(This review of short story #2, is my third post on African Roar 2011. I will be blogging about all the fourteen short stories in the anthology. My introductory post is here. Please click on the “African Roar 2011” tag at the top of the article to see all related posts on this anthology)
2011 has been bad year for me. There’s been too many losses, too much stress and the toll on my psyche has been immense. As expected, my reading has suffered. Inexplicable, I’ve thought of the late Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera a lot this year. Perhaps this is not a mystery within the context of this bad year. I’ve mourned her in 2011 even though she died in 2005. I miss the books I think she would have written. Almost everything – books, people, conversations, events, deaths – evoked Vera and her novels, and these frequent moments were unnerving.
So it was when I read Main, the second story in the anthology African Roar 2011. I saw Vera, specifically the first chapter of her novel The Stone Virgins, all over this story. That chapter is a description of the scenery and the lives that are lived on Selborne Avenue, “the most splendid street” in pre-Independence Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Vera’s Selborne has an “umbilical cord” connected to Johannesburg because of:
city laborers wh0 voyage back and forth between Bulawayo and Johannesburg and hold that city up like a beacon; when they return home, they are quick of step and quick of voice. They have learned something more of surprise, of the unexpected: of chance.
She talks about a city in which the “edge of a building is a profile, a corner…ekoneni”.
Ekoneni is a rendezvous, a place to meet. You cannot meet inside any of the buildings because this city is divided; entry is forbidden to black men and women; you meet outside buildings, not at doorways, entries, foyers, not beneath arched window, not under graceful colonnades balustrades, and cornices, but ekoneni. The corner is a camouflage, a place of instancy and style; a place of protest. Ekoneni is also a dangerous place, where knives emerge as suddenly as lightening… Ekoneni. Here, love soars or perishes when lovers meet.
This Selborne is a sometime hard, sometime soft place where people live, love, plan and execute uprisings; chimurenga for a people’s freedom. But it is, above all, a happening avenue in a country poised for change. She reminds that “the city is built on a grid. Where Selborne meets Main Street, the building there forms a sharp turn”. Indeed! Because when we turn off Vera’s Selbourne, we’ve travelled 30 years sharply, swiftly into the future and onto NoViolet Bulawayo’s
Main. Main Street adjusting her faded black push –up bra so she holds everything together – the police, the expectations, the boiling cars, the weary buildings, the dirt, the broken dreams, the falling dollar, the billions of worthless money, the queues- Jesus- Jesus-Jesus the queues.
This Main, this woman has seen better days. Her beauty is all but faded. Along her “long spine” are “dirty windows of empty shops that can no longer afford to stay in business” . The people who walk her length are free, unlike those on Vera’s Selborne, but decades of political repression, misrule and economic hardship has taken its toll. No, the reader is not treated to mesmerizing descriptions of Main’s beauty. The action in this story plunges straight into the collapse and death of a young woman on Main. Although a crowd forms around the dead woman, her death is not extraordinary. The crowd moves on, “they know there are better deaths somewhere where the victims are at least worth looking at”. A young boy’s “desperation flicks like a red switch and turns to the most glaring outrage” when he is denied a withdrawal of money that will cover his father’s medical bills.
They too know outrage; they are outraged to be standing in the unending queues; outraged to be billionaires who cannot afford to feed themselves and their families; outraged at the life that is becoming unliveable; outraged at the police standing on Main and everywhere else to squash them like cockroaches if they dare protest the state of things; outraged at some people they won’t name, for failing the country.
NoViolet Bulawayo’s Main, like Vera’s Selborne, is a vivid snapshot of a particular period in Zimbabwe’s history. Both writers look expansively at the lives on the streets of Bulawayo. The two pieces together chart a course through Zimbabwe’s socioeconomic history over a span of 50 years. And both are absolutely delightful and powerful. Main, though, is sobering. Perhaps because it the more contemporary of the two. Vera’s rendering of Selborne is deceptively beautiful; a calm before the storm of violence in The Stone Virgins. Bulawayo’s use of a ravaged, harassed woman as a metaphor for Main is simply brilliant. Her language, style of writing… Main is simply an excellent story.
I could move between the two pieces, the two writers all day! This particular evocation of Yvonne Vera was not a sad, unnerving moment for me. In fact, I’m glad to have made the association. My year must be improving; it might just end well.
One last time, let’s see what Main is doing at the end of the story:
Main. Main Street holds them but just briefly. There is no time for loving. She ducks behind a corner to wipe the sweat collected under her breasts, on her stomach, between her thighs. When she sees the horde coming she tosses her damp handkerchief, bites her bottom lip, and braces herself once more.
(African Roar 2011 is currently available at Amazon.com as a kindle e-book.)
NoViolet Bulawayo won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing with her short story Hitting Budapest.
My review of Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins is here.