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Book Review: Tendai Mwanaka's "Keys in the River: Notes from a Modern Chimurenga"
"Most, if not all, of these stories are real life stories that I sometimes inflected towards the fiction genre, but in which I have tried to keep the facts correct, or almost correct, so that someone reading this novel should know they are reading about real life in modern Zimbabwe" (p6).
It took me longer than I expected to finally read Keys in the River: Notes from a Modern Chimurenga by Zimbabwean author, Tendai Mwanaka. I'm glad I finally got the chance to read it last night. Published by Savant Books, who I have to say a big thank you for sending me the review copy, Keys in the River is a collection of 23 short stories.
The stories in this collection show the many different experiences of Zimbabweans. It begins with Sunset a story about love, relationship fears and the lengths a man will go to due to such fears. It ends with Sunrise, where we see the consequences of such decisions. In between there are stories of young men finding love (Mangoyi - The Cat), entrepreneurial spirit in the face of poverty (Mushazhike and Nyadzonya), illegal border crossing (Limpopo's Bones), on ZANUPF supporters (Mbuya Chitungwiza), the consequences of supporting the opposition party, MDC (Breaking the Silence), or false accusations from the government (The List). Stories are set in rural Zimbabwe, others in cities, and some outside of Zimabawe touching on Bostwana, Mozambique and South Africa.
In a few situations many chapters after you first meet them, characters return to continue their story. Stories like Sunrise and Sunset, but also Mushazhike and Nyadzonya are such cases. In others, like Limpopo's Bones and The Dark-Haired Girl a few themes overlap. I liked the continuation of stories and the cross-cutting of themes. I also enjoyed the different styles in which the stories were written - some were simple, others poetic. Although sometimes it did feel like there was a moral to a few of the stories.
The collection also makes you think. In Breaking the Silence and The List, where people disappear or are abducted and then tortured, how safe can you really be in your own country? Also, how easily can you be wrongfully accused? In Limpopo's Bones the thought of it being illegal is removed from border crossing. Here, we just read about the people who are crossing, and the border gangsters who help them do so. There are certain dangers when crossing but people put themselves through this regularly for the possibility of a better life. Although in Nyadzonya, which also includes illegally crossing to Mozambique from Zimababwe through the feat that is Nyadzonya Mountain, sometimes there's no better life on the other side. Yet, people take that risk on a regular basis.
In the introduction Tendai Mwanaka goes into some detail on the meaning of the term 'chimurenga'. I won't go into that here, but the word means struggle. Although there are tales of love and tragedy, politics and poverty, fundamentally Keys in the River is a collection of stories about struggle told from different perspectives.
3.75 out of 5 stars
Tendai Mwanaka’s “Keys in the River”; A Note on Obama and the Hope for Political Dialogue
Posted on September 26, 2012 by brettalansanders | 2 Comments
Almanac of the Dead, by Leslie Marmon Silko One character from Almanac of the Dead whom I didn’t mention the other day is Clinton, the African American Vietnam veteran and homeless man whose researches into the history of slave revolts in the Americas and the intermingling of African American and Native American peoples prove quite intriguing. While his personal hold on sanity might be precarious, he is a compelling character who brings a lot to the table. He is, in effect, the novel’s principal liaison between the indigenous of the American and African continents. A common motif in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel is the African peoples’ retaking of their lands in the 20th century and their standing, thus, as an inspiration and a model for indigenous America’s eventual reclaiming of its own – as prophesied.
But to what end this liberation of African nations from their European overlords? Isn’t Africa today wholly a tale of ecological and human degradation, of continuing and continual bloodletting and mass starvation, of the mere replacement of white rulers for black tyrants? What does liberation mean in this context? Is the future a hopeful place at all or a recipe for despair?
Keys of the River, by Tendai MwanakaWith these questions in mind it was with considerable interest that I picked up Zimbabwean writer Tendai Mwanaka’s Keys in the River: Notes from a Modern Chimurenga, which the Hawaiian publisher Savant Books brought out this year. In these stories Mwanaka does indeed wade through a territory rife with atrocity and yet also humor, love, and resilience. Answers to the questions posed above are not directly given in these stories, but a hope that the African peoples will eventually find their way is at least suggested. These matters are difficult and complicated, to be sure, and unique from nation to nation; and likewise nothing comes easy in the starkly realistic world of these stories, though their harsh realities are leavened now and then by a romantic tone – bringing the work, at last, to a high note of hope and dignity.
