They were bred in old Southern Rhodesia, under the whites — the mission schools, the better schools. Writers are not made in Zimbabwe. Not easily, not under Mugabe. All the writers travelled a difficult road to literacy, let alone to becoming writers. I would say learning to read from the printed labels on jam jars and discarded encyclopaedias was not uncommon. And we are talking about people hungering for standards of education beyond them, living in huts with many children — an overworked mother, a fight for food and clothing.
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Yet despite these difficulties, writers came into being. And we should also remember that this was Zimbabwe, conquered less than a hundred years before. The grandparents of these people might have been storytellers working in the oral tradition. In one or two generations there was the transition from stories remembered and passed on, to print, to books.
What an achievement. But a sheaf of paper is one thing, a published book quite another. I have had several accounts sent to me of the publishing scene in Africa. Even in more privileged places like North Africa, with its different tradition, to talk of a publishing scene is a dream of possibilities. Here I am talking about books never written, writers that could not make it because the publishers are not there. Voices unheard. It is not possible to estimate this great waste of talent, of potential. Writers are often asked, How do you write?
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With a wordprocessor? When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. Are you holding it fast? Let us now jump to an apparently very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There is a new writer. We cynically enquire, Is she good-looking? If this is a man, charismatic?
We joke but it is not a joke. This new find is acclaimed, possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of paparazzi begins in their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world. Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte, who has no idea of what is really happening.
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And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears. Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. My mind is full of splendid memories of Africa which I can revive and look at whenever I want. How about those sunsets, gold and purple and orange, spreading across the sky at evening.
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How about butterflies and moths and bees on the aromatic bushes of the Kalahari? Or, sitting on the pale grassy banks of the Zambesi, the water dark and glossy, with all the birds of Africa darting about. Yes, elephants, giraffes, lions and the rest, there were plenty of those, but how about the sky at night, still unpolluted, black and wonderful, full of restless stars. There are other memories too. The young man had taken each one out, reverently, and wrapped them in plastic. I have seen a teacher in a school where there were no textbooks, not even a chalk for the blackboard.
I have seen a girl, perhaps not more than twenty, also lacking textbooks, exercise books, biros, seen her teach the A B C by scratching the letters in the dirt with a stick, while the sun beat down and the dust swirled. We are witnessing here that great hunger for education in Africa, anywhere in the Third World, or whatever we call parts of the world where parents long to get an education for their children which will take them out of poverty.
I would like you to imagine yourselves somewhere in Southern Africa, standing in an Indian store, in a poor area, in a time of bad drought. There is a line of people, mostly women, with every kind of container for water. This store gets a bowser of precious water every afternoon from the town, and here the people wait. The Indian is standing with the heels of his hands pressed down on the counter, and he is watching a black woman, who is bending over a wadge of paper that looks as if it has been torn from a book.
She is reading Anna Karenin. She is reading slowly, mouthing the words. It looks a difficult book. This is a young woman with two little children clutching at her legs. She is pregnant. Dust lies between her breasts and on her arms. This man is distressed because of the lines of people, all thirsty. He is angry because he knows there are people dying out there, beyond the dust clouds.
His older brother had been here holding the fort, but he had said he needed a break, had gone into town, really rather ill, because of the drought. My teacher said I was best. He watches while the girl looks at her children drinking, her mouth moving. He gives her a mug of water. It hurts him to see her drinking it, so painfully thirsty is she.
Now she hands him her own plastic water container, which he fills. She is bending again over the book. She reads slowly. The paragraph fascinates her and she reads it again. Koznyshev walked by her side and kept casting admiring glances at her. Looking at her, he recalled all the delightful things he had heard from her lips, all the good he knew about her, and became more and more conscious that the feeling he had for her was something rare, something he had felt but once before, long, long ago, in his early youth.
