Shards is Cynthia Marangwanda’s debut publication. The book comes at a post GNU (government of national unity) phase when Zimbabwe has somewhat stabilised and this is reflected in the literature. Dr Drew Shaw’s study on literature of the GNU period indicated a shift from politically inspired works to more diverse themes and this text falls into that category.
By Philani A Nyoni
Marangwanda received a National Arts Merit Award in the February of 2015, deservedly for her debut. The text is set in Harare and the first person narrator tells quite a story. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Andichi in Purple Hibiscus. Marangwanda deviates from the norm of poverty and suffering, in a total bout turn she addresses the problems of wealth. No, it is not a collage of Borrowdale clippings, it is more a critic on materialism. Shards is a window into the art life, it ridicules the pompous dashiki-wearing Pan-Africanists who enjoy being more African than everyone else; who use Pan-Africanism to propel themselves to levels of oppressive wealth.
In the story, the narrator absconds varsity class to meet up with a new friend, a dreadlocked anarchist poet who happens to be the namesake of a pagan god whose name my initials happen to spell. This is of course a stroke of coincidence, (you will not find this in the acknowledgements) the poet is in fact based on one Innocent Pfungurani, an astounding spoken-word artist and close friend of the author’s. Pan is also a strong critic on wealth, as carefree as his namesake from mythology, living in one of Harare’s leafy suburb on the tab of his adulterous Russian girlfriend.
In an alternate universe, parts of Shardsmake up a chapter from the diary of Flora Veld-Wild. The similarities between Pan and Marechera (as much as we know of his private life) are numerous, even the narrator makes the comparison.
Marangwanda made a name for herself in the spoken-word circles, along with myself and Solwazi Nkiwane she becomes one of the few to migrate from performance to the literary coliseum. Unlike the other two, Marangwanda moves into prose but her poetics cannot be veiled by the form. Her style is richly infused with Marecheran norms such as heavy reliance on the stream of consciousness and mild censorship of language (realism). Like House of Hunger, the text is a novella, though more coherent but not devoid of Marecheran violence between siblings or with a parent. The violence also leaps from the environment in the forms of naked prostitutes in the middle of drug houses, substance use and abuse. The style is very poetic with palatable phrases like, ‘to purge out the cursed angel is to sever ties with the breath of life itself’. Or the stark opening: ‘It’s half past failure and I’m still in bed’.
Shards is both terrific and terrifying. It delves into the grey area of African traditional belief and superstition. The horror begins on page 30, when the narrator has a drug induced encounter with her paternal grandmother’s apparition while Pan is interacting with his dead father. Much of the text is an exploration of the relationship between the living and the living-dead. It questions colonial faith and is therefore a worthy commentary on the times, given Zimbabwe’s over-saturation with Christianity, particularly the (Pentecostal brand). It also questions the nature of independence. Can we run from who we are, our spirituality by hiding behind material possessions, modernisation and Christianity? The character of Lumumba also questions the inertia of the youth of the day, the generation which might go down in history as having done nothing significant.
One of the strongest images in the text is that of the narrator’s grandmother appearing in the middle of a lecture dangling from a rope, lynched on a tree with an antique rifle in one hand and a spear in the other. The image recalls that of Nehanda, the spirit medium who led the Northern phase of the First Umvukela/Chimurenga. Nehanda was a spirit medium who held much sway with the natives and even in Shards she is likened to a Jesus figure. The death of Nehanda signified the conquering of the spiritual element of the natives and as far as symbols go this one is very apt, particularly when she appears as such in the middle of a university lecture holding weapons.
For trivia’s sake: Cynthia is the grandchild of one of Zimbabwe’s pioneering authors. JW Marangwanda her grandfather, became one of the first published black authors with his novel, Mazivandadzoka, the Shona which loosely translates to, ‘You knew when I had returned’.