Going Mad: On Yvette Lisa Ndlovu’s “Drinking from Graveyard Wells”
By Jenna N. HancheyNovember 22, 2023
Drinking from Graveyard Wells by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu
In her award-winning new short story collection, Drinking from Graveyard Wells, Yvette Lisa Ndlovu skillfully illuminates how African women’s experiences are so intimately conditioned by gendered and colonial gaslighting as to have more akin with surreality than the clear-cut conditions normatively associated with the “real.” In an interview with Fantasy Magazine, Ndlovu makes this pointedly clear: “Black life under capitalism and racism is so bizarre that ‘realism’ cannot fully capture this absurdity.” For Ndlovu, the surreal thus becomes a way of capturing “the flavor of the absurdity and horror I experience daily as an African woman.” In a world—ours? hers?—where an African woman’s fame is simultaneously a death sentence, where a facet of her country’s perceived backwardness is yet a white capitalist’s gold mine, where her community’s houses are disappearing and no amount of bootstrapped effort will stop it, Ndlovu’s surreality simply offers us a mirror reflecting back our world’s truths. Reality is as absurd and cutting as a double-edged sword with no hilt.
But capturing this absurdity comes at a price. In order to register the horror of the banal, to render the familiar strange in such a way as to highlight how domination conditions and implicates African women’s agency, one must question reality as it is presented. That is, capturing absurdity requires going mad—losing touch with reality as “we,” a certain we, know it. In his academic monograph How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity, La Marr Jurelle Bruce narrates going mad as entering a place and process of Black world-making. By moving into the place of Afro-surreality, playing with the structure of reality and capacity of time, Ndlovu invites her readers to join her in Black feminist world-making, and go a little mad. “The wretched of the earth are not meant to make art,” she reminds us in “Home Became a Thing with Thorns.” They are “supposed to be too busy surviving.” This book, its portrayals, they are all mad: mad in that they break reality, mad in that they sear with rage.
If the colonial-patriarchal structures of the world are willing to blithely accept Brown and Callinan as heroic adventurers, madly declaring them absurd makes one a threat. And Ndlovu does not shy away from how threats to power are treated. In the story mentioned above, “Home Became a Thing with Thorns,” Rasika is a refugee in a country where, to gain citizenship, immigrants must swear an oath renouncing their homeland to naturalization priests who seal the deal by taking something from them as the price of citizenship. The story begins with her friend Jabu, a painter, having his eyes taken in payment. The wretched of the earth are not meant to make art. They are meant to struggle for survival. And it is the struggle itself that matters to the structures of power, not whether it succeeds. After Jabu’s eyes are removed, Rasika steals them back from the burning facilities where the things taken during naturalization are destroyed. She cannot sit back and watch him struggle for survival without his art, as they both watched their friend Asha struggle after the loss of her language. They watched her struggle; they watched her lose the struggle. They watched her die by suicide. And the naturalization ceremonies continued.
Madness also registers the double consciousness of internalizing colonial logics while aiming to exist outside them—the fractured self that results from trying to maintain sanity under the surreal conditions of colonial reality. Rasika is able to steal Jabu’s eyes back because she works in the burning facilities. Day after day, in order to survive, she must burn the things taken from others just like her. Similarly, the painful contradictions of living in colonial surrealism are centered in “Second Place Is the First Loser.” This uncanny story productively blurs the line between truth and fiction by using the broad-strokes facts of how Lyft started as a ride-sharing app, filling the outline with color through the perspective of a young African woman who disbelieves its potential in real time. After her first year at Cornell University, Dineo is accompanied on a trip back home to Zimbabwe by her white classmate, Chad. Chad is the president of the International Students Union, a position Dineo wanted. “[B]ut,” he comments, “Dineo worked so hard that I made her Diversity Chair.” Dineo has to invest in colonial structures to survive in this world: leave the backwardness of Zimbabwe behind, go to the United States, study at an Ivy League school, land a leadership position. But the absurdity is that no matter how hard Dineo labors to fit within colonial mandates, she will always lose to the Chads of the world. The story thus cleverly juxtaposes the surreality of watching a Zimbabwean communal mode of transport be turned into a Western entrepreneurial “invention” with the horror of internalized colonialism that prevents Dineo—or “Dinny,” as Chad calls her—from seeing her own culture’s worth in anything but those same capitalistic terms. What outlet is there for Dineo but madness, as her father simultaneously chides her inability to see potential in Zimbabwean culture and mourns Chad’s reduction of it to a moneymaking tool? She smashes her father’s gameboard in rage, in insanity. There is no sensical path for Dineo in this world.
