Truth. Untamable grit. Dexterity of language. These are the hallmarks of Zimbabwean writers, whose work has earned an important place in global literature. Joining the ranks of Nobel Prize winning authors like Doris Lessing, and modern classicists like Dambudzo Marechera and Tsitsi Dangarembga, Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, is a powerful storyteller. Ndlovu’s new novel, The History of Man (Catalyst Press, 2021), extracts the history and beating heart of an unnamed African country, seen through the eyes of one man, Emil Coetzee, a white male in his fifties, on the eve of his country’s ceasefire. Emil reflects on his life, from boyhood to adulthood, and Ndlovu reveals it with empathy, generosity, and unflinching truth.
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu—author, filmmaker, and literary academic—holds a PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University, and master’s degrees in African Studies and Film, and was recently awarded the Windham Campbell Prize from Yale University. The Theory of Flight, her first novel, won the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize in South Africa, and The History of Man continues the interconnected story of its characters, all of whom don’t seem to realize they’re interconnected. They share a homeland: the unnamed African country, which bears a striking resemblance to Zimbabwe. Her third novel, The Quality of Mercy, which is similarly connected to her first two, is forthcoming in September in South Africa, and in 2023 in the United States.
After living for seven years on the African continent, I returned home to the US to find an anemic selection of African authors on the shelves of local bookstores. Independent presses, like Catalyst Press, are changing things. “2021 was an incredible year for African literature, and we’re really proud to be part of that,” Ashawnta Jackson, publicity director for Catalyst Press says. “In Siphiwe’s case, her novels touch on huge historical events, but in personal ways: through the lives of her characters. Beyond that, she’s simply just a beautiful writer, with a lovely and poetic approach to storytelling.”
I spoke with Ndlovu on Zoom. We discussed the importance of writing fiction, listening to your characters, and why it’s important to consider oppression from many different angles.
The Rumpus: Congratulations on the book! You’ve given us a beautiful epic in The History of Man.
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: Thank you!
Rumpus: The story takes place in an unnamed African country, but I recognize Zimbabwe, and the city of Bulawayo, which is called the City of Kings. Is there a reason you didn’t name these places?
Ndlovu: There are many reasons why I don’t name the actual country, which has changed its name at least five times in its modern history. During the early days of the colonial encounter in the nineteenth century, it was known as Zambesia, and then after it became a colony, Southern Rhodesia. After Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) got its independence, it was called Rhodesia, and then, after years of civil war, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and with independence in 1980, Zimbabwe. Since I am working on a series of interrelated novels, which all touch on a different moment in history in sub-Saharan Africa, if I call the country Southern Rhodesia in one book, then Zimbabwe in the next, that might work against the connections and continuities between these different historical moments I showcase in my work. Not naming the country also has the added advantage of creating stories that can travel. I wanted to give the reader the freedom to read the story without necessarily thinking, “Oh, this is coming from this particular country’s story.” Although the stories are grounded in a particular geography, they also tell a story about things that can and have happened in other regions of the world.
In addition, I am very much aware of the ‘weight’ that the names Rhodesia and Zimbabwe carry for a lot of people. I am also painfully aware that the beauty, the vibrancy, even the gorgeously mundane everyday things that made up Rhodesia then, and make up Zimbabwe now, are often eclipsed by the country’s political history, which has had more than its fair share of violence and tragedy. I wanted to give readers the country you can experience if you take the time to notice both what is beautiful and what is tragic about living here.
Rumpus: The first book, The Theory of Flight, is written from multiple perspectives, about Genie, a Black woman who is dying in a hospital, but her magical memories and world-view have supernatural elements. The History of Man is a historical novel, written from the perspective of a white man, and tells the story of the revolution in Zimbabwe. These books tell interlocking stories, but feel like stand-alone novels. They don’t necessarily resemble each other. Why did you decide to write the series this way?
Ndlovu: I think the important thing to be able to do, as a writer, is to listen to your characters and understand the story that they exist in. A lot of times, as writers, we bring what we think the story is going to be, or what we would like the story to be, but we are not the final authority on this. The characters definitely know what kind of story they’re in, because that’s their world.
When I started writing The Theory of Flight, it had the magical elements that you talked about, and it was an epic story, where a lot of generational things happen. As soon as I started thinking about The History of Man, it was very clear that it would not be the same kind of story. I knew Emil Coetzee could not exist in the same kind of story that Genie does. Emil would want a realistic story, going from Point A, and leading to Point B, in a way that he can clearly demarcate. That’s the story that he would want to exist in. I had to be very much aware of that. He’s not going to want to be in a world where people can just take flight, because that would not make sense to him.
