Zim­bab­wean fe­male writ­ers on the rise

BOOK RE­VIEW

CityPress - - Voices - PANASHE CHIGU­MADZI voices@city­press.co.za

The Book of Mem­ory by Petina Gap­pah Faber & Faber 240 pages R210 at takealot.com

‘Their at­ti­tude was im­plic­itly rooted in the lan­guage it­self. Bofu is in noun class, de­not­ing things, just like benzi, the word for a mad per­son. Chirema, like a chi­mu­mumu, is in noun class seven, also de­not­ing things, ob­jects, life­less ob­jects or in­com­plete, de­fi­cient per­sons. As mu­run­gudunhu or mu­sope, I find my­self with nor­mal peo­ple in noun class one. But mu­run­gudunhu is heavy with mean­ing. As a mu­run­gudunhu, I am a black per­son who is im­bued not with the white­ness of mu­rungu, of priv­i­lege, but of dunk, of ridicule and fak­ery, a ghastly white­ness.”

So goes the para­graph that was to be my first en­counter with The Book of Mem­ory, the first novel by Petina Gap­pah.

It was a re­minder of Gap­pah’s gift for un­earthing and ren­der­ing com­plex­ity and mean­ing in the seem­ingly triv­ial and un­re­mark­able as she did through­out An El­egy for East­erly, her de­but short story col­lec­tion which won her the Guardian First Book Award – the se­cond Zim­bab­wean af­ter Dam­budzo Marechera to do so.

Mem­ory is what Shona-speak­ing Zim­bab­weans might deri­sively call a mu­run­gudunhu (an al­bino woman). She has been ac­cused of mur­der­ing Lloyd, the white man who raised her in the wealthy Harare sub­urb of Umwin­si­dale af­ter her im­pov­er­ished par­ents mys­te­ri­ously sold her to him when she was nine.

In this book, we are privy to Mem­ory’s tes­ti­mo­nial of her un­usual cir­cum­stances to a “white jour­nal­ism woman” from Amer­ica, who vis­its her pe­ri­od­i­cally in the in­fa­mous women’s sec­tion of Chiku­rubi Prison to bear wit­ness to the trial of the third woman on death row in the coun­try’s his­tory.

Al­though an­chored in Harare in the 2000s, The Book of Mem­ory un­folds it­self al­most seam­lessly be­tween Zim­babwe of sev­eral eras past and present, in­clud­ing the pre-lib­er­a­tion war Zim­babwe and post-in­de­pen­dence Zim­babwe of the 1980s.

In set­ting out Mem­ory’s Zim­babwe, Gap­pah takes care to ren­der a so­ciopo­lit­i­cal set­ting that does not over­whelm the de­vel­op­ment of char­ac­ters and plot.

As Mem­ory re­counts her life and the cir­cum­stances that led to the mur­der of her sus­pected sugar daddy, a line is drawn be­tween the ngozi spirit which dis­as­trously con­trols the lives of her poor Mu­fakose fam­ily and the Greek myth of Oedi­pus, which like­wise con­trols Lloyd’s ec­cen­tric in­tel­lec­tual and do­mes­tic pur­suits.

In the end we dis­cover that Mem­ory and Lloyd are both so­ci­etal out­casts, re­garded with “fear-laced fas­ci­na­tion and sus­pi­cion” as they move be­tween senses of dis­lo­ca­tion and of be­long­ing with each other and the wider world.

This am­bi­tious plot is car­ried con­vinc­ingly by Gap­pah’s near-flaw­less prose, which might be the re­sult of her for­mer job as a le­gal of­fi­cer draft­ing judg­ments at the World Trade Or­gan­i­sa­tion’s Ap­pel­late Body where, she says, she learnt to “write clearly, con­cisely and crisply to con­vey mean­ing us­ing the sim­plest words pos­si­ble”.

In the end the novel’s snag might be found in Gap­pah’s use of the term ‘white jour­nal­ism woman’.

This nar­ra­tive de­vice al­lows for a slip in con­sis­tency of voice. Mem­ory be­gins her ac­count clum­sily and rather inar­tic­u­lately, be­tray­ing a sense of her less than ur­bane roots in Mu­fakose, as seen in the very de­scrip­tion of a white jour­nal­ism woman.

And yet, by the end of the book her voice leaves us fully con­vinced of her Umwin­si­dale bona fides. Per­haps this might be seen as in­dica­tive of the way in which a firmer grasp of her life cir­cum­stances leaves her with a sense of clar­ity and self-pos­ses­sion.

The other slip is that Gap­pah is given to so­ciopo­lit­i­cal and an­thro­po­log­i­cal in­dul­gences, pre­sum­ably for the ben­e­fit of the “white jour­nal­ism woman’s” au­di­ence.

Thank­fully, this is some­what mit­i­gated by the fact that Gap­pah is un­apolo­getic in her use of lo­cal and Shona id­iom.

As she stated in an in­ter­view in African Writ­ing: “I am more will­ing to take the risk that the reader will fail to get some­thing, than I am will­ing to risk los­ing the reader by con­de­scend­ing to ex­plain ev­ery­thing.”

With this am­bi­tious se­cond of­fer­ing, Gap­pah firmly so­lid­i­fies her place within the canon of both Zim­bab­wean and wider global lit­er­a­ture.

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