reprinted from Sicilian.webs.com
Zimbabwe’s literary history, hitherto dominated by male voices, has of late seen a gradual increase in the number of female voices fighting to create space for purely female sensitivities.
In the pre-independence period there is no evidence of the visibility of female writers except for Dorris Lessing. Her The Grass is Singing, published in 1950, Five Short Novels (1953), The Habit of Loving (1957), A Man and Two Women (1963), Retreat to Innocence (1956), The Golden Notebook (1962), Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), The Summer Before the Dark (1973) — collections of short stories as well as novels — rank as some of the earliest works to come from a Rhodesian female writer.
The black Rhodesian female writer is virtually unseen on the literary stage. Most of the voices belonged to male authors writing in the vernacular, notably Patrick Chakaipa, Emmanuel Ribeiro, Ndabezinhle Sigogo among others.
This state of affairs was consistent with the largely patriarchal set-up present in African societies in general and the Zimbabwean one in particular. The absence of writing from women signals how they were not allowed to speak by their husbands and families. Their place was supposed to in the home. They were expected to get married and celebrated if they have children and cursed if they don’t.
At the same time, women feature extensively as characters in works by male writers, albeit playing peripheral roles. In all works in which they feature during this period, women basically respond to male initiatives. In other words, they are seen through their husbands, parents, brothers with little of their individuality visible.
On the broader African arena — especially in those countries that attained independence in the 1960s — female writers were slowly creeping onto the scene owing largely to the same cultural restrictions.
Mariama Ba (Senegal), Bessie Head (South Africa-Botswana), among a few others represent some of the earliest female writers from the continent.
After independence in 1980, Zimbabwean female writers take up the pen to not only define but also to assert their changing familial as well as national roles. Freedom Nyamubaya, with her poetry on the liberation struggle, seeks to show that the woman played an important role towards the attainment of independence.
However, it is Barbra Makhalisa’s The Underdogs and Other Stories (1984) that is considered to be the first collection of prose from a Zimbabwean female writer, with Kristina Rungano’s A Storm is Brewing (1984) coming second.
Slowly, more female Zimbabwean writers are coming onto the scene. The publication of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988) seems to assert the position of the woman writer. With the birth of the Zimbabwe Women Writers in 1990, there is a rapid increase in the visibility of the Zimbabwean woman writer. More and more names begin to appear — Yvonne Vera, Virginia Phiri, Primrose Dzenga, Pettinah Gappah, Blessing Musariri, Fungai Machirori, Chiedza Musengezi, Pat Brickhill, Vivienne Ndlovu, Gugu Ndlovu, Zvisinei Sandi, Sabina Mutangadura, Valerie Tagwirei are typical examples of the younger crop that came on to join Barbra Nkala (nee Makhalisa), Joyce Jenje Makwenda and Beatrice Sithole.
Today, Zimbabwe boasts a wide array of accomplished female writers whose works are celebrated not only inside but also outside the country’s borders. Their works deal with a myriad of themes ranging from the position of the individual to that of the family and country in transition.