On Literature from Zimbabwe, 11 Women Writers and their Works

Early on in my blog, I confessed that I absolutely loved literature from Zimbabwe. I couldn't quite explain why and I still really can't quite explain, but what I do know is there is something that reading books from Zimbabwe does to my soul. Well, here are 25 works (in English) from 11 different women writers from Zimbabwe. 

NoViolet Bulawayo (We Need New Names)
Darling and her friends live in a shanty called Paradise, which of course is no such thing. It isn’t all bad, though. There’s mischief and adventure, games of Find bin Laden, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga at the tops of their voices. They dream of the paradises of America, Dubai, Europe, where Madonna and Barack Obama and David Beckham live. For Darling, that dream will come true. But, like the thousands of people all over the world trying to forge new lives far from home, Darling finds this new paradise brings its own set of challenges – for her and also for those she’s left behind.

Panashe Chigumadzi (Sweet Medicine and These Bones Will Rise Again)
Sweet Medicine – Panashe Chigumadzi’s first book - takes place in Harare at the height of Zimbabwe's economic woes in 2008. Tsitsi, a young woman, raised by her strict, devout Catholic mother, believes that hard work, prayer and an education will ensure a prosperous and happy future. She does well at her mission boarding school, and goes on to obtain a scholarship to attend university, but the change in the economic situation in Zimbabwe destroys the old system where hard work and a degree guaranteed a good life. Out of university, Tsitsi finds herself in a position much lower than she had set her sights on, working as a clerk in the office of the local politician, Zvobgo. With a salary that barely provides her a means to survive, she finds herself increasingly compromising her Christian values to negotiate ways to get ahead.

Chigumadzi’s second book, These Bones Will Rise Again,is a long-form essay that combines both reportage, memoir and critical analysis and sees Chigumadzi reflecting on the ‘coup that was not a coup’, the telling of the history and manipulation of time and the ancestral spirits of two women – her own grandmother and Mbuya Nehanda, the grandmother of the nation.

Tsitsi Dangaremgba (Nervous Conditions, The Book of Not and This Mournable Body)
Nervous Conditions is the story of Tambu, a young girl in colonial Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), and her quest to educate herself.  Throughout her childhood, Tambu longed to learn but was hampered by the men in her life - her father, Jeremiah, who felt education was wasted on women, as women couldn’t cook books, and her brother, Nhamo, who treated her badly and found it funny that she longed to go to school. She finally gets her chance, when her brother’s death leads her uncle Babamukuru, to sponsor her education in the missionary school where he is a headmaster. Here, Tambu is introduced to an affluent and more western lifestyle and finally gets the education she longs for. But her new life with Babamukuru is far from rosy and through her thoughts we get a glimpse into her education, her life and her view on gender and society.

The Book of Not traces Tambu's continuing quest to redefine the personal, political and historical forces that threaten to destroy the fabric of her community - and reveals how its aftermath still bedevils Africans today.

In This Mournable Body, Tsitsi Dangarembga returns to the protagonist of her acclaimed first novel, Nervous Conditions, to examine how the hope and potential of a young girl and a fledgling nation can sour over time and become a bitter and floundering struggle for survival. Anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job, Tambudzai finds herself living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. For reasons that include her grim financial prospects and her age, she moves to a widow’s boarding house and eventually finds work as a biology teacher. But at every turn in her attempt to make a life for herself, she is faced with a fresh humiliation, until the painful contrast between the future she imagined and her daily reality ultimately drives her to a breaking point. As a last resort, Tambudzai takes an ecotourism job that forces her to return to her parents’ impoverished homestead. It is this homecoming, in Dangarembga’s tense and psychologically charged novel,that culminates in an act of betrayal, revealing just how toxic the combination of colonialism and capitalism can be.