For “dignity” the author might say “nobility.” In his prologue, explaining the significance of the word “chimurenga” (which most approximately means “struggle”), he comments in this way on the book’s theme: “Even when a people are faced with a chaotic and turbulent world due to the machinations of despotic leaders, the terror of ongoing pandemics, the chronic poverty stemming from poorly designed economies, the human heart continues to pump with courage, with conviction. A chimurenga, then, is not just a struggle but also a noble stance in the face of the struggle” (p. 1).
Tendai Mwanaka, Zimbabwean writerOne of the most affecting stories to me – and stunning in its effect – is “Limpopo’s Bones.” The Limpopo is a crocodile-infested river and one of the hurdles in illegal crossings between Zimbabwe and South Africa, the latter in a sense being to the United States what Zimbabwe is to Mexico. The bones, as we eventually discover, belong to an infant who is abandoned beside the river when this particular crossing goes bad. The protagonist is a young man who relates the wrenching story of what happened (and of his responsibility in it) during the time he was a sort of Zimbabwean counterpart to the Mexican “coyote” – “a Malaitshas, a border gangtster, helping people cross over to South Africa illegally” (p. 50). The story itself becomes witness to the ordinariness of the perpetrators of crimes against humanity whom we call Monsters – the evil-doing Other – while in fact they are just human beings much like us, only pushed by various combinations of fear and hate, cynicism and circumstance to commit their cruel acts (though the presence among them of sociopathy might not hurt either). At the same time the story puts a face on the so-called “illegal alien” of a portion of our political discourse in the USA.
How does one read such a story and still manage to see the average illegal crossers as merely criminal – for no other act at all than the crossing of the border itself, an act that people have been doing for millenia in response to the moment’s needs? What I am pointing out here is simply an illustration of Kenneth Burke’s notion of literature as persuasion to attitude.
Another story that took my breath away is the short piece “Breaking the Silence,” which deals, within this African context, with the problem of disappearances and death squads that has been so prevalent in Latin America. “In those days,” Mwanaka’s narrator says, “people were disappearing even in broad daylight” (p. 81). The horror of what occurs here to one young couple, the wife who is pregnant with what was to be their first child, is chilling. The horror that the story names is well expressed in this narrator’s phrase: “this terror, this monstrosity of patriotism” (p. 83). How safe are we ever, even in our land, from the violence of our own monstrosities of patriotism?
These stories of barbarities are broken up, thankfully, with stories about other things including love and even containing humor. The two most successful love stories, in my view, are an early story called “And She Said ‘Yes’” and a late one called “Hearts Are Victors”; these are the happiest, in any case, and very sweet. Of the predominantly humorous, the funniest is “Thus Far; No Further” which involves a nighttime raid by haughty boys to rescue their unjustly impounded cattle from the local mission’s enclosure. Against the spiteful nun and her acquiescent priest – those are who stand to profit by the usurious fines on an impoverished people’s straying cattle – the mischievous boys are triumphant. The little tale is itself quite charming.
The collection’s first story, “Sunset,” deals rather dramatically with the AIDS crisis as it affects one young man in particular. This story is directly tied to the last, “Sunrise,” which explores the experience of the girlfriend who might also be infected. These two stories in their unity, starting in tragedy, become a paean to hope that is also implied by the boys’ outwitting of their oppressors. The book ends, then, with this simple declarative sentence: “It was time to let tears run dry” (p. 243). Coming right after the joyous “Hearts Are Victors” the effect of this last story is very strong, and lends to the whole collection a sense of redemption.
This isn’t a perfect book. There is some linguistic awkwardness here and there, perhaps stemming from the author’s writing in a second language – though, on the whole, he writes very well. Some of the stories seem too heavy on the explication, which merges into a sometimes annoying moralizing – which in turn speaks to an occasional confusion, I think, between author and narrator (a confusion helped along by the introducing of a younger Tendai himself into two or three of the tales). But overall these are mere quibbles. The book strongly deserves a wide readership.
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