Heyyy guys, welcome to another month of the reading challenge! How's it going for you so far? In April we'll be heading towards Zimbabwe, and I hope you'll appreciate how unique this list of recs is! Zimbabwe really came through with the options for this month, we've got really interesting fiction, from realism to magical realism to straight up fantasy, and of course short stories and non fiction.
Zimbabwe is located in Southern Africa. It is a landlocked country and the capital is Harare. The population is not large (about 14 million people) and the country has 16 official languages, of which English, Shona and Ndebele are the most common. (This is why so many of the books in this list were in fact written in English and are not books in translation).
Zimbabwe is predominantly savanna (tropical grassland). Unsustainable cultivation of the land, the reduction of the natural vegetation and indiscriminate hunting and poaching of the unique wildlife (both in colonial times and after) have resulted in erosion of the soil and the disappearance of many forms of animal life over large areas. Today, more than half of the total labour force in Zimbabwe works directly in agriculture.
The remains of Stone Age cultures dating to 500,000 years ago have been found in Zimbabwe, and it is thought that the San, who still survive mostly in the Kalahari desert of Botswana, are the last descendants of these original inhabitants of southern and central Africa. Since the 11th century, present-day Zimbabwe has been the site of several organised states and kingdoms such as the Rozvi and Mthwakazi kingdoms, as well as being a major route for migration and trade. These kingdoms were not peaceful among themselves, with the warriors Ndebele, for example, enslaving the sedentary Shona.
Zimbabwe was formerly known as Southern Rhodesia (1898), Rhodesia (1965), and Zimbabwe Rhodesia (1979). The British South Africa Company of Cecil Rhodes first demarcated the present territory during 1890 when they conquered Mashonaland and later in 1893 Matabeleland after a fierce resistance by Matabele people known as the First Matabele War. Company rule ended in 1923 with the establishment of Southern Rhodesia as a self-governing British colony. In 1965, the conservative white minority government unilaterally declared independence as Rhodesia. The state endured international isolation and a 15-year guerrilla war with black nationalist forces; this culminated in a peace agreement that established universal enfranchisement and de jure sovereignty as Zimbabwe in April 1980.
Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980, when his ZANU–PF party won the elections following the end of white minority rule; he was the President of Zimbabwe from 1987 until his resignation in 2017. Under Mugabe's authoritarian regime, the state security apparatus dominated the country and was responsible for widespread human rights violations.
The country has been in economic decline since the 1990s. Mugabe created a program of land reform which was supposed to reallocate farmland from the white minority who monopolized the best land in the country to war veterans and landless peasants, but ended up distributing property to his political cronies with no interest or experience in farming. This, along with drought conditions, greatly contributed to the decline of the agricultural sector—and the country’s general economy—in the 2000s. Mugabe’s 1998 decision to intervene in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil war not only cost the Zimbabwean economy hundreds of millions of dollars but also resulted in the suspension of international economic aid for Zimbabwe. Economic mismanagement, rampant inflation, and record-high rates of unemployment complicated the worsening economic situation. Life expectancy in Zimbabwe had plummeted during the last decade of the 20th century, from 62 years in 1990 to about 38 years in 2000; in 2010 it rebounded to about 48 years.
On 15 November 2017, in the wake of over a year of protests against his government as well as Zimbabwe's rapidly declining economy, Mugabe was placed under house arrest by the country's national army in a coup d'état and eventually resigned six days later. Emmerson Mnangagwa has since served as Zimbabwe's president, not without also facing protests for human rights abuses, censorship of opposition and journalists, and recently for the handling of the covid pandemic.
The Book of Memory (Petina Gappah)
OP note: Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction. Petina Gappah is a famous contemporary Zimbabwean author. This book was also picked for the BBC World Book Club and you can hear the discussion with the author here.
