Zimbabwean Writer Treads Carefully as She Promotes Book About Notorious Massacre

The Zimbabwean government has long discouraged open discussion of Gukurahundi, a notorious series of massacres. Writer Novuyo Rosa Tshuma had trouble finding details about this grisly time in the country’s history – so she decided to write a book about it.

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Zimbabwean Writer Treads Carefully as She Promotes Book About Notorious Massacre

Vimbai Chinembiri, GPJ Zimbabwe

Novuya Tshuma speaks with someone who came to a book signing event to celebrate her novel, House of Stone. The book deals with Gukurahundi, a series of massacres that have not been widely discussed in past decades due to government crackdowns on people who speak publicly about them.

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BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is sweating and apologizes profusely when she arrives. She’s late, and on top of that she now has to text several people and organizations to alert them about where she is and who she’s with.

This is a security measure she’s been advised to follow diligently.

But Tshuma isn’t worried. She launched her book in both Bulawayo, this major city in western Zimbabwe, and Harare, the capital. Both launches happened without incident. She’s alive! Tshuma considers that an accomplishment, given that her book is about a massacre that’s been banned from public discourse by the government for decades.

Tshuma’s novel, “House of Stone,” takes place in Zimbabwe’s turbulent recent past, during the final days of the colonial government and into the era led by President Robert Mugabe, a ruthless politician who quickly gained notoriety for allowing human rights abuses throughout the country. The massacre in the book is Gukurahundi, a name used to describe a series of government-backed attacks in the Matabeleland region, an opposition stronghold. Gukurahundi is a Shona word that loosely translates to “the early rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains.” Many estimate that 20,000 people or more died in the attacks.

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Vimbai Chinembiri, GPJ Zimbabwe

Tshuma presented her novel, House of Stone, in Bulawayo, a key city in western Zimbabwe.

Until recently, discussing Gukurahundi publicly was considered an invitation for trouble with the government. But Mugabe was pushed out of office in 2017, and one of his top deputies, Emmerson Mnangagwa, took his place. Since then, some Zimbabweans have cautiously broached the topic of Gukurahundi.

Still, a book forces a new level of acknowledgement of the attacks. Tshuma says it was difficult to find a local publisher. (It was ultimately published by Atlantic Books.)

The book has earned good reviews from influential publications. It was selected in January by O, The Oprah Magazine as one of the 10 books to read this winter. The magazine’s review called the book “an exuberant, diabolical fiction.”

This is Tshuma’s second book. Her first, “Shadows,” is a collection of short stories, set in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, where Tshuma has lived. That book won a 2014 Herman Charles Bosman Prize.

Tshuma graduated in 2015 from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, an acclaimed training ground for creative writers, and has earned a handful of accolades. Now, she lives in Houston, a major city in the U.S. state of Texas.

But her work repeatedly takes her back to Zimbabwe, especially to her home region of Matabeleland. Those roots make the family susceptible to the hesitation shared by many Zimbabweans to talk about painful moments in the past. Their responses to her questions, Tshuma says, prompted her to investigate more and ultimately write “House of Stone.”

“When I asked my mother about Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe, she was angry and would not talk about it,” she says. “It’s at that point that I knew my next book would be about this historical period.”

Now, she acknowledges that living abroad gives her the freedom to write about topics that Zimbabwe residents might avoid. But, she says, the book was written for all Zimbabweans and isn’t meant to exacerbate existing divisions.

Raisedon Baya, a playwright and director of the Intwasa Arts Festival, a premier stop for local authors, says Tshuma is becoming a key voice for Zimbabwe.

“Her footsteps are clear, and we need more writers out there who can continue telling the Zimbabwean story,” Baya says.

While Tshuma was in Bulawayo promoting her novel, she visited the Bulawayo Public Library’s historical references section.

Before she left, she donated a copy of her book.