A question of color
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu's novel "The Theory of Flight" may be the first to take seriously Zimbabwe’s complicated race politics, beyond the obvious black vs whites.
- Interview by
- Sean Jacobs
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s 2018 novel, The Theory of Flight, takes place in an unnamed country and features a main character, Genie, who has fantastical beginnings. Genie wasn’t born; she hatches from a golden egg and dies by ascending above the clouds on silver wings. Though the setting is unnamed, it is obvious that Siphiwe is writing about Zimbabwe. As the judges of the 2022 edition of the Windham Campbell Prize described her this month, “Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu is both a chronicler and a conjurer whose soaring imagination creates a Zimbabwean past made of anguish and hope, of glory and despair: the story of the generations born at the crossroads of a country’s history.” Siphiwe is from Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, Bulawayo, and this is where a lot of the action of the novel takes place.
Siphiwe studied screenwriting in a US college and has a postgraduate degree in film. Her short film, Graffiti, has won film prizes such as the Silver Dhow Award at the Zanzibar International Film Festival in 2003. I have interviewed her before, discussing the Afrofuturist themes in The Theory of Flight (this was her first novel; her second is The History of Man). But this time, what interests me is how she writes about race in Zimbabwe in The Theory of Flight. I was struck by one character in particular: Vida, or Jesus, who is Genie’s great love. He is what is known in southern Africa as “coloured”—shorthand for a person of mixed race, though it points to a more complex history than just mixing. In a video interview with Siphiwe about The Theory of Flight, English professor Tsitsi Jaji, who is also from Zimbabwe, said about Vida/Jesus: “I have to say: I have never read a novel that took a coloured Zimbabwean seriously, as [someone with] a rich and complex inner life as well as social life, [like The Theory of Flight does].” The interview explores these themes.
Do you think that The Theory of Flight’s combination of myth and actual history, especially postcolonial history, makes it possible to emphasize and complicate all kinds of Zimbabwean racial and ethnolinguistic identities?
I think being absolutely honest about Zimbabwe’s actual history is what makes it possible to show the complexities of Zimbabwean identity. If anything, I am writing against the nationalists’ myth of an uncomplicated nation—a nation whose people are encouraged to think about and discuss difference in the simplest of terms (black versus white, ethnic group A versus ethnic group B, etc.). But in order for this [mythological thinking] to happen, history—actual history—has to be misrepresented, mistaught, or simplified. Because history—actual history—never results in anything that simple. History—actual history—is extremely messy and complicated and often brutal, violent, and ugly. History—actual history—is about change, change that is the result of contact and encounter … and there is power at play in every contact, … in every encounter. But that is exactly what we inherit: this messy, messy, knotty thing. So our desire to simplify it makes sense but does not lead to honesty. I do not particularly relish having to agree with Hegel on anything, but I do agree with his dialectic; once A encounters B the result is something new and different—it is change. In my work, I am trying to be honest about the changes that have happened throughout the country’s history and how these changes have impacted, and in some cases even created, particular “Zimbabwean” identities.
Were you surprised by Tsitsi Jaji’s comment that coloureds are missing or treated superficially in novels or fiction about or set in Zimbabwe?
I was not surprised, no. At the time I published The Theory of Flight, I had only read one novel that focused on the experiences of coloured Zimbabweans: Paul Hotz’s Muzukuru. That novel really helped illuminate for me some of the experiences that coloureds in then-Rhodesia had during the war.
I have recently read Violette Kee-Tui’s wonderful Mulberry Dreams, which presents us with the social lives of coloured Zimbabweans. I am sure there are other books—or, rather, I hope that there are—which highlight different aspects of the coloured experience in the country. Zimbabwe sorely and desperately needs a diversity of voices and representation in its literature.
Why do you think there is so much silence about mixed-race or coloured people in Zimbabwe?
I think there is so much silence about mixed-race or coloured people because to talk about mixed-race or coloured people would be to talk about the many messy things in our actual history. We would have to talk not only about the colonial encounter and the violence it visited upon the black body—though actually, this is something that we have been taught not to have a problem discussing because it falls neatly into the oppressor versus oppressed category—but also talk specifically about the violence visited upon the black female body.
The difficult thing here is that we also have to make room for love. Not all encounters were violent—there are love letters in the archives that tell this story, letters confiscated by a colonial system afraid of losing face and eager to hide certain truths. But the idea of love is complicated here as well. If the white man exists in a system in which he has all the power, is it love or coercion? How much choice and agency can a black woman be seen to have under the circumstances?
All these complexities tend to silence the tongue, but I think what silences it even more is the treatment that mixed-race or coloured people had to face. In the early days of the [colonial] encounter, you could actually have racially mixed families, but that did not last long—settler colonialism and its very binary understanding of the world and its peoples could not let it. Families were torn apart. White fathers [were] made to not be directly responsible for their offspring by anti-miscegenation and racist laws; black mothers were made to bear the brunt of both colonial and traditional patriarchies’ very narrow and myopic sexist ideas about unwed mothers; and mixed-race children were forced to exist in a liminal space, never quite being either or.
All this led to a deep sense of shame—and shame often leads to silence and silencing. For a while there, Southern Rhodesian coloureds preferred to have Cape Coloured roots (whether real, imagined or manufactured). But while Cape Coloureds had definitely come with the settlers (working as drivers, porters, etc.), they were not the sole root of Southern Rhodesia’s coloured population.