Memory is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder. As part of her appeal, her lawyer insists that she write down what happened as she remembers it. As her story unfolds, Memory reveals that she has been tried and convicted for the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, her adopted father. But who was Lloyd Hendricks? Why does Memory feel no remorse for his death? And did everything happen exactly as she remembers?
In The Book of Memory, Petina Gappah has created a uniquely slippery narrator: forthright, acerbically funny, and with a complicated relationship to the truth. Moving between the townships of the poor and the suburbs of the rich, and between the past and the present, Gappah weaves a compelling tale of love, obsession, the relentlessness of fate, and the treachery of memory.
Out of Darkness, Shining Light (Petina Gappah)
“This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of Bwana Daudi, the Doctor, David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land.” So begins Petina Gappah's powerful novel of exploration and adventure in nineteenth-century Africa—the captivating story of the loyal men and women who carried explorer and missionary Dr. Livingstone's body, his papers and maps, fifteen hundred miles across the continent of Africa, so his remains could be returned home to England and his work preserved there. Narrated by Halima, the doctor's sharp-tongued cook, and Jacob Wainwright, a rigidly pious freed slave, this is a story that encompasses all of the hypocrisy of slavery and colonization—the hypocrisy at the core of the human heart—while celebrating resilience, loyalty, and love.
We Need New Names (NoViolet Bulawayo)
OP note: Shortlisted for the Booker Prize (2013), winner of the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award
Darling is only ten years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo's belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad.
But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America's famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few. NoViolet Bulawayo's debut calls to mind the great storytellers of displacement and arrival who have come before her--from Junot Diaz to Zadie Smith to J.M. Coetzee--while she tells a vivid, raw story all her own.
House of Stone (Novuyo Rosa Tshuma)
OP note: Shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction
In the chronic turmoil of modern Zimbabwe, Abednego and Agnes Mlambo's teenage son, Bukhosi, has gone missing, and the Mlambos fear the worst. Their enigmatic lodger, Zamani, seems to be their last, best hope for finding him. Since Bukhosi's disappearance, Zamani has been preternaturally helpful: hanging missing posters in downtown Bulawayo, handing out fliers to passersby, and joining in family prayer vigils with the flamboyant Reverend Pastor from Agnes's Blessed Anointings church. It's almost like Zamani is part of the family....
But almost isn't nearly enough for Zamani. He ingratiates himself with Agnes and feeds alcoholic Abednego's addiction, desperate to extract their life stories and steep himself in borrowed family history, as keenly aware as any colonialist or power-mad despot that the one who controls the narrative inherits the future. As Abednego wrestles with the ghosts of his past and Agnes seeks solace in a deep-rooted love, their histories converge and each must confront the past to find their place in a new Zimbabwe.
Pulsing with wit, seduction, and dark humor, House of Stone is a sweeping epic that spans the fall of Rhodesia through Zimbabwe's turbulent beginnings, exploring the persistence of the oppressed in a young nation seeking an identity, but built on forgetting.
Nervous Conditions (Tsitsi Dangarembga)
OP note: A modern classic in the African literary canon. Picked as one of BBC's 100 Stories that Shaped the World. It was also selected for the BBC World Book Club, and you can hear the discussion with the author here. The author was arrested last year for speaking against the arrest of journalists amid a government crackdown on dissent.
Tambudzai dreams of education, but her hopes only materialise after her brother's death, when she goes to live with her uncle. At his mission school, her critical faculties develop rapidly, bringing her face to face with a new set of conflicts involving her uncle, his education and his family. Tsitsi Dangarembga's quietly devastating first novel offers a portrait of Zimbabwe, where enlightenment brings its own profound dilemmas.
This Mournable Body (Tsitsi Dangarembga)
OP note: Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020. This book is actually #3 in the trilogy started by "Nervous Conditions". However, you can read it as a standalone.
Anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job, Tambudzai finds herself living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. For reasons that include her grim financial prospects and her age, she moves to a widow’s boarding house and eventually finds work as a biology teacher. But at every turn in her attempt to make a life for herself, she is faced with a fresh humiliation, until the painful contrast between the future she imagined and her daily reality ultimately drives her to a breaking point.