Danai Gurira (In the Continuum and Familiar)
In The Continuum (co-written with Nikkole Salter) dramatises the devastating problem of AIDS among African and African American women. Living worlds apart in South Central Los Angeles and Harare, Zimbabwe, two young women experience a kaleidoscopic weekend of darkly comic life-changing revelations. With the two playwrights/actors playing dozens of roles, In The Continuum envelopes the audience in its story of parallel denials and self-discoveries. See why critics and audiences have been raving about this funny and engrossing work.

It’s winter in Minnesota, and a Zimbabwean family is preparing for the wedding of their eldest daughter, a first-generation American. But when the bride insists on observing a traditional African custom, it opens a deep rift in the household. Rowdy and affectionate, Familiar pitches tradition against assimilation, drawing a loving portrait of a family: the customs they keep, and the secrets they bury.

Familiar via Hollywood reporter

Petina Gappah (An Elegy for Easterly, The Book of Memory and Rotten Row)
In An Elegy for Easterly – Gappah’s debut short story collection, a woman in a township is surrounded by dusty children but longs for a baby of her own; an old man finds that his job making coffins at No Matter Funeral Parlour brings unexpected riches; a politician's widow stands quietly by at her husband's funeral as his colleagues bury an empty casket. Petina Gappah's characters may have ordinary hopes and dreams, but they are living in a world where a loaf of bread costs half a million dollars - a country expected to have only four presidents in a hundred years.

Memory, the narrator of The Book of Memory, is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder. As part of her appeal her lawyer insists that she write down what happened as she remembers it. The death penalty is a mandatory sentence for murder, and Memory is, both literally and metaphorically, writing for her life. As her story unfolds, Memory reveals that she has been tried and convicted for the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, her adopted father. But who was Lloyd Hendricks? Why does Memory feel no remorse for his death? And did everything happen exactly as she remembers? Moving between the townships of the poor and the suburbs of the rich, and between the past and the present, Memory weaves a compelling tale of love, obsession, the relentlessness of fate and the treachery of memory

In her second story collection, Rotten Row, Petina Gappah crosses the barriers of class, race, gender and sexual politics in Zimbabwe to explore the causes and effects of crime, and to meditate on the nature of justice.  With compassion and humour, Petina Gappah paints portraits of lives aching for meaning to produce a moving and universal tableau.

Nozipo J. Maraire (Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter)
A mother in Zimbabwe writes a long letter to her daughter, who is on the way to America to study at Harvard, tracing the family's role in Zimbabwe's struggle for independence and what it means to be an African woman.

Sue Nyathi (The Polygamist and The Gold Diggers)
The Polygamist weaves a tale about four women whose lives become intertwined as a result of their love for one man. Set in modern-day Zimbabwe, the story is narrated through the four female protagonists. Joyce is the legitimate first wife of Jonasi Gomora; Matipa is an ambitious, educated high flyer with an eye for the good things in life. Essie is the girl next door from the poverty-stricken township where Jonasi grew up in. Lindani is a beautiful young girl who has nothing going for her but her greatest assets: her beauty and her body. Sue Nyathi takes readers on a journey beyond the bedroom door of a polygamous man and his four Mrs Rights.

In Nyathi’s second novel, The Gold Diggers, it’s 2008 and the height of Zimbabwe’s economic demise. A group of passengers are huddled in a Toyota Quantum about to embark on a treacherous expedition to the City of Gold. Amongst them is Gugulethu, who is hoping to be reconciled with her mother; Dumisani, an ambitious young man who believes he will strike it rich, Chamunorwa and Chenai, twins running from their troubled past; and Portia and Nkosi, a mother and son desperate to be reunited with a husband and father they see once a year.They have paid a high price for the dangerous passage to what they believe is a better life; an escape from the vicious vagaries of their present life in Bulawayo. In their minds, the streets of Johannesburg are paved with gold but they will have to dig deep to get close to any gold, dirtying themselves in the process.

