Review of Writing Still: New Stories from Zimbabwe - Richard Barlett

Writing Still: New Stories From Zimbabwe
edited by Irene Staunton
2005: (pp: 304) 205 x 135 mm
ISBN: 177922043X

The African Review of Books
2003
Reviewer: Richard Bartlett



Silence is not an option

The title of this new anthology of 24 stories from Zimbabwe says a great deal about the irrepressibility of speech: Writing Still. For a country with such an acute record of censorship and oppression it is surprising, more about pleasantly so, stuff to see such a collection of myriad voices placing their lives, salve and that of their country, so blatantly under scrutiny, and being given the space to do it.

But this collection is art, not journalism, and it is a contribution by 24 writers, different voices, many of whom are still living in Zimbabwe. Thus this collection is not one narrative, it is not the story of a country driven into the ground by one man; it is about the country's history, its people, its urban squalor, its class dynamics, its land, and its leader too, even if he never makes a direct appearance. He doesn't have to – that is the nature of art. And that is the strength of this anthology.

There is no way one book can replace the loss of the many voices, but for a world hungry to see behind the silences of a dictatorship, to see not so much what is happening, but more why it is happening, the historical background and the contradictory nature of misguided revolution, and how it is happening in everyday life, then this book takes us there.

The stories are arranged alphabetically, by author, so the journey one embarks on when picking up this book is not linear, it allows no preconceptions of journey through Rhodesia to Zimbabwe via revolution. Instead it is 24 snippets of life, beginning, and infused with, the ordinariness, the mundanity of life that was made possible only because the revolution over the racist Rhodesian state was victorious. Yet it is also the quotidian condensed such that the absurdities of life pour out of the pages.

The collection begins with 'Universal Remedy', which tells of two women, one rich and one poor, one urban and one rural, one black and one white, who come to share a life, and a vegetable garden. The collection ends, coincidentally, with a similar situation: white Zimbabwean finding common ground with black as they adjust to the absurdities of life in Mr Mugabe's Zimbabwe, finding ways of resisting and speaking out. But where it begins with a white departure, the collection ends with a white arrival, with an affirmation of shared experience, shared idiosyncrasies and shared resistance.

Between the departure and the arrival there are many others. The airport arrivals hall where a passionate kiss is the medium for diamond smuggling from the Congo, the husband who arrives home and has to grapple with the trauma of revealing his affair because of fear of HIV/AIDS, the forgotten father whose arrival leads to a daughter's departure, and the big black car which carries the grim reaper in the garb of a president who comes for a sick girl.

One story which deals with the excesses of the Zimbabwean state is Charles Mungoshi's 'The Sins of the Fathers'. The scene is a funeral for the victims of a road accident, two girls and their maternal grandfather. The tension is between the father of the two girls and his father, a former minister of state security. The son has disgraced his father by marrying into another ethnic group. The father has used his power to wreak revenge. Now a family mourns its multiple losses, and its inability to confront its country's heritage.

The collection brings together so many different 'I's which treat us to an experience of a country which is not just misery and deprivation. Yes these are omnipresent, but so are survival, resistance, comedy and even hope.

'Seventh Street Alchemy' tells of a prostitute who has slipped through the cracks of bureaucracy and now needs to get a birth certificate so her daughter can get a passport. But she can only do this if she can provide her parents' birth certificates. She has an opportunity to break out of this Catch-22, but only when she breaks the law and they realise they can't charge her because she doesn't officially exist.

One of the more disturbing stories, especially with the benefit of hindsight, is 'That Special Place' by Freedom Nyambaya. It tells of a young woman who leaves her final year of high school to cross the border of Rhodesia into Mozambique to join the liberation struggle. She is not welcomed as she expected; her education, especially in a woman, makes her a threat to the camp commander, which means in the process of becoming a guerrilla she also becomes a victim of torture. That special place is not one of pride but of escape.

This story is disturbing because it sheds light, intimate light, on how the revolution was hijacked, how personal desires and aspirations were allowed to turn revolution into little more than a changing of the guard, how small minds destroyed grand ideas.

At a different level the same idea, or revolution made little more than excuse, is given voice in 'Maria's Interview' by Julius Chingono. Maria has just been made redundant from her position as a domestic worker and with reference letter clutched in hand she goes for an interview at one of those large houses hidden behind fences and large gardens of Harare's northern suburbs. Her new prospective employer, Mrs Gahadzikwa, forces her to unpack her entire life on the lounge floor. The colour bar has gone, but the roles of maid and madam remain unchanged.

There are two issues which it would be improper to ignore when it comes to discussing Zimbabwe: gay rights and land. Both are dealt with in a number of the stories. 'The Ugly Reflection in the Mirror', by Alexander Kanengoni and first published in The Daily News, pits white landowner against one of the newly landed 'war veterans'. It is a meeting of equals, but the price is high.

Two stories dealing with gay rights tell of love lost, or never grasped. 'When Samora Died', by Annie Holmes, is more than a mere 'gay rights' story though. It is about the entrenched prejudices of white Zimbabweans, not just against blacks and communists, but 'homos' too. 'Mea Culpa' by Rory Kilalea, tells of a gay university student beginning to understand, and deny, his sexuality in a world of racism. He finds a voice to fight the racism and in doing so has to deal with the so many other remnants hiding in his closet.

This collection can be read for all the right reasons: to understand Zimbabwe, to hear what its people are saying, to see behind the barriers that Mr Mugabe has created, and those he has failed to dismantle, and because these Zimbabweans are [w]riting [s]till. But it should be read also because they [the writers] are able to write with beauty, with style that transcends ordinariness, because they weave hope and threads of brilliance and despair and survival into a multitude of narratives that turn Zimbabwe into more, much more, than one man's realm.

© The author/publisher