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Reviewed by:
  • Female Identity in Contemporary Zimbabwean Fiction
  • Ann Elizabeth Willey
Female Identity in Contemporary Zimbabwean Fiction By Katrin Berndt Bayreuth African Studies 73. Bayreuth: Pia Thielmann and Eckhard Breitinger, 2005. 285 pp. ISBN 3-927510-88-2 paper.

Katrin Berndt presents us with an encyclopedic overview of Zimbabwean fiction in English, and this is indeed the main strength of her intervention, Female Identity in Contemporary Zimbabwean Fiction. While the field of postcolonial cultural studies in general, and African literature in particular, continues to struggle with the definitions, implications, and ramifications of globalization, the categories of national literatures may seem to be an outdated rubric. As Berndt's study demonstrates, however, there is still some value to examining bodies of literature in national terms. Through comparative readings, Berndt's work brings to light the on-going conversation between books coming from the same national space. Her study examines Zimbabwean literature in English centrally concerned with female characters, whether written by men or women. For the sake of her argument, Berndt divides this corpus up into three main genres: the bildungsroman, the "metahistorical" novel, and the realistic/didactic novel. In each case, she examines what she identifies as the different "identity layers" of the female protagonists and argues that female identity in all of these genres resembles a palimpsest of often conflicting constructions of female identity that the female characters more or less successfully seek to negotiate.

While Berndt's work is helpful in tracing some of the literary lineages that shape contemporary Zimbabwean fiction, it can be a bit of a rough going at times due to both a lack of careful proofreading and a tendency to overexplain basic concepts of literary scholarship with which it is safe to assume most of her audience is familiar. For example, there is a twenty-page discussion (199–220) of the definition and role of "flat" characters, didacticism, and realistic fiction. Her larger argument about the correspondence between flat characters in realistic fiction and symbolic types in orature gets lost in the overly reductive and simplistic explanations of basic narrative theory. For example, her definition of Structuralism (203) adds little to contemporary debates about the advantages or disadvantages of structuralism as a mode of reading, and its relevance to her larger argument is unclear.

Female Identity in Contemporary Zimbabwean Fiction has both strengths and weaknesses: it is truly comprehensive in its overview of the primary literature it takes as its object of study, but it also rehearses some of the more common theoretical stances of the field. It rightly pays a great deal of attention to the now-canonical [End Page 212] figures of Zimbabwean literature (Dangaremgba, Vera, and Hove) but limits the space given to an examination of the materials that readers are less likely to know about and in which they are much more likely to be interested. While Female Identity in Contemporary Zimbabwean Fiction can be theoretically reductive at times, it is a valuable resource for those looking to expand their readings in Zimbabwean fiction in English. It is also an indication that the study of African literature may still have something to gain by interrogating the framework of national literatures.

Ann Elizabeth Willey
University of Louisville


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