Award-winning Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo's new novel Glory opens on an Independence Day rally in Jidada, a fictional nation modeled after Zimbabwe. A group of females, the Sisters of the Disappeared, interrupt Old Horse, the Father of the Nation, in the middle of his speech by storming the podium naked in protest, calling for a return of those disappeared by his government.
Despite their discomfort with the nudity, those in attendance "heard the roaring right in their intestines, where lived the memories of disappeared friends and relatives or relatives of friends and also known and unknown Jidadans they'd read about in newspapers and on social media, yes, tholukuthi heard the chants deep in their hearts, where also lived the unanswered prayers, the bleeding wounds, the nightmares, the ceaseless anguish, the questions over loved ones, over known and unknown Jidadans who'd dared dissent against the Seat of Power only to vanish like smoke, never to be seen again."
Indeed, the Sisters of the Disappeared are beaten and dragged off the stage by the nation's Defenders — Jidada's brutal military/police force — but never stop roaring their demands. The rally continues thereafter as planned.
Glory, peopled with animals rather than humans in a nod to George Orwell's Animal Farm, uses these allegorically potent creatures to explore both Zimbabwe's particular history since fighting for and gaining independence from British colonialism and, more broadly, the nature of protest and survival under corrupt and violent governments.
(By the by, the word "tholukuthi" — pronounced to-lu-ku-ti — translates literally to English as something like "you find that" and is used throughout the novel also in the ways you might use "and so" or "and then" or "for real" or "in truth" depending on the context; in other words, it is not really translatable, but by several pages in, readers unfamiliar with the word will have become comfortable with it.)
The novel fictionalizes the removal of Zimbabwe's longtime ruler, Robert Mugabe, in a sanitized coup in 2017; the rise to power of his former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa; and the years since, during which Zimbabwe's — and thus, Jidada's — economy has suffered and the political promises of the new regime have gone unfulfilled. Old Horse, Father of the Nation, stands in for Mugabe; Tuvy, the Savior, for Mnangagwa.
Other elements of Zimbabwe's history, both recent and further back, are thinly veiled in Glory. Sometimes these are satirized, like President Mnangagwa's well-known scarf, which in Tuvy's case is said by his personal sorcerer to protect him absolutely against all enemies. Other elements are deadly serious, such as the Gukurahundi, the genocide that took place over several years in order to cleanse the nation of so-called dissidents, perpetrated by Mugabe's 5th Brigade.
Glory's narrative enters the minds of Old Horse, his wife Dr. Sweet Mother, and Tuvy, and tries to understand how they arrived at where they are, how they became what they became, and why. To be clear, the novel doesn't explain away their actions, but it does contextualize them by exploring their histories, the depths of their delusions of grandeur, their self-interest, and their distance from the actual population of Jidada and the issues affecting the nation.
In one of the most stirring threads of the novel, which weaves in and out of the political drama, a goat named Destiny returns to Jidada after the regime change, to her hometown of Lozikeyi. The town itself "stands to her fullest height, drapes her boldest shawl over her shoulders so this returnee too can appreciate her full glory in case exile, which has been known to sometimes bewitch the memories of her children, has made her forget it." Destiny, too, after walking through Lozikeyi to her mother's house, "feels something that's been crouching inside her for the ten years she's been gone finally straighten itself." Anyone who has ever been in self-imposed exile from a place they call home — if that home still contains the love of family or community — will surely feels these words right in their intestines.
Throughout, Bulawayo's narrative voices are exquisite in their modulation, sometimes drawing out a sentence with repeated phrases or in a particular cadence reminiscent of a chant, and at others using conversational asides or social media posts to convey the strong and varied opinions of Jidada's population. She brings in humor and joy, too, despite the novel's potently serious subject matters, reflecting the reality of human nature: In the direst of straits, children still play games, neighbors gossip and poke fun at each other, and people find ways to creatively dis their tyrannical leaders. Often, too, the humor arises from pop culture references ("Miseducation of a Donkey: Will the Real Father of the Nation Please Stand Up?") or the irony Bulawayo injects in her characters' voices, such as when a Jidadan says, "I don't care what haters say, talking about we're not even following our own constitution, at least it's our constitution we're not following."
Glory goes beyond its immediate inspiration in how, despite the Zimbabwean particulars, it expresses a people's frustration, terror, resilience, uprising, and hope in a way that can be applied to a multitude of nations and political realities around the globe. Hope is not an easy thing — abolitionist organizer and educator Mariame Kaba has said that "hope is a discipline" — but, like Glory, it is indeed glorious in its power.
Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic and author of the novel All My Mother's Lovers.