Review: Zimbabwe’s substitutions, or: what difference would a good or bad past make? Novuyo Rose Tshuma’s ‘House of Stone’ (2018).

AiW Guest: Ranka Primorac.

AiW note: After her review of Tshuma’s House of Stone, we were able to catch up with Ranka Primorac for her Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A series running over the last few months, connecting up and sharing our experiences of work and life in the pandemic. You can find her responses at the foot of her review.

HB, Atlantic Books, June 2018.

The narrator of Novuyo Tshuma’s novel House of Stone is looking for a miracle: he wants to engineer his own rebirth. ‘I shall be born again’ he says in the chapter titled ‘Fathers’ (96). In the words of early reviewer Helon Habila: ‘The opening section features a tenant, 24-year-old Zamani, who aspires to make his landlord his father and his landlady his mother – to make them love him more than they loved their missing son, Bukhosi.’ 

This combination of displacement and replacement is how Zamani imagines his entry into a new identity and a new life. He desires to substitute his own bad past for somebody else’s preferable one. The reasons for this surreal ambition – which he, nevertheless, attempts to realise via a series of crafty, shocking and funny everyday operations — become clear only at the novel’s end. House of Stone is a story of bemusement and horror; hilarious subterfuge with tragic undertones. Reading it feels like being punched in the stomach and tickled at the same time. 

For the cultural historian Joseph Roach, ‘surrogation’ is a symbolic or actual displacement and substitution, in which an individual or a group bids to take the place of another, as a means of both preserving and redirecting communal memory (see Roach’s 1996 Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, CUP). Together with his occupation of the family home and his status as a tenant, Zamani’s desire for a surrogate family easily acquires allegorical overtones.

The name ‘Zimbabwe’ is derived from the Shona words for ‘house of stone’, and political debates about the country’s future have long revolved around unfinished business from its past. In Tshuma’s novel, taking care of such business involves an attempt at surrogation as a means of recasting individual and group pasts. Postcolonial literature often links national histories to protagonists’ movement both towards and away from various kinds of homes and houses: in Zimbabwe, think Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger (1978) or Shimmer Chinodya’s Harvest of Thorns (1989); elsewhere in Africa – Soyinka’s Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981), Ngugi’s Matigari (1988), or Yvonne Owuor’s Dust (2014).

But Tshuma’s hard-hitting novel also taps into a more specific literary lineage by joining a cluster of Zimbabwean novels in which personal identity change is predicated on a character substitution. 

In retrospect, the arresting opening sentence of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 1988 classic Nervous Conditions —‘I was not sorry when my brother died’– is particularly unsettling because the rest of the narrative demonstrates its inevitability. In a context where her social advancement depends in an absolute sense on the departure of another person, the novel’s heroine longs to exchange an undesirable identity and selfhood for a brand-new one, as she moves to a new home presided over by a preferred, substitute father. In a different historical moment, the protagonist of Brian Chikwava’s Harare North (2009) steals the identity of a London housemate, after escaping his old life by impersonating a victim of political violence which he has, in fact, helped to perpetuate. Even more recently, Panashe Chigumadzi’s novel Sweet Medicine (2015) centres on a young woman who makes her way in the world by becoming the second wife of a political ‘big man’ old enough to be her father. In his elegant mansion, she finds traces of a dignified first wife whom she is about to replace. 

These fictions, too, have been read as national allegories. As in House of Stone, newly acquired identities are problematic in part because they depend, in various fundamental ways, on the removal and erasure of others. Yet, in the worlds of these novels, substitution may be the only way to effect change. Characters inhabit constricting social spaces marked by the violence of white supremacist rule and its postcolonial successors. The number of those who can survive or get ahead is strictly limited. 

HB, Oneworld Publications, Jan 2018.

A brief contrast with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s 2014 novel Kintu (published in the UK by Oneworld in 2018, the same year as Alantic’s publication of House of Stone) is instructive here. Kintu resembles House of Stone in that it sketches the multi-generational history of a family and its houses and homes, signposting it with strategic references to the history of a modern nation (in this case, Uganda). The question I adopted as the title of this piece—‘What difference would a good or a bad past make?’– is asked in Kintu by a character who wants to suppress the presence of a twin (163). But the notion of tradition as the kind of knowledge that is irreducible to convention, figured in this novel as an ancestral curse, makes such a suppression/replacement impossible. In Kintu, time and again, surrogacy works as an addition, rather than substitution. When a bereaved husband opportunistically tries to replace his dead wife with her sister in order to conceal his own past mistakes, she refuses: ‘But why should she die so that he could have his Nnakato back?’ (88). In the world of Makumbi’s novel, surplus meaning needs to be reckoned with. 

In House of Stone, Zamani’s reckoning is blunt: he wants to eliminate surplus. From the outset, he refers to his landlord Abednego as his surrogate father and to his landlady Agnes as his surrogate mother. He makes them tell the stories of their lives because he wants to own and inhabit those stories. (Abednego’s dead first wife thus quickly becomes Zamani’s ‘inamorata’, for example.) In Tshuma’s novel, there exists no ontological equivalent of Kintu’s curse. Yet Zamani’s scheme does not go to plan. In piecing together the fragments of Abednego’s and Agnes’s ‘hi-stories’ (as the novel puts it), Zamani unexpectedly encounters in them a father figure he would prefer not to recall. 

