From this year, ‘The Uncertainty of Hope’, a novel by Valerie Tagwira, will be studied by Advanced Level students as part of the Zimbabwe Schools’ Examinations Council (ZIMSEC) English Literature curriculum.
The novel, published locally by Weaver Press, depicts the life of protagonist, Onai, who is a market vendor facing a torrent of social and financial challenges in the Zimbabwe of the early 2000s marked by hyperinflation and political unrest.
In an event held last week with over 50 English Literature students from Girls’ High School, Mabelreign Girls’ High School and Prince Edward High School, Tagwira engaged with her young audience, giving them an opportunity to ask questions relating to her creative journey and her motivations for writing the novel. The event also featured Shimmer Chinodya whose novel, ‘Strife’, is also on the A’ Level curriculum.
“The events depicted in the novel happened when I was living abroad [in the UK] and it was a huge shock to see what was happening to people,” Tagwira observed. “And so I started to think what this meant for people personally.”
While noting that her professional life is generally divergent from the pursuit of literature, she added that listening to stories is an important part of her professional life, for instance in consulting with patients.
Tagwira is a gynaecologist, obstetrician and also a university lecturer.
Though she was shocked at the sight of a cadavre in the first week of her medicine studies, she soldiered on. But she acknowledges she might have ended up a more prolific writer if she had concentrated more on writing.
“I was an average student in both the arts and the sciences, and my father encouraged me to do law,” Tagwira replied. “I grew up in an era when doing sciences was thought to be a guarantee to a better future.”
Her sentiments are reminiscent of thoughts shared by 2014 Caine Prize winner, Okwiri Oduor, who – in an interview with the BBC last year – talked about how her parents still hoped she would “snap out of it” (writing) and “get a real job”, preferably in law.
So is there a tension between being a doctor and a writer, with doctors having to retain some detachment while writers are often tasked to possess much empathy?
“I actually struggle to detach myself from some of the things I see happen to our patients and I tend to feel a lot,” said Tagwira. “Over the years, you learn to appear detached so you can function. When I came back to Zim, I was used to working in an entirely different hospital environment and there I was in Harare Hospital, struggling with wondering if returning was a good idea.”
At a time when the ‘African writer’ identity is being hotly debated, Tagwira added to the conversation by contesting yet another common identity, that of ‘female writer’, stating that she didn’t want people to read her work simply because she is a ‘female writer’.
She further described herself as a mild feminist and very concerned about women’s issues.
Would she also add ‘social commentator’ to her panoply of identities within her writing?
Yes and no. While Tagwira acknowledged a sense of responsibility to document events in Zimbabwe’s environment, she added that she would also like to be able to write for the sake of writing.
“I think I am a coward,” she also went on to say. “Police detentions and torture; I think I am at that point of my life where I am not ready to take such risks. Self-censorship limits you and the downside is that you don’t know what would have happened if you had said the thing. But it also serves as a protective measure.”
So what would Tagwira like the students to get from her book?
“It might give you an insight into what Zimbabweans’ lives were like in those days,” said Tagwira, addressing her audience. “You were very young and you weren’t so exposed to what was going on, so I see it as putting a human face to what is a representation of Zimbabwean history.”
But, she was also hopeful that readers would enjoy it simply as a work of fiction.
And finally, on how to overcome one’s fears about writing?
“You overcome them by believing in yourself,” she said. “As a protective measure, associate with like-minded people. The naysayers will always be there.”