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Not the Usual “Zim Story”: Pearl Boshomane Talks to Panashe Chigumadzi About Her Debut Novel, Sweet Medicine

Panashe Chigumadzi avoids stereotypes and “poverty porn” in her debut novel, write Pearl Boshomane for the Sunday Times

Sweet MedicineSweet Medicine
Panashe Chigumadzi (Jacana)

“When there’s a book being written about Zimbabwe it needs to be written in a particular way,” says Panashe Chigumadzi, over a glass of water and a cookie at the Wits Art Museum. “It needs to be about a border jumper.”

She’s talking about her debut novel, Sweet Medicine, and how two publishers had told her, in rejecting it, that it “wouldn’t work for the market”. Yes, the book is set in Zimbabwe but it’s not the usual “Zim story” that’s on the shelves these days.

“Particularly since the early 2000s, a lot of Zimbabwe books are about election violence, what went wrong with Zimbabwe, how the country has gone to the dogs … the Zimbabwean narrative lends itself really well to poverty porn.”

Sweet Medicine is about people, though, more than place. Chigumadzi says, “I didn’t want Zimbabwe to be a character in the book. It serves as an important background but that’s it. The characters are more important.”

Since her systemic-racism-exploring Ruth First Memorial Lecture back in August, which resulted in many a thinkpiece and excited more people than it upset, Chigumadzi’s name has in some circles become synonymous with race conversations in South Africa. But that’s not a subject she explores at all in Sweet Medicine.

The novel follows the life of a young woman, Tsitsi, in 2008 Harare, “at the height of Zimbabwe’s economic woes”. Tsitsi was raised by a staunch Catholic mother (her father died when she was a child), a woman whose overwhelming silence ought not to be mistaken for docility.

Tsitsi has left the economically barren landscape of rural Zimbabwe for the greener pastures of the city, as the customary wife of an influential local politician, Zvogbo, far older than she.

Chigumadzi writes about Tsitsi with tenderness and without a trace of pity, when it would have been so easy to fall into the trap of vilifying her for finding a path to economic stability through a married older man. There are no easy choices and no obvious villains in this book because life, after all, is never black and white.

Chigumadzi says, “Why do we blame people for their actions within certain structures? Why do we blame people for trying to survive? I’m trying not to be too moralistic with this book.”

She tells me how one potential publisher asked her to change the ending of the book because “it wasn’t ‘feminist enough’, it wasn’t satisfactory enough. But life isn’t satisfactory.”

That’s not to say there’s nothing feminist about the book. Every female character in Sweet Medicine (be it Tsitsi’s best friend, Chiedza or the ex-Mrs Zvogbo) is strong and makes her own choices. Not all of them are in situations of their own choosing, of course, but they don’t let their circumstances own them.

“We want feminism to be packaged in a certain way, but people have been feministing for a long time in ways that we just haven’t recognised,” says Chigumadzi.

“Even when you’re writing a feminist book, there’s a type of woman who should be written about. It must be the woman who was the trailblazer, the woman who did things in a different way, not the woman who worked very much within the confines of patriarchy.

“But who deserves to be written about? What are we saying about feminism when we say only a certain type of woman who does XYZ is allowed to be written about? Yes, Tsitsi’s not doing something amazing and she’s a very difficult woman to love, from a very simplistic feminist viewpoint.”

In Sweet Medicine, Chigumadzi delivers insight into the mind and heart of a woman who somehow still remains an enigma to the reader. The book feels observational rather than too involved in its subject matter, which does make it – and its characters – a lot more open to interpretation. That’s not a bad thing. And did we mention how stunning blogger and artist Tony Gum looks on the book’s cover?

Follow Pearl Boshomane on Twitter @pearlulla

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