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Shimmer Chinodya Biography

Shimmer Chinodya comments:

Nationality: Zimbabwean. Born: Gweru, Zimbabwe, 1957. Education: University of Zimbabwe, B.A. (honors) in English 1979; University of Iowa, M.A. in creative writing 1985. Career: High school teacher, 1981-81; curriculum developer, 1983-87; editor, publisher and author, 1988-94; Dana Visiting Professor of creative writing, St. Lawrence University, 1995-96. Awards: Commonwealth Writers prize (African region), 1990, for Harvest of Thorns; Zimbabwe Writers award, 1990; Ragdale fellowship, Lake Forest, 1993.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Dew in the Morning. Gweru, Zimbabwe, Mambo Press, 1982.

Farai's Girls. Harare, Zimbabwe, College Press, 1984.

Child of War. Harare, Zimbabwe, College Press, n.d.

Harvest of Thorns. Harare, Zimbabwe, Baobab, 1989; Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1991.

Short Stories

Can We Talk, and Other Stories. Harare, Zimbabwe, Baobab Books, 1998.

Other

Classroom Plays for Primary Schools. Harare, Longman Zimbabwe, 1986.

Traditional Tales of Zimbabwe, Books 1-6. Harare, LongmanZimbabwe, 1989.

Poems for Primary Schools. Harare, Longman Zimbabwe, 1990.

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Read voraciously while still young!

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This was your initiation on a rock, in the forests of hoary mountains, with a girl who smelt of blue soap and beans and gunpowder, who wore denims and boots and carried a bazooka on her back; a girl who cut her hair short like a boy and whose fingers were stone-stiff from hauling crates of ammo. You were surprised when she said "Thank you, I needed it," never having thought a woman could say that and you tried to say something nice back, wondering if she knew this was your first time…. You had left her there with your seed in her and would she have your child? … And what if she had your child? Would she deliver here in the camp? Would she carry the child in a strap together with her bazooka? Would the child look like you?

Thus muses Benjamin Tichafa, a.k.a. Pasi NemaSellout, the central character of Shimmer Chinodya's Harvest of Thorns, after he loses his virginity to a female comrade in a guerrilla camp. The passage encapsulates the central markers of Chinodya's writing: his concern for children, also demonstrated by his children's works; his profound humanism; and his sharp awareness that the personal and specific make up the broad political picture, giving it both its tragedy and its hope.

Critics have referred to Harvest of Thorns as a "coming-of-age" story; others emphasize its politics, reading it as a tale of Zimbabwe's fight for independence. It is these, and more. Chinodya demonstrates that unless people die—as some do, here—they must come of age, inescapably. What that means will be determined by idiosyncratic politics, in conjunction with the oral communication and awareness of community that alone can, in this novel, preserve humanity. Those communal values shape the novel's structure and content, imbuing it with a revolutionary vision belied by its straightforward and engaging style. Postmodern fireworks of language do not interrupt the story here; no narrator self-importantly trumpets about the difficulties of writing. Instead, we are caught up in the story of a young man—but one told in a way not imagined by the traditional bildungsroman.

Harvest of Thorns opens with Benjamin's return to his mother and the brother he accidentally crippled in childhood. After a few days of welcome, tensions grow, and his mother tells Benjamin's young foreign wife, whom he has brought home, that she must know who Benjamin truly is. Intriguingly, however, to show who Benjamin is requires circling into the past—this young man, as all of us, does not come from a vacuum. So, Chinodya recounts the youth of Shamiso, Benjamin's mother. We watch her attract the intentions of Clopas Tichafa, we see their courtship and wedding, and we follow their difficulty conceiving a child—which leads them to consult a doctor and a witch doctor and to attribute their final success to the Church of the Holy Spirit.

This early sequence shows the range of options to which people will turn in their quests. Beliefs, whether gained accidentally or not, determine the family structures in which children are brought up and in turn shape their reactions and their future paths. Through a wholly unpredictable path, his fanatical religious upbringing leads Benjamin to become the guerrilla Pasi NemaSellout.

Chinodya's treatment of the struggle again subverts expectations; battles and atrocities occur but are not central. Rather than glorifying young people fighting for a cause, Chinodya's narrative voice becomes distanced, describing day-to-day concerns. The tedium of finding food, staying dry, and getting enough sleep interweaves with struggles against the group's leader and telling stories around fires to explain the struggle to villagers. But the cause, even death, attract less thought than another interest: sex. Flirtation ends in a sudden, deadly raid by the opposing troops; or in tribal custom and virginity; or in orders to decamp.

Benjamin does grow up: by returning home, reversing the blind movement outward that led him to fight. The struggle, won at a heavy cost, has changed little in everyday life. When Benjamin embraces his place as a son, a brother, a husband, and a father, the novel questions the obstacles he had to overcome. Perhaps, Chinodya suggests, fewer causes and greater human compassion—between men and women, parents and children, neighbors and outsiders—offers the only hope for true political change.

—Victoria Carchidi

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