Bryony Rheam (This September Sun)
Ellie is a shy girl growing up in post-Independence Zimbabwe, longing for escape from the confines of small-town life. When she eventually moves to Britain, her wish seems to have come true. But life there is not all she imagined. And when her grandmother Evelyn is brutally murdered, a set of diaries are uncovered spilling out family secrets and recounting a young Evelyn's passionate and dangerous affair with a powerful married man. In the light of new discoveries, Ellie begins to re-evaluate her relationship with her grandmother, and must face up to some truths about herself in the process. Set against the backdrop of a country in change, Ellie burdened by the memories and the misunderstandings of the past must also find a way to move forward in her own romantic endeavours.

Irene Sabatini (The Boy Next Door and Peace and Conflict)
In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, there is a tragedy in the house next door to Lindiwe Bishop--her neighbor has been burned alive. The victim's stepson, Ian McKenzie, is the prime suspect but is soon released. Lindiwe can't hide her fascination with this young, boisterous and mysterious white man, and they soon forge an unlikely closeness even as the country starts to deteriorate. 

Years after circumstances split them apart, Ian returns to a much-changed Zimbabwe to see Lindiwe, now a sophisticated, impassioned young woman, and discovers a devastating secret that will alter both of their futures, and draw them closer together even as the world seems bent on keeping them apart. The Boy Next Door is a moving and powerful debut about two people finding themselves and each other in a time of national upheaval.

In Peace and Conflict, ten-year-old Robert knows many things. He knows all about his hometown, Geneva, with its statues and cannons and underground tunnels and the Longest Bench in the World. He knows about the Red Cross and all the places his dad has been on his missions. He knows that his mum is writing a book about vampires and how long his older brother spends practicing his 'swag' poses in front of the mirror. He knows all about animals, too, because his Auntie Delphia is a vet in Zimbabwe.
But still he has questions. Is his neighbour, Monsieur Renoir, really evil? Why did he leave a Victoria Cross medal on Robert's doorstep? And why has Auntie Delphia disappeared? In the 'Peace and Conflict' unit in school, Robert learned all about wars and heroes. But as the lives of his friends, foes and family unfold, he discovers what it really means to be a hero . . .

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Shadows and House of Stone)
In Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s first collection, Shadows, consisting of a novella and five short stories Novuyo sketches, with astounding accuracy, the realities of daily life in Zimbabwean townships and the peculiar intricacies of being a foreigner in Johannesburg. Vivid, sparse and, at times, tragically beautiful, Shadows is the work of a major new African voice. In the novella, Mpho, a young artist, wanders the streets of Bulawayo, wondering at the savagery of his neighbours. Their drive for survival has turned them into animals. Jobless, powerless and angry, he watches his ugly, ageing mother leave each night to prowl the streets in search of Johns, of love and of youth. When his mother dies alone in a hospital of AIDS for which the clinic could not provide ARVs, Mpho flees to Joburg to search for his girlfriend Nomsa. He finds her doing what he so hated in his mother taking off her clothes in front of strangers for money. She wants jewels, diamonds, nice cars. Things he can t provide. He returns to Bulawayo and is charged with insulting and undermining the authority of the President of the republic of Zimbabwe and causing prejudice to the creed of the state as a whole for his unwittingly controversial paintings. Standing trial for treason, Mpho wants nothing than to join his mother in the shadows."

In House of Stone, Bukhosi has gone missing. His father, Abed, and his mother, Agnes, cling to the hope that he has run away, rather than been murdered by government thugs. Only the lodger seems to have any idea. Zamani has lived in the spare room for years now. Quiet, polite, well-read and well-heeled, he's almost part of the family - but almost isn't quite good enough for Zamani. Cajoling, coaxing and coercing Abed and Agnes into revealing their sometimes tender, often brutal life stories, Zamani aims to steep himself in borrowed family history, so that he can fully inherit and inhabit its uncertain future.

Yvonne Vera (Why Don't You Carve Other Animals?, Nehanda, Without A Name, Under The TongueButterfly Burning and The Stone Virgins)
In Why Don't You Carve Other Animals?, the place is the white-ruled Rhodesia of the seventies (now Zimbabwe), the exile the African in his own land. Young men and women flee their villages to join the freedom fighters in the forests. These stories, set during the years of the armed struggle, tell of the other struggle, that of survival of those who stayed behind. 

