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NoViolet Bulawayo walks in Tsitsi Vera's footsteps

14 Dec 2013 at 06:05hrs | Views
BULAWAYO has produced some groundbreaking artistes whose presence has been a noteworthy blessing to the country's arts and culture scene. In the arts, the City of Kings has been a shining jewel that has kept on giving, blessing the country with artistes whose works have come to form the core of some of our most cherished cultural achievements.

No story about the arts in Zimbabwe would be complete without the mention of such projects as Stitsha, Sinjalo, Amakhosi Cultural Centre, the Intwasa Arts Festival, Black Umfolosi or the biting social commentary of Lovemore Majaivana's music.

However, the city's success has not been confined to song or theatre stages. One of the neglected aspects of the city's rich cultural history is how it has given birth to some of the country's most gifted artistes.

While the city's dancers and musicians have firmly planted the country on the world map, some of the city's writers have also laid a hand in further enhancing Bulawayo's already glowing reputation on the world stage.

Two names immediately come to mind when one thinks of literary achievements from female writers in the country.

The first, the late Dr Yvonne Vera, who passed away in 2005, is a world recognised literary titan whose works have been celebrated the world over.

Dr Vera was arguably the most successful female Zimbabwean author of her generation and a winner of countless awards.

At 32, she had amassed a clutch of literary awards and four published books under her name.

The second, NoViolet Bulawayo, born Elizabeth Tshele, is a recent phenomenon who has forcefully grabbed the attention of the literary world with the sheer force and power of her writing.

After the death of Vera, female Zimbabwean authors seem to be struggling to reach the dizzy heights she scaled with her pen.

While Zimbabwe has suffered a poverty of female writers, NoViolet has joined the late Vera, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Kristina Rungano, Sue Nyathi, Barbara Makhalisa, Ericah Gwetai, Dorris Sibanda and more recently Petina Gappah. Fewer women writers have made it on the grand stage of Zimbabwean literature.

While it might be too early to compare the United States-based author with the late Dr Vera, it is trite to mention that Bulawayo has brought hope and glory to the dying local literary industry.

Some have said she is treading in the footsteps of Vera and will soon be a multi-award-winning literary female voice from Zimbabwe who gets recognition the world over.

Vera and Bulawayo, however, share several similarities that are impossible to ignore. The first and most obvious is that both are women, a factor that is noticeable in their writing style as both write their stories from a uniquely female perspective.

However, another striking feature is that the praise that has been showered on the two has come when they have left the land and country of their birth. Vera left for Canada while Bulawayo is based in the United States.

Vera, born in September 1964, attended Mzilikazi High School before finding herself at York University where her literary career began to blossom. Bulawayo was born in 1981 and attended Njube High School before also finishing her A-levels at Mzilikazi High School.

She did her tertiary studies at Kalamazoo Valley Community College also in Canada. Mzilikazi High School, maybe due to its proximity to Amakhosi Cultural Centre and Barbourfields Stadium, is the birth place of some of the country's greatest sporting and artistic talents. One cannot help but wonder whether it is a mere coincidence that the school had a hand in nurturing these two fine literary talents

However, that the two had to leave the city for their talents to be recognised may also be a symptom of an ailing literary scene in the city as very few have prospered while permanently based in Bulawayo.

Indeed one wonders if there are more literary gems in the city that are hidden from the public as it seems that for one to succeed, they have to be far removed from the streets of Bulawayo.

In the writings of NoViolet and Vera, one can discern the hustle and bustle of Bulawayo but one wonders if the world would have got a taste of the sounds of the City of Kings if the two had decided not to move from it for academic purposes.

Their city of origin is not the only similarity between the two, as the topics that they tackle also offer incisive social and political commentary through the use of picturesque and attention grabbing prose.

Vera earned acclaim for her ability to tackle some of society's most taboo subjects through the use of beautiful and profound language. In her book, The Stone Virgins, she tackles the tumultuous story of pre and post-independent Zimbabwe. The book tells the story of two sisters Nonceba and Thenjiwe who are victims of some of the country's most brutal periods. However, the brutality and violence of the time that Vera chose to explore through her novel is the polar opposite of the language that she uses to convey her message.

With lines such as "The war begins. A curfew is declared. A state of emergency. No movement. The ceasefire ceases. It begins in the street, the burying of memory," Vera was able to poetically paint a picture that haunted one as much as it amazed. The beast that was Zimbabwe's triumphant liberation struggle was tamed by the beauty and ability of Vera's pen.

NoViolet's writing is equally beautiful as she is able to evoke strong memories of her city of birth through a masterful command of language.

In her book, We Need New Names, which has already been hailed as a masterpiece by many in the literary world, she utilises the voices of various playful children to also paint a moving picture of the country that she left behind. Told through the book's protagonist, Darling, who with her friends Chipo, Sbho, Bastard and Godknows give us the often ignored perspective of children in disadvantaged communities. The ingenuity of NoViolet can be seen in her naming of the place where the five children reside.

The settlement is inappropriately called Paradise, which is in stark contrast to the hellish conditions in which its citizens eke out a hard existence. Through the eyes of these children we see the difficulty of trying to make a sound living in communities that in most cases are out of sight and largely out of mind.

Another area where the career of the late Vera and NoViolet draw parallels is how their works have managed to attain worldwide praise, as can be attested to by the accolades that have been showered on them on the international literary stage.

NoViolet's book was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker, becoming the first black African woman and Zimbabwean to be nominated for the honour, while Vera's list of achievements includes a MacMillan Prize for Africa for her book, The Stone Virgins, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Zimbabwe Book Publishers' Award.

The recognition that the two have earned on the international stage shows the wide-reaching scope of their writing. Although most of their writing is centred in Zimbabwe, it carries a universal message that has struck a chord even with those that are unfamiliar with the physical landscape of Zimbabwe as it is described in their books.

The late Vera and NoViolet are testament that Bulawayo is indeed a hotbed of artistic talent. What seems to be lacking is a will and a way of discovering and nurturing such preciously gifted artistes. With such talents as NoViolet and this year's Nama winner for poetry Philani Nyoni coming to the fore, one wonders what other talents are lying idle and undiscovered in the city.

Male writers have been the flag bearers of our literary heritage. Well, it seems just a matter of time before NoViolet, who narrowly missed the Man Booker Prize this year, explodes into the future and fulfills the vast promise inherent in her early works.

Source - Saturday Leisure Correspondent
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