AiW Guest: Gráinne O’Connell
Witch Girl is a 2015 novel that reads like a play. Indeed, I hope to see more titles by this author, including plays. The title of the book, Witch Girl, reflects in part that the protagonist Luse has imbibed her grandmother’s oral tradition and specific knowledge of herbal medicine. This tradition and knowledge allow Luse and her fellow children to survive when they are on the run because Luse knows which specific plants contain water, and Luse’s strength as a storyteller allows her to piece together the story’s complex fragments.
Set in contemporary Zambia, the novel’s timeline begins in 2002 when Luse is 11 years old. The author, Tanvi Bush, deploys a flashback/flash-forward device which builds narrative suspense and allows for a complex and believable character development. The novel’s opening section, entitled ‘The Silver Box’, begins with a chapter on street children, including Luse, sleeping in street drains in present-day Lusaka. The next chapter focuses on Dr. Georgia Shapiro, a white English doctor who works in a Lusaka hospital. Each chapter offers insights into an individual character’s consciousness, and both characters, in these chapters, are thinking about the same past trauma: the violent and unexplained death of a Zambian Rasta man called Harry. Moreover, though the distance between these characters is clearly outlined in the opening chapters–notably via the socio-economic privileges afforded to Georgia and not to Luse–the unlikely relationship between Luse and Georgia becomes central to how the narrative progresses. Alongside Georgia’s and Luse’s relationship, the novel’s primary themes are the links between corrupt Zambian officials; the casual day-to-day abuse (emotional, physical and sexual) of Zambian street children; the complex social stigmas that surround living with HIV; and the transnational ‘business’ of child trafficking and organ harvesting in one fundamentalist Christian church in Zambia.
The story makes clear the other significance of the term ‘witch girl’. Luse’s father, who faces the social stigmas that surround living with HIV, decides to join a fundamentalist Christian church called The Blood of Christ Church. Members of the church, including Luse’s father, eventually blame Luse and her younger brother Joshua for bewitching Luse’s parents with the HIV virus. Though her parents’ HIV status is not openly disclosed by members of the church, the specific blaming of children as witches is a norm among the church’s members. This blame is clearly expressed when the most revered figure within the Blood of Christ Church, the priestess, calls the children “witch children” (128). After Luse’s father dies–and it is implied that he dies because his overall health status declines after he stops taking his anti-retrovirals–the church seizes Luse’s family’s house. Luse and her brother are forcefully relocated to the church’s self-titled rehabilitation centre, but the church and the centre are involved in both child trafficking and the harvesting of children’s organs. Harry, who is investigating the church, stumbles upon Luse and her friends when they attempt to flee the centre. After the group successfully returns to Lusaka, Harry is killed, and the mystery of his death leads Luse to find Georgia: Harry had asked Luse to return a silver box with evidence to the doctor.
What is striking about the novel, firstly, is its complex portrayal of a cross-section of Zambian society and clear pedagogical impulse. For example, when Georgia does not understand people’s inclination towards beliefs unsupported by biomedicine, she is schooled by both Bernard, a priest, and Gus, Harry’s brother, who are more socially aware of why biomedicine cannot readily explain witchcraft and some of the more pernicious religious practices of the Blood of Christ Church (171-173). Indeed, the main role of this chapter is to intervene in the debates surrounding biomedicine versus traditional medicine. Though it may ring hollow for some, the author is clearly trying to speak to– and inform–those who may view this debate as easily resolved. Secondly, the novel contains tactile and vivid descriptions of Zambian landscape such as:
“Gran clambers down from the rock shelf and takes the stick from her mouth.
‘Look, Luse,’ she says. ‘Isn’t it Beautiful?’
The small tunnel has opened out into a spectacular space right in the middle of the hill. The roof of the cave must have fallen in hundreds of years ago and sunlight floods down from the huge, gaping hole above their heads. This sunlit cave is the width of at least two football fields. A slender waterfall twists and gushes from the roof of the cave to a deep, blue-black pool at the bottom, edged with wide grassy banks. The walls of the entire place are lined with a multitude of plants, trees, creepers, orchids, and more. The noise is incredible and Luse is amazed that she didn’t hear it before. Amazed that it doesn’t pour out of the mouth of the cave and rock the hillside.” (95)
Lastly, the different characters read like the cast of a play in that each has a specific and important role in telling the story. This is not always successful: at times the individual sections read as vignettes rather than as a fluid whole. Moreover, some of the direct speeches sound affected and are not believable as everyday dialogue. The most credible child characters are several of the street children because they are louder, more expressive, and utilise more slang than Luse and her brother, who play other roles. Luse, for example, is often the brains and emotional barometer behind much of the action; she is also, as the other characters note, an excellent storyteller. But her role is complemented by Joshua, Georgia, Luse’s mother, and above all by the knowledge she carries from her deceased grandmother, Ba’neene.
Gráinne O’Connell completed her PhD in English Literature at Sussex University. Her research focusses on postcolonial/queer theory, gender studies, the global history of HIV and AIDS and comparative approaches to AIDS representations in Anglophone Caribbean, Indian, Irish and South African literature and culture. She is currently editing a special journal issue entitled ‘‘Post-AIDS’ and Global Health Discourses: Interdisciplinary Perspectives’.
Witch Girl (Modjaji Books, Cape Town, 2015) was written by Tanvi Bush, a PhD candidate and recipient of an MA Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. She is from Zambia.
Witch Girl is available from Modjaji Books in South Africa, African Books Collective (UK, for immediate shipping worldwide), and other outlets.
Categories: Reviews & Spotlights on...
I appreciate the sincerity of this write-up of yours. Can’t wait to see more!