Just to clarify for readers, the term “Cape Coloured” is used to distinguish coloureds from Cape Town and surrounds from the rest of South Africa and the region; it is also where most people deemed “mixed” live in South Africa and Southern Africa and comes with a certain cultural capital in terms of politics of belonging …
And because nothing stays the same, there was a time when settler colonialism realized it could use the coloured community to create something of a middleman, and to this end focused on educating coloured children to act as such—even if educating them meant forcibly removing them from the only homes and families they had ever known. Again, families were torn apart. As a result, in segregationist Southern Rhodesia, four races were created—white, coloured, Asian, and black—and a racial hierarchy was established. Within this hierarchy, relations between the “races” were erased, so when independence was attained in 1980, it became easier and more expedient for those who now had power—the blacks—to be silent about that relationship as well. Silence is evidently preferable to acknowledging the messy, messy, knotty history we have inherited.
As the above shows, whites, blacks, and coloureds themselves have played a part in creating the different silences about the coloured and mixed-race experience in the country.
How did you go about constructing Vida or Jesus? What was your research process like, and did you unearth anything surprising?
After the war, when my family returned to the newly independent Zimbabwe, we settled on a beautiful smallholding on the outskirts of the city of Bulawayo, called Rangemore. It had been, under Rhodesia’s segregationist laws, a coloured zone. We were one of the first black families to move in and it was in this community that I spent my formative years.
I lived in Rangemore but attended a school in the city: Coghlan Primary School. I would board the bus from the city to Rangemore at City Hall. And at the bus terminus at City Hall, there was a former Rhodesian Forces soldier who wore his military fatigues and was christened Jesus by the denizens of the city.
All of this is to say: I did not rely on research to construct Vida/Jesus; I relied heavily on memory.
If I think of scholarship on coloured Zimbabweans, I think of the work of Ibbo Mandaza (whose study, Race, Colour and Class in Southern Africa, also included Zambia and Malawi) or James Muzondidya. But those are at least a decade or two old. Did you come across more recent scholarship?
Yes, you are right; scholarship on coloured Zimbabweans is scanty at best, and while the works of Mandaza and Muzondidya are seminal, there definitely needs to be new scholarship.
I have appreciated coming across personal and social histories—a particular favorite autobiography is The Other: Without Fear, Favour or Prejudice by Judge Chris N. Greenland and Palmira R. Greenland, but that too is now more than ten years old.
Is it coincidental that Vida is also the character that at first, when he enjoys professional success as an artist, is deemed perfectly postcolonial (“a truly postcolonial artist”), then later is classified as “too white” by those in power? Is this the fate of the mixed-race or coloured person: that he or she is never enough?
I think it is the fate of most ethnic minorities to be used as pawns in the game of politics. I think when it is convenient, as it was at a certain point during the colonial era, then coloured people are seen and counted, and when it is not convenient, as it has been for most of the postcolonial moment, then coloured people are not seen or counted—that is, made to matter politically. They are treated as expendable entities, which makes their position in society extremely precarious.
In the novel, Vida enjoys his moment of fame and is politically recognized, because The Man Himself [the president of the unnamed country] wants to be seen as cosmopolitan, open-minded, anti-racial, etc. But when that image is no longer the one that will give him the most political capital, he eschews it and Vida along with it.
In 1965, Beatrice Beit Beauford, who owned the farm where the main character Genie was born, gave birth to two coloured twin boys, “flouting the state anti-miscegenation laws.” As a result, the white state decided that whites like her who slept with blacks could not be trusted. Is there a long history of the British, Rhodesian, and then Zimbabwean states preventing the races from mixing?
You cannot establish a narrative in which one race is inherently superior to another and then allow the races to mix—that would be antithetical and reveal the very lie at the heart of the narrative you have created. Now, of course, as I have already mentioned in an earlier answer, the races mixed. But all things are never equal, and the “acceptable” mix was the one between a white man and a black woman. So while there were anti-miscegenation laws, the black female body was rendered oversexed and, therefore, unrapeable and always already dangerous. This meant that whatever white men did to black female bodies, they were never held accountable.
The same could not be said of black men where the white female body was concerned. The white female body, especially in the colonies, was written or seen as pure and virtuous—the complete opposite of the colonized female body. To keep that virtue intact, there were fears of Black Peril and Yellow Peril. And whereas the white man could get away scot-free for violating a black female body, the same could most certainly not be said about the black man violating the white female body.
So in the novel, when Beatrice Beit-Beauford, a white female, decides to have a relationship with a black man, she is doing so much more than sleeping with the enemy. She is attacking the very foundation that upholds the narrative of settler colonialism—and therein lies her real danger.
This interview has focused on questions about race in relation to Vida, but you extend the same complexity to other characters. For example, there is a character who is a state spy, representative of Shona majoritarianism and the violence of the postcolonial state. But even he is humanized and redeems himself. Similarly, there is a character, Genie’s mother, who aspires to be a country singer; she models herself after Dolly Parton. It reminds me of something I read that Dambudzo Marechera once said about Zimbabwean literature: “If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you!” I think you successfully avoided that trap. Was that your intention?
You’ve got to love Marechera! I absolutely agree with him, although I am sure that my Lutheran upbringing would make me express myself very differently. Yes, it was definitely my intention to portray my characters as complex human beings. My experience of human beings is that they are incredibly self-contradictory, complicated, complex, and prone to conflict; my experience of fictional characters is that they are incredibly self-contradictory, complicated, complex, and prone to conflict. There are so many different things that make up who we are—some of them are good and some of them are bad. As a writer, I think it is always important to remember, as Dave Mason once sang, “There ain’t no good guys, there ain’t no bad guys. There’s only you and me and we just disagree.”
Does it help that The Theory of Flight takes place entirely “at home” and not in locales in the diaspora, the loci of much of the recent fiction with Zimbabwean themes? Does that explain why, despite the novel taking place in an undisclosed country, you get the local nuances right?
I am not sure. I guess the irony is that I wrote 90 percent of the novel while I was living in the diaspora. Perhaps nostalgia and distance gave me 20/20 vision.