I first encountered this novel when I was a college student in the late 1990s. But did I read it then? No! I was too busy trying to get into medical school. I finally got around to reading it over the past few months (it shouldn’t have taken this long) and now I wonder what my reception of it would have been had I read it back then.
The author, Jacqueline Nozipo Maraire, is a woman from Zimbabwe who as a youth lived in several different countries. She attended college (Harvard) and medical school (Columbia) in the United States then trained as a pediatric neurosurgeon (Yale) before returning home to Zimbabwe about a decade ago. She wrote this novel during her residency, at a time when q2 call (spending over 24 hours in the hospital every other day!) was still the norm. She wrote to help her relax.
I’m so in awe, so inspired, and so envious of her accomplishments. I do recognize a bit of myself in her life story and in the novel that she has written, and again, I’m quite humbled.
The novel itself is written as a series of letters from a dying Zimbabwean mother to her daughter studying abroad at Harvard. It is an emotionally poignant novel that traces Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence (gained in 1980) through story-telling interweaving history, family, love, aspirations, freedom and racism.
As the reader, I felt as if I were that daughter and that Amai Zenzele (Shiri) was my mother trying to educate me about the hardships I may encounter as a Black Woman in the western world. Reading this novel is indeed that intimate of an experience.
As a child, Amai Zenzele witnessed apartheid and at one point recounts the story of a teenage cousin turned activist who was refused sale of a pretty dress because of her colour and another story where that same cousin was denied the front seat of a pick-up by the white mistress of the house in which she worked undercover as a servant so as the pet dog could sit there while she rode in the flatbed.
As a young married woman Amai Zenzele accompanied her husband, a prominent lawyer, to a human rights summit in Poland and recounts the confusion and dismay she felt when encountered by prejudice. While reading a novel and sipping tea in a cafe she is approached by an elderly Polish woman who assumes she is a recent immigrant, poor and homeless and in need of employment. Hurt, she tells the story to her husband that night who howls with laughter but states
“Welcome, my dear, to the Western world, land of democracy, freedom, and bigotry…what happened to you today had nothing to do with you as such…Racism is a phenomenal thing; it is like a thick mist that obscures the vision and judgement….As far as that lady was concerned, you are black, and that means you are automatically poor and in need of a job. To her you are neither short, tall, funny, dull, fat, thin, pretty [wink], or ugly. To her color-blinded mind’s eye, your three dimensions are black-by-black-by-black.” (p. 85)
That moment in the novel (Chapter Six) was so powerful for me. I do not consider myself naive. I’ve lived in the West for the majority of my life so I have born witness to this bitter reality. I read this part of the novel way before Master Martin was killed, but how true this rings here as well. His killer, did not see a boy, he didn’t see a future engineer, he didn’t see someone’s son, brother, boyfriend; no, he saw black-by-black-by-black and his ignorance of Black people guided his actions, just as the ignorance of the police department guided their initial responses. How sobering a lesson. This was followed by an inference that the hoodie Master Martin was wearing contributed to his death but honestly, a suit would not have hidden his blackness. In the aftermath of his death, countless people have blogged or written about their own experiences “walking while Black”, and boy do we each have tomes to fill with these stories.
But back to the novel.
Another major thread that resonated with me is that struggle to reconcile one’s African self with Western values, that dual citizenship most of us wrestle with. More poignantly though is the struggle of the adults to give their children “everything” yet have them maintain pride in their culture and their roots. There’s a moment in one of the letters where Amai Zenzele asks her daughter to remember those days when the parents would drag her away from the city back to the village where she would flee or wince at the approach of the “tattered, often toothless villagers”. And I remembered. I remembered those Easters and Christmases and other holidays when I was in JSS in Ghana when my father would drag us to Bonyere, his hometown. At the time I wondered why it was we didn’t just spend the holidays at home in Accra, the city, like others did. I was annoyed. Why couldn’t the family from the village come to us and visit us in our pleasantries? Why would anyone want to drive these bumpy pot-holed un-tarred village roads to get to a place without electricity, without tap water, nor a flushing toilet? And who were all these people grabbing at me, speaking to and of me, and smiling in my face?
And when Amai Zenzele has a heartfelt conversation with a close friend as to how they have raised their children, I wondered if my parents also sat around with others of their generation and asked “where did we go wrong” in regards to us their “culturally bleached” children. Africans, we still wander about lost in that wide gap between our traditional culture, values, and norms and the more widespread Western ideals of this ever globalizing world.
In the end I think the message is that there is reason for each and every single African to give back to his or her country-people because it is from them that we have gained the opportunities we now have.
This wonderfully amazing novel may have had its beginnings in a modest attempt to maintain sanity during a grueling surgical residency, but it was an extremely successful debut being one of the New York Times Book Review notable books of 1996, the year it was published. It has since been translated into 13 languages. Highly recommended!
One cannot take racism personally. If you begin to doubt yourself, then the battle is lost. It has nothing to [do] with your voice, your looks, your charm, your intelligence, your attitude, and certainly not your achievements. It focuses on one thing, one variable only, to the exclusion of all others – your color. To question yourself because someone treated you like a second-class citizen is like judging your self-image by the reflection you see in those circus mirrors that stretch your face out wide and pull your torso to your toes. They have such a distorted image of who you are and what you are. The true reflection of you lies within. The internal mirror will never lie.
J. Nozipo Maraire (Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter)