A young woman learning to love, the children inspired by her, and the collective voice of a village community recovering from violence and corruption assemble a powerful message of resistance. The hope is to create “the kind of glory that burns eternal and glows with living light”. Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo was a runner up to this year’s Booker Prize.
As described by the Booker committee, Glory “is an energetic and exhilarating joyride from NoViolet Bulawayo … the story of an uprising, told by a vivid chorus of animal voices that help us see our human world more clearly.”
Glory is expressed in a rich and populous collective voice and it draws on decades of history representing Zimbabwe’s leaders. The book was originally intended as a work of creative nonfiction recalling Robert Mugabe’s four decades in power as prime minister and then president of Zimbabwe.
The focus, however, is on two young women. The first is the quiet protagonist of the novel’s present, Destiny, and the other is her mother Simiso, whose memories of the 1983 Gukurahundi massacre in Bulawayo village provide the novel’s emotional core and the greatest expression of its power.
Glory has been described as a Zimbabwean Animal Farm and Bulawayo acknowledges the influence of Orwell’s satirical fable on her work. Bulawayo employs animal characters that, like Orwell’s, influence and betray each other in pursuit of power and status.
Both Animal Farm and Glory talk of equality, but while Animal Farm begins with a dream of equality which is gradually dismantled, in Glory the plea for equality is expressed in the novel’s final moments. Here, the collective voice of the nation’s children declares equality as the only way to create peace and overcome their brutal shared history.
If Glory is a version of Animal Farm, it’s a global one that acknowledges the impact of colonialism, post-independence corruption and violence and the continued threat from neocolonialism. In the book, the dictator-ruler asks for the return of Africa’s looted artefacts and the country’s wealth. He asks for the return of land violently cordoned off by the US, justifying his regime as a response to this external aggression.
The book is thoroughly contemporary and saturated with references to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, “fake news” and Siri. There are entire chapters comprised of social media threads. This style mimics the technologies and platforms relied upon by the ruling parties as much as the population.
It is also distinctly Zimbabwean. There is the refrain “tholukuthi” meaning “only to discover” or “you find that” in colloquial Zimbabwean Ndebele. The word is used for emphasis in storytelling and conversation. There is rooibos tea and honey wine. There is the tree where anti-colonial activist Mbuya Nehanda was hanged in 1898. There is also the brutal presence of the Gukurahundi state police.
Simiso’s story centres on the real attacks on so-called dissidents by the Gukurahundi between 1982 and 1987, with a particularly violent purge operating between 1983 and 1985. It has been estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 people were massacred,in what has been described as the Gukurahundi genocide.
Young Ndebele men were the main target, though not the only victims, and as well as public executions and imprisonment, reported incidents include a massacre of over 60 people in March 1983.
There is astounding bravery in Bulawayo’s description of the violence of the Gukurahundi. Rather than creating narrative distance, the novel conveys specific and brutal attacks. She describes in detail the targets, perpetrators and physical effects, and the victims’ emotional internal perspective.
What remains is a resonant expression of love and connection between family members. Destiny draws on this to inspire peaceful resistance and to recover from her own wounds.
Unfairly judged first book
Glory is NoViolet Bulawayo’s second novel. Her first, We Need New Names, was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013. This book was accused of being “poverty-porn” because of its depiction of children scavenging fruit and idolising the “Country-Countries” (wealthy western nations) and their technology and resources. The claim is, in my opinion, unfair.
We Need New Names is an important work of contemporary global literature which conveys protagonist Darling’s despair at finding an equivalent form of poverty in the US after she migrates to Michigan and earns money clearing up Coca-Cola bottles. The novel addresses global economic inequality directly, exploring its relative effects, especially on young black women in Zimbabwe and the USA.
As well as providing insight into Zimbabwe’s recent history and its present relationship with the west, Glory is also a novel about words, storytelling, and authorship. Glory shows that writing is an act of recovery, both collective and intimate, through which an eventual blueprint for revolution emerges and it is led by Destiny. Her story of love becomes a manifesto for remembering and a plea for resisting.