Monday, April 29, 2024

Onai Mushava dissects Andrew Chatora's latest novel


Onai Mushava dissects Andrew Chatora’s latest novel:

Andrew Chatora’s 2023 novel, Harare Voices and Beyond, interrogates land, race and nationhood in Zimbabwe.  Literary journalist Onai Mushava picks apart the allegorical layers of the book.

Andrew Chatora is a storyteller who hides his stakes in plain sight. The UK-based Zimbabwean novelist gives away the combustibles of his story at the earliest convenience but only names them as they go off in the endgame. Chatora’s books end with a twisted insight that questions our sense of detail and reflows what was already in our face from the beginning.

In Chatora’s debut novella of 2021, Diaspora Dreams, which set tongues wagging, we cycle back from the kicker to make sense of the revelation, somehow hinted all along, that the narrator is writing from a mental asylum. However, literary critic Tariro Ndoro insightfully characterizes Chatora’s 2023 crime novel, Harare Voices and Beyond, as a why-dunnit rather than a who-dunnit.

The novel’s narrator, Rhy Williams, all but confesses to murder in the beginning: “There is no way the courts will let us off for the murder of my brother, Julian – Mother’s son gone rogue.” Going on, we suppose the narrator will now psychoanalyze a family saga and walk us through Harare’s mean streets. While Rhy’s opening confession holds up in the final analysis, the big reveal is that he was not so much the accessory to his mother’s murder of Julian; she was, in fact, his unwitting accessory in the murder. Just like the evil genius, Chatora, to switch the game from the unshuffled card of his deck.

Harare Voices and Beyond is remarkable as a black writer’s handling of Zimbabwe’s land reform from a white perspective. It is a counterintuitive gambit literary critic Memory Chirere associates with Chatora by now. After all, the Mutare-born writer’s first book is unusually about an African man who goes to Britain to teach English to the English. In Harare Voices and Beyond, the land resettlement programme extends, by default, into the questions of race and nationhood in Zimbabwe. With black and white writers usually playing their part to expectation, it is a rare writer who will imagine what it is to be on the other side.  Different sections of Zimbabwe come together uneasily as the book further juxtaposes drug abuse, usually associated with poor urban communities, with the elite underworld of organized crime. For a book packed with as many questions, Chatora wedges his unlikely nation with layers of suspense approaching Dostoyevskyan mindfuck.

Chatora’s main achievement in this novel, I think, is not his journalistic  faithfulness to the faultlines of Zimbabwe’s nation-building. The novel can be better appreciated as an allegorical deconstruction of nation as such. The story follows the narrator’s mother, Mrs. Doris Williams, watching helplessly as the physical and psychological violence of the fast-track resettlement programme claims the lives of her husband, her daughter-in-law and finally her son, Julian. The eternally intoxicated Julian overreaches himself when he sets his mother’s house on fire. Mother fatally knives son in self-defense and falls under the charge of her eldest son who must instruct her in hiding the crime and keep her going. As a mother, Mrs. Williams is the symbol of the nation; as the killer of her rogue son, she embodies the power of life and death a nation administers in the name of justice.

In this case, she is in league with her dutiful firstborn son who could do no wrong. Only, we learn in the end, that narrator firstborn, Rhy, is, in fact, masterminding, sponsoring and profiting from the drug and sex rings Julian finally falls prey to so that he is, by moral judgement, his brother’s killer.

“Doris now has longstanding insomnia,” we are told in the opening passage. As we learn from Fight Club, “When you have insomnia, you’re neither really asleep, and you’re never really awake. With insomnia nothing is real.” Apart from insomnia, Mrs. Williams is “now on chronic restorative medication.” In the Persian classic, Soraya in a Comma, the comatose girl waited on by a cynically detached diaspora is a figure of the country Iran.

Chatora’s figure of Zimbabwe, Doris Williams, is not just a black widow type but is herself undead: not quite dead but then not quite living!

Chatora is deconstructing the notion of nation itself. There is a part of Zimbabwe that still exists and a part of Zimbabwe that does not quite exists. On yet another scale, distributive maybe, Zimbabwe exists for part of the population but not the rest. The idea of patriotism that is constantly rammed down one’s throat with ideology schools, propaganda curricular from primary to tertiary education, commandeered churches, arts, media, civil service and so on for narrow partisan designs in the name of nation building merely avoids the question: Who is Zimbabwe still working for and who is Zimbabwe no longer working for?