Rumpus: You’re right! Emil Coetzee, the main character, is as multifaceted and filled with dichotomies as his home country. How does his culture, childhood, and education figure into the setting of this story?
Ndlovu: Emil Coetzee is living in the golden age of dichotomies—things are either good or bad, black or white, right or wrong—there are not many gray areas allowed to exist in his world view. The irony is that he cannot see that he exists within a gray area, a liminal space that is neither this nor entirely that. His binary way of thinking will not allow him to fully see himself and his situation.
As a postcolonial person, I think it is imperative to explore the limits of the colonial narrative and its dictates because, whether we like it or not, the world that we have inherited was created by that narrative. If we have any hope of moving past it, we have to understand it fully. It is to our advantage, as we think of other ways of being, to deeply analyze the colonizer and the world that he created.
Rumpus: You do this with incredible depth, from Emil’s perspective. How did you get into his head? How were you able to write with such authority and authenticity?
Ndlovu: Emil is a character who has been with me for many years. When I first met Emil, he was everything he already is in The History of Man. He was a white male, he had power, he was abusing that power, he was a womanizer. I thought, “There’s so much here to portray in different ways, and to make fun of.” But as time went on, I realized that I was meeting him at the end of his journey. And so I had to ask myself the question: How did he become this person?
When I was writing The Theory of Flight, Emil became part of the story. He’s not in that novel a lot, but he has a definite stamp on what happens, since he’s sort of a colonial master. He has power, he has privilege, he has, he has, he has… I realized, for this novel, that if I’m going to tell his story, it’s important to see him from childhood. After realizing this, the story started naturally evolving. This was the genesis of a whole journey with him. As soon as I started seeing him as a boy, as soon as I got to understand his love for the savannah (which I share), as soon as I realized that we both had mixed boarding school experiences, then I could actually begin to understand him, to empathize with him.
Rumpus: I found Emil to be a sensitive character, despite his many flaws. Why is it important to see from his point of view?
Ndlovu: Emil is definitely a character who starts out without really much power, beyond his gender and race. He does not necessarily see what all of that gives him, until maybe it’s too late. He comes from a family that is not well-to-do, which is almost an anomaly in his society. A lot of his friends from school come from very wealthy families, but Emil’s family lives in a small apartment, and his father is a civil servant. Emil has ambitions that he hasn’t articulated, to move from the place and position he’s born into, to a place of having all the power that comes with being a man of history. He follows this path very clearly, but obviously a lot is happening around him and he doesn’t ever question it. He’s really just focused on getting to another place—a life where he has more than a four-room apartment. He wants to have a better place and space in society, and the Selous School for Boys sells this to him: It’s his birthright to rule the world.
I actually wanted Emil to be facing all these things without necessarily realizing what’s happening, or how he’s being shaped, in certain ways. One of the quotes in my book is from Aimé Césaire: “First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him.” It’s important to question what’s happening to the colonizer during the colonial enterprise, not only to focus on the colonized because this is what allows us to understand exactly what it is that we have inherited as ‘power’ in the postcolony.
Rumpus: One quote that illustrates this is from Emil’s interior life, when he visits the woman he once rescued from domestic abuse: “When Emil could not reconcile things within himself, he would drive to Barbourfield Township, park his car and watch as a nurse, who had once been a maid married to an abusive husband, and her son, who was going to be a doctor someday, went about their daily lives. They demonstrably had a comfortable life and Emil was happy that this was mostly due to him. He always made a point of looking at the nurse’s feet and was always happy to find that she was not wearing well-worn white shoes. Whatever else he had done, whatever else he was doing, whatever else he was going to do in the name of the Organization of Domestic Affairs, at least he had done this one thing right.” How does this moment help to define Emil?
Ndlovu: In that moment, Emil’s life has become a great big gray cloud, and witnessing the life of the woman he saved from an abusive relationship is the only silver lining he has. This is the one good thing that he’s done, and he can say, “This is me. I did this.” Emil realizes that the whole idea for the Organization of Domestic Affairs, of trying to help people have a written history, has not worked out the way he thought it would. The act of helping the woman is this one thing he did that actually helped. Sure, her husband is put in prison, and dies there, but Emil doesn’t want to think about that. He thinks mostly about how this woman gets to be free and gets to enjoy her life because of him.
Rumpus: Emil’s watershed moment is when he finds the body of an unidentified Black woman, whom we later learn was named Daisy. Because she has no written records or documentation, Emil makes the dangerous assumption that “the African has no history.” He later starts the Organization of Domestic Affairs, which turns out to be a lethal mistake. Why does this moment shine so much light on the history of this unnamed country? For Emil? For the reader? Did you know its importance before you wrote it?
