The experience of being “restless” with terrible economic and socio-political conditions has not only been the driving force for ordinary Zimbabweans to keep moving, it has also been shaping an incredible creative force displayed in Brian Chikwava’s debut, Harare North, Christopher Mlalazi’s Many Rivers and more recently NoViolet Bulawayo’s book that straddles between home and exile.
This creative energy sets off from Zimbabwe to America, Britain and South Africa and moulds itself in the literature produced and adds a new dimension to the general literary culture of post-2000 Zimbabwe — the so-called Third Chimurenga period. It is estimated millions have left Zimbabwe and writers are tapping into these experiences.
The three novels capture what Dambudzo Marechera described as “an escape from the house of hunger” and thus bringing into light the theme of restlessness for a better life, higher standards and human rights.
Even though reasons for migration are individual and as varied, the image of foreign countries to many desperate Zimbabweans has been the image of easy life and embedded in the Zimbabwean mindscape is a paradise with trees sagging with boughs of the scarcely needed greenback, only to find that the trees everywhere are as dry.
Many people have risked their lives to cross the crocodile-infested Limpopo River, persuaded that South Africa is a warm and friendly country with plenty of work and lots of opportunities.
They have had to discover the hard way that the backside of fantasy is a reality with crude checks and balances, and is the subject of Mlalazi’s novel. In fact, Many Rivers, remains Mlalazi’s most daring work of fiction, a flicker of the Joburg seedy scene and what happens when the high life refuses to come through easily.
For a people that were undergoing an acute economic crisis, most Zimbabweans perceived life beyond their borders to be perfect and beautiful and decent, as if life outside Zimbabwe is a sanitised version of Zimbabwe in the past.
It would be an oversimplification to suggest that Zimbabweans are naivé and were therefore conned into leaving their homeland by this lure of paradise.
What is apparent is that for many, Zimbabwe is a world of confinement and that what they really want is a wide range of being.
If anything, our politics has denied a whole lot of us the right to express ourselves freely. And the other key drive for others has been merely a sense of adventure, to see what is on the other side of the sanctions that block us from accessing a lot of civil liberties.
Disappointments and disillusionment of many kinds are the everyday experience. Zimbabweans left the mother country embracing unrealistic expectations and what they found was often dismaying and shocking.
The prevailing idea that London, Johannesburg and New York are cities with streets paved with gold like Alice in Wonderland shocked them as they adapted to the grub and sometimes depressing diaspora environs. For many the arrival experience breaks them to the point of no recovery as the host lands become hostile sanctuaries.
The immigrant experience is a complex one, though not unique to this generation of Zimbabwean writers.
The diaspora novel is not a new phenomenon in the relatively small body of Zimbabwean literature as Dambudzo Marechera’s posthumous publication, The Black Insider (1992) and Wilson Katiyo’s Going to Heaven (1979) stand out from those writers who were forced into exile by different but more horrible circumstances of colonial apartheid. DE Mutasa’s Nyambo DzeJoni (2000) is a recent Shona account of life down south.
But what is also uniquely apparent is that the diaspora novel is becoming the dominant genre of contemporary Zimbabwean writing. Those writers who are giving a global face to Zimbabwean literature are ensconced outside, far from the madding crowds of Harare or Bulawayo, not witness to the buzz, the gossip, the scandals. Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything.
But there are a host of questions we cannot just ignore. Are they representative enough of the experience on the ground? Who is their primary targeted readership? Are these books available in Zimbabwe?
If not, where are these books? Or is it a mere reflection of the poverty of inspiration in Zimbabwe? Whereas before Zimbabwean literature grew out of our country’s dust, what happened? Is it a shift of power? Or is it simply that the Zimbabwean narrative has got huge global demand?
Whatever the case may be, thanks to the diaspora for injecting life to an ailing literary culture. Our literature, Zimbabwean literature, is better off.