Tshuma won the Yvonne Vera Award, was shortlisted for the Zimbabwe Achievers Literature Award and is currently a Maytag Fellow for MFA Creative Writing at Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Bulawayo describes her work as “fierce and unsentimental”, much like the raw and moving essay she wrote about what sparked these stories off in her head:
The Spark: Shadows by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
2010: New wave of xenophobic attacks, South Africa. There were things which had come to lodge themselves in my throat, like crust; a lot of anger and something unpleasant, like envy. Wanting to belong to spaces that seemed to hold on so firmly to their identity in the way I saw my own, as a ‘displaced’ Zimbabwean, tinged by a shade of, in this new environment called South Africa, insincerity. There is an unsettling sense of impermanence in being in a space that is not your own, in which you cannot fully invest as, for example, a voter, a builder, but rather exist as a rather parasitic form, sucking and being sucked, and hoping to plough your sweat back in your own country. It was this which forced me to sit down and have a conversation with my homeland.
The move from Zimbabwe to South Africa had been, for my family, although an improvement in the quality of living – no more scrambling for food or money – a rift in many other ways; displacement, the humiliation that sometimes comes with being a foreigner, the surface formation of friendships, impermanence. It made what I had experienced in my country all the more poignant, all the more bruising. It made me feel ‘raw’.
The early drafts of Shadows were a different kind of raw, though. Written in the first person female voice, in a township setting, which comes with all its patriarchal connotations, they read as a narrative whose struggle for female emancipation overshadowed all other aspects, something this story was not and could not be about. I switched to the male voice, and, ironically, Mpho, with all of his issues and entitlements and patriarchal tendencies, began to speak more honestly for me.
It’s strange, trying to write about the urban experience of my country in the past decade; one remembers not the pain, but the laughter. As Mpho says in Shadows, where I come from, people do not cry; we may make fun of our sorrow, even laugh at it, but we do not cry. And so, it’s not the long hours spent in mealie-meal queues one remembers, but the women squawking and clawing at one another as they fought over a bag of mealie-meal. How, in the face of severe shortages and those days of bloomas – that ugly, emaciated bun which substituted for real, yeasty, delicious bread – the baker suddenly had a power currency which had been formerly reserved for sugar daddies and businessmen. That memorable ruling party jingle that trended like the latest American R n B songs, that had children wriggling their behinds on dusty townships streets: ‘Tony Blair, the Blair-ya that I knowuuu is a toi-le-tee!’ The Blair toilet is a pit latrine used in the rural areas of Zimbabwe. It was designed in the 1970s courtesy of the Blair Research Institute.
We remember the loved ones we lost, and something clinches our chests; those we loved who could have been saved had there been half-way decent service at the hospitals, those we heard were being thrashed in the rural areas for practising the ‘wrong’ politics, those who dared to voice a different truth – the Jestina Mukokos the Owen Masekos. Those real and those who swelled into myth – because it was just so unbelievable, you see – who have become a cinematography of dancing Shadows. It makes one ask, ‘Who am I? What does it mean, to be Zimbabwean in this space and time? The individual and society, the personal and the political, self and country?’
Mpho’s mother, Mama… She is a mesh of everything, of stories I heard, people I knew, memories, histories, yearnings, make-believe, all meshed into one. It was only fitting for me that she be a prostitute, loaded with an animating history and a life that was not without its glorious, memorable moments, but a prostitute, nonetheless; how else to explain this incestuous act we as a people had been having with our country? Raping it, plundering it, all the while with big grins plastered on our faces? It had become a way of life, this, black market this, black market that, a new, suave level of bhundu economics, that was profiting a few and hurting many.
And then of course, these relations between people and country which are complicated, because they sometimes intersect intimately at smaller, less formal dialogues; the histories shared by Zimbabwe’s Ndebele and South Africa’s Zulu tribes which, given Zimbabwe’s delicate state, intensified identity disillusionment, leading Ndebele Zimbabweans to want to lay claim to a South African identity. This was done with a manic, utopic expectation that was at once painful and because false, led to further disillusionment. I was trying to explore, trying to remember, trying to conjure up, trying to deal with this ‘Zimbabwean humanity’, my humanity.
More on Shadows here
(*The Spark is inspired by John Scalzi’s The Big Idea. African diaspora writers and publishers: want to write about your new-ish book? Please go to the debut post here and scroll to the bottom for guidelines on pitching.)
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