The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu is melancholic, slow, ordinary, and thus, beautiful. It was the most perfect book I could have read while trying to come off my excitement high from a fantasy narrative. When I say it is ordinary, I do not mean at all that it is boring. It captured my attention beautifully because of how mundane it is.
The main character, Sepha Stephanos, is so easily recognizable as a real human being – not a hero or villain, neither particularly victim or victor, but just an ordinary man, to whom life happens. Sephanos’s near total indifference to life is terrifying to me precisely because of how close it has often been to my own reality.
“There are those who wake each morning ready to conquer the day, and then there are those of us who wake only because we have to. We live in the shadows of every neighborhood. We own corner stores, live in run-down apartments that get too little light, and walk the same streets day after day. We spend our afternoons gazing lazily out of windows. Somnambulists, all of us. Someone else said it better: we wake to sleep and sleep to wake.” -Sepha Stephanos
Stephanos is a member of the population that may entertain aspirations and dreams occasionally, but inevitably stifles them in deference to the futility of it all. He has not so much resigned himself to his life as simply ceased to actively live it. Occasionally, he performs or neglects to perform actions that amount to self-sabotage, with the startling lack of any significant emotion. At least halfway through the book, I started thinking of him as a type of zombie and it was so unlike most characters I’ve read recently that it kept me hooked.
Not many particularly exciting things happen within this book, but when they do, the ceremony and detail with which they are described make them seem no more momentous than the types of things one might ordinarily not bother to notice. From the narrative, you might not be able to find any significant difference in grandness between the experience of watching a house burn down and the experience of riding a D.C. train. Mengestu is, in my opinion, a fantastic writer. His diction, sentence structure, and narrative style are so absorbingly beautiful to me that it doesn’t even matter that particularly exciting things seldom happen. His writing makes me content enough to simply sit with Stephanos and follow his streams of consciousness, inconsistent narrative timelines, and internal philosophizing. The interior of Stephanos’s mind is made more interesting by the lack of excitement outside it.
The mundane vibe of the book is the kind to lend an unusual intensity to ordinary moments. A kiss, a conversation, the sale of an insignificant item in a corner store. There’s an aching beauty in the recognition of things longed for and things lost; things unattainable and the mere threat of re-developing an interest in life, simply not knowing what to do with the possibility that a part of you long dead might once again come alive. The danger of finding something to finally live for. And life relentlessly being life through it all. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears never lets you miss life relentlessly being life, in favor of more “exciting” narratives. That is, I think, what I loved most about the book.
A South African writer I’m personally familiar with, Karen Jennings, is offering a 12-week writing course in English to any South African citizen over the age of 18 – no prior writing experience required.
I met Karen through Writivism’s mentorship program, and she helped me edit a story that eventually made it into the longlist. From working with her over a period of approximately three months, I can personally vouch for her as a great and immensely helpful mentor.
Here’s a statement from Karen herself:
“I am a South African, married to a Brazilian, and in September of 2015, due to various circumstances, we were compelled to move from South Africa to Brazil. It has been a challenging and difficult time for me. Perhaps most difficult has been feeling removed from the country of my birth, a place that I love and had hoped always to be part of. This year I started to look at my life and consider how I could realistically be involved in the future of my country, in even the smallest of ways, at this distance and without the benefit of any sort of income to assist me. I was inspired by the organisers of Short Story Day Africa and Writivism who work incredibly hard to bring opportunities to African writers. With this in mind, I have decided to offer a mentorship/writing course to an aspiring writer for a period of 12 weeks, starting on 1 April 2019.”
The course information and other application details can be found via this link.
So, if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the info along to them. 🙂
In my opinion, re-writing our history, especially as Africans, is at least as important as documenting our present. And yes, I am indeed advocating for re-writing, as opposed to just learning or passing down already-documented history. Because history is always getting re-written anyway, so we might as well be the ones re-assuming control of the narratives—especially as Africans, and especially as women.
“There are many questions and I am looking for answers. The kind of answers that slip past the facts of history books or analyses by pundits and experts. Answers that are not party politics. That are not Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), or Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) or the Movement for Democratic Change. Answers that are not Cecil John Rhodes, Ian Smith, Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai or Emerson Mnangagwa, or any other Big Men in the history of the nation.” –Panashe Chigumadzi
I had the privilege of meeting Panashe Chigumadzi at a lecture organized by UCT’s Institute of Creative Arts. The lecture, which was essentially a reading of most, if not all of Panashe’s most recent book, was marketed with a word I had never previously seen: “biomythography.” To try to define it, I would break it down into the three words I can identify in it: biography, mythology and historiography. It was just as well that I learned this new word on the very day I bought These Bones Will Rise Again, because I would otherwise have been hard pressed to describe the type of book this is. (My Microsoft Word keeps underlining the word biomythography, so I have now looked it up. Turns out the word was coined by Audre Lorde, to describe a book she published in 1982. I love lexivist legends!)