In Nehanda, in the late nineteenth century white settlers and administrators arrive to occupy the African country of Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). Nehanda, a village girl, is recognized through omens and portents as a saviour. The resulting uprising by the Africans is brutally crushed but looks forward to the war of independence that succeeded a century later. Told in lucid, poetic prose, this is a gripping story about the first meeting of a people with their colonizer.

In Without a Name, in Zimbabwe, in 1977, in the midst of the guerrilla war raging against the white minority regime, a young woman escapes her war-ravaged village to go to the city, Harare. But the city has its own perils, and takes away considerably more than it offers. A moving, uncompromising novel, written in Vera?s graceful poetic style, about the horrors of war and oppression in the modern world and their effects on the individual soul.

In Under the Tongue, the adolescent Zhizha has lost the will to speak. In lyrical fragments, Vera relates the story of Zhizha's parents, and the horrifying events that led to her mother's imprisonment and her father's death. With this novel Vera became the first Zimbabwean writer ever to deal frankly with incest. With these surprising, at times shocking novels Vera shows herself to be a writer of great potential.

Butterfly Burning brings the brilliantly poetic voice of Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera to American readers for the first time. Set in Makokoba, a black township, in the late l940s, the novel is an intensely bittersweet love story. When Fumbatha, a construction worker, meets the much younger Phephelaphi, he"wants her like the land beneath his feet from which birth had severed him." He in turn fills her "with hope larger than memory." But Phephelaphi is not satisfied with their "one-room" love alone. The qualities that drew Fumbatha to her, her sense of independence and freedom, end up separating them. And the closely woven fabric of township life, where everyone knows everyone else, has a mesh too tight and too intricate to allow her to escape her circumstances on her own.
Vera exploits language to peel away the skin of public and private lives. In Butterfly Burning she captures the ebullience and the bitterness of township life, as well as the strength and courage of her unforgettable heroine.

The Stone Virgins is story set against the civil unrest of Zimbabwe in the early 1980s finds two sisters from the country town of Kezi struggling for survival in the face of terrible brutality and struggling with the rival temptations of town and city life.

*Side note: I always struggle on where to put Doris Lessing, who lived in Southern Rhodesia between 1925 and 1949, and had many novels set in, or about, Zimbabwe.  Her first novel, The Grass is Singing examined the racial divide in Rhodesia and follows the tragic love affair between Mary Turner - the wife of an unsuccessful farmer - and Moses - a black 'servant', and it was part of the African Writers Series. Then, there's The Golden Notebook, which weaves together four notebooks, including one notebook - the black notebook on Anna Wulf's life in Southern Rhodesia before and during World War II. Also, Martha Quest from the Children of Violence series grew up in Southern Rhodesia. There's also Doris Lessing's short story collection, African Stories which includes every story Lessing has written about the time she spent living on the African continent including stories from her first collection This was the Old Chief's Country, as well as stories from Five, The Habit of Loving and A Man and Two Women. As well as Mara and Dann - an epic SFF story set in the future in a re-imagined Africa and following an orphaned brother and sister travelling in search of water during a new ice age. The Sweetest Dream is set in London and a fictional African nation, Zimlia. This, of course, is not all of Lessing's cannon, which is extensive, including novels, short story collections, memoirs, poetry and more


On Firsts in African Literature: Five New(ish) Translated Works

I've been thinking a lot about firsts recently. Not first's in the sense of first kiss, or first love ... or even the extremely painful first heartbreak, but first's in African Literature - something I've been noticing the last few years.

The optimistic me wants to see it as African Literature gaining more prominence in global literary space - and in a genuine way. While also revealing the many wonderful literary texts and works that are written, created, published and produced from the African continent or the Diaspora. There are of course, probably more nuanced arguments and discussions around gatekeeping, and who decides which aspects of African literature gets published, but I'm sticking with my optimism around the exciting and new body of work coming out of Africa. 

