Writing Africa

Writing Africa
By Ranka Primorac (picture byline)

Women’s destinations

Somewhere around the middle of Nadine Gordimer’s ground-breaking 1979 novel, Burger’s Daughter, the text’s narrator says: ‘one knows best what

one’s doing when one doesn’t know what it is.’

The narrator is Rosa Burger, a young woman who has just arrived at one of the defining moments of her life. She has decided to leave her homeland, the apartheid-torn South Africa, and leave behind the memory of her father, an anti-apartheid activist who has died while serving a life sentence in a Pretoria prison. Rosa knows she can never be willingly complicit with the monstrous injustices perpetrated by her country’s rulers. But she also needs to escape from the choices made for her by her parents, and forge for herself an independent identity. Following a harrowing scene of pointless cruelty in a black ghetto (an emaciated, drunken man whipping to death an emaciated, over-burdened donkey), Rosa begins to approach the decision to leave – even though she is not fully conscious of her reasons, or the destination. The novel ends, movingly, with Rosa performing a full circle: after several other formative encounters, she returns to South Africa and is imprisoned for political activism – her father’s daughter after all, but with a changed sense of individuality, citizenship, womanhood and belonging.

Zimbabwean literature, too, has stories of women marked by a similar kind of fated integrity – women who know best what they are doing when they don’t know what it is, and who struggle to free themselves from the shadows of their parents and precursors. Tambudzai, the heroine of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s world-famous 1988 novel Nervous Conditions, needs desperately to escape from the poverty and hardship of home – without at the same time losing her sense of self. Like Gordimer’s Rosa, she manages to leave, but the novel remains open-ended and does not say anything about a return. Perhaps this will be the content of the eagerly-awaited sequel, due to be published in London this summer.

Nozipo Maraire’s Zenzele (1996) is also about parents and daughters, but it is a tale that shows daughters neither leaving nor returning: it is told by the mother and addressed, in the form of letters, to an entirely absent daughter, whose name is the novel’s title. And although the work of Yvonne Vera may be said to approach Gordimer’s in several respects, in her many novels and stories the circling of daughters is often marked by irreparable trauma: in the 1996 novel Under the Tongue, for example, a woman returns to her family after being imprisoned for the murder of her child-abusing husband.

And so, while the sense of closure and peace achieved by the heroine of Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter may be complex and ambivalent, it seems that Zimbabwean writers have found it difficult to imagine and articulate the very concept of women’s arrivals at sites of self-fulfilment – no matter how qualified. Perhaps not coincidentally, Zimbabwean writing has yet to tell a story about women’s political activism. It may well be that the political events of today will help to bring such a story about.

Post published in: Arts

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