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Mulberry Dreams by Violette Kee- Tui


HISTORICALLY the headquarters for Lobengula, King of the Ndebele, Bulawayo is sometimes referred to as the City of Kings. In the 19th century it was occupied by the British, and later on became an industrial hub, giving rise to the nickname ‘konthutu ziyathunqu’ (Ndebele for ‘smoke arising’). Nowadays, with warehouses empty and factories silent, Bulawayo has taken a new direction, becoming a creative centre for the arts and literature.

Internationally acclaimed artist Berry Bickle, who grew up on a cattle ranch outside Bulawayo, recently returned to her home town after a fifteen-year sojourn in Maputo. Well known for her videos, ceramics and paintings, she has exhibited work at the Venice Biennale.

On the literary scene, there are a number of independent publishing presses in Bulawayo, established to promote the many prolific writers living in this unique part of Zimbabwe. Award-winning author John Eppel, perhaps best known for his skilful use of satire, has been writing poetry and prose since the 1960s.

NoViolet Bulawayo, who was born in Tsholotsho (a two hour drive from Bulawayo), achieved instant fame when her debut novel, We Need New Names, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013.

Bryony Rheam, who lives in Bulawayo, recently completed a successful tour of Zimbabwe, promoting her latest novel, a murder mystery entitled All Come to Dust.

The recent publication by Pigeon Press of Mulberry Dreams, by Violette Kee-Tui, brings lovers of fiction an enthralling story of love and loathing, passion and fear, played out alternately in the leafy suburbs of Bulawayo, and in the raunchy, high density suburbs favoured by the coloured community.

Emma, the protagonist, returns to Bulawayo after a 30 year hiatus in Seattle, where she and her brother Peter were sent to live, after an unspeakable tragedy broke up their family. What appeared to be the happiest of childhoods, with loving parents and a prolific mulberry tree in the back yard, ‘a magical, secret place’ where childhood games were played, ended abruptly shortly before Emma’s 10th birthday. Things are not always what they seem to be, but for young Emma, ‘secrets, lies and fears were all safe in the mulberry tree’.

After touching down at Joshua Mqubuko Nkomo Airport on her return, Emma hires a car and checks in at the Holiday Inn. Early the next day she makes her way to her childhood home, where she meets the new owner, an elderly widow named Elizabeth. She also meets Elizabeth’s gardener/handyman Calvin, a young coloured man. ‘Incredibly good looking, tall and broad-chested with long legs and smooth skin pulled taut over clearly-defined muscles’, Calvin plays a leading role in the enfolding drama.

The kindly Elizabeth, who welcomes Emma as her house guest, becomes a central character in the narrative, and an emblem of hope in a society based on privilege.

Kee-Tui’s parents left Iran to settle in Zimbabwe, and for her early years, her first language was Farsi. Aware of her ‘otherness’ Kee-

Tui says she’s ‘able to write from a place of not belonging’. This gives her the ability to describe authentically the coloured community, that comes to life when Calvin takes Emma out for drinks and later to a dance in a community hall in the suburb of Somerset, ‘designated in pre-Independence Zimbabwe as the Coloured area’. A glossary of slang at the back of the book will help readers unfamiliar with ‘goffel’ terminology.

The events leading up to the fateful day so long ago eventually come to light, but not before Emma has met Calvin’s extended family, avoided the clutches of Elroy the drug dealer, and been initiated into the art of long-arm (ballroom) dancing by Calvin’s Uncle Clayton.

Kee-Tui has an ear for dialogue, and her authentic exchanges and narrative skills have created an insight into Zimbabwe’s multicultural society. She has written a story that has been on her mind for some years, bringing to life characters that are partly in her imagination, partly in real life.

There’s a sense of peace in the novel when Emma returns to Seattle, having finally understood and come to terms with what befell her parents so long ago. There’s also the feeling that this won’t be her last trip back to Zimbabwe. Could Emma abandon her life in Seattle and return to Bulawayo?  Only time will tell.

Pigeon Press, 257 pp, ISBN 978-1-77906-145-4

Mulberry Dreams is on sale at The Orange Elephant Gift Shop in Bulawayo, and in Harare at Franjipanji and Bindu books