Hybridity in the Literature of Zimbabwe

Antwan Jefferson, English 119, Brown University, 1999

Part 4 of "Establishing Literary Independence: Hybridity in Zimbabwean Literature"

The hybridity of Zimbabwean literature can be witnessed in the fictional texts of Chenjarai Hove, Yvonne Vera, and Charles Mungoshi. Each writer negotiates native culture by employing a colonialist technique: the use of English. Jenny Sharpe's essay "Figures of Colonial Resistance" argues that this technique demonstrates the contradictions of colonialism. "The mimic man is a contradictory figure who simultaneously reinforces colonial authority and disturbs it" (99). However, Sharpe's mimic man is also referred to as the "colonial subject," which qualifies the power of the colonialist as absolute. The idea of the colonialist possessing absolute power dismantles the idea of native writers subverting colonialist text [the colonialist text delivered native peoples from the level of subject (powerlessness) to hybrid (influential)]. It should be noted, though, that Sharpe acknowledges the environment from which the native writer produces fiction: the "discourse of civility." It is from this discourse that Zimbabwean writers create a fiction that affirms the native as more than Other, contributes to the reestablishment of native culture, and challenges a hegemonic discourse.

In Charles Mungoshi's Bones, a novel about the soul of a woman who searches for her only child, her son who has gone off to war as a freedom fighter in a war for liberation. Marita, the protagonist, is unable to read: she is uninterested in learning to read and asks Janifa, her "disciple and her son's lover," to read for her. What might Hove have intended about the need for/value of language?

Possibly, the reader should glean from the novel that language is of little value to native people. Only within the established requisites of colonization is written language needed: Marita's son learned to write in school. Outside the established colonial structure, the use of written language rarely occurs. Marita repeatedly asks Janifa to read the letter to her, not because of its content, but because it is the only remnant she has of the mind of her long-gone son.

The novel lends itself as a microcosm of Zimbabwean hybridity. In a society where the use of English has its place (within imposed colonial environments: i.e., school), the reader encounters a fictional text that is written in English. Does this affirm the value of English in re-establishing an independent Zimbabwean culture -- possibly justifying Hove's use of the novel -- or does it attest to Sharpe's notion that the native writer is actually a powerless subject?

As written language was introduced to the Zimbabwean people (within the novel) its value was minor. For those within the native culture, written language was effective only in that it allowed one to retain information, granting long-term access. In Marita's fascination with the letter, and her desire for its words to be communicated to her, the reader learns that English is valuable in Zimbabwe. However, is the reader also to assume that the value of literature is restricted to its application within pre-determined colonialist structures? Or does Hove expand the appropriate application of English, thus subverting the authority of the colonialist, by writing the novel in a non-traditional, non-Western form?

As the novel progresses, the reader learns that the same instructor that taught Janifa to read condemned her for keeping the letter given to her by Marita's son. The instructor, whose voice is that of a greater colonizing force, communicated two messages to Janifa: 1) English is sacred -- it is to be applied in only in certain contexts; and 2) the things of significance to the native people are childish, uncivilised, and inappropriate. The messages communicated to Janifa, whose persona, in this case, is a larger native society, are intended for the reader: a critical glance at colonialist structuring. It became Janifa's responsibility to maintain what she gained in learning to read and to keep the physical letter because of its future importance. There is a substantial parallel to be noted between the interaction in the novel and in the critical discourse against which the Zimbabwean writer writes.

Hove affirms the value of oral communication -- an aspect of native culture. Janifa believes what she hears Marita say. Thus, there is power in her spoken words. This facet alone justifies the oral history of African culture and provides a context within which the native writer can write against all culturally hegemonic discourse that not only negates the value of orality, but establishes the significance of written language over the oral as well. As Janifa reads the letter aloud, Marita hears words not meant to be regarded literally: "I love you, you are my margarine, my butter, my peanut butter for my heart." This use of English, the only existing writing of her lost son, has a lesser significance when considered against such valued oral statements as:

"Marita, you are the one who told me that the earth breathed, so I should not put dirt all over the place. The trees, the rocks, teh soil, you said they once talked like people, they ran races and gave each other prizes. How I imagined the baobab running clumsily across the plains, with grass and the little trees laughing at the big belly of the baobab heaving up and down." (p. 13)

Apparently, critical discourse that negates a sustained oral history does so without considering that its significance is cultural, not universal. This notion holds true, especially in the face of a concept of universality that actually indicates a Western/British/Colonial-specific standard.

The use of English in Zimbabwean literature as an indicator of hybridity is also present in Yvonne Vera's Without a Name. English is questioned not only in its use as printed text, but also in the standardized form. Vera's novel challenges the traditional use of English in the titling of her work. The title is significant in that traditionally, naming indicates difference (as in Other vs. Master). Difference inhibits fluidity in thought and in experience. The absence of a name, or the elimination of difference, enables unity.

Without a Name manages to maintain consistency and coherence although it is not written in a traditional, linear manner. Through this, one might conclude that the author has control of the language. But is it possible for a Zimbabwean author to control English? If not, then what implications are attached to Vera's non-traditional novel? The author communicates her intention to the reader not only through the printed text, but through the unstated experiences of Mazvita as well. Vera also attributes great significance to nature, an aspect of Zimbabwean culture that provides a source of conflict between maintaining English to communicate culturally significant phenomenon within literature: hybridity.

"There was nothing like pulling that mushroom. It accepted her gentle hand, followed her in a long slow quiver and the stem grew out of the ground into her palm. White. The neck was smooth and waiting and soft. She felt the softness linger between her fingers, slippery, fragile. The soil crept beneath her nails."(p. 6)

In what appears to be indistinguishable from a novel or a collection of short stories (see my essay on Munghosi). Charles Mungoshi writes Coming of the Dry Season. This book demonstrates the author's commanding use of narrative form to explore facets of life in colonized Zimbabwe. It also raises the question of controlling language. In the story "The Hero" young Julius uses the language that he learns in school against school authorities:

"I am not going to eat what you yourself would not willingly throw to your dog. I pay for the food here and I must have my money's worth. For a long time we have complained about the poor diet at this school, but you have plugged your ears with sealing wax. We have told your fellow prefects over and over...' It had been a bold speech, a dangerous speech, and no on could have made it except himself, Julius." (p. 24)

Julius's attempt awarded him the label "a dangerous element in the school." But was it not intended in the teaching of English that the language is used to communicate? If so, then of what does Mungoshi intend to inform the reader through this episode which results in Julius's expulsion from school?


Brahms, Flemming. "Entering Our Own Ignorance: Subject-Object Relations in Commonwealth Literature." in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. New York: Routledge, 1995. pp.66-70.

Darby, Phillip. The Fiction of Imperialism: Reading Between International Relations and Postcolonialism. Washington: Cassell, 1998.

Larson, Charles. "Heroic Ethnocentrism: The Idea of Universality in Literature." in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. New York: Routledge, 1995. pp.62-65.

Parry, Benita. "Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse." in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. pp.36-44.

Said, Edward W. "Orientalism." in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. pp.87-91.

Sharpe, Jenny. "Figures of Colonial Resistance." in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. pp.99-103.

Establishing Literary Independence: Hybridity in Zimbabwean Literature

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