Self-consciously participating in a national literature obsessed with the guerrilla liberation war and the role of Robert Mugabe in it, Tshuma’s novel replaces those events with a different, hitherto suppressed, nation-related sequence. In the violent and memorable central chapter of this alternative national narrative, a woman’s pregnant belly is split open during a blood-bath orchestrated by a character the novel names Black Jesus. He is based on the real-life army general and politician who is Zimbabwe’s current minister of lands and rural resettlement. With considerable technical dexterity, courage and wit, House of Stone builds its story about the search for national father figures around the source of national trauma still difficult to discuss publicly in Zimbabwe, and only marginally represented in its literature. Via the plot device of secrets related to families, homes and parents, the novel offers the possibility of reading Black Jesus as the unacknowledged father of the  Zimbabwean nation, and Gukurahundi — the military ‘cleansing’ of the Matabeleland province in which thousands of civilians perished — as the war that gave birth to it. 

In a final attempt to make Abednego receptive to his pleas, Zamani cuts and pastes his own face onto the newspaper picture of the general, framing and hanging it on a wall as if it were a family portrait, in preparation to finally usurp Bukhosi’s place completely and take possession of the family house. For Joseph Roach, surrogation is capable of filling gaps in social fabrics that occur through death and other kinds of permanent departure. Yet, as a mechanism of cultural reproduction, it is difficult to pull off, because collective memory works in unpredictable ways. 

If House of Stone allegorises Zimbabwe’s history as a process of surrogation attempted by the country’s ruling party, then the parallels and inversions drawn by the novel’s plot work to make sure that the attempt fails. In Zimbabwe, as in Uganda it turns out, the distinction between a good and a bad past makes all the difference. 

Novuyo and Ranka, 2018. C. Ranka Primorac.

(Atlantic Books, 2018). Novuyo Rosa Tshuma grew up in Zimbabwe, and has lived in South Africa and the USA. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. House of Stone, her first novel, has been longlisted for the Folio Prize and the Orwell Prize for Fiction 2019, shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2019, and has won an Edward Stanford Award.

Ranka Primorac lectures at the Department of English, University of Southampton. She has degrees from the universities of Zagreb, Zimbabwe and Nottingham Trent. She has written extensively about Zimbabwean literatures & cultures, and she’s currently working on  a book about the novel, modern subjectivities and social crises in Southern Africa.

Words on the Times: Ranka Primorac.

AiW: Can you tell us a bit about your work, and the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has altered your plans?
Ranka Primorac: I am on research leave, so the pandemic has mostly had an impact on me in preventing me from travelling. I couldn’t go on a research trip to Zambia as planned. I could not go to Zagreb to see my family following an earthquake there, which was hard. I had a keynote lecture and two conferences cancelled. On the other hand, I got to spend time with my partner, which was nice for a change.

In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
I wrote an article about popular literature and world-literature that I had been thinking about for years. It was really difficult to write, because bridging academic paradigms is hard. It derailed the revisions of this review by some months. Grateful for AiW editor Katie Reid for saintly patience with my lateness.
(It was, of course, worth the wait. Ed.)

What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
Trees in my local park, where I went to exercise. They were lovely, supportive and understanding. I think I’ll keep training in that park even after gyms reopen.

How can our communities support you?
You mean blogging communities, or..? You can keep doing exactly what you are doing – publishing great, thoughtful content that is, nevertheless, not strictly academic in tone. How did we ever do without it? 

For more Words on the Times – from writers, thinkers, curators, artists and critics, coming together in our shared interests and experiences – see the blog category here.


Novuyo Rose Tshuma’s House of Stone (2018) is published by Atlantic Books (UK) and W. W. Norton & Company (US).

‘Easily the best debut I’ve read this year, Tshuma’s novel is both hilarious and horrifying, filled with compassion, anger and despair. [Her] unreliable narrator [is] of the kind that deserves to be remembered up there with Humbert Humbert’ Kim Evans, Culturefly (Atlantic)

“A towering and multilayered gem.” —NoViolet Bulawayo (Norton)

References and texts mentioned in the Review:

Chigumadzi, Panashe, Sweet Medicine (Jacana, 2015)
Chikwava, Brian, Harare North (Jonathan Cape, 2009)
Dangarembga, Tsitsi, Nervous Conditions (ZPH, 1996 [1988])
Habila, Helon, review of House of Stone, The Guardian Review, Saturday August 9, 2018, p. 28.
Makumbi, Jennifer Nansubuga, Kintu (Kwani Trust, 2014)
Ngugi, Matigari (ZPH, 1989)
Owuor, Yvonne Adhiambo, Dust (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)
Roach, Joseph, Cities of the Dead (Columbia UP, 1996)
Soyinka, Wole. Aké (Minerva, 1981)



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