Ndlovu: It is, as you rightly say, the defining moment of Emil’s life, but I don’t really want to dwell too much on this because I want the reader to draw their own conclusions when they read about Emil’s encounter with Daisy and all that it leads to. Suffice it to say that for me this encounter works as a microcosm of the nation and its history.
Rumpus: Emil has a hard time seeing and understanding at times, but often recognizes dangerous contradictions. Courtney, his white friend, wants freedom for the unnamed country, and Emil realizes Courtney desires these things from a privileged place: “Liberals, like all humans, did not always know what they were about and could, like all humans, be self-contradictory.” How could he ever see the progression of how the country would be taken back?
Ndlovu: I think this goes back to the dichotomies that you mentioned earlier. One of the things that I enjoyed playing around with, in the novel, was how to find the voice of the colonizer. On one hand, you have Courtney, who is seen as liberal. His liberalism also has certain limits that he may not be aware of. Emil, with all his faults, is aware of them and can see the limits of Courtney’s reasoning clearly. On the other hand, Emil’s friend, Rutherford, is advocating for fighting back, using force and violence. Emil’s dilemma is that he can see the limits of both, but he never has the tools to forge his own way of thinking, so he’s caught in between.
Rumpus: The whole time I was reading your book, your sentences reminded me of Doris Lessing, a deep sting in the gorgeous language. Who are your literary influences?
Ndlovu: Thank you so much for saying such wonderful things. It is always both overwhelming and humbling to be compared to one’s literary heroines.
To answer your question I have to start by saying that I write the way I do because I took a rather circuitous path to becoming an author. I started off well enough by pursuing a BFA in Writing, Literature and Publishing, and then I took what looked like a detour when I went to film school for my MFA. Then, it seemed like I had lost the plot entirely, when I decided to do my PhD. However, I learnt so much about creativity, storytelling, and critical thinking etc., on this journey and I see all the lessons learned evidenced in my writing.
For example, for my PhD dissertation, I wrote about Southern Rhodesian, Rhodesian and Zimbabwean fiction. and I think that Rhodesian and Zimbabwean authors, like Doris Lessing, have influenced my writing in many different ways. Lessing, especially in her novel, The Grass is Singing, writes within the colonial moment about the colonial moment, while critiquing the colonial moment. That is the thing that I love about that book. There’s no way you can read The History of Man and not see some of her influence there. I love her language, like you said, but I also like that critical stance. That’s what I take away from a lot of the country’s fiction that influences me. I love Yvonne Vera’s work—her depictions of Bulawayo and Zimbabwe really taught me how to write about place—how to celebrate the beautiful and criticize the not so beautiful. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions made me understand clearly the collusion between patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. Shimmer Chinodya’s Harvest of Thorns brought home to me the importance of writing difficult histories with clear-eyed honesty. That’s one of the things that I love about Zimbabwean fiction: It’s always been critical of what we want to take advantage of, within the idea of nationalism.
I think what makes Zimbabwean writers relevant is that unwavering and fearless critical stance. The best example of this is Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, published in 1979. Here is this moment when we are supposed to be so euphoric, because the country is finally going to be independent and instead of rejoicing, Marechera asks the question, “Who exactly are these people that are going to become a nation?”
Marechera challenged the nationalists’ idea of painting over everyone with the same brush, like we all don’t have histories that are painful, like we haven’t just fought a war, like one race didn’t colonize the other. Somehow, we’re just supposed to make up this unthinkingly happy nation. How does that happen? I love that about Zimbabwean fiction—that constant challenging and questioning. It is a fulmination. That’s the role it always has had. It questions who and what we are, beyond the things that we receive as who we are. We can see these questions taking on new currency in the works of NoViolet Bulawayo, Novuyo Tshuma, Sue Nyathi, and Bryony Rheam, just to name a few.
Given the cyclical nature of history, and the inequality, injustice, and inhumanity that seem ever present on both the national and global stage, the critical stance of Zimbabwean writers will always make them relevant to the global literary landscape. I am happy to now be one of their number.
Rumpus: Has your family fed this hunger in you to know and translate life in your writing?
Ndlovu: I am very fortunate in the family that I have. I have always had great pillars of support in my mother and my maternal grandparents. I deeply appreciate how my mother never, at any point, discouraged me or my decision to be a writer and how she, instead, championed me every step of the way. She was, is, and always will be an amazing mother to have. I also was very blessed to have two incredible grandparents, who fed my curiosity and my love for stories as a child by not only making sure there were books in the home but that I was also a card-carrying member of the mobile library. My grandfather was a brilliant critical thinker and my grandmother was a phenomenal storyteller and that, coupled with the fact that there were always books everywhere, made me grow up with the wonderful sense of writing not only being possible, but important.
Author photo by Nokuthula Sarah Ndhlovu