Saturday, February 24

NoViolet Bulawayo: ‘I’m encouraged by this new generation that wants better’ | NoViolet Bulawayo

ORn the day I talk over Zoom with NoViolet Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, she is relying on a generator to power her internet connection; when she has a tickle in her throat and excuses herself to fetch water, she returns laughing, having forgotten that there is none today, and relieved that her sister de ella has furnished her with a bottle. Ahead of traveling to the US for the publication of her second novel by Ella, Glory, she is in Bulawayo, the home city that provides half of her pen name by Ella; the other half, NoViolet, links the Ndebele word for “with” to the name of her mother de ella, who died when her daughter was 18 months old. It was an early loss that, she says, means her writing de ella will always have a strong awareness of how personal lives intersect with larger historical and political forces. “Some of these things that we carry, we don’t sign up for. But we’re here and, you know, everything and anything can happen to us. It’s part of my story. But it also doesn’t define me or define who I am and where I’m going.”

Born Elizabeth Zandile Tshele in 1981, the year after Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe his first prime minister, Bulawayo has used her work to explore the importance of naming as an act of self-possession, so much so that her debut novel was entitled We Need New Names. She herself, she once said on stage, grew up with many names, and didn’t know she was called Elizabeth until her first day at school.

We Need New Names, published in 2013, was shortlisted for the Booker prize, making Bulawayo the first Black African woman and the first Zimbabwean to feature in the final six. Earlier, what became its opening chapter had won the Caine prize for African writing under the title Hitting Budapest, a reference to the nickname given to a wealthy area by the group of hungry children who go there, from the shantytown called Paradise, to steal guavas . The novel moved from Zimbabwe to its protagonist’s new home in the American midwest, a geographical and cultural journey mirrored by its author, who studied in Michigan and Texas before earning a master’s at Cornell University and being awarded the Truman Capote Fellowship, both in creative writing . Having left Zimbabwe at 18, to join an aunt, it would be 13 years before she visited her home country again, due to her studies of her and the instability in the country. In previous interviews, she has talked about the beginning of her life in the US as a time of silence, where previously she had been a noisy, gregarious child.

A demonstration in Harare against the Mugabe regime in November, 2017. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Bulawayo went on to teach at Stanford and elsewhere, but 2017 provided her with an exceptional and pressing reason to return to the country of her birth: the end of Mugabe’s rule, following a coup d’etat that ended with his former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa , being installed in his place. “Because it was so momentous, I knew right from the start that there was a story there,” she remembers. Initially, she planned to write nonfiction, before realizing that, by the time she had assembled her material from her, “everything worth saying would have been said”. When the tumultuous and violent elections of 2018 came round, she knew she needed a different approach. “Spending time on the ground, just witnessing people’s hopes and dreams and fears and optimism, and very crucially witnessing that fall apart with the outcome of the elections, made me realize that, OK, this book was not even about Mugabe, really; it needed to be about the common people, the ordinary people and their stories.”

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Even then, the project was to undergo another more radical shift. Bulawayo would wake up in the morning, turn on the news, and see that reality was moving more quickly than she could hope to take account of; every new development would complicate or render obsolete a plot line or character. At the same time, she says, Zimbabweans were making frequent use of George Orwell’s Animal Farm to discuss the political situation. Blending that with her memories of her grandmother’s animal-led stories, she decided to forsake the human world entirely.

The result is a novel that opens with the citizens of the imaginary Jidada gathering in sweltering heat to celebrate Independence Day under the eye of the Old Horse and his wife, Marvelous the Donkey, their security assured by a retinue of Chosen Ones and a ferocious pack of dogs, the Defenders. The Old Horse, now reaching the end of his powers, imagines that the animals will stay loyal for ever, but bargains without their swelling discontent:

“But the Father of the Nation didn’t know us either, didn’t know that what was happening to him was actually the best thing to ever happen to us. That after the last election he’d in fact rigged, following the previous one he’d also rigged like the other ones before that he’d stolen – yes, after he and his regime had frustrated all the proper and possible ways at our disposal to remove him in a peaceful and constitutional manner, we’d been left with no choice but to Fbecome the kinds of animals to welcome his demise and welcome his demise whichever way it came.”

Bulawayo spent a year in Zimbabwe and another in South Africa, and then, after six months back in the US, she returned home, where she continued to experience the reality of daily life for Zimbabweans: hours spent queuing for fuel or at the bank to withdraw money, frequent disruptions to utilities and limited access to medical care. How did it feel after the surge of hopefulness that followed Mugabe’s deposition? How quickly did that feeling, which she describes as a turning point after decades of stasis, begin to fade? “I think it became apparent very, very quickly,” she replies, citing the 2018 election as the moment at which those who had been prepared to grant the new administration the leeway to create a new start “realized that, OK, we were still in trouble, nothing had changed”.

