An African woman’s bookshelf

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By Dorcas Gwata

TODAY is a new day, well it seems so. After much deliberation, in search of a healthier mental space, I got rid of my TV and the licence that goes with it, I Dorcas Wongai Gwata am now TV free.

The living room is quiet, save for the tick-tock clock next to my countless African baskets, some from Mbare market, others hand-picked through travels. I am staring at my bookshelf, after days of shuffling furniture I have given my bookshelf the rightful focus that it deserves, the kind of honour awarded to an ageing aunt. I stand back and adjust a few plants along the shelves, observing literature in conversation with nature.

I am on to something, I am not entirely sure what it is, but I feel the urge to write, and write and write. To write well and with consistency one must read, so I am returning to that which I love most, reading.

A reader approaches his or her bookshelf with care and ritual, paying homage to characters that co-habit this place with me. In a crazy world of demands and instant gratifications of all kinds one literally has to carve time to read or write and, in my case, the TV had to go.

Rituals observed, I survey my bookshelf, the way a woman scans a man’s buttocks in attraction. My hands hover, I reach for the books, ones that I have loved, some unfinished love affairs of characters that are yearning for closure, as much as I am.

In some ways I do not want to finish reading ‘Dust’ by Yvonne Adhiahambo Owuor; I want her lyrical poetic words to linger in my world forever. I remember the sombre feeling I felt when I finished reading ‘Purple Hibiscus’ by Chimamande Adichie; Chima had swept me out of my own world. I had moved into that small university town in Nigeria, I wasn’t ready to leave when the book finished. That is the power of literature.

I potter around, then reach out for Ta Nehisi Coates’s book ‘We were Eight Years in Power’ a masterpiece, I am fascinated by the author’s intelligence, his ability to weave through context with classical analytical intellect. I loved that his partner stayed with him throughout the time he was unemployed and on the breadline with a son to raise. She saw the bigger picture; I worry that few can these days.

Michelle Obama’s hard cover ‘Becoming’ is still claiming its territory on my bookshelf, I loved her being way before I turned the first page. Her recent book talk in London created an incredible supply and demand fuss for tickets which, in the end, excluded many. I feel strongly that writers should be accessible, their work should lend itself to the very people who they seek to reach out; it’s the core of our social contract.

My eyes shift to the left, I am home again, my fingers slide through Paneshe Chigumadzi’s beautiful capture of our narrative and history, in her book ‘These bones will rise again’ I read her book whilst I was in Zimbabwe, soon after burying my father, at a time of anguish and grief. The Shona woman in me proud and strong even at my most vulnerable.

Novuya Rosa Tshuma’s book ‘House of Stone’ novel is as beautifully crafted as it is uncomfortable, there is an elephant in the room, our country has almost run out of rope in avoiding the Gukurahundi conversation, perhaps this book that marks the beginning of events that will become part of our collective story, much like Tsitsi Dangarembwa’s book, ‘Nervous Conditions’ helped us make sense of our everyday struggles.

My mind is swept away, I am gazing at Dambudzo Marechera’s ‘House of Hunger’. My thoughts take me back to that surreal moment when I visited his grave in Warren Hills in Zimbabwe. In my Shona language we say pasi papfuma; the ground is richer because you are in it’; the Zimbabwean soil is rich of writers, researchers, academics, artists and children who left us too early. I run my fingers through Marechera’s book and read his smashing first line – ‘I got my things and left’ – as I hold back tears.

My heart misses a beat as I look at my late father’s books, I can’t stop here, not today, I am still grieving. It is said that if we prolong our tears, we cloud their path into heaven. The dark moments of loss are still haunting; they will be for a while. Grief is a journey, each one of us must walk our own path, at our own pace. I recently had the honour of working with Danai Gurira’s production team, fine-turning our Shona cultural practises for her play ‘The Convert’; I felt my father’s spirit all over.

I take deep breaths, I look up into the city lights. I love London at this time of the year; the city becomes a ghost town at this festive season. Most Londoners are from elsewhere, that’s what makes us so multi-culturally rich. The city that I love so dearly, the same city that swallows young boys into violence, exploitation and knife crime; many of them from our African backgrounds, parenting in the diaspora is challenged to its core here. I am hoping that no parent ever has to receive that haunting call that your son has been stabbed to death over this festive season, not ever.

My hands settle to ‘Warsan Shire’s mesmerising poetry, ‘Our Men Do Not Belong To Us’. A fierce African feminist, Warsan is literally redefining the Somalian, Kenyan refugee narrative. I adore her poetry.

My yoga mat is perched in the corner, I will practise yoga and then I will write and write and write…