There are many firsts I could have focused on, but for this post I am looking exclusively at works in translation in the last few years  … because there I have noticed a few firsts.

This includes the first ever Burudian novel in English – Baho by Roland Rugero, published by Phoneme Media in 2016, and follows 'an adolescent mute' whose attempt 'to ask a young woman in rural Burundi for directions to an appropriate place to relive himself' is 'mistaken as premeditation for rape.' It was translated from French by Christopher Schaefer. Also from Phoneme Media is the first novel to be translated into English from the Lingala, Mr. Fix It by Richard Ali A Mutu published in 2016. It follows Ebamba - a twenty-something Congolese man whose life seems to be falling apart in the chaotic megacity of Kinshasa. This was translated by Bienvenu Sene Mongaba and Sara Sene.

In a similar vein, Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields – published in 2017 – is the first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English – that was published by Restless Books. It is historical fiction delving into the upheaval of the nation's past as it confronted Christianity and modernity, through the twin narratives of a slave and his master's daughterIt was translated from French by Allison M. Charette. Also published in 2017 is Abdul Sila’s The Ultimate Tragedy - the first novel to be translated into English from Guinea Bissau, published by Dedalus Books and translated by Jethro Soutar. It is a tale of love and emerging political awareness in an Africa beginning to challenge the Portuguese colonial rule

Then this year saw the first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman to be translated into English, La Bastarda  by Trifonia Melibea Obono and published by Feminist Press. It is the story of an orphaned teen who finds herself falling in love with the leader of a gang of 'mysteriou's girls and rebelling against the rigid norms of Fang culture. It was translated by Lawrence Schimel. 

Another observation I've noticed is that all these firsts - at least the one's I am aware of - are all courtesy of small / independent presses: Dedalus Books, Feminist Press, Phoneme Media, Restless Books. Another one is that out of the 5 books in this post, only one is from a woman writer. Are women in translated fiction in general, and translated fiction from Africa specifically less likely to be translated? 

Well, according to this article on English Pen 'fewer books by women are published in translation: only around 30%'. This figure is for the UK and US - according to Meytal Radzinski, the founder of the initiative - Women In Translation Month, which was launched in 2014 and happens every August. Also, 'as only 3.5% of published literary fiction is in translation ... women who write in languages other than English are a minority within a minority. Their voices are barely heard.

What have I missed? Are there any other firsts in translated African Fiction? Let me know. 

Fictional African Nations and Towns ... by African Writers

Map of Orisha

Many, if not all of us, know about Zamunda and Wakanda – fictional African nations from Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America and Marvel’s Black Panther. There are, of course, other fictional African countries in many books, films and series fromthe West. What about fictional African nations created by African writers? Well, here’s a list of some African nations (and some towns), including mythical lands that are either fully, or partly, inspired by an African country or countries.

Free Republic of Abruria in Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (2006)
In Ngugi wa Thiong'o's 784-page farce, we follow the demise of the dictator known as “the Ruler” in the mythical Free Republic of Aburiria, as he battles with an unemployed young man who embraces the mantle of a magician.

Afromacoland in Chief the Honourable Minister by T.M. Aluko  (1970)

Aluko’s fourth novel Chief the Honourable Minister, tells the story of Alade Moses, a school principal who has been appointed Minister of Works in the corrupt government of the newly independent, and fictional, republic of Afromacoland.

Alcacia in Making Wolf by Tade Thompson (2015)
"Alcacia isn't kind to anyone", is one of many things you need to know about the fictional West Africa nation Thompson creates for his debut and Kitschie award-winning novel Making Wolf. Weston Kogi and his sister fled Alcacia in the middle of a civil war many years ago, but now Weston is back following the death of his aunt – who cared for him and his sister after their mother passed away, and ensured their safe passage to London.

Ewawa In The Death Certificate by Alobwed'Epie (2004)
The Death Certificate resolves around Mongo Meka - Treasurer General, and Acting Director General of the Central Bank of fictional Ewawa, who embezzles a ton of money from his nation and people.

