House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (2018) Zimbabwe

Bukhosi, 17 years old, 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, but 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.

House of Stone is a novel in three parts, Book One centres around Zamani’s determination to befriend his landlord Abed, accompanying him in his misery as he searches for his son, applying subtle, manipulative, and ultimately devastating pressure on him, prising Abed’s family history open, in order to find a way in. In Book Two his focus is on converting Mama Agnes and the final slim Book Three are a series of revelations.

We know from the opening pages that Zamani and Bukhosi were together when he disappeared, along with their friend and mentor Dumo, though nothing of what we know is ever shared with Abed and Agnes.

I’m the one who’s survived and he’s the one who’s disappeared, thanks to those mad antics of his. Poof! Like a spoko. He too was gobbled up by one of those police vans the day of the Mthwakzi rally, and has not been regurgitated since.

Like Bukhosi, I doubt I’ll ever see Dumo again. It was he who taught me that a man could remake himself by remaking his past. So when Abednego said I was like a son to him and that he would, from then on, call me his surrogate son, I felt a swell of pride and the prick of opportunity. Perhaps, as my surrogate father’s son, I can be blessed with sole familial affection and, in this way, finally powder away the horrors of my own murky hi-story bequeathed to me by parents I never knew.

As he draws the personal and family history out of Abed and Agnes, we traverse 50 tumultuous years in the region, years Abed would prefer not to remember, they contain his happiest and most traumatic memories, as the country witnesses the death of colonial Rhodesia and the bloody birth of modern Zimbabwe.

It’s a discomforting read, the author doesn’t hold back with the detail, some scenes come at you so quickly, you don’t have time to look away. In that respect I remembered the visceral detail of a novel I couldn’t finish, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Somehow, despite those scenes, I was able to continue with this book, but I was put into a state of literary vigilance for much of it, which wasn’t always comfortable. Humanity showed itself to be unpredictable and despicable in its newfound possession of unregulated power. It was a bittersweet victory that saw the introduction of a despot leader and made an entire population feel unsafe.

One of the periods we are taken back to was the Gukurahundi, (a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1987. It derives from a Shona language term which loosely translates to “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”). I hadn’t heard of this term, and in the novel the younger generation hadn’t either. Zamani pressures Abed to tell him:

Isn’t this the hi-story Bukhosi always wanted to know, before he went missing? For which he got a beating whenever he asked our father ‘Baba, what happened in the ’80s, what was the Gukurahundi?

That was the Gukurahundi, Bukhosi. It was the lead rain of our new country, Zimbabwe, sent to wash away us, the chaff. It was the state-sponsored murder of twenty thousand of your kin. How was our father to tell you that? How was he to tell you that within that number were the only two people he ever really loved?

On reading this, I was compelled to look it up, it’s not a story you want to linger on, nor are they images you want to see. You don’t have to read far to learn that none of the perpetrators have been held accountable for the atrocities committed. Those implicated include many who became or are now senior political figures in the Zimbabwean government.

In an interview, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma when asked about setting her novel amidst the backdrop of this massacre, said:

“We speak about the Liberation War all the time. But when it comes to the genocide, it is always a matter of shutting it down,” she says, adding that by not addressing the psychological, social and communal issues, by not acknowledging people have died, healing cannot begin.

House of Stone “dzimba dza mabwe” or “Zimbabwe” in Shona comes from her personal quest to learn more about that dark spot in modern Zimbabwean history, the ethnic cleansing/genocide carried out against the Ndebele people in the early 1980s after the liberation struggle. The strengths of her characters come from an immersion into reading first hand personal accounts of people who survived that period, works that are not available in Zimbabwe, that she was able to access from the Iowa University library when she was studying her MFA.

Interested in the question of whether it is possible for a person, or a nation to rewrite itself, it will become the central motive of her flawed protagonist Zamani and finds that present day Zimbabwe has some parallels. Since the political coup that recently ousted Robert Mugabe, a new President has announced to the population that the past is dead.

When Tshuma began asking questions about the Gukurahundi of her immediate family, including her mother and Uncle, they were visibly upset – people continue to be haunted, they haven’t found closure for the dead, nor been able to process their experiences to heal from them.

I was reminded of the experience of reading Han Kang’s Human Acts, a powerful novel that centered around the little known Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980, that she discovered by accident and became haunted by. It left her with pressing questions she explored through the novel.

Despite the traumatic events that haunt or affect every character, the plot of House of Stone moves swiftly with its well fleshed out characters, sense of mystery, its rage, outrage and her own brand of wit – including the hypocritical Reverend who Zamani doesn’t trust.

Did that Reverend Nobody really think he could take me on? Did he really think he could come out as the hero in all of this, mooching off my hard work, destroying my relations with my surrogate family.

