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Women Writers in Zimbabwe

19 Dec 2012

reprinted from Panorama, by Tinashe Mushakavanhu

Zimbabwean literature largely remains a male playground filled with a lot of testosterone and defined by patriarchal values and attitudes. Tracing the history of writing in Zimbabwe from the 1960s and 1970s, there is a clear absence of women writers.

This is corroborated in Flora Veit-Wild’s comprehensive study Teachers, Preachers, Non-Believers (1992) which is a sociological account of mostly black Zimbabwean writing before and after independence.

The discussion of women writers is barely noticeable. What is particularly revealing is how women were discouraged from writing or ‘speaking up’ by their husbands and families. Zimbabwean women are treated as ‘housewives’ and therefore expected to be silent domesticated partners.

Prominent sociologist and University of Zimbabwe lecturer, Professor Rudo Gaidzanwa in Images of Women in Zimbabwean Literature (1985), shows that the negative portrayal of women in colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwean literature, mostly by male authors, delegitimises their struggle for basic human rights like education and health.

This testifies to the many subtle forms of silencing perpetuated by the Zimbabwean society, an internalizing of male norms, a depiction of conventional marriage as a prison, as well as testimony to the brutal control and suppression of black women by traditional patriarchy.

However, the period after independence in 1980 sees women taking pens and writing while staking their claim on the literary landscape.

Barbara Makhalisa’s short story collection is the first by a woman writer, The Underdog and Other Stories (1984) and Kristina Rungano’s A Storm is Brewing (1984) becomes the first poetry collection by a female poet.

Other writers to emerge at this period also include former freedom fighter and poet, Freedom TV Nyamubaya, whose collection On the Road (1986) is an eloquent portrayal of the war and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s now world-famous classic, Nervous Conditions (1988).

A development such as the establishment of Zimbabwe Women Writers (ZWW) in 1990 was concerned particularly with the promotion of women’s literature in Zimbabwe but also identifying new talent.

The idea was to groom women writers and publish them or help them publish. Though this has not necessarily been the case. To date, ZWW has published more than 15 books in various subjects from creative writing, scholarly books and even recipes.

Some of these books have been incorporated into the local Zimbabwe school syllabi while others are reference texts in institutes of higher learning across the globe. Anthology: Over One Hundred Works by Zimbabwean Women Writers edited by the late Norma Kitson in 1994 is one such important text.

The publication of short story collection Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals? in 1993 heralded the emergence of perhaps Zimbabwe’s most accomplished woman writer  Yvonne Vera. Her subsequent books were all internationally acclaimed and translated into several languages. Her premature death in 2005 robbed the country of a female icon. But  her genius still lives on through her writings.

Other writers include J. Nozipho Maraire (Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter), Vivienne Ndlovu (For Want of a Totem) and Lillian Masitera (Now I Can Play).

Since 2000, there has been gradual visibility of women writers in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean women writers are just beginning to come into their own, but they still face many obstacles along the way.

Despite the progress, Zimbabwe is still a very male-dominated world, and female authors who dare to speak or write continue to have a tough, uphill road ahead of them.

However, there has been a lot of new writing by women writers including Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (Jacaranda Journals), Blessing Musariri (Going Home: A Tree’s Story), Valerie Tagwirei (The Uncertainty of Hope), Petina Gappah (An Elegy for Easterly), Primrose Dzenga (Destiny in My Hands) and Bryony Rheam (This September Sun).

The fundamental question must be: is creative writing an outlet for the male writer only? What vision of the world do these women contribute? And how does it compare with the vision we associate with Zimbabwean literature, a literature so deeply preoccupied, it seems, with the struggles of men? How do these women relate to this predominantly male tradition, do they identify with it, adapt it to their needs, reject it, or ignore it? These questions provide new and engaging ways of appreciating the significance of women writers in Zimbabwe.

As a country, we have rarely listened to our women, preferring the drowning noises of men in our everyday reality. Yet women writers are endowed with a special sensitivity and passion necessary to creativity. Yvonne Vera puts it better:  ‎”A woman writer must have an imagination that is plain stubborn, that can invent new gods and banish ineffectual ones…”

If we in Zimbabwe are serious about nurturing the cultural richness of our land, we must ensure that all citizens with inclination and talent to write, women included, are allowed to write.

See related reading 

Zimbabwe boasts a wide array of accomplished female writers