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Either one must remain terrified or become terrifying.

—Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

When Yvette Lisa Ndlovu’s characters make the transition from terrified to terrifying in her debut collection Drinking from Graveyard Wells, they carry the weight of Zimbabwe’s post-colonial contradictions with them. Poetic and political, the fourteen stories of Graveyard Wells use traditional magic and folklore to explore the complex legacy of independence, the persistent abuses of patriarchy, and a continued yearning for liberation among Zimbabwe’s oppressed.

Fanon articulated the powerful rage and hope of a generation of anticolonial fighters who successfully freed the majority of Africans from direct European rule. Forty hard years later, Ndlovu’s collection is populated by the women and workers who have been left behind by the promise of independence. For Western, white readers, there is a danger of reading Zimbabwe’s struggles as springing from a failure of African self-rule, or from “backward” traditional culture. Ndlovu’s writing flouts these racist, simplistic understandings of history, and her characters’ complex relationships to culture shape stories that are both harshly real and defiantly magical.

For the women of Graveyard Wells in particular, the supernatural is a blade that cuts both ways: reinforcing patriarchy, or providing power and solidarity. In the collection’s opening story “Red Cloth, White Giraffe” the recently deceased narrator who is awaiting entry to the afterlife reflects, “When I still had breath, I thought life was unfair, but death is a different kind of unfair.” She cannot ascend until she is buried, and she cannot be buried until her greedy family is paid off by her beloved husband. Watching these negotiations and encountering another female spirit who is being denied entry into the afterlife because she is not “whole,” the narrator forsakes the afterlife in favor of becoming a vengeful spirit, or ngozi. Instead of taking the scrap of freedom she is offered, she makes the powerful choice to spend eternity terrifying men who torment living women.

Similarly, in “Plumtree: True Stories,” witchcraft is the only avenue to stop the painful socialization of girls into sexual and matrimonial submission. The story is a masterpiece of nonlinear storytelling: a collage of folklore, narration, and anecdote that builds through repetition and layering. At first seemingly unrelated, the scenes coalesce through generations as one woman realizes she is pregnant:

She cries not because she wants a son but because she doesn’t want a daughter. Soon a daughter will be born and someone will tell her that her hands are soft and rub chili peppers on her as if dressing a wound and she will learn that eggs are not only for breakfast and she will go to Plumtree like her mother before her and come back a dead thing.

The pregnant woman burns the ultrasound and remembers the way to a naked old lady in a forest.

“I need protection for my daughter,” the pregnant woman says to the muroyi.

“From what?” the old lady in the forest asks.


The story loops and spirals, building power on each pass like an electric coil, until—like the final line in Langston Hughes’ Harlem—it explodes.

When the collection delves into the systemic forces weighing on Zimbabwe, from colonization to extractive capitalism, Ndlovu fuses tradition with collective resistance. In “The Carnivore’s Lollipop,” a gig worker joins rioting peers as they march on a parasitical boss to dole out the kind of justice that could be found in a Shona court; the power wielded by a deceased grandmother is passed to her granddaughter who learns how an old goddess aided the nationalist uprising in “The Soul Would Have No Rainbow”; the spiritually enslaved miners of “When Death Comes to Find You” join forces with their mythical captor to confront a colonialist diamond conglomerate.

For those who cannot join with others for justice, migration can seem like the only choice. In “Home Becomes a Thing with Thorns,” “Second Place is First Loser,” and “The Friendship Bench,” Ndlovu confronts life in the diaspora. All these stories ask who benefits from distance and forgetting, and what are the costs for those who leave seeking something “better.”

Ndlovu’s writing is rich with anger but also empathy, especially for the grandchildren of the revolution whose main inheritance is heartbreak. As Hondo, the narrator of “Swimming with Crocodiles,” sells snacks to a line of desperate people trying to access their money at a collapsing bank, her Gogo sings songs from her day as an independence fighter. Instead of being seen as a hero, her songs draw ridicule from the men and women waiting on the bank line. Between hawking frozen pops, Hondo recites science experiments in hopes of passing an exam to resume school: it is a thin thread of hope that grows more frayed as the story progresses.

Much like Hondo, the title story’s narrator, Loveness, is cramming for exams while her impoverished neighborhood mysteriously vanishes, one house at a time. The government only shows up when investors become interested in the rapidly emptying land. The pain and potential of the population mean nothing to the visiting officials, and Loveness’ mother is beaten for daring to confront them.

Both Loveness and Hondo carry the burden of aspiration that will likely go unfulfilled, but neither of them (nor the other protagonists) surrenders. Loveness cracks the pattern of disappearances and pays her exam entrance fees in the face of knowing her house will disappear, and herself with it. In this story perhaps most acutely, Ndlovu drives home how it is possible to love a place, a culture, a person, and to also want more.

Drinking from Graveyard Wells is a powerhouse collection from a young writer with a rare surety of voice. Ndlovu’s deep and encompassing love for her home drives every story, regardless of genre or tone. Despite the often dire circumstances that the characters live in, Ndlovu’s stories are never fatalistic or nihilistic. As Takura, the murdered miner at the center of “When Death Comes to Find You” argues:

“There is an entire world on the surface,” Takura says. “Why should you be down here and everyone and everything else up there? You are the first creation, so smart and so strong that the gods feared you. The gods called you a monster, but what of the army, the diamond companies, and the politicians who murder to fill their pockets? The real monsters are up there.”

Reading Ndlovu’s words, you can’t help but root for more of the oppressed to become increasingly terrifying to their tormentors.

Amy Nagopaleen writes fiction from Queens, NY, where she splits her time between working, making art, and parenting her second-generation queer kid. Her writing can be found in Fusion Fragment, Solarpunk Magazine, and Pen + Brush in Print, and is forthcoming in PseudoPod. You can find her on Twitter @amynagopaleen.
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