A still from the 1954 animation adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm.
A still from the 1954 animation adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Photograph: Halas & Batchelor/Allstar

I ask her how she felt at the time, and feels now, about the reaction of the international community. “I mean, at some point, if you come from a place like Zimbabwe, and you live the life that some of us have lived, you come to appreciate that you are really on your own; that the world does not – I don’t want to say does not really care – but doesn’t seem to know what to do with our situation. So if anything, it wasn’t disappointment in the international community, it was just a feeling of, OK, we are back to square one, and there is no way out of it.”

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But that sense of isolation doesn’t have to lead to insularity. There’s an extraordinary, electrifying moment in Glory when a group of animals, waiting for the results of what is ironically called the #freefairncredible election, are galvanized by news from afar, and gather round a phone to watch footage of a brutal murder carried out by officers of the law in another country: “We see them talking, the murdered Black body at their feet like a reaped harvest, like a big black bundle of nothing.” The page resolves into the repetition of a single phrase: “I can’t breathe.”

The murder of George Floyd and the global protests that followed prompted Bulawayo to reflect on the links between abuses of power across countries and societies, and on her own responsibility as a writer. “This is a point in my work where I have to pause and consider how I position myself in relation to the world, and what is happening; to push my art to do more, to be engaged, and to continue to be in solidarity with struggles for all kinds of freedom everywhere.”

She is appreciative of the part that social media has played in allowing those engaged in such struggles to connect with one another, and in the way that it has democratized the news and reportage, providing multiple perspectives and voices. But she notes the importance of continuing to participate and engage once one has logged off, and of remembering that “some of the people engaged in these movements do not always have access to the internet, depending on where they are. It’s easy for the few of us who have the privilege of connectivity to actually think, ah, this is normal. This is the real world. But the reality is that a big chunk of these battles are fought quietly outside of the spotlight of social media, that there are important names that will never trend, and that there are generations of freedom fighters who have been doing this work without the internet, without being spotlighted.”

We talk about how this relates to issues around feminism, and how the proliferation of platforms for sharing experiences and priorities can challenge a dominant western narrative, one that sees women beyond it as victims of oppression in need of salvation. “Western women are also going through their own stuff,” she remarks. “And the thing is to find the solidarities. I think there’s so much to be gained from a truly connected movement, an intersectional movement, women connecting across borders, across time, across all kinds of divisions that are really artificial.”

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I wonder how those artificial dividing lines fit into her own experience of living in the US for such a long time. The seismic events of the last few years there, she says, felt disheartening in the sense that they reminded her how “what happens in one part of the world can easily happen even to those other parts that think they are better because they have this democracy thing figured out”. But she remains committed to retaining her dual identity. “I fiercely love both countries. It took me a while to own America as home, because it’s a complicated business. I’m an immigrant, I’m not from there. There is a way in which the country, especially during the Trump years – and really before, but it was certainly amplified then – can remind you of your otherness, of your foreignness. And that can certainly create a tension in how you see yourself in terms of belonging. But the reality is that I’ve lived in both countries for more or less equal years now. I’ve made my life in both countries, and my life continues to be in both countries. So, it is no longer an option to be detached from one place or the other, no matter how maddening they can be.”

Glory is dedicated to “all Jidadas, everywhere”, and it is undeniably a powerful celebration of the strength of a united citizenry, of a moment when those living under tyranny decide that they have had enough – a sentiment that has particular force as we speak , in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But it’s also impossible to read it without an awareness of Zimbabwe’s post-Mugabe challenges and, indeed, it is a novel filled with pain and loss. What does Bulawayo feel the future looks like from the present moment? She considers carefully. “As a writer and as a Zimbabwean, there is a feeling of despair, in the sense that nothing is working,” she says. “I know that’s a totalizing way of framing it, but the reality is that the future is not encouraging. And understandably, because those who are in charge of the country are inefficient, they are inept, they are corrupt, they do not care about the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans. And, given what just happened in the last election, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be easy to remedy the situation. That’s where the despair comes from. That said, it is always important to hope, to be optimistic. I am encouraged by this new generation that wants better, and I think that’s really going to be an important component of us figuring out the way forward, because for you to go somewhere you have to want better.”

And what will she be up to? She smiles. “What I’m doing next is a whole bunch of relaxing. I’ve been writing since 2017. And this book drained me. I think it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” And, mindful of the drain not only on her but on her generator, we say goodbye.

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