In the family allegory, the dutiful firstborn and the rogue lastborn personify state capture and ideological whiplash, by turn, in their contrasting relationship with their mother. To translate this to an actual lived picture of everyday Zimbabwe, the party in power is represented in office by alleged drug dealers, alleged bankrollers of forex trade, alleged gold mafia, alleged untouchables whom the criminal justice system simply doesn’t exist for. Like the dutiful son, Rhy, beating around rogue Julian, these are also the people preaching patriotism and propriety on television and ideological cost centers every day.

On the other hand, we have the Julian, traumatized and intoxicated all the time. Here is a local exile for whom a mother-son relationship simply does not exist. He almost never calls her mother; only Doris. These are local exiles for whom the nation-citizen relationship  simply does not exist, just as narratives of belonging no longer translate to actual lived inclusion. These are poor Zimbabweans, young Zimbabweans throwing away their lives to drug abuse, disenchanted Zimbabweans un-Zimbabweanizing themselves at home and abroad, chameleon Zimbabweans changing all the time just to avoid change – changing the material of their laughter, changing party colors, changing lines of petty crime and small-time corruption and so on just to avoid addressing the question of fixing their dysfunctional relationship to Zimbabwe.

The undead mother-figure as she walks through Chatora’s novel calls to mind Marita in Chenjerai Hove’s Bones.

If Marita and Doris are heroines in the respective novels, then they are no superwomen. The Zimbabwean nation waits on a revolution to come, when the bones of Nehanda will awaken to break all manner of chains, colonial, postcolonial and patriarchal. But the revolution conceived by Hove and Chatora for women constrained by “egregious disempowerment, exploitation and violence by colonial and postcolonial masculinities” as Kizito Muchemwa puts it in his preface to the Weaver Press edition of Bones, is not a revolution marshalled comic-book style by a superwoman from someplace. It is the revolution of the broken, pictured by Hove as the revolution of “the black bird with broken wings.”

In deconstructing the national mythology embodied by Nehanda, historian Ruramisai Charumbira (2008) revisits two Nehanda traditions, “Musoro waNehanda” (the head of Nehanda) and Makumbo aNehanda” (the legs of Nehanda). From here, it’s one step to imagining a Freudian twist where the head represents the sublime tradition of Nehanda, whereas the legs represent the profane tradition of Nehanda. Not a compartmentalization of spirit and sex given that Nehanda dually represents fertility and memory. On the sublime level, the national matriarch is embodied among the living by celibate guilds, rainmakers, royal oracles and freedom fighters. But there is a profane and unofficial level, freely interpreted here from Charumbira’s book, where both Nehandas are abused, outnumbered and condemned in the courts of men. Nyamhita is raped by her brother while Charwe is denied by her male co-accused, Kaguvi, and put to death by a colonial and patriarchal court.

The connection made by Muchemwa between Hove’s Bones and the prophesied awakening of Nehanda’s bones is not immediately obvious. Hove and Chatora’s matriarchs come across in vegetative, scatological and traumatic trappings. In her disembodiment, Nehanda’s head is spirit to come while her legs are the censored unconscious. A detour through Imagining a Nation, where Charumbira picks apart grand national mythology and imagines Nyamhita and Charwe outside their superhero capes, helps bring the dream of freedom down to earth, within the reach of Hove and Chatora’s “little women.” A solution cannot be better that its subjects, just as an intellectual cannot be better than her people. So, we start thinking about Zimbabwe beginning with the damaged life, with the abused, the jaded, the dismissed and the forgotten. Until they are the answer, freedom is not the question.

Besides Doris being white, a demographic rarely ever associated  with emancipatory ambition outside Chatora’s novel, she officiates in the bloody stakes of a sibling conflict. She is closer, in this sense, to Nyamhita’s mother presiding over her son’s rape of her daughter to fulfill the fertility tradition of ritual incest. In “BLOOD.” the opening track for Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-winning album, DAMN. the narrator goes up to help a visually impaired woman who is apparently in search of a lost object on the sidewalk. “It seems to me that you have lost something, and I wanna help you find it,” the narrator accosts the woman. “Oh yes; you have lost something. You have lost your life!” the woman responds as her gun goes off. In this allegory, we are confronted with a figure of justice, a woman who must embody the saying that justice is blind. While the metaphor is meant to represent impartiality, in the case of Kendrick’s encounter, it represents failure to look into the nuances of the album’s most repeated refrain, “Is it wickedness or is it weakness?” Going back to the question of what is wrong with Mrs. Williams’ family, what is wrong with Zimbabwe as a nation and as a purveyor of justice, we find that Zimbabwe and her kind of justice kills the weak and pampers the wicked.