It’s an accomplished novel that confronts harsh truths and pursues questions about the reinvention of a nation and the individual. A gifted storyteller who has been able to weave the essence of those personal narratives into richly formed characters that goes some way towards acknowledging a history no-one will talk about. Bereft of redemption, a feeling that pervades the narrative and one that seems to hold many in its grip today worldwide.

The interview below provides an interesting addition to the reading experience, exploring the fictitious and the personal – in particular given that some of the perpetrators of those traumatic events still hold positions of power today.

Further Reading/Listening:

rFi The World And All Its Voices: Honoring those who lived through Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi in Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s novel, House of Stone

Review:  Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers

Buy a Copy via Book Depository

We Need New Names

I came across this title by NoViolet Bulawayo when it made the long list for the Man Booker Prize 2013.  A new voice and it comes across as fresh, bold and unique. Though I was disappointed not to see Americanah on the list, I was curious to read this book, as it had been suggested it had a similar premise, narrated from a younger character’s point of view and a different country, the protagonist, Darling, is from a rural Zimbabwean village (Ifemulu came from the Nigerian city of Lagos in Adchie’s book).

NoVioletIf there are similarities, it is that they both describe a life before and after they traverse an ocean to live in the new land, however in Darling’s case, her overstaying means that unlike Ifemulu in Americanah, she will not return, for to return having broken the rules is to limit one’s future options – all this despite the grand sacrifices that will be made, in order to live in the land of dreams, they refer to as Paradise.

Their styles are very different though, the only similarity being that geographic shift and the associated perception of another culture as an outsider.  In terms of the reading experience, I find something more in common between the voices Donal Ryan channels in The Spinning Heart and NoViolet Bulawayo’s voice of Darling.  They both have a way of portraying their characters that invokes a feeling  like someone standing too close to your face, they make you feel like you need to step back to get a better view, somewhat difficult when reading for the first time.

We meet Darling with her friends as they are heading over to Budapest (a wealthier neighbourhood) to pick guavas, to relieve a few trees from the burden of their fruit, to steal.  The first half of the book follows this group of friends and their daily life in a small village, where they now live in much rougher conditions despite the promises of independence, due to the destruction of homes by a government set on destroying what is deemed unsightly or was it an act of revenge against the tide of discontent. Either way, their home is now one room, their father is absent but they have each other.

“If you’re stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. That way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do, stealing not just a tiny piece but a whole country. Who can ever forget you stole something like that?”

Running alongside the events of the children’s’ lives are the undercurrents of a changing political situation, an increasing frustration with the democratic process, the heightened anger of communities and mobs; eventually Darling is sent to America to live with her Aunt.

“When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky. They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands, their blistered prayers muttered in the darkness of queer lands.”

zimbabwe mapAmerica isn’t what she expects, her cousin is not like her friends, the snow and coldness are not like the village, the sky is not like the sky, her thin Aunt pacing the room exercising in front of the TV is not like her mother and her Uncle who comes home, watches sport and shouts Touchdown, unlike her father or the men from the village either.

They are  invited to a wedding, a day that might be a metaphor for the entire immigrant and cultural experience, all the misunderstandings and reminders of a past life wrapped up in one anecdote after the other, they manifest in the drive there, the interactions with guests, and those unspoken rules of engagement in a foreign culture, which Darling will be reminded of before the night is over.

Darling misses her friends and family and wishes to visit them, a topic that her Aunt either avoids or addresses in a vague manner. She will come to understand what she couldn’t know when she left, that it is unlikely she will ever return home. She consoles herself by calling.

“Well, what is happening over here is that your mother is finishing cooking istshwala and macimbis, and Sbho is standing there watching her and eating a guava. When Chipo announces this, I get a strange ache in my heart. My throat goes dry; my tongue salivates. I am remembering the taste of all these things, but remembering is not tasting, and it is painful. I feel tears start to come to my eyes and I don’t wipe them off.”

BulawayoNoViolet Bulawayo creates an unforgettable voice in her protagonist, a lens through which we witness part of what feels like an at times frightening and yet exhilarating childhood, with a naive awareness of the greater political events that will affect their futures. The life they live is not an easy one, and it may never be as appreciated as it will become through the act of leaving it all behind, as so many do, believing they are heading towards Paradise.  But even in America, when there is a lack of guidance and care, something similar occurs, the only difference being the kinds of activities unsupervised teenagers get up to in a modern city compared to a rural town or village.

Raw and in your face, each chapter is like a scene playing out as you read from the branch of a tree,  just out of danger.  Bulawayo invokes fear and dread in the reader as we encounter each episode and in the end, we are unsure which is preferable, a half lived life in  Not Really Paradise or that volatile, explosive community, still trying to find itself in Zimbabwe.

Interview – NoViolet Bulawayo talks to Irenosen Okojie about being a writer in diaspora, her writer’s process and the importance of the Caine Prize.

Note:  This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.