Zukiswa Wanner’s Review of House of Stone: A Nation’s Open Secret Told in Fiction
A Nation’s Open Secret Told in Fiction
Title: House of Stone
Author: Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
Publisher: Atlantic Books
I am a man on a mission. A vocation, call it, to remake the past, and a wish to fashion all that has been into being and becoming. So says Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s protagonist Zamani in the prologue of her novel, House of Stone. My mother and most people who grew up in Zimbabwe’s Midlands Province became politically conscious and rebelled against white minority governance by joining Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). The party was led by the man they referred to as umdala wethu (our old man), Joshua Nkomo. But then that enemy of African unity, ethnocentrism, happened leading to the party breaking up and the founding of Zimbabwe African Nation Union (ZANU). Despite both parties being from a country then known as Rhodesia, the parties named themselves after a historical empire that existed in the late Stone Age, the Great Zimbabwe Empire. The palace, it is said, was built of stone and was indestructible thus the name of the parties and the country – Dzimba dze mahwe – House of Stone. Tshuma titling her novel after the name of the nation with such a rich heritage was therefore highly ambitious and made me nervous. Which story of a nation do you tell that captures it well?
And yet she did.
Tshuma manages to tell the story of Zimbabwe which has been an open secret that has been and continues to be ignored. As unreliable a narrator as Zamani is through his interaction with the people he has decided will be his parents, Abednego and Mama Agnes, the historicity of Tshuma’s novel cannot be ignored. House of Stone largely focuses on the Zimbabwean genocide that was Gukurahundi in the mid 80s. This is not the first time that this has been done in writing though. Gukurahundi was previously written about in the late Yvonne Vera’s novel, The Stone Virgins and there is an impressive report of it by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace’s Report edited by Fr. Oskar Wemter. What Tshuma does is centre it as part of the bigger narrative of the country stemming from Ian Douglas Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence from the British, to the necessary but problematic land reclamation ending in the last few years.
The book begins with Zamani and the only son of his landlord Bukhosi, at a rally for a new militant organization, Mthwakazi Secessionist Movement. The movement is started by a Diasporan in much the same way as other secessionists movements are in countries like Cameroon and Nigeria. And like secessionists movements elsewhere including Kenya with Mombasa Republican Council, the movement in Tshuma’s book uses the disillusionment and marginalization felt by the youth in a country that treats them like second class citizens to secede from the house of stone into a new nation where they will self-govern. During the rally, Bukhosi goes missing and it is now on Zamani to help the heartbroken parents in finding the only son they did not know enough.
What they also don’t know is that Zamani is not the innocent they assume he is. He has decided to use their desire to seek information about Bukhosi to get some information that all the elders who survived the Gukurahundi genocide that was to Zimbabwe was the Wagalla Massacres were to Kenya, seem to want to forget. Zamani is calculating and manages to get close to Abednego by taking advantage of his alcoholism. He manages too, to get close to Mama Agnes through being supportive whenever she is the victim of domestic violence at the brutal hands of Abednego.
And in their state of vulnerability, the story of the house of stone unfolds.
Zamani, an orphan raised by his now late Uncle Fani, has decided that he, and not Bukhosi, is the son that Abednego and Mama Agnes should have had and while he realizes this, he has to make them aware of it too. So deeply has Zamani now owned his identity as the surrogate child of the couple that as early as p90 he states:
The story of my surrogate-surrogate grandfather’s death has deteriorated my poor surrogate father to a stuttering mess.
Abednego, we have been told, is the product of a relationship between the white farmer and a village woman at a time when the colour bar is in place. The village knows who he is but Abednego refuses to acknowledge this history. When Abednego leaves the village for the city, he meets the beautiful Thandi (we think she is beautiful because Zamani is fixated on her and has decided she is so). Because he is in love, Abednego follows her in her revolutionary fervor and soon finds himself as a comrade fighting for the country’s independence. Or at least everyone thinks he has. In the same way as all those who came from exile in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Mozambique are believed to have fought. Instead we find out on p121
He never got the honour of experiencing combat up close, my surrogate father. He was never deployed to the front, but stayed cooped up in his bunker thinking of that Farmer Thornton and talking to the apparitions of Thandi and his boy, right up until the end when, on that fateful day of 28 December 1979, just several days after that Lancaster Agreement…
Back home though, he is hailed as a conquering hero who helped push out the white minority and bring freedom. For a while the idea of a free country, even though the side Thandi and Abednego support, that of umdala, loses, they rejoice in the freedom. But it soon goes downhill when The Fifth Brigade enters Matabeleland and a people are massacred. Tshuma weaves fact and fiction as she recounts some of the more painful memories and people of that period.
P213 I shouldn’t have brought up Bhalagwe! But it’s the place where our hi-stories cross, mama Agnes and I, though she doesn’t know it. Just like how, unwittingly, my surrogate father and I crossed paths via that Black Jesus.
Bhalagwe and Black Jesus, incidentally, are the two nonfictional place and person in the above quotation. The latter, the nom de guerre of a former leader of The Fifth Brigade who is now a Minister in Zimbabwe’s current government. In Tshuma’s House of Stone, he is an important part of the narrative.
It is only upon putting the book down that what Tshuma does in 372 pages hits you in the solar plexus and make you question humans’ ability to be inhuman. It is this skill of using history to paint a memorable tale that makes for great historical novels and Tshuma’s is right there with the best of them. In fact, no story I have read yet tells the story of marginalization of a people in Zimbabwe quite as well as House of Stone does. In weaving fact and fiction as effortlessly as she does, Tshuma makes us believe the truth of E.L.Doctorow that “There’s really no fiction or nonfiction; there is only narrative.” And what a painful narrative skillfully told House of Stone is. If Tshuma never writes another book (I really hope she does) she has entrenched her place into the history of literature with this book. A must read for lovers of history and good writing.
A Review by: Zukiswa Wanner