Africa “Without Amnesia”

Responses to the idea of a “post-racial” society usually follow a certain script. In most progressive circles in the US, the notion is dismissed as fantasy or delusion. In southern Africa, and ...

Responses to the idea of a “post-racial” society usually follow a certain script. In most progressive circles in the US, the notion is dismissed as fantasy or delusion. In southern Africa, and particularly in South Africa and Zimbabwe, the analogous term is “nonracial” (not to be confused with its close cousin “multiracial”). As Americans have reckoned with the meltdown of our own hasty optimism, South Africans have looked back on the Mandela years with anger, disappointment, and grief.

This backlash against smug, mostly white celebration is justified. But such knowing critique now risks becoming rote in its own right: an easy social signifier that relieves those who wield it of more demanding intellectual or imaginative tasks.

Rightly denying that the world is post-race, according to the Ghanaian philosopher Ato Sekyi-Otu in his recent book Left Universalism, Africacentric Essays, can shade too readily into a taboo on trying to liberate moral thought from racialized histories. In what he calls a “proposal” to think post-racially in a new and more realistic way, Sekyi-Otu entreats us to

move on but without amnesia. To the contrary, move on with eyes wide open and noses retroactively sensitive, remorselessly suspicious of the slightest similarities between racial orders as template of social evil and conditions of existence and forms of lived experience not constitutively shaped by race; keep moving on but in vigilant pursuit of infernal recurrences and monstrous affinities.”

A post-racial imaginative ideal, then, that is rife with historical disclaimers.

How can such disclaimers be worked into a novel as tools for defying—but not denying—social determination? This is one of the challenges that Zimbabwean writer, filmmaker, and academic Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu takes up in her debut novel, The Theory of Flight: a book equal parts colonial historical chronicle and luminous, idiosyncratic family myth. In weaving the story and family history of a woman who is born from a golden egg through a familiar range of southern African settings—the farm, the rundown city center, the formerly white colonial suburb now inhabited by a well-to-do black family—Ndlovu offers a fictional world that approximates Sekyi-Otu’s vision.

The book, thankfully, mostly strikes what feels like an impossible balance—splitting its attention between how history defines lives and how lives, nonetheless, exceed such historical definition. Perhaps most importantly, The Theory of Flight tempers this balanced humanism with just enough “side-eye,” as my students might say, for the book to feel bracing instead of naive. In this way, it exemplifies the most textured work emerging from the region.

Ndlovu’s book begins with an extensive list of characters (including names and renamings, in addition to nicknames for some of them). It is a common device, which usually announces a sprawling, epic intention. The Theory of Flight’s cast list, though, does something a bit different: it gestures to joint emphases on historical interconnection and robust individuality.

The first character, Imogen “Genie” Zula Nyoni, is described as the one “around whose life and death the events of this story take place.” Other names are followed by generic captions listing only a family role (e.g., “Genie’s mother”), while some descriptions also conjure racial and historical archetypes (for instance, Bennington Beauford is a “settler farmer and owner of the Beauford Farm and Estate”).

This character list offers crucial insight into Ndlovu’s ambitions. She gives us a clear protagonist; characters who fulfill set historical or political roles; and characters who don’t. Not all Zimbabwean lives are best made sense of as “products of their time,” even if on some level, of course, they all are. The Theory of Flight wants to have its cake and eat it too, in the best way: it is a historical novel in some measure, but it allows for a spectrum of historical significance in its depictions of any given life. Some characters offer more insight into the roles they inhabit than do others. This is neither bad nor good but, simply, the lifeblood of multivalent fiction.

Resistance to paint-by-numbers historical narratives is surely part of why Ndlovu declines to actually name Zimbabwe as the setting of the book. Though readers will sense that it takes place there from references to nearby South Africa, the Shona- and Nguni-sounding names, and its invocation of British colonial and liberation-war history, The Theory of Flight is technically set in a made-up place.

As a result, it is easy to read as a kind of subjunctive Zimbabwe: if we were willing to bracket all the damning things we know about the country’s real past, just for a while, we might see stories like Genie’s begin to emerge. After the novel opens, by describing how Genie “at the moment of her death … was seen to fly away on a giant pair of silver wings,” it directly addresses the implausibility of this premise. “It is because some of you will have doubt,” writes Ndlovu, “and those of you who do not have doubt will be curious, that this story is choosing to be told.”

At the same time, “what happened to Genie did not happen in a vacuum: it was the result of a culmination of genealogies, histories, teleologies, epistemologies and epidemiologies—of ways of living, remembering, seeing, knowing and dying.” In a word, every life is determined by everything else. And so, a particularly acute, even unlikely, degree of individuality circles back on itself to become the most capacious way to tell a national story. What might be read as magical realism—a term that Ndlovu herself shies away from—becomes something more like what Sekyi-Otu proposes: a way of thinking that might allow us to acknowledge, but also transcend, racial orders.