The joy of being near her increased step by step, and at last reached such a point that, as he put a huge birch mushroom with a slender stalk and up-curling top into her basket, he looked into her eyes and, noting the flush of glad and frightened agitation that suffused her face, he was confused himself, and in silence gave her a smile that said too much. This lump of print is lying on the counter, together with some old copies of magazines, some pages of newspapers with pictures of girls in bikinis. It is time for the woman to leave the haven of the Indian store, and set off back along the four miles to her village.
Outside, the lines of waiting women clamour and complain. But still the Indian lingers. He knows what it will cost this girl — going back home, with the two clinging children. He would give her the piece of prose that so fascinates her, but he cannot really believe this splinter of a girl with her great belly can really understand it.
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Why is perhaps a third of Anna Karenin here on this counter in a remote Indian store? It is like this. A certain high official, from the United Nations as it happens, bought a copy of this novel in a bookshop before he set out on his journey to cross several oceans and seas. On the plane, settled in his business class seat, he tore the book into three parts.
He looked around his fellow passengers as he did this, knowing he would see looks of shock, curiosity, but some of amusement. This man is well used to people listening when he spoke. When people looked his way, curiously or not, he confided in them. When he reached the end of a section of the book, he called the air hostess, and sent the chapters back to his secretary, travelling in the cheaper seats. This caused much interest, condemnation, certainly curiosity, every time a section of the great Russian novel arrived, mutilated but readable, in the back part of the plane.
Altogether, this clever way of reading Anna Karenin makes an impression, and probably no one there would forget it. Meanwhile, in the Indian store, the young woman is holding on to the counter, her little children clinging to her skirts. She wears jeans, since she is a modern woman, but over them she has put on the heavy woollen skirt, part of the traditional dress of her people: her children can easily cling onto its thick folds. She sends a thankful look to the Indian, whom she knew liked her and was sorry for her, and she steps out into the blowing clouds.
This was hard, oh yes, it was hard, this stepping, one foot after another, through the dust that lay in soft deceiving mounds under her feet. Hard, but she was used to hardship, was she not? Her mind was on the story she had been reading. She was thinking, She is just like me, in her white headscarf, and she is looking after children, too.
I could be her, that Russian girl. And the man there, he loves her and will ask her to marry him. She had not finished more than that one paragraph. Yes, she thinks, a man will come for me, and take me away from all this, take me and the children, yes, he will love me and look after me. She steps on. The can of water is heavy on her shoulders.
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On she goes. The children can hear the water slopping about. Half way she stops, sets down the can. Her children are whimpering and touching it. She thinks that she cannot open it, because dust would blow in. There is no way she can open the can until she gets home. She thinks, My teacher said there is a library, bigger than the supermarket, a big building and it is full of books. The young woman is smiling as she moves on, the dust blowing in her face. I am clever, she thinks. Teacher said I am clever. The cleverest in the school — she said I was.
My children will be clever, like me. I will take them to the library, the place full of books, and they will go to school, and they will be teachers — my teacher told me I could be a teacher. My children will live far from here, earning money. They will live near the big library and enjoy a good life. You may ask how that piece of the Russian novel ever ended up on that counter in the Indian store? On goes that poor girl, held upright by thoughts of the water she will give her children once home, and drink a little of herself.
On she goes, through the dreaded dusts of an African drought. We are a jaded lot, we in our threatened world. We are good for irony and even cynicism. Some words and ideas we hardly use, so worn out have they become. But we may want to restore some words that have lost their potency. She wants a revolution. With the help of her new friends, Aria is now leading the city's rebellion.
Her brother Kyle has control of the Aeries, and is using his influence to bomb the Depths and destroy everyone who lives there. Meanwhile, he is secretly in discussions with neighboring cities to allow them to overtake Manhattan completely, wipe out the population, and start from scratch. Aria has given up everything to fight for equal rights for the people of New York. She's their only voice-a voice that is about to be silenced, as it soon becomes clear that the mystic energy in her body is poisoning her.
There's no doubt about it: Aria will die.
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