After Panashe’s lecture, which had already had me snapping multiple times in my head, and left my brain spinning by the end, the floor was opened for questions. Although intimidated by Panashe’s brilliance, I gathered up enough courage to ask one. My question originated in a discussion I’d had the previous semester with a Kenyan friend, between two halves of a long Africana Studies class. Right before the break, I had posited to my classmates my opinion that a large percentage of what Africans consider legitimate history gets disregarded by Caucasian society/colonial institutions like academia because these histories contain elements of the magical/spiritual/mythological. Thus, critics may say: Myths are just myths, this isn’t scientific, it couldn’t possibly have happened, so we shall not look twice at it.
Why was I thinking about this during the lecture? Because a significant portion of These Bones Will Rise Again revolves around the spirit of Mbuya Nehanda, that powerhouse who, whether for better or worse, has achieved some sort of Mother of the Nation status in Zimbabwe. The book’s title, in fact, is directly drawn from Nehanda’s own words: “‘Mapfupa angu achapfuka.’ My bones will rise again.” Mbuya Nehanda’s spirit is central to Zimbabwe’s history, and she has consistently returned after her first death, through the bones of different mediums—a classic example of what colonial academia calls implausible, illegitimate and in-credible. In other words, myth.
The question my Kenyan friend had asked during that one lesson break was whether my own use of the word “mythology” contributed to the delegitimization of African history’s spiritual elements. By invoking the very term “myth,” was I not already implying that these aspects of history were deliberately invented, whimsical fantasies? So, this was this very same question I posed to Panashe a few months ago. I had wrongly assumed that she was too spent and tired after speaking for more than an hour, to give an extensive answer. Thus, I was not prepared for the beauty of her response.
She said many things, but I will give you a summary: All history is myth-making. Myth-making is not exclusive to African history or to European history; neither confined to spiritual events nor military affairs. All of it is myth-making. The minute someone chooses to tell or document a story about the past—what they include or leave out, the pictures they paint of historical figures/characters, the embedded “morals” of the stories, even the person or people passing on the history—they are constructing a kind of official myth. People consistently and deliberately construct versions of stories, especially “national” narratives. It’s why we have real-life heroes and villains; and a tale about a hero whose weapon was supernatural element manipulation may turn out to be significantly less fabricated than one about a “hero” in uniform, whose weapon was an assault rifle. I suppose that might depend at least partially on the power and influence of the myth-maker.
When Panashe had finished answering my question, I sat back to reflect on it, in awe. It was more than satisfying, it was stimulating.
Early on in These Bones Will Rise Again, Panashe gives an apt example of how myth-making can work in our (Africans’) worst interests. She speaks of Wilbur Smith’s (a)historicization process in the writing of The Sunbird (which I’ve never read and don’t think I ever intend to read), saying, among many other things, that:
“Time and history were colonized so that they acquired a new racial dimension: the natives they ruled over were backward, ahistorical, primitive tribesmen who were, in effect, out of time.”
The history of Africa is already written, you see. In some cases, it’s inaccessible to some of the people for whom it would be most relevant. In other cases, the kind of history that deliberately de-contextualizes Africa is too accessible to the people whose minds are overly malleable in the hands of the colonizer, regardless of race. And this process, this myth-making process that has the potential to do so much work in the minds of the recipients/readers/consumers, is exactly why re-writing history is as important as telling it at all.
Now, with this new word “biomythography” available in my lexicon, let me try to describe the book itself. For starters, it’s nonfiction: kind of like a book-length essay. I don’t usually read nonfiction books unless it’s for school or research for my own fiction, and I might have overlooked it entirely if it hadn’t been Panashe Chigumadzi’s name on the cover. Secondly, the book is described, at least in the areas it’s being formally marketed, as a “reflection”—primarily of Zimbabwe’s late-2017 “coup that was not a coup,” as Panashe has called it. (And now that I have greater contextual understanding, I agree.) This “reflection” is also said to have been done through a quest for the spirits/memories of Zimbabwean national heroine, Mbuya Nehanda, and for Panashe’s own maternal grandmother, Mbuya Lillian Chigumadzi.
