Review of The Place of Tears - International Library of African Studies

The Place of Tears: The Novel and Politics in Modern Zimbabwe
Ranka Primorac
International Library of African Studies, 17.
London and New York: I. B. Tauris.
Distributed in Zimbabwe by Weaver Press 
Reviewer: Patricia Alden- (Africa Today, 54.3 (2008), St Lawrence University )


A Place of Tears is an important contribution to the study of Zimbabwean literature; it is also a carefully theorized and original approach to postcolonial literature. Primorac grounds her methodology in the work of M. M. Bakhtin and critics from the Zagreb school, arguing that these scholars developed a nuanced materialist approach to texts, one that honors the conditions of production and the intertextuality of local and global literary traditions. This theoretical framework arose in circumstances—shared with Zimbabwe—in which the functions of literature were conditioned by a fragile and imperfect form of nationalism. A Place of Tears would be an excellent work to include in a graduate seminar on critical theory, inasmuch as Primorac spells out with great clarity the rationale for, assumptions behind, and implications of each of her theoretical moves.

A Place of Tears is one of two indispensable works on Zimbabwean literature, the other being Flora Veit-Wild’s 1992 Teachers, Preachers, Non-Believers: A Social History of Zimbabwean Literature. The wide-ranging, periodizing approach of Veit-Wild, which provides historical and social contexts chiefly for preindependence literature, is well complemented by Primorac’s focus on six postindependence writers—Chinodya, Dangarembga, Hove, Kanengoni, Maraire, and Vera—and by the sophistication of the close readings that she gives of many of their novels. Primorac has coedited, with Robert Muponde, an important collection of critical essay, Versions of Zimbabwe: New Approaches to Literature and Culture (2005).

As was evident in the introductory essay to this edited volume, Primorac emphasizes two key points: that creative writing is connected to, resists, and intervenes in political culture, and that literary criticism should see the three strands of Zimbabwean literature as parts of a whole—the black anglophone tradition, white writing, and the indigenous-language traditions. She chooses to focus her close readings in A Place of Tears on the black anglophone tradition, but her early chapters locate this literature in the context of what she terms the “Rhodesian chronotope,” a Bakhtinian-related concept, which serves as the frame for narratives in each of the three traditions and indeed for postindependence political narratives.

Space and time are often considered as the background against which plot and character development are played out. Following Bakhtin, Primorac proposes that the space–time world conditions everything, most particularly human agency. Further, she proposes that the Rhodesian chronotope delineated a world of rigid boundaries and differentiated power relations—a world in which identity is firmly linked to space (with black and white spaces defined), movement to or from rural and urban spaces is almost impossible, the distinction “within Rhodesia” and “beyond Rhodesia” is radical, and change into a different, better future cannot be imagined (black rule conceived of as a loss of civilization).

This Rhodesian chronotope, this mindset, has been singularly long-lived, extending far beyond independence, as the new state at first failed to make changes to land ownership (dominated by whites) and then invoked “black and white” racial distinctions to define its regime, twenty years after independence, proclaiming the necessity for a new liberation struggle (chimurenga) to resolve the land question and overthrow spatial divisions. Primorac argues that the current state is, as much as Rhodesia, trapped in a world that cannot imagine changes in these absolute distinctions, in which yet another chimurenga is constantly needed, and yet never comes in a fully liberatory way.

Primorac reads the novels of these six black anglophone writers against this Rhodesian chronotope, showing how each author inherits a particular “space-time” and history and shows characters struggling to achieve greater freedom of movement, enhanced sense of agency, and a less-determined, more chosen identity. Examples include Marita’s movement to the city in Bones, Tambudzai’s movement from rural home to mission to white urban school in Nervous Conditions, and guerillas’ efforts that create a space-time of war that directly challenges the old chronotope (Harvest of Thorns, Echoing Silences).

Primorac also argues that none of these novelists successfully imagines a character entirely freed of the old constraints, who moves into a new space-time of greater freedom for everyone. All these writers choose not to show independence as a break in time; the impediments and the violence that characterize the Rhodesian world continue beyond independence, and the winning of the war is shown with ambivalence, captured in oxymoronic titles like Harvest of Thorns and Echoing Silences and thematically in Vera’s The Stone Virgins.

Primorac’s theoretical base enables compelling readings of individual novels; I single out in particular the detailed readings of Bones, Nehanda, and The Stone Virgins. Along the way, Primorac cogently summarizes other critical readings of these texts, and she does an excellent job of analyzing two major collections of criticism on Dangarembga and Vera. This book is essential for any student of Zimbabwean literature—a powerful contribution to well-theorized critical works about African and postcolonial literature.