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Mother's Thoughts

book cover The personal and historical intertwine in 'Zenzele, a Letter for My Daughter' by debut novelist J. Nozipo Maraire



By Nehanda Imara

WOMEN AND FAMILY; dreams and destiny; revolution and love; mothers and daughters; journeys and detours; racism and liberation; culture and identity. How can a book so full and diverse find unity and coherence in its meaning and message? Perhaps the technique of this nontraditional first-person narrative--a single letter, from a mother to her daughter--achieves this difficult feat because, after all, it is simply an intimate conversation between two people.

Zenzele, a Letter for My Daughter, the debut novel of J. Nozipo Maraire, is a poignant and textured menu full of life stories, clandestine episodes and deeply personal morsels of human compassion. Zenzele is a mother's quest to affirm her own life and self-definition while simultaneously transmitting the wisdom and folklore only a mother can give to her daughter.

Zenzele, the daughter, is about to embark on a journey, a rite of passage. She is leaving her homeland, Zimbabwe, to enter the world of the West to attend a prestigious university. Her mother must let go--perhaps the most difficult of human tasks. This is why the book is both narrowly specific, a mother's letter to her daughter, yet also universal in its message. The entire letter is a demonstration of intimacy and humanity. It is both a use of history and a presentation of love.

The title deliberately emphasizes the importance of the personal relationship between mother and daughter, yet the text of the novel also emphasizes the importance of history for the sake of searching for one's self, of searching for one's identity, searching for ones' origin in order to better understand oneself.

Maraire tells the story of Zimbabwe's history of liberation from the British as seen through the eyes of Amai Zenzele, the mother and letter writer. As a child, Amai witnessed apartheid, Cecil Rhodes- style.

As a young adult, she learned that her cousin had "suddenly disappeared from the village" to join the struggle. Even after independence, Amai would tell her daughter a pitiful story of when she was visiting Warsaw and a poor Polish woman mistook her for a "recent immigrant, poor and homeless and in need of employment," even though she was in a cafe reading and having tea. These experiences were often perplexing and confusing for Amai. But her advice to her daughter remains a tender and powerful commentary on life.

The names of Zenzele's parents--Amai and Baba va Zenzele--mean more than merely "the mother and father of Zenzele." They suggest a complete connectedness of self with the past, present and future. The naming ritual seems to imply that in Zimbabwean culture, parenting is so honored and respected that there is an ever-present announcement of that role on each occasion your name is called.

Zenzele's mother is "bewildered by the task of motherhood, that precarious balance between total surrender and totalitarianism." She wonders, "How could I prepare you for a world that I did not even understand? I was struck by the absurdity of my predicament as a woman. I had been excluded from the social contract that drafted and perpetuated those very rules that it fell to my lot to inculcate in you."

Yet, the novel is not a feminist declaration, nor is it a sappy litany of sugary clichés frequently found in black female literature. The stories are familiar but also refreshing, energetic, compassionate, political and spiritual.

Each chapter is a single lesson on life. These lessons are reflections from Amai Zenzele's own childhood or stories like the one about the embarrassed neighbor who sought advice because she was unable to teach her own daughter respect and dignity.

Lessons on "love and politics" are blended as neatly as an olive oil and red wine vinaigrette dressing. One such lesson begins, "To love is a beautiful, mysterious event; do not miss it. Be neither too cautious nor too absorbed." Amai Zenzele then tells her daughter a story of her first escapades with "love." She had skipped school for the first time in her life. A boy in her class had convinced her to climb trees rather than to learn about Livingston and Rhodes.

When she returns home late in the evening, Amai Zenzele's father (Zenzele's grandfather) beckons his daughter and tells her a story of honesty and integrity. It is a chilling tale of a young women who grows tired of her husband and leaves him for a younger lover.

Her new lover convinces her to poison her husband and kill her only child. The young woman thinks this is what her new lover desires so that they can make a free start. But her lover rejects her in the end because he has no guarantee that "upon reaching their paradise, after a few years she will not open her ears to another lover's charm and poison him."

When Amai Zenzele's father finishes the story, she shudders: "My father concluded by saying very solemnly, my daughter, you will meet many men in life. Allow none to tempt you to abandon your principles. Follow what is right. You are a strong girl; let no one break you. There is no man in the world who is worth our dignity. Do not confuse self-sacrifice with love."

Zenzele keeps alive the African storytelling tradition originally translated through the griot, the first literary historians of Africa. Family, community and a nation's history was stored and passed on via the memory of a single person. Amai Zenzele is a griot par excellence.

Appropriately, she ends her letter, "It is a pity that I have not more to leave you than words. But what is life, after, but a story, some fiction and some truth? In the end there are words. They are the very manifestations of our immortality. Your own life is a story yet to be told, and wisdom, when it comes, is simply to understand at last the beginning of the word and the story of our birth, death, and rebirth."


Zenzele, a Letter for My Daughter, by J. Nozipo Maraire; Crown; $20 cloth.

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From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of Metro

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