Research in African Literatures 37.3 (2006) 193-204
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De-silencing the Past—Challenging "Patriotic History":
New Books on Zimbabwean Literature
What does literary criticism mean in times of crisis? How does literary scholarship engage with developments in a country that was once hailed as a model of political and economic progress in Africa and is now often considered to be on its deathbed? In which ways do assessments of literary works reflect the heated political discourse about the Zimbabwean nation, and in which way does it enter the contested space between nation and narration?
Since 2000 the political arena in Zimbabwe has changed drastically. After the ZANU-PF government of Robert Mugabe lost the referendum for a constitutional change that was intended to enforce the position of the president, it instigated a massive and violent take-over of commercially owned farmland, blaming white farmers and the British government for the drastic economic deterioration in the country. At the same time, a broad oppositional movement spread throughout the country with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) at its core, and the cities and Matabeleland at its strongholds. In the parliamentary elections of the same year, ZANU-PF used what internal and international observers described as an equally massive and violent intimidation and ensured a slight majority over the MDC. Since then Zimbabwe has been accused of systematically stifling democratic forces in the country, while the rapid downward path of the economy has led the majority of the people near starvation. After the parliamentary elections of March 2005, Operation "Murambatsvina" ("Drive Out Trash") provoked an international outcry at what appeared to many as an arbitrary onslaught on the poorest of the poor; the destruction of houses in the settlements and townships around the cities left more than 700,000 people in Zimbabwe homeless.
The publication of Versions of Zimbabwe: New Approaches to Literature and Culture in May 2005, which coincided with this impetuous act of urban "cleansing," reflects in the most immediate way the involvement of editors and contributors with the political discourse about the narrative of the Zimbabwean nation. A compilation of mostly excellent essays by different hands, Versions reads like a monograph by a single author. The various critics' voices are driven forward and held together through a common concern—their anxiety about what is happening to the Zimbabwean nation at the present time in history. The authors take as their point of departure a "writing against blindness"—as the editors entitle their introduction—a blindness resulting from the discursive effects of what the ZANU-PF government under Robert Mugabe has termed the "Third Chimurenga" (war of liberation). Against the monolithic, authoritarian (and male) version of "patriotic" history, by which the government defines Zimbabwe's past and present, the [End Page 194] collection sheds light on the many versions and multiple voices that challenge this narrative. This critical metanarrative, implicit in all of the essays, unfolds around the core issues of violence, silence, memory, and belonging, as well as the ways writers have represented these themes. An essential part of "debating of violence" is the operation known as "Gukurahundi," the massacres of tens of thousands of people in Matabeleland in the early 1980s, an event omitted in the official historiography of the country.From this "genocide," as a number of the authors call...