Imag­i­na­tion has the power to fly you away

In Siphiwe Glo­ria Ndlovu’s de­but novel there is no dis­tinc­tion be­tween the real and the mag­i­cal, writes

Sunday Times - - Contents - Kate Si­d­ley @KateSi­d­ley

Imo­gen “Ge­nie” Zula Ny­oni, the gap­toothed hero­ine of Siphiwe Glo­ria Ndlovu’s de­but novel, The The­ory of Flight, is said to have hatched from a golden egg. She in­hab­its an idyl­lic child­hood, play­ing among the sun­flow­ers with her friend Mar­cus. Her life changes when adult con­cerns in­ter­fere. Mar­cus’s par­ents take him away. And sol­diers — the feared red berets — bring death and hor­ror to the vil­lage. When the au­thor was just seven the men with the red berets en­tered her own idyl­lic child­hood on the plot of land her grand­fa­ther owned in Zimbabwe. “I re­mem­ber the sun­flow­ers and hav­ing that space to let my imag­i­na­tion run wild. And I also know we had droughts, we had the men with the red berets. My mem­o­ries of my child­hood have to con­tain both those things. Not to take away from the atroc­ity, but peo­ple are able to go through hor­ri­ble things and still live and laugh and love each other.”

This is the chal­lenge of post-colo­nial lit­er­a­ture, says Ndlovu. “How do we tell the story of where we come from without re­duc­ing it to the doom and gloom you see on the TV news?”

The novel is set in an un­named south­ern African coun­try — a smart choice which re­lieves her of the bur­den of a real coun­try’s deep his­tory and in­evitable com­plex­ity. She is able to look at the is­sues of Zimbabwe — war and HIV and home­less­ness run through this book — without them over­whelm­ing the es­sen­tially hu­man story, the story of Ge­nie’s life, and the au­thor’s other themes: love and loss and friend­ship and the trans­for­ma­tive power of imag­i­na­tion.

The tale emerges through the lives of a few fam­i­lies and in­trigu­ing char­ac­ters, from colo­nial times to the present. There’s Ge­nie’s fa­ther, Golide Gumede, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary who en­dured Soviet win­ters to study aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer­ing and build a plane, “be­cause he un­der­stood that af­ter the war — when in­de­pen­dence ar­rived — peo­ple would need to know that they were ca­pa­ble of flight”. And her mother, El­iz­a­beth Ny­oni, a self-styled Dolly Par­ton in a blonde wig, with dreams of Nashville. There are farm­ers, war vet­er­ans, a jour­nal­ist, street kids and the bru­tal bu­reau­crats of The Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Do­mes­tic Af­fairs.

Ndlovu is a gifted sto­ry­teller, skill­fully in­ter­weav­ing the real and the mag­i­cal, beauty and dev­as­ta­tion, his­tor­i­cal and per­sonal per­spec­tives, sim­plic­ity and com­plex­ity. She has a vivid imag­i­na­tion and the tale shim­mers with magic, though she balks at the “mag­i­cal re­al­ism” la­bel. “I sim­ply told this story as hon­estly as I could, in the way sto­ries have al­ways been told around me, with no dis­tinc­tion be­tween what is mag­i­cal and what is real. My job as a writer is not to con­fine my imag­i­na­tion, but to use all the el­e­ments I need.”

Her back­ground as a film­maker in­forms her writ­ing: “It was im­por­tant to me to try to cap­ture all of what was hap­pen­ing from the best van­tage point I could have. As a writer you have this allsee­ing abil­ity but in real life you only see some­thing from a cer­tain an­gle. So each char­ac­ter sees Ge­nie dif­fer­ently, and she has a def­i­nite un­der­stand­ing of her­self, even when the other char­ac­ters don’t. When you have mul­ti­ple view­points and voices, there is nu­ance.”

She adds: “I ex­pe­ri­ence the world vis­ually and try to com­mu­ni­cate that vi­sion through the care­ful use of words.

If I can’t get you to see why Golide has fallen in love with El­iz­a­beth’s an­kle, then I’ve failed.”

In this case, she suc­ceeds — both in the telling of Golide’s an­kle-in­spired in­fat­u­a­tion, and in the book it­self, which is a mar­vel­lous and un­usual flight of fancy. When Ge­nie dies, and flies away on huge sil­ver wings, she will take a lit­tle piece of your heart with her.

The The­ory of FlightSiphiwe Glo­ria Ndlovu, Pen­guin Books, R270

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