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Who is NoViolet Bulawayo? The Talented Author of Matabeleland

10.12.2022 | Tate LaFrenier I The Michigan Daily

Trouble in the animal kingdom: ‘Glory’ and the trauma of a nation

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There is unrest in the animal kingdom. In the fictitious African country of Jidada — which exists in a world populated entirely by sentient animals — the 40-year reign of dictator Old Horse has ended in a violent coup d’état. The coup, orchestrated by Old Horse’s former vice president, Tuvius Delight Shasha, was supposed to signal change for the country: Four decades after Jidada wrested independence from the West, and mere months after the ousting of a dictator, Jidada’s new leader promised to usher in an era of democracy. But that didn’t happen.

This is the setting of NoViolet Bulawayo’s 2022 novel “Glory.” The Booker Prize finalist is a biting political satire directly inspired by the 2017 coup in Zimbabwe. In an age rife with political turmoil and crumbling democratic norms, “Glory” is gut-wrenchingly relevant for every reader, regardless of nationality.

Though every character in the novel is an animal, the struggles and conflicts in the novel feel as real as the events they’re based on. Bulawayo’s novel operates within its own vast mythos and cultural legacy, which is slowly built upon by various references to Jidada’s rich yet complicated past as a former colony. The novel is a negotiation between this colonial past and a future as an independent nation. Due to its relevance to our own world, Bulawayo is able to unflinchingly examine how anyone victimized by generational trauma can overcome these legacies and pick up the pieces to forge their own paths.

The novel is aided in large part by Bulawayo’s mesmerizing prose. Her evocative use of imagery — describing Old Horse’s blood as tar, for example — brings each scene into sharp focus, making the novel as much of a practice in imagination as it is in writing. Even Bulawayo’s word choice approaches the poetic. Each sentence has a steady, musical cadence, with lines like “Resplendent in our rage, fabulous in our fury” and “They themselves were the god-son they’ve been waiting for” elevating already memorable passages to the level of quotability. But the most powerful aspect of Bulawayo’s prose is that it builds upon itself. Specific phrases or word choices become associated with certain individuals or circumstances (every time Old Horse is mentioned, for example, he is introduced with “Last time we saw him”), and eventually, this repetition takes on a meaning of its own, evoking everything that transpired before without ever actually saying it.

But one moment, in particular, staggered me. For context, Jidada’s world is very similar to our world: Twitter and Siri make frequent appearances in the book, and even figures like Donald Trump are mentioned (though Trump is merely referred to as the “baboon” US president). As a result, Bulawayo is able to comment on contemporary events, omitting names but keeping the references clear.

With this in mind, about halfway through the novel, on the night of the first Jidadan election, Bulawayo references the murder of George Floyd: Jidadans freeze in horror as they watch the news of another unarmed Black individual murdered by American law enforcement. The reference was clear enough, but turning the page reveals a wall of text, simply repeating “I can’t breathe.” With each repetition of the phrase, the tragedy of the murder came howling back, making it one of the most sobering moments in the novel. There are other moments when Bulawayo employs the same technique, but none to this effect.

Beyond the stunning prose, much of the novel’s brutality comes from Bulawayo’s ability to immerse the reader in the world of Jidada. Though the narrative follows a few recurring characters (such as Old Horse, Tuvius, and political opposition leaders), much of the novel is comprised of unnamed POVs, with glimpses into the everyday lives of Jidadans. The reader is privy to gossip, household squabbles, and hushed hopes of a new start. Twitter feeds leading up to the staged elections in the new government are on full display. Even political propaganda is described in detail, immersing the reader in the media environment Jidadans occupy. Simply put, Bulawayo has her finger on the nation's pulse, and she opens the door for the reader to see as well. In recording the basic lives of those who live under oppression, and the environment around them, Bulawayo draws the reader in to witness the good and the bad.

Beyond this, Bulawayo makes it clear Jidada has a storied history. She references folklore and legends of the recent and distant past that plant Jidada in its own vast mythos, making her fictional country seem all the more real. Characters relate to the narrative through the lens of a culture so fleshed out that it takes a moment to remember Jidada doesn’t exist.

At the same time, “Glory” represents a struggle between the past, present, and future. Before the rise of Old Horse, Jidada was under colonial rule (the author implies said rule was under the British Empire), a legacy the nation is still grappling with in the novel. In many of Old Horse and Tuvius’s fascist tirades, the specter of Western colonialism is constantly used to justify their own dictatorships. But what’s so tragic is that freedom from Western rule never granted Jidada the freedom its people wanted: It merely left it destabilized and trapped in a cycle of violence. Colonial rule led to a violent Jidadan revolution, which led to a 40-year dictatorship, which led to a coup, which led to more of the same. It’s a vicious cycle of Western imperialism, in which violence breeds violence.

Bulawayo pulls back the curtain on the consequences of intergenerational violence through the character of Destiny, a young goat who returned to Jidada after a self-imposed exile. Destiny comes to the place of her birth hoping for change, but she is met with a nation in freefall. The “free and fair” elections the new leader promised never materialized, and political opposition is violently suppressed.

Faced with cold reality, Destiny’s only option is to negotiate a road to recovery so she can survive in the collapsing country she holds so dearly. But in order to do this, she has to confront how the cycle of trauma — the colonialism, the Revolution, the coup — has ravaged her own family. It’s an intensely personal microcosm of Jidada’s plight as a nation, and Bulawayo’s inclusion of Destiny makes the broader narrative of an imploding democracy that much more raw.

The reader is left with hope, though. A truly independent Jidada remains possible. Bulawayo takes pains to carve out this dream through a legacy of dissidence, seeding the novel with characters who, despite hopeless odds, refuse to back down. Bulawayo’s decision to end the story on a hopeful note, one facing a brighter future, is what ultimately elevates the novel to something truly remarkable.


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