In This Mournable Body, Tsitsi Dangarembga returns to the protagonist of her acclaimed first novel, Nervous Conditions, to examine how the hope and potential of a young girl and a fledgling nation can sour over time and become a bitter and floundering struggle for survival. As a last resort, Tambudzai takes an ecotourism job that forces her to return to her parents’ impoverished homestead. It is this homecoming, in Dangarembga’s tense and psychologically charged novel, that culminates in an act of betrayal, revealing just how toxic the combination of colonialism and capitalism can be.
The Gold Diggers (Sue Nyathi)
It’s 2008 and the height of Zimbabwe’s economic demise. A group of passengers is huddled in a Toyota Quantum about to embark on a treacherous expedition to the City of Gold. Amongst them is Gugulethu, who is hoping to be reconciled with her mother; Dumisani, an ambitious young man who believes he will strike it rich, Chamunorwa and Chenai, twins running from their troubled past; and Portia and Nkosi, a mother and son desperate to be reunited with a husband and father they see once a year.
They have paid a high price for the dangerous passage to what they believe is a better life; an escape from the vicious vagaries of their present life in Bulawayo. In their minds, the streets of Johannesburg are paved with gold but they will have to dig deep to get close to any gold, dirtying themselves in the process.
The Boy Next Door (Irene Sabatini)
OP note: Winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers (2010)
In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, there is a tragedy in the house next door to Lindiwe Bishop--her neighbor has been burned alive. The victim's stepson, Ian McKenzie, is the prime suspect but is soon released. Lindiwe can't hide her fascination with this young, boisterous and mysterious white man, and they soon forge an unlikely closeness even as the country starts to deteriorate.
Years after circumstances split them apart, Ian returns to a much-changed Zimbabwe to see Lindiwe, now a sophisticated, impassioned young woman, and discovers a devastating secret that will alter both of their futures, and draw them closer together even as the world seems bent on keeping them apart. The Boy Next Door is a moving and powerful debut about two people finding themselves and each other in a time of national upheaval.
The Theory of Flight (Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu)
Said to have hatched from a golden egg, Genie spends her childhood playing in a field of sunflowers as her country reawakens after a fierce civil war.
This is the story of Genie, who has gifts that transcend time and space. It is also the story of her forebears - Baines Tikiti, who, because of his wanderlust, changed his name and ended up walking into the Indian Ocean; his son, Livingstone Stanley Tikiti, who, during the war, took as his nom de guerre Golide Gumede and who became obsessed with flight; and Golide's wife, Elizabeth Nyoni, a country-and-western singer self-styled after Dolly Parton, blonde wig and all.
With the lightest of touches, and with an overlay of magical-realist beauty, this novel sketches, through the lives of a few families and the fate of a single patch of ground, decades of national history (a country in Southern Africa that is never named) - from colonial occupation through the freedom struggle, to the devastation wrought by the sojas, the HIV virus, and The Man Himself.
At turns mysterious and magical, but always honest, The Theory of Flight explores the many ways we lose those we love before they die.
The Library of the Dead (T.L. Huchu)
OP note: Ok so actually this book only comes out in June (published by Tor), but I thought it was cool that there was an YA fantasy option, even if you want to save it for later. This will be the first of a series and it's set in contemporary Scotland. In the meantime if you want to read something else by the same author, T.L. Huchu also goes by Tendai Huchu, the name under which he published "The Hairdresser of Harare".
When a child goes missing in Edinburgh's darkest streets, young Ropa investigates. She'll need to call on Zimbabwean magic as well as her Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. But as shadows lengthen, will the hunter become the hunted?
Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker. Now she speaks to Edinburgh's dead, carrying messages to the living. A girl's gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone's bewitching children--leaving them husks, empty of joy and life. It's on Ropa's patch, so she feels honor-bound to investigate. But what she learns will change her world.
