On New Zimbabwean Literature

The line between “here” and “there” is unusually blurry for Zimbabweans.

Wallen Mapondera, Abandoned Hive 3. 2017, mixed media. 49.6 × 86.6". Courtesy of SMAC Gallery. © Wallen Mapondera.

Panashe Chigumadzi, These Bones Will Rise Again. Indigo Press, 2018.
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, House of Stone. Atlantic Books, 2018.

To love Zimbabwe from afar is an all-consuming task. Your virtual tool kit includes Twitter, Facebook, and an endlessly bleeping string of WhatsApp groups, each of which you curate to have overlapping but nonidentical networks of people in the know. You refresh each medium on loop as you get word that something shady is afoot in the usually laid-back capital city of Harare. Your eyes burn; hours melt; a familiar delirium seems to radiate from your phone. And this is just basic access. At minimum, to keep up, you will need working knowledge of two languages from among English, chiShona, and isiNdebele, the three most widely spoken in the country. Ideally, you’ll have the whole suite. If you are a Zimbabwean writer, you may capture some choice phrases in a novel or story. Soon after its publication, you may be greeted by furious Twitter debates about whether you were right to italicize and/or translate and/or appropriate African languages in your mostly English text, and whether you have done justice to their local contexts. These threads will be interspersed with frank confessions of despair over the future of democracy given the Zimbabwean leadership’s latest broken promise, and perhaps the occasional photo of a lion shot by an American dentist.

It’s not easy to be a Zimbabwean writer abroad: in addition to having to answer familiar questions about who speaks for whom, writes to whom, and by whom their books are published, writers in the diaspora have to negotiate citizenship from a distance. And the line between “here” and “there” is unusually blurry for Zimbabweans. Because of the country’s economic and institutional collapse over the last two decades, there are around five million Zimbabweans, out of a total population of seventeen million, living and working abroad. While not unique, the extent to which the Zimbabwean economy is not just connected but actually outsourced to its diaspora is a singular trait. According to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, diasporic Zimbabweans contribute upward of $750 million a year in remittances to the flailing GNP. It is difficult, as a result, to make a case that Zimbabweans who leave have less claim on what happens in the country than those who stay. But their experience is profoundly different. Over the past decade, a new generation of Zimbabwean-diasporic writers such as Petina Gappah and NoViolet Bulawayo have gained much-deserved international prominence and “world writer” status, publishing with major transnational conglomerates and signing lucrative contracts. Meanwhile, their peers at home face a bare-bones national publishing infrastructure and, as of 2015, a 40 percent import tax on books. A few small presses — Weaver, in Harare, and amaBooks, in Bulawayo — persist as costly labors of love, publicizing titles online in hopes of selling them to other small presses elsewhere. For better or for worse, those who have “made it” and those who have not converge in the digital commons, where the prestige economy of global literature meets the more frenetic literary scene of the World Wide Web. This convergence is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because it makes diasporic Zimbabwean writers some of the most interesting thinkers about the role of virtual worlds in intellectual life, and a curse because of the surging, even manic pace it entails.

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