The Theory of Flight is not about commandeering the imagined in order to amplify the real. It is more apt to call it a balancing act between bemoaning injustice and observing the beauty that exists in the same frame, by letting what it has marked outright as “wonders” slowly take on ontological weight.

The first place this happens is during Genie’s childhood on the Beauford Farm and Estate, a settler-colonial bulwark that Ndlovu employs in her story as a conceptual laboratory. Alongside her best friend, Marcus, Genie frolics in a “field of yellow that stretched as far as the eye could see.” These sunflowers were once planted by Bennington Beauford for his own daughter, and Genie “never stop[s] to think that [the field] could contain anything harmful or dangerous.” The children are despondent when the sunflowers are harvested, before learning that they will grow again each year.

While the flowers are busy being “reborn,” Genie and Marcus examine an outdated atlas in an old, rusted car. The book had “been printed in 1965 and did not contain the name of their newly independent country,” thereby presenting “them with more possibilities as well as more challenges” as they imagine themselves in different parts of the globe. As they nurse a nascent sense of the everchanging nature of geopolitics, we read that “worlds and possibilities unfurled before them, creating dizzying delights.” All of this, meanwhile, is offset for the reader by the racist origins of even the sunflowers the two young friends are awaiting: Beauford is sardonically described as a “fair-minded man” for having opted not to resettle the Africans who had long lived on the farm he buys; “it was not lost on him that a readily available labour force would be less expensive than a labour force that came from afar.”

Ndlovu’s book is equal parts colonial historical chronicle and luminous, idiosyncratic family myth.

And so, in this fashion, The Theory of Flight takes head-on the fraught personal and economic legacies that have both everything and nothing to do with the lives it brings to the fore. Time and again, Ndlovu gives characters lines that would be mawkish were they not undergirded by such clear-eyed glimpses of the histories that make them seem far-fetched. “Just looking at the man,” we read at one point, “Bhekithemba could tell that there was something different about him, something beyond the colour of his skin.” Genie’s caretaker Jestina declares, after war veterans (referred to with the slang-term sojas) have raided the Beauford Farm and Estate and committed mass murder, that “there was a time, not so long ago, that we thought only white people capable of such hatred and anger, such evil. We know better now. … Evil does not discriminate. It visits all of us with equal opportunity.”

These sorts of statements just don’t work anymore out of context; they sound like the sort of thing Kuki, an aging white character, might say, as she starts “talking about ‘them’ more and more,” while insisting that “she is not a racist. She is just a frustrated liberal.” But Ndlovu won’t settle for cynicism; she is too invested in capturing the full sweep of Genie’s and, by extension, Zimbabwe’s experience. In braiding together critique and sentimentality, she arrives at something tender, sincere, and hard-earned.

To be sure, there are moments where the sentimental strand is a bit heavy-handed. Genie’s sister within her adoptive family, the Masukus, rescues an injured baby bird as a turning point in her character’s development. And lines like “love was the truest defiance” can be hard to take. But Ndlovu’s real accomplishment is to make one second-guess this resistance: she knows why love is not enough, spells it out for us, and then dares to foreground it anyway.

The outstanding example of love’s presence in this world is between Genie and her devoted partner, Vida de Villiers: a mixed-race, bisexual, and for a time voluntarily homeless man who becomes a famous sculptor, alternately heralded and rebuked for the fluidity of his identity (academics in the book call him “a truly postcolonial artist,” while the Mugabe-esque leader thinks he is “too white” for the role).

Despite Genie’s diagnosis as HIV-positive, she and Vida spend happy decades together in a home that was once owned by Vida’s Afrikaner grandfather. It isn’t that the couple live outside history, exactly, though the novel might be vulnerable to that charge if read ungenerously. So fully immersed are they in Zimbabwe’s troubles, in fact, that, stripped of Ndlovu’s art, their lives would contain them all: war, massacre, prejudice, poverty, disease. Genie and Vida are thus both rule and exception. Faced with either sinking or swimming in a troubled homeland, Genie chooses to fly.

The choice to let Genie “choose her own ending” and launch herself into the sky is the point at which The Theory of Flight strays furthest from the real and closest to what Ndlovu would like us to entertain as the true. “It really is that simple,” she writes to wrap things up. “[Genie] was never just a statistic.” As isolated pull quotes, these are unsubtle. As deeply held commitments—earned with narrative intricacy and well-placed recognitions of how implausible they are—Ndlovu’s words take the measure of both racist pasts and post-racial aspirations. icon

Featured image: The Storm (2017). Photograph by marius novac / Flickr