She'll dice with death (not part of her life plan...), discovering an occult library and a taste for hidden magic. She'll also experience dark times. For Edinburgh hides a wealth of secrets, and Ropa's gonna hunt them all down.
Butterfly Burning (Yvonne Vera)
Set in Makokoba, a black township, in the late 1940s, the novel is an intensely bittersweet love story. When Fumbatha, a construction worker, meets the much younger Phephelaphi, he"wants her like the land beneath his feet from which birth had severed him." He in turn fills her "with hope larger than memory." But Phephelaphi is not satisfied with their "one-room" love alone. The qualities that drew Fumbatha to her, her sense of independence and freedom, end up separating them. And the closely woven fabric of township life, where everyone knows everyone else, has a mesh too tight and too intricate to allow her to escape her circumstances on her own.
Vera exploits language to peel away the skin of public and private lives. In Butterfly Burning she captures the ebullience and the bitterness of township life, as well as the strength and courage of her unforgettable heroine.
The Grass is Singing (Doris Lessing)
OP note: Nobel Prize Winner (2013) Doris Lessing is a British-Zimbabwean writer. She was raised in Southern Rhodesia (current Zimbabwe) but was banned from the country still during colonial times, for her opposition to the white-minority government. Her works are often set in Zimbabwe and surrounding Southern African areas. Her most famous book is The Golden Notebook.
Doris Lessing's first novel is both a riveting chronicle of human disintegration and a beautifully understated social critique. Mary Turner is a self-confident, independent young woman who becomes the depressed, frustrated wife of an ineffectual, unsuccessful farmer. Little by little the ennui of years on the farm work their slow poison, and Mary's despair progresses until the fateful arrival of an enigmatic black servant, Moses. Locked in anguish, Mary and Moses--master and slave--are trapped in a web of mounting attraction and repulsion. Their psychic tension explodes in an electrifying scene that ends this disturbing tale of racial strife in colonial Southern Africa.
The Grass Is Singing blends Lessing's imaginative vision with her own vividly remembered early childhood to recreate the quiet horror of a woman's struggle against a ruthless fate.
The House of Hunger (Dambudzo Marechera)
OP note: Marechera is an important Zimbabwean author famous for experimental novels. This is his most famous title, but if your local library doesn't have it, it might have "Black Sunlight" (1980), published by Penguin. In that novel, he parodies African nationalist and racial identifications as part of an argument that notions of an 'essential African identity' were often invoked to authorize a number of totalitarian regimes across Africa. "Black Sunlight" was banned in Zimbabwe on charges of 'Euromodernism' and as a challenge to the concept of nation-building in the newly independent country.
Marechera made an immediate impact with the publication of The House of Hunger. The novella and nine short stories, most of them set in Zimbabwe, symbolise both home and country as the 'house of hunger', the place of madness and violence and despair. Marechera describes a world in which tenderness has long given way to the tactics of survival, and he does so in a style at once explosive and loaded with angry humour.
Bones (Chenjerai Hove)
Bones is a poetic novel about the guerilla fight for freedom in Zimbabwe, but unlike a conventional novel, all the action is interior monologues -- some by specific characters, others by representatives of certain types produced by colonial history, or by spirits. The story involves a mother's love, and a lover's yearning, for a young man who has joined the freedom fighters. Hove captures the ambivalence and conflicts of loyalties in the attitude of the peasants towards the guerillas, and underscores the state's indifference to the lives of ordinary people.
Zenzele: A Letter for my Daughter (J. Nozipo Maraire)
Written as a letter from a Zimbabwean mother to her daughter, a student at Harvard, J. Nozipo Maraire evokes the moving story of a mother reaching out to her daughter to share the lessons life has taught her and bring the two closer than ever before. Interweaving history and memories, disappointments and dreams, Zenzele tells the tales of Zimbabwe's struggle for independence and the men and women who shaped it: Zenzele's father, an outspoken activist lawyer; her aunt, a schoolteacher by day and secret guerrilla fighter by night; and her cousin, a maid and a spy.