Chatora was this year’s silver recipient of the Anthem Award for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, held in New York, for his 2023 novel, Harare Voices and Beyond.  “Fellow creatives, together we can keep the momentum, reflect the iniquities of our societies! Yes, we can!” he said in his filmed acceptance speech.

Andrew Chatora is a prolific Zimbabwean novelist noted for his counterintuitive approaches to diversity politics. He has written Diaspora Dreams (2021), Where the Heart Is (2021), Harare Voices and Beyond (2023), Inside Harare Alcatraz and Other Stories (2024) and Born Here but Not in My Name (forthcoming). Amid polarizing reception, the UK-based writer continues to distinguish himself as a distinct voice in African diaspora literature and implacable champion of the marginalized. Chatora was recently awarded the 2024 Anthem Silver Award for Harare Voices and Beyond.

+This review was first published on Zimbabwe’s leading digital investigative reporting, breaking news and analysis platform: The News Hawks on 16th April 2024. Onai Mushava is a writer and literary critic based in Harare, Zimbabwe

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

KwaChirere reads Mukondiwa's book on Mtukudzi

Oliver Mtukudzi and me

Author: Robert Mukondiwa (2021), Harare

Isbn: 978-1-77921-573-4, 220 pages


A book review by Memory Chirere

Robert Mukondiwa’s book; Oliver Mtukudzi and me: A Life in Song and Media, is a simple but very effective book for many reasons. Robert Mukondiwa is famed for his incisive feature articles, and it is evident throughout this book.

First, the book positions itself as a special insider’s story about Oliver Mtukudzi. This is a young man’s story about a man who is both his father and elder brother.

Books and journal articles on aspects of Oliver Mtukudzi’s music and life are fast increasing. We have a growing number of books specifically on the late Zimbabwean musician, Oliver Mtukudzi. There is one by Jennifer Kyker, another by Shepherd Mutamba and one multiple authored academic book edited by Ezra Chitando. Each of these books takes a specific slant. Robert Mukondiwa’s book comes across as laid back but equally penetrating.

Mukondiwa sets out on a particularly special trip; writing about “my Oliver…because that is how I would rather remember him…this, is after all my story…it is not the story of Oliver Mtukudzi. Or is it entirely mine…?”

You quickly sense that this could be a complicated book; now operating from under the water, now floating on the surface and sometimes having to become the water itself!

Mukondiwa creeps and crawls about, delicately linking his own life to the few but key moments he interacted closely with Oliver Mtukudzi - the man and the music. It is critical to realize that even Mukondiwa himself is not clear if the man and his music are always separate and that if they were separate, how and where would they confluence once more on their way home.

Not even once does Robert Mukondiwa claim that this story is watertight and that is a strength. He admits that he is a fan. This is one point that he repeats all the way. However, he realizes that he has to write this story as a journalist. That is one warning that he raises all the way. And when the time comes, Mukondiwa learns that he is family with his hero. The multiple identities of the author propel this story in the manner of a thriller. You investigate a man and then realise that your target is, in fact, a relative!

This is also a story about huge fallout between Mukondiwa and Oliver Mtukudzi after Robert Mukondiwa and his colleague, Garikai Mazara, write about what Mwendi Chibindi chronicles in her diary; her private relationship with Oliver Mtukudzi. The late Mwendi was one of Oliver Mtukudzi backing vocalists. The Sunday Mail and Robert Mukondiwa and Garikai Mazara, are however stopped in their tracks through a court injunction.

Mukondiwa is caught in between. How do you deal with a man whose unsavory story you wrote about last week? Do you say, “How was my story, mkoma?”

Mukondiwa and Mazara try to write truthfully about some of the misdeeds of a man whose music they love dearly. As soon as they do that, they are conflicted and do not find peace for a long time. They learn that their occupation has deep hazards.

