This is an excellently-written and insightful short novel, told in the form of a letter from a Zimbabwean mother to her daughter while the daughter is studying abroad at Harvard. It was a delight to read and certainly deserves a wider audience.
Zenzele is a story about a lot of things, from love and family to political activism and racism. Shiri, the mother, tells stories from her own life and lives of those around her: about growing up in the countryside, about her adulthood in Harare, about the war against white minority rule. The stories of Shiri’s sister and female cousin, who become guerillas in the revolution, particularly struck me: these sorts of stories, featuring good people involving themselves in politics and fighting and actually achieving success, are not the sort that are usually told about Africa. Encountering an African novel full of political activism and national pride and admirable, successful women (but without ignoring the harshness of life for many people on the continent) was a breath of fresh air, and it made me think about the kinds of stories that are told about Africa and why that might be.
The characters are quite vivid, and while Shiri is perhaps the least colorful of the bunch, the author does a great job of characterizing her through her writing, which is gentle but profound and expertly crafted: it’s the sort of prose that would do well to be read aloud. The imagery is vivid, and the look into life in Zimbabwe is fascinating, giving a sense of the history while keeping the focus on the characters’ experiences. In some places the book is didactic (Shiri is not subtle in criticizing the brain drain), but it works, because it’s structured as a letter from parent to child and because it comes across as heartfelt and insightful. As you might expect, the book doesn’t have a traditional plot, and each chapter has its own focus, but it all fits together excellently.
Overall, a gem of a book that should be more widely read. I certainly recommend it.