Waiting for the Rain (Charles Mungoshi)
OP note: Ok, I get that this cover is absolutely hideous. But I included it for a reason, the author is very important to Zimbabwean literature. (See this article). Also try "Coming of the Dry Season" by the same author.
The award-winning writer Charles Mungoshi is recognised in Africa, and internationally, as one of the continent's most powerful writers today. This early novel deals with the pain and dislocation of the clash of the old and new ways - the educated young man determined to go overseas, and the elders of the family believing his duty is to stay and head the family.
I am a Girl From Africa (Elizabeth Nyamayaro)
OP note: So this book only comes out in April (published by Simon & Schuster), but it is notable for being a memoir by a Black Zimbabwean (not a white imperialist - you really wouldn't believe how many memoirs by colonizers in Zimbabwe there are). It is getting good early reviews so it might be worth the wait for the resident non-fiction readers.
When severe draught hit her village in Zimbabwe, Elizabeth, then eight, had no idea that this moment of utter devastation would come to define her life purpose. Unable to move from hunger, she encountered a United Nations aid worker who gave her a bowl of warm porridge and saved her life. This transformative moment inspired Elizabeth to become a humanitarian, and she vowed to dedicate her life to giving back to her community, her continent, and the world.
Grounded by the African concept of ubuntu—“I am because we are”—I Am a Girl from Africa charts Elizabeth’s quest in pursuit of her dream from the small village of Goromonzi to Harare, London, New York, and beyond, where she eventually became a Senior Advisor at the United Nations and launched HeForShe, one of the world’s largest global solidarity movements for gender equality. For over two decades, Elizabeth has been instrumental in creating change in communities all around the world; uplifting the lives of others, just as her life was once uplifted. The memoir brings to vivid life one extraordinary woman’s story of persevering through incredible odds and finding her true calling—while delivering an important message of hope and empowerment in a time when we need it most.
Mugabe: Power, Plunder and the Struggle for Zimbabwe's Future (Martin Meredith)
OP note: If you like political biographies, this could be a good pick. Mostly I included this because the author Martin Meredith also has a history of Zimbabwe coming out this year, in September!
Initially he promised reconciliation between white and blacks, encouraged Zimbabwe's economic and social development, and was admired throughout the world as one of the leaders of the emerging nations and as a model for a transition from colonial leadership. But as Martin Meredith shows in this history of Mugabe's rule, Mugabe from the beginning was sacrificing his purported ideals—and Zimbabwe's potential—to the goal of extending and cementing his autocratic leadership. Over time, Mugabe has become ever more dictatorial, and seemingly less and less interested in the welfare of his people, treating Zimbabwe's wealth and resources as spoils of war for his inner circle. In recent years he has unleashed a reign of terror and corruption in his country.
African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (Doris Lessing)
In this portrait of Doris Lessing's homeland, the author recounts the visits she made to Zimbabwe in 1982, 1988, 1989 and 1992, after being banned from the old Southern Rhodesia for 25 years for her political views and opposition to the minority white Government. The visits constitute a journey to the heart of a country whose history, landscape, people and spirit are evoked by the author in a narrative of detail. She embraces every facet of life in Zimbabwe from the lost animals in the bush to political corruption, from AIDS to a successful communal enterprise created by rural blacks, and notes the kind of changes that can only be appreciated by one who has lived there before.
More resources for books by Zimbabwean authors:
Zimbabwe Novels (not all are elible, but lots of good options)
Petina Gappah's top 10 books about Zimbabwe
The 10 Best Writers of Zimbabwe
Six Great Zimbabwean Novels, from Classic to Contemporary
On Literature from Zimbabwe, 11 Women Writers and their Works
sources for the write-up 1 2
book summaries 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19
what's your pick for this month, ONTD?