I must argue, however, that These Bones Will Rise Again is not nearly as clean as that description. Saying what it was about will limit the book itself. It includes accounts of Panashe’s own life, the journeys she went on, and people she visited—strangers and family members alike—as she attempted to uncover as much as she could of first-hand information on Mbuya Nehanda and her grandmother. It also includes personal accounts of her reactions to Zimbabwe’s political events. It includes retellings of Zimbabwe’s history, brief accounts of the Chimurengas, the country’s nation-building process, and the rise and rule of its former president. The chronology is at least as confusing as the content, jumping back and forth between 21st century present, 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a messy web of words (which is not to say at all that it doesn’t make sense), but so is the human thought process, isn’t it?
On the fourth page of the book, I believe, is the explanation for both why this book was written and the reason it was written in biomythographical format:
“As a people who believe that a person is both flesh and spirit and lives on after death, we often commune with our ancestors, but it is especially in times of crisis and need that we look to them for answers about ourselves.”
In the space of about a month, two very important things happened: Panashse’s paternal grandmother Lilian Chigumadzi, née Dzumbira, was buried (and Panashe was unable to attend the event). About a month later, Zimbabwe had a “coup that was not a coup,” during which Zimbabweans were “suddenly being liberated from Mugabe’s rule by the very military that supported him for almost four decades.” That latter event shocked even me, when, in November 2017, I sat in my dorm room in California, frantically scrolling through “breaking news” sections on news sites and texting Zimbabwean schoolmates, trying to figure out what in heaven’s name was happening. I can’t imagine how much more confusing it would have been for a born-Zimbabwean, a diasporan in the sense of having been raised in an African country other than the one of her birth, who is simultaneously going through the grief of having lost her grandmother long before she was ready. If I were Panashe, I would have been looking for answers too. I just don’t know if my approach, like hers, would have been to turn to my own departed ancestor. What, after all, would one Zimbabwean woman, not explicitly affiliated to national affairs in any way, have to offer me as a response to my country-sized questions?
But Panashe answers my question herself when she says,
“I must cast my eyes from the heights of the ‘Big Men’ who have created history that does not know little people, let alone little women, except as cannon fodder.”
This is exactly why Lilian Dzumbira Chigumadzi is so essential: she is a little woman in the face of the imposing structures of Zimbabwe’s history. As such, she is indispensable. (As paradoxical as this may seem, it makes sense to me.)
A few semesters ago, I read a paper for class by Patricia Hill Collins called “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought”. While I consider(ed) it another one of those academic papers that could honestly have been four times shorter and still have adequately accomplished its task, there was at least one applause-worthy thing I was able to glean from it. This paper contained a critique about the “necessity” of researchers in academic culture having to be personally removed from the subjects of their study. Patricia Hill Collins argued that this approach just wouldn’t fly for the kind of work Black Feminism was trying to accomplish—particularly when such work was being done by Black feminists. Instead, the opposite approach was, in fact, the most sensible, even if traditionally unacceptable: to deliberately insert oneself, as a Black woman, into one’s research narrative, because our experiences and identities are as essential as the topics we are writing about. (If it can be broken down in a paragraph, why did I have to read five million pages that convey the same message? Like, bro, I can’t wait to leave school forever.) I feel like this Black Feminism principle of inserting yourself into your work is exactly what led to the mashup form of this essay-book as a biomythography. And I approve. In fact, I want to do some.
On the topic of Black Feminism, biomythography becomes even more important when we consider how history typically treats women and the positions to which it relegates them in important narratives:
“As we have done with Mbuya Nehanda, the Mother of our Nation, the lone heroine of our Chimurengas, our political history is one that makes wombs of women, empties us of all human complexity, impregnates us with all that is good or wrong in our society so that women are either Mothers of the Nation, birthing all that is good, or Evil Stepmothers, birthing all that is bad in our society.”
This seems like a lot of responsibility, and at once, I realize I’d rather be one of the little women as well, because at least it might give me the freedom to be written as fully human in history. I am neither pure heroine nor pure villain.
As much as These Bones Will Rise Again is significantly memoir, it’s also quite evidently a history textbook (in a loose definition of the word), and I’m actually very grateful for that. Not once have I ever read such a narrative by an African woman that tells me so much about a single African country from a personal lens, and which has successfully stimulated me and maintained my interest without my having been forced to read it. I hate classrooms with a passion, but if we’re going to keep using them on the African continent for the time being, we should probably distribute this book to African students everywhere, Zimbabwean and otherwise. Because, really, how many writers can successfully make non-fiction academic history not boring? My education would have meant a hell of a lot more to me if I had read a book like this before college. I imagine it would mean a lot to many young people who get the chance to read it.
