Review of Chioniso and Other Stories

'Wasafiri' Issue 2015

Chioniso and Other Stories
Shimmer Chinodya

Running with Mother
Christopher Mlalazi

Reviewed by Ranka Primorac

In these two engaging books by male Zimbabwean authors (one well established, the other coming up fast). The hackneyed notion of 'the Zimbabwean crisis' gives way to thoughtful probing of the continuities of love, suffering and change.

Shimmer Chinodya's writing career has, thus far, revolved around themes related to gender and (different kinds of) war. Together, the five novels for adults and a collection of short stories he has published between 1982 and 2012 represent an incremental fictionalised biography of the author himself and of his nation. In the ten stories collected in Chioniso, a central narrative figure that emerges is, yet again, what might be called 'a man in a scrape': a lone male actor caught in the middle of a risky, potentially emasculating adventure. In the best stories, this trope is separated from its more common incarnations in popular fiction by the subtle self-reflexivity with which the text imbues it. In the less successful ones, it edges close to unconvincing generalisation, overly direct moralising or needless explicitness.

In the collection 's opening story, 'Martha's Hero', it seems at first that the young protagonist (a village girl raped by a freedom fighter during the liberation war) is the character trapped by circumstances - until the very end, when a sudden, uncanny reversal intimates the presence of supernatural forces. Yet the story is slightly marred by occasional cliché-ridden, overly direct narratorial interventions ('She cannot speak for herself because she has had no control of things happening to her, or not. She has been a pawn in the scheme of things, be it the country, the land, or this war' (9)). This kind of direct, quasididactic style recurs on several
occasions throughout the volume, not to its advantage.

In 'Why not?' and 'Prisons on the Roads', however, it is the male characters that end up in a fix. As elsewhere in Chinodya, this is partly the result of their own actions. Similarly predictably, the male heroes end up bemoaning the ability of women to entrap men and extolling the virtues of gentle, undemanding women, who have the knack of anticipating a man's needs. In 'Queues', disturbingly, the role of a frustrated and entrapped man is aligned with the international position of 'crisis' engulfed Zimbabwe itself, while the international community is likened to a flirting, mini-skirted, teasing, frustrating woman. This story first appeared in Weaver Press's 2003 anthology, Writing Still. A decade later, its political and aesthetic ambivalence is not diminished. Yet the best stories in this collection are subtle, technically accomplished and thought provoking. In 'The Car', a gradual build-up of everyday incidents surrounding the car gifted by a diaspora based son-in-law to an ageing couple reveals the material and cultural conditions implied in the abstract notion of 'empowerment' – and how change becomes difficult when they are absent.

In 'Last Laugh', there is a poignant and exhilarating section conjuring up the urban lunch-hour in a working-class area:

[b]odies pushing, calloused work hands with square thumbs thrusting out plates, humbled backs bent forward, throats bobbing, hungry fingers pointing, eyes digging and turning in the gravy, throats already slurping, swallowing ahead of their turn. (138)

Ultimately, however, for this reader's taste, the most accomplished and moving story in the collection is the title story, 'Chioniso', In it, Chinodya takes up one of the key threads of his opus the fictional rendering of a difficult relationship between a middle-aged, troubled black male Zimbabwean writer and his family. Chioniso is a rebellious teenage daughter and the narrator is the strict father who limits her aspirations, yet manages to convey, through his own narrative, a sense of regret and self-awareness. The story is punctuated by questions: am I a racist, a traditionalist?

What would it mean if I were? The implied answer is that he may well be those things, but also that the fact he asks the questions relativises those very categories. In the end, the story turns out to be a moving message of love and reconciliation to the daughter – hidden in the one place we are told she never looks: her father's books.

Christopher Mlalazi is a fiction-writer and playwright. Running with Mother his second novel and third book-length publication - continues Chioniso's themes of family relationships in a very different context. Running is set in 1980s Matabeleland, at a time when the Zimbabwe government sent the national army to that province, ostensibly to quell a dissident rebellion but also to punish and subdue the ethnically Ndebele population, many of whom had supported Robert Mugabe's political rival Joshua Nkomo. The novel's narrator is Rudo, a young girl who is hounded out of her family home together with relatives, witnesses the massacres of civilians and is saved only by the fact that her mother (unlike her father) is Shona - the ethnic group of the ruling party.

The novel is centred on the Kezi district, made famous in literature by Yvonne Vera's 2002 novel The Stone Virgins, which also deals with the massacres. Running resembles Virgins in its detailed mapping of fictional space: Rudo traces the geography of her escape from the family's homestead in careful detail, and this unobtrusive narrative strategy underscores the sheer physical and logistic difficulty of the retreat executed by herself, her mother and aunt, her uncle Ndoro (who has lost his wits as a result of the shock he has experienced) and a baby, a young family survivor named Gift, who will later, in a symbolic gesture, be renamed Anovona (Shona for 'he who sees everything').

Mlalazi's style, however, could not be more different from Vera's. Rudo relates the events of her story in an understated, deliberately unobtrusive style, and is, as a character, almost devoid of psychology: her narrative simply records what she sees, accompanied by juvenile wonderment. The story of the escape is, however, interspersed with episodes of flashback, relating in more detail the past life of Rudo's family, now forever destroyed. All this lends Mlalazi's short novel an eerie, other-worldly quality, which is underscored by his refusal to describe the violence of this postcolonial war head-on. Rudo's story proceeds metonymically, which means that all she is able to experience are the consequences of the army's mass onslaught on civilians: a plume of smoke, blood on the ground, a headless body, a baby crying under a heap of rubble, and the most devastating national symptom of all - a national radio news bulletin containing no mention of the carnage, but reporting Prime Minister (as he was then) Mugabe's successful state visits overseas.

And yet, under conditions of near complete destruction, in the wasteland that Rudo's world has become, subtle but lasting cultural change begins to take place, and the manner in which this is represented is a key part of Mlalazi's novel's poignancy and subversive power. Rudo's Ndebele aunt, who had always looked down on her Shona mother, learns to stop doing so in conditions of near-starvation; runaway men (who consider themselves to be 'naturally' in charge of women and children) are forced to wear women's dresses to cover their nakedness.

Running with Mother is more than a simple indictment of past violence, it is also a representation of the forging of new understandings, bonds and habits, not planned or deliberate but by now deeply etched in unofficial collective memory.
In the short story entitled 'Tavonga' in Chinodya's Chioniso, a character says: 'What is not yours is not yours'. The reference is to the Shona proverb which, in more literal translation, means 'You have no power over what is not yours'.

Between them, Chinodya's and Mlalazi's thought-provoking new works hint at subtle yet deep-running shifts in the cultural logics of loyalty, ownership and power in modern Zimbabwe.