagging attention to historical truths, revealing the dark side of the American colonial enterprise, with its attendant slavery; Vera’s refusal to shy away from these historical violences makes her kin to Morrison. Sethe, in
 Beloved, ruminates, “I was talking about time. It's so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don't think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.” Vera’s affirming discovery of the photo of the hanged men demonstrates the vital power of rememory – the resurgence and reality of violence in places where trauma has occurred, where the attempt to efface or move beyond that violence is fraught with its perpetual recurrence. Vera is the guardian of Zimbabwean rememory, holder of truths that are, in some cases inconvenient, or disappointing, or regrettable.
Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals?
    Her short story “Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals” gives insight, I think, into the difficulty of the work of writing Zimbabwe. The conversation between street artists - a carver and a painter -  illuminates the differences between two-dimensional art, where you can add, revise, cover over, and three-dimensional art, like sculpture, that achieves a finished form that is true, even if it isn’t accurate. The painter, on the one hand, “puts the final touches on the image of the Victoria Falls which he paints from a memory gathered from newspapers and magazines. He has never seen the Falls. The water must be blue,” he thinks. He relies on this hodgepodge of hearsay and observation, but gives beauty and control the uppermost, inductively reasoning that the Falls must be blue – if water on maps is blue, if the sky is blue. He “realizes that a lot of spray from the falls must be reaching the lovers, so he paints off their heads with a red umbrella. He notices suddenly that something is missing in the picture, so he extends the lovers’ free hands, and gives them some yellow ice cream. The picture is now full of life,” he thinks (73). The painter and writer can revise, can insert, can alter and shift and move around, staying true to inductive principles but honoring beauty.
   But beauty is not the only end, and while Keats encourages us to believe that beauty is truth, and truth beauty, and that’s all we need to know, Vera knows better. Art is also the purview of dream and imagination. “The carver has never seen the elephant or the giraffe that he carves so ardently,” her story observes, placing him in the same category of unknowing as the painter. But unlike the painter, who aims to achieve beauty through reason and truth, the sculptor knows there are other avenues for art. “He picks up a piece of unformed wood. Will it be a giraffe or an elephant? His carving is also his dreaming” (73). Like his dreaming, each carving is different, unique; spoiled, even, like his giraffe whose paint has run, and whose neck is comically short. He may seem the lesser artist by strictly aesthetic standards, but there is no question that he is an honest man, making honest art. The “unformed wood” is the wholecloth of history, the unknowable archive of all that has been, and the writer’s access to truth is contingent on honouring the materials she works with. The two artists – the painter and the sculptor – represent the collaborative pull between beauty and honesty, between pleasure and pain, thinking and dreaming.
   I was doing research last year at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. I wasn’t looking for Vera’s work, but I found among
 Charles Larson’s papers a copy of Vera’s final, unpublished work, Obedience. I was at the end of my stay at the library – quite literally; it was to close for the weekend in an hour and I was scheduled to leave town just after. But I couldn’t help but open up and thumb through the manuscript – which begins, indelibly, with a description of the stone birds of Great Zimbabwe. These birds don’t look exactly like an extant bird – but this is not the point at all, even if it might have been a good-faith effort at mimesis. Instead, they simply are: they endure, they are beautiful. In spite of colonial thefts, an independent Zimbabwe achieved their return; they roost once more at the site of rememory, presiding near the complex stone ruins that have fascinated throughout history.
    The painter asks the carver in the story, “Why don’t you carve other animals?...Why do you never carve a dog or a cat? Something that city people have seen. Even a rat would be good there are lots of rats in the township!” (73). Why didn’t Vera write her stories and novels exclusively about the fascinating life she saw unfolding before her in the present? – a present that Zimbabwean readers could recognize immediately as their own? Why instead did she lyrically inhabit the past, the full sweep of local history?
   Probably because she understood that the greatest foundations of art lie not in the mimetic transcription of things exactly as they are now, but rather in the imaginative flight through the past into the present and back again. Rememory exists anywhere where trauma, pain, violence, extremity has occurred, and there is no place where that is not true. Petina Gappah, a vital contemporary Zimbabwean writer, recently swore in a talk at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town that she was done with writing contemporary Zimbabwe after her impressive
 Rotten Row appeared in print – she wanted to explore the possibilities of writing elsewheres and elsewhens, to delve into history and unearth new old stories. These modes are not mutually exclusive, but this move reverberates with Vera’s temporal rangings, and describes the difficulty and ambivalence about approaching contemporary Zimbabwe without also attending to its past.
In Rememory
   The Harry Ransom Center holds another crucial Zimbabwean manuscript – the unfinished manuscript of
 Doris Lessing’s novel “The Memorykeepers.” Tendai Huchu, in a story just published in the 2017 anthology Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories by amaBooks in Bulawayo, recounts this piece of local folklore: “The Great Zimbabwe Empire was built by kings under the instructions of the Memorykeepers. You have heard of them, no? Of course not. It is an old – for lack of a better word – guild that has been there for as long as our people have been around. The Memorykeepers’ task is to remember everything.” The Memorykeepers are entrusted with the whole sweep of time, of remembering all that has been in order to inform what is to come.
    Memorykeepers are rare indeed; not even every African literature has such an honest, exposed, and vulnerable writer. Indeed, not every African literature is capable of absorbing the persisting, the inconvenient truths. There will always be those who seek to wrest the past in service of a future that they desire, instead of honouring the past for the truths it has produced, in spite of its violences. Such manipulators of truth and history – regardless of their position or power – should never supplant those brave enough to tell us unpalatable truths about ourselves. There is no honor in easy deceit, in palatable fictions. If, as Huchu worries, “now there are fewer Memorykeepers than at any stage in the past and they cannot hold all the new knowledge that flows from the four corners of the world,” we must learn to celebrate those who have walked amongst us – giants like Vera – and those few who remain, who have access still to rememory in an era where information deceives, and truth slides, and lives nevertheless hang in the balance, feebly swimming against the wind.

Gwetai, Ericah. Petal Thoughts. Gweru, Mambo Press, 2008.
Morris, Jane, Ed. Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories. Bulawayo, amaBooks, 2017.Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eyes. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Beloved. New York, Knopf, 1987.
Vera, Yvonne.
 Butterfly Burning. Harare, Baobab, 1998.
 The Stone Virgins. Harare, Weaver Press, 2002.
 Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals? Toronto, TSAR, 1992.

James Arnett
James Arnett is a Fulbright Core Teaching/Research Fellow to Zimbabwe, 2017-2018. Will teach at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and conduct research on the city's literary history, its cultural infrastructure, and its outlets for creative writing.