I can’t emphasize enough how important I think this book is. I lost count of the number of times when, as I was reading, this thought occurred to me: This book has to explode, madly. It is way too important not to explode. But will it? I’ve come to believe that book popularity has at least as much to do with the funding and marketing behind the publishers as the actual quality of the work, so I don’t know. I do feel like by composing this post, I’m doing my little part in pushing this book to a potential audience. (I’m grateful to even have an audience!)
One thing I particularly admire about Panashe Chigumadzi is the boldness in her honesty. Whatever else this book is about, it’s also about Zimbabwean politics. Politics is dangerous everywhere, but I assume it’s much more so when the country in question had a genocide it dealt insufficiently with. Furthermore, a country whose historical characters are not only still alive, but still holding freaking positions in government. I don’t know if this book is being sold in Zimbabwe, but if it is, I’d consider it a miracle. (State censorship is hella real, you feel me?) I don’t know if Panashe ever plans to relocate to Zimbabwe, but if she ever successfully does, I’d consider it a miracle.
I will admit that as a Ghanaian girl who only learned last year that Zimbabwe even used to be called Rhodesia, and clearly had no knowledge of Zimbabwe’s history before very recently, this book had me thoroughly confused at times. Who are these people, where are these places, what are these words, what are you talking about, sis? But the more exposed you are to certain things, the better you begin to digest them. As I’m completing this write-up, I’ve only just finished reading Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone, which actually complements These Bones Will Rise Again very nicely, but in fiction form. At the time of Zimbabwe’s non-coup, I’d never heard of Emerson Mnangagwa in my life. Now, after following Zimbabwe’s political events nearly consistently and reading a lot more, I’m far less ignorant.
Still, assimilating the information contained in Panashe’s book is going to take several, several more reads. One could never have been enough. So, you know, it’s great that I own it now and can keep going back to it. (I should have asked Panashe to sign it when I met her. SMH. I really slack.)
My name seems to have appeared in quite a few places over the past few months, so I thought it would be convenient to give my blog readers an update on all of them at once. I’m not usually this involved in things, so I don’t expect blog posts like this to be frequent. But, for now, here we go:
A few weeks ago, I found out I was longlisted for the 2018 Writivism Short Story Prize. The shortlist was released yesterday and I did not make it that far, but making it onto the longlist means that my short story, as well as all the other longlisted writers’ short stories, are going to be published in an anthology by Black Letter Media later. So, that’s fantastic.
More on the Writivism initiative/competition here. You can follow them on Twitter as well, here.
Poetra Asantewa launched a new art magazine in July, and for its first issue, she got a few people to contribute. My contribution was a very dissatisfying story that we can pretend is sci-fi flash fiction for classification purposes, highly augmented by some lit photography by Josephine Kuuire. The magazine is really refreshing in terms of layout, vibrancy, minimalism, collaboration and the general nature of its content. I highly recommend you take a read – it’s very short – and digital versions are available on the Tampered Press website.
Paapa’s Technical Difficulties 2
Paapa hMensa, a musical and lyrical legend whom I’ve met once (he probably doesn’t remember it, though, because I was entirely irrelevant then, and it was during his concert, so he was meeting a ton of people at once anyway), released the second installment to his Technical Difficulties EP series, and the title track features me! It’s a beautiful song, going perfectly excellently as it plays, and then I barge in and start talking plenty in the name of spoken word poetry, SMH. I also briefly introduced each song, so my voice is on literally every track.
The EP is amazing, it’s been on heavy rotation in my music library since it dropped, and it’s musically even better than its prequel. (Is the word prequel applicable to musical projects? I don’t know.) Paapa is a magician, because I don’t even understand how he managed to achieve that. No Heart Left, ft. M.anifest, is a favorite. You can find his EP on pretty much every major music distribution site. 🙂
The DJ duo, #IFKR, which is composed of Eff the DJ and DJ K3V, released a new EP yesterday, exclusively on the Ghanaian musical platform, Aftown. I introduced that EP as well, with a lot of talking in the beginning that feels very weird to hear because I wrote it years ago and hadn’t heard it for a while. The entire EP has been years in the making, and I can personally vouch for the true banger-ness of particularly Lie B3n which features Ayat, and, of course, the pre-released single Omi Gbono, which features Odunsi. You can find the link to the EP here.
I know a previous blog post has mentioned this already, but I compiled Kuukua Annan’s OTC stories into a single PDF and created a new site for the OTC project so ayyy check it out and tell a friend!