Then one day Mukondiwa receives a thorough beating by strangers at one of Mtukudzi’s shows at the Hellenics Arena in Harare in what appears like an ordinary scuffle. However, it is not clear if it is Mtukudzi who unleashes these men on Mukondiwa. And if it is Mtukudzi, could it be for the Mwendi story? A sweet revenge? When Mukondiwa and Mutukudzi finally make up, months later, neither of them is keen to discuss this nasty incident. They also cannot talk about Mwendi's diary.

Robert Mukondiwa of The Sunday Mail, is able to come close to Mtukudzi once more at an Emerald Hill house when Mtukudzi is rehearsing with the band for an anti malarial campaign.

When Mukondiwa and his news crew get to the house, Mtukudzi and band are immediately apprehensive. They pause briefly and Mtukudzi himself asks, “Ndianiko uyu? Ndashaya.” (Who are you? I can’t recall your identity) Mtukudzi could be standoffish and vengeful when it suited him, Mukondiwa soon learns. 

Later on, as they walk about with Mtukudzi for an interview, Robert volunteers, “I am Nhari une ndoro. A Nzou too.” Then Mtukudzi warms up and says, “Uri munin’ina wangu.”

They also discover that Robert Mukondiwa’s father, the veteran journalist Pascal Mukondiwa, actually had a long standing relationship with Mtukudzi on account of their being fellow Nzous and that Robert’s mother is a childhood friend of Mtukudzi.

Mtukudzi admires his rival’s ability to write about the arts and his critical ear for good music. Soon Robert is being asked by Mtukudzi to listen to the demo tapes of his forthcoming albums to give the elder an honest opinion. Robert evaluates the elder’s work without flinching.

Mukondiwa goes: “The lyrical content of the (Tsivo) album was flawless, the beautiful korekore dialect and rhymes, which were his most distinct… then I talked about the rather sh- mastering. Someone had to do so!”

The youn man had done what was generally not allowed, pointing out Mtukudzi’s mistakes. But when he meets with Mtukudzi a few days after the damning review, Robert is terrified, unsure of the eldre’s reaction:

“ Robert.”


“I read the story you wrote this past Sunday about the album. I am glad you have that ear for music. You see, I was not happy with the mixing and mastering. I pondered once whether to release it like that but it would be unfair on the fans so we had it redone. In fact, that is why it is not available on the local market…Now I know that you are a real mukorekore, not a fake one,” Mtukudzi said.”

One day Mtukudzi asks Robert to accompany him to Muzarabani to see Robert’s father who had retired from the media. This becomes a trip during which Robert had greatest insights into the life and music of Oliver Mtukudzi.

They are on the road trip, alongside someone called Uncle Nick. Mtukudzi talks about his youth and his battle with diabetes. They go to Muzarabani and on the way back they go through Mtukudzi’s rural home at Kasimbwi, Madziva. It is a very loaded trip. The longest stretch of continuous time any writer has ever dedicated to Mtukudzi.

Deep in the Muzarabani night, Mtukudzi, Uncle Nick and Robert’s brother travel even deeper into the Dande valley…Where were they going? The mystery continues!

The climax to this book is the death of Sam Mtukudzi and Owen Chimhare in a horrific road accident. This death shakes the foundation of the Mtukudzi family. Mtukudzi is inconsolable, sometimes walking about screaming and waving his hands. Then at some point he sings into the ear of his dead son. Sam’s mother is worse off. The lioness has lost its beloved cub.

The narrator is young and harmless, so it seems. He cannot compete against Mtukudzi. It is an unequal relationship. The narrator’s relationship with Mtukudzi allows him to go into many of Mtukudzi’s foibles without using the word foible. Robert does not rush to praise Mtukudzi for his immense talent. It simply comes out. He is the boy in the vicinity of a great man who happens to be a familiar man.

This is a story that touches on many other characters on the Zimbabwean entertainment scene; William Chikoto, Josh Hozheri, Garikai Mazara, J. Masters, Tongai Moyo, Debbie Metcalfe and others.

This story exits with Mtukudzi’s death and his colorful funeral. This effortless book is easy to read as it does not claim authority over anything. And yet it establishes the fact that Oliver Mtukudzi had a life beyond music. “There will be other stories, but this story has been about Oliver Mtukudzi and ME,” Robert Mukondiwa signs off.

+for sales contact: +263(0) 772888839