Kangan in Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe (1984)
Chris, Ikem and Sam are all friends in the fictional West African nation of Kangan, newly independent of British rule. Sam is the Sandhurst-educated President of Kangan, Chris is a member of the president's cabinet for life, and Ikem is editor of the state-run newspaper.

Katamalanasia in Life and a Half by Sony Lab’ou Tansi (1977, English translation in 2011)
Sony Lab‘ou Tansi tells the tale of a cannibalistic dictator,  The Providential Guide - the latest in a series of cannibalistic dictators - who rules over the fake republic of Katamalanasia, and has captured Martial, the leader of the opposition, and his family.

Kos in Tochi Onyebuchi's Beasts made of Night (2017)
The walled city Kos - based on Lagos in Nigeria - is ruled by the elite Kaya family and dominated by the priest-like Mages who can magically call forth sin from a sinner in the form of sin-beasts. Then, there are the sin-eating young aki. Seventeen-year old Taj is the strongest of the aki, but with big sins bursting to be set free, soon Taj is running for his life.

Orïsha in Children of Blood and Bones by Tomi Adeyemi (2018)
A 525-page epic set in the world of Orïsha, a land that once shone with magic until the ruthless King Saran killed the maji, leaving the young Zeile without her mother and her people without hope. Now, there are only divîners, people with latent magical abilities, physically represented by white hair. Zeile now has a chance to bring back magic with the help of a rogue princess.

Olondria in A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (2013)
In Samnatar's debut, Jevick, the pepper merchant’s son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home—but which his mother calls the Ghost Country. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick’s life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. Just as he revels in Olondria’s Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.

In an interview with Geoff Ryman on Strange Horizons, Samatar explains the influences behind Olondria:

I sort of had the Ottoman Empire in my head—the Ottoman Empire of the Tulip Era, if the printing press had taken off. But honestly, Olondria is a hodgepodge. It’s heavily influenced by a trip I took before writing the book: I spent a couple of months traveling in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. And it also draws significantly on Egypt, especially Alexandria, where I did most of the major revisions. The Tea Islands, where Jevick lives, are influenced by South Sudan, where I was living when I wrote the first draft.

The Outzone in Taty Went West by Nikhil Singh's (2015)
The Outzone was a place where people went to escape. It was large enough for anyone to lose themselves in, a feverish sanctuary for those seeking to escape their lives 
In Nikhil Singh’s debut Taty runs away from her home in the suburbs of the Lowlands Into the Outzone “a forest of dead time, a necrotic wonderland, a province of waking coma where time itself had grown sickly and died.” to escape from something terrible she has done. Taty is around fifteen/sixteen at the beginning of the story. Once in the Outzone she is captured by Miss Muppet, and taken to the malicious imp, Alphonse Guava's, lair where she meets a number of interesting characters including Number Nun (a robotic, sex slave nun), the zombie Typhoid Mary, The Sugar Twins - a pair of 'Detachable Siamese', and the overweight Michelle 'nailed to a large wooden cross'. 

Zululand is a model for the Outzone. The town of Namanga Mori is based on Durban, which is full of art deco architecture. It has the strongest strain of marijuana in the world. It doesn't feel like Africa, but is this weird Jurassic town. It feels like the woods are full of dinosaurs. The mountains nearby, the foothills of the Drakensberg cast long shadows so that twilight lasts for an hour and a half. The place is full of predators—sharks, black mambas, and 'tokoloshes'.

Invisible town of Tukwan in Woman of the Aeroplanes by Kojo Laing (1988)
Surrounded by mist, invisible to the corrupt power centre of Kumasi, Tukwan is a unique space. To qualify to live in Tukwan, a person must be different, non-conformist – ‘everybody had to have one element of originality before he or she could continue to stay in the town’

There are also unnamed African country’s, including the unnamed African state which has just attained independence in A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe (1966), aand the post-apocalyptic African country in Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010).

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