Saturday, May 28, 2011

Book 64, Zimbabwe: "Zenzele" by Nozipo Maraire

Ah, I was feeling regretful that I wasn't reading Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions this month, given that it's supposedly one of Africa's 12 best novels of the 20th century.

But Zenzele: A Letter to My Daughter's been sitting on my shelf for maybe two years, ever since I picked it up for next to nothing at a library book sale. And one of my priorities for this reading journey is simply to clear out my own house.

Luckily, Zenzele turns out to be very good. It's a little didactic at first, as the mother Shiri earnestly impresses her advice on her daughter leaving to study in Boston: one must not neglect the ancestral village of Chakowa; one must not be too dismissive of one's traditions, even the apparently chauvinistic custom of lobola, the bride-price; one must be proud of one's identity even in the heathen den that is America. Still readable, of course, and very reminiscent of any Southeast Asian mother's instructions to honour the kampung/guxiang/barangay.

But Shiri's also talking about generations - how this generation takes everything for granted, having been spoiled by their revolutionary parents who wanted so badly for them to have everything that was denied to blacks in the colonial days of Rhodesia. And then she begins relating thrilling, intimate stories of these revolutionary days of the '60s and '70s: the American girl Sister Africa who mee her father while detained on Robben Island; the housemaid/spy Timawo who works for a bigoted British Commander and steals all his plans by acting stupid; her husband's pan-African activities in American colleges, protesting ignorant white anthropologists who only want to hear drumming.

I hadn't realised how Zimbabwe also had to go through a whole traumatic period of decolonisation, with "Only Whites" signs in the shops and armed struggle: the little girls switching their game of counting the animals in the jungle to counting the guerrilla soldiers. All this overshadowed by the anti-apartheid struggle to their South and the current mess under Robert Mugabe, which has actually been yielding some interesting theatre pieces about the shared oppression of poor blacks and whites, according to Theatre in Sub-Saharan Africa. (I'm in NYC now, so I can't refer to the book and give you names.)

Seems like Zimbabwe has quite a literary tradition! I could've read Doris Lessing and gotten away with it for this country, y'know? Once again, everything's eclipsed by South Africa, darn them.

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Representative quote:
My name shall never appear on the roster of famous battles. To be sure, no great landscape or colossal sculpture or impassioned poem shall bear my signature. I shall not be flying to Rome or London or Oslo for any awards. It is true that I have had no great visions. But I have loved, and surely, this is enough. It is to have tasted from the cup of milk and honey.

Next book: Malama Katulwende's "Bitterness", from Zambia.

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