To use the language of the wrestling world, or at least what I hear them saying when introducing a wrestler on television when I watch WWE Raw, this woman ‘hails’ from the second largest city in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo. In Ndebele, one of Zimbabwe’s local languages we would say ‘Uvela koBulawayo, konthuthu ziyathunqa’ “She comes from Bulawayo-where everything happens.”
She wrestles with societal prejudices that limit the potential of women and with boundaries that restrict the horizons women can reach. Her weapons – words; leave inerasable imprints on the self esteem of women, uplifting them in their spirit and giving them a new hope. She creates new dictionaries full of ‘I can’ words, she paints new pictures reflecting hope and she draws new borders with her magic pen and paper, borders that call out and say any woman can reach me.
A violet is believed to be the flower that symbolises modesty, virtue, affection, watchfulness, faithfulness and love. I have always wondered why she calls herself the opposite of a violet, or maybe given my limited understanding of the arts, she means something different from what I understand her to be saying . Her name is Elizabeth Tshele but her pen name; NoViolet is what many people know her by. Although she claims English is not her first language I am confident in her mastery of the language that I would bet my (to be acquired in the future) million bucks that she knows it better than the current British Prime Minister.
The recipient of the 2011 Caines Award, considered to be Africa’s highest literary award, she makes me proud to be a Zimbabwean woman. Her award winning story Hitting Budapest is a moving tale of the journey of six starving and poor children who decide to steal guavas in a residential area for the affluent. The story is a clear illustration of social classes and how they shape the givens and granted of one class differently from the other class. Food is a given for the rich and guavas can rot in trees, but guavas are more than a delicacy for the poor-they are survival itself and the poor will go to great lengths to get them, even stealing as the characters in Hitting Budapest do.
NoViolet has also been recognised as a finalist in the 2009 SA PEN/Studzinski Literary Award for her story Snapshots.
Yes, we all write with our own pens but the quality of NoViolet’s pen just seems that much better than most because the marks it leaves behind, in her words, are indelible. A read of just one or two of her stories will tell you that she is at a level of her own.
Her stories have been published in collections of short stories. The story “Snapshots” appeared in Where to Now?, “Shamisos” appeared in Writing Free, “Hitting Budapest” appeared in To See The Mountain an Oxford Publication, “Main Street” appeared in African Roar while the story ‘ Flag’ appeared in the Warwick Review.
Last night, I read her story Red and I could not help shedding a tear or two afterwards. This story of a Zimbabwean man who walks barefoot, hungry and destitute in the streets of Johannesburg in South Africa where he meets a street child left a hollow feeling in my stomach. The vivid images that NoViolet’s words evoke of the man as he holds the little girl, sings and imagines he is holding his son whom he head to leave behind in search of greener pastures stirred deep emotions of sadness and yes anger in me. Many Zimbabweans are in Shepherd, the character in Red’s shoes. They have been forced to leave their homes by poverty, difficult economic circumstances and hopelessness. They hope for better lives but across the border all they face is rejection, segregation, a worse kind of poverty than the one they left home, bereft of human warmth and understanding of their circumstances. As NoViolet says in the story all they know is “hard laughter, sarcastic laughter, angry laughter, hollow laughter, fleeting laughter, dry laughter.”
On her blog she discusses real life issues and how they affect real people. The topics discussed on her blog range from HIV/Aids where she laments the loss of her brother to the disease, to the challenges of life as a migrant in which she expresses her surprise and discoveries living abroad in a foreign land.
I know people say that art is a talent that one is born with, and writing being one form of art is a natural talent, but I will never give up hope that someday I will be able to put words together in the indelible manner that NoViolet does. Since she holds a Masters Degree in Fine Arts from Cornell University in America specialising in creative writing, I would like to think these studies honed her unique voice. Maybe if I become one of her students at Cornell where she now lectures, I may learn to write as well as she does.