At the same time, madness offers a place and process whereby African women may lay claim to and imagine their own worlds. In “The Soul Would Have No Rainbow,” Langa inherits her grandmother’s cookbook after her gogo’s death. On the first page, Gogo has written, “The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes didn’t have tears.” The story, like the collection itself, recognizes that there is potential even amid the pain caused by the horrifying absurdity of the world. And madness allows one to seize it. Moving between Langa’s experiences in the postcolonial present and Gogo’s in the past of Rhodesian occupation, we come to find that Gogo was once a goddess who madly renounced deity—insane in giving up immortality; angry that “all the gods were arrogant bastards”—to live as a human woman. Left only with the power to shape-shift, Gogo changed into a praying mantis and snipped hair from the unwary, using it as the basis for her cookbook of recipes for assuming other human forms. Gogo shares, “I used the recipes to win the liberation war for our people and never touched them again.” The story ends on the question, on the potential of what Langa’s own madness might make possible, now that she has access to her gogo’s recipes: what worlds might madness create?
For all that the question might sound futuristic, Ndlovu’s stories are firmly grounded in the present. In some ways, this is forced by the horrors of colonial reality, wherein African women are “supposed to be too busy surviving” to think of the future. Yet, tears still create a rainbow. The focus on the present that imbues Afro-surrealism offers a counterview of time to the futurism of people like Brown and Callinan, the would-be African-city-builders. Whereas colonialism points to a future on the linear timescale of development, a possibility to come where colonial logics work this time, this next time, over there on the frontier where we venture to try them again, Ndlovu’s surrealism activates possibilities for world-building in the here and now.
Her story “Three Deaths and the Ocean of Time” is particularly resonant here, as it explicitly eschews linear time and the futures it proposes in favor of the now. Nomaqhawe is a university student suffering from blackouts that take her to an ancestral battlefield. After attending a lecture by Shingai Njeri Kagunda on the use of John S. Mbiti’s two-dimensional theorization of time in her novella & This Is How to Stay Alive (2021), Nomaqhawe travels back in time to help her ancestor. When she arrives, she’s told, “You cannot change the past, child.” Frustrated, Nomaqhawe asks, “So what am I doing here if I’m not meant to help, to change things?” She is given a simple answer: “Observe and remember.” Linear time allows for white saviorism, for a heroic action in the past to change the future along lines of cause and effect. But in Ndlovu’s presentism, the power lies instead in memory. By “burning every word” of her ancestor’s life into her memory in the past, Nomaqhawe awakens to an altered present. No events were changed, yet the world is transformed. Her ancestor is remembered, and that makes all the difference.
Ndlovu, like Nomaqhawe, is a storyteller. A sarungano. By carrying the stories of the past into the present, she challenges the absurd persistence of colonial structures. It takes a little madness, a little righteous rage, to narrate the “realities” of the world against their grain. To recognize the past not as something to be escaped, as in the absurd dash away from perceived late-capitalist ruination attempted by Brown and Callinan, but as something with which to be reckoned, incorporating both its tears and rainbows, in the ever-expanding possibilities of the present.
Jenna N. Hanchey is an assistant professor of rhetoric and critical/cultural studies at Arizona State University, and a speculative fiction writer based in Phoenix. Her first book, The Center Cannot Hold: Decolonial Possibility in the Collapse of a Tanzanian NGO (2023), was published by Duke University Press.
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