History and Fiction in the Writing of We Are All Zimbabweans Now — by James Kilgore

The U.S. version of We Are All Zimbabweans Now, published by  Ohio University Press, will be released in September, 2011.


In early 2003 I sat in a California prison cell reading various bits and pieces of news about Zimbabwe. With my limited access to information, I could see the obvious: a momentous struggle over land was taking place and the country was sinking into political and economic chaos. Having lived and worked in Zimbabwe throughout most of the 1980s, the transformation of a country once touted as a beacon of hope for the continent into the latest poster nation for African basket case left me dejected and feeling powerless. To make matters worse, I had not one to talk to about all this. Political turmoil in a distant nation was of little concern to  most of my “housemates” . They were mired in the intricacies of their own confrontations with the U.S. criminal justice system.  In this solitude, I retreated to the refuge of writing.

As I slowly learned more about what was happening in Zimbabwe, I began to understand that  this was not only a struggle about land and political power, it was a struggle over history.  Two competing paradigms were vying for hegemony. Robert Mugabe and his inner circle were advancing what our distinguished guest, Professor Ranger,  would later term “patriotic history.”  Blessing-Miles Tendi (2010) has aptly characterized patriotic history as focused on four main themes 1) land  2) no external interference based on Western ideals such as human rights 3) race 4) a patriots versus sellouts distinction. This vision laid all problems of Zimbabwe past and present at the doorstep of Western imperialism with the British and their white Rhodesian proxies  occupying a special category of evil oppressor.  Patriotic history constituted a unifying battle cry, an attempt to capture public memory and divert the attention of Zimbabweans from any authoritarianism, corruption, and divisions along ethnic or class lines that could be blamed on the government or ruling party. Patriotic history clearly delineated the lines between “them and us”,  papering over any inconsistencies and neglecting the memories of individuals who had suffered at the hands of the Fifth Brigade or quietly watched their children starve while political leaders drove by in their BMWs.

On the other hand, the farm seizures in particular prompted a resurrection of what I assumed to be a long dead paradigm, colonialist history.  Western media reports repeatedly pictured beleaguered white farmers under attack by unrelenting, unreasoning Africans. These accounts typically portrayed whites as innocent victims in this process, a well-intentioned minority who had built up the country during Rhodesia days and subsequently joined hands with black compatriots in reconciliation after independence, only to be reviled and dispossessed.  Though I only heard of them peripherally, memoirs by white Zimbabweans/Rhodesians soon blossomed  forth to buttress the Western media’s perspective. (Buckle, 2001 and 2006; Hunter et al. 2001; Harrison 2006) This amounted to another  attempt to capture public memory, only in this case the West’s memory of the settler state and independent Zimbabwe.  Like patriotic history, this resurgent colonial history involved simplifying and omitting.  Blight on the days of white rule such as the migrant labor system, black disenfranchisement,  expropriation of African lands conveniently disappeared.  Eric Harrison, on his website named after his memoir Jambanja, encapsulated this view neatly in his description of post-1980 Zimbabwe:

Tyranny replaced the democratic process.  National self-sufficiency gave way to drastic shortages and malnutrition.  Through all this sorry history one thing stood out – the indomitable spirit of the white and black Zimbabweans who were the victims of this insanity. (2010)


In light of all that was happening in Zimbabwe at that time, including the apparent rise of two versions of history which I detested, dual urges struck me. The first was to in some way connect to events in Zimbabwe. On a personal level, this was an effort to transcend my incarceration, to link not only with the place and events, but with the people in this hour of conflict and confusion. Writing would shorten the psychological and historical distance between myself and southern Africa, where I had lived for nearly twenty years and where the bulk of my family, friends, and personal history resided.   In the words of Dorothy Holland, I was embarking on the creation of a  “figured world”, which would allow me to in some way transcend my incarceration and land in another place and perhaps another time. (1998).[1]

Linked to this was the second urge, perhaps more fantastical: to make some kind of meaningful intervention into what was taking place in Zimbabwe. Given my situation, such aspirations seemed almost laughable. The bulk of the political struggles were being fought on the ground, one place I definitely could not be. However, the struggle over history involved, at least to some extent,  a war of words. On that battle front, I was in good shape. I had a lot of time to produce words. Certainly  I wouldn’t have the last word, but something I wrote might just trigger one or two thoughts in someone far away. For an imprisoned writer, that’s almost first prize. Besides, even if my words never reached anyone, the act of writing would help me to put my own thoughts about Zimbabwe in order. I decided write an historical novel.

Since the topic of this panel is history and fiction, I want to discuss the ways in which the intersection of history and fiction played out in my work. I will explore three main areas. The first two are issues which confront all authors of historical fiction, developing a theory of history and deciding what to fictionalize. My third discussion point focuses on my choice to use  historical debate as a plot device.

In order to help clarify the discussion, I will first briefly summarize the plot of my novel which came to be titled We Are All Zimbabweans Now. (2009)

Plot Summary

The story takes place in early 1980s Zimbabwe, right after independence.  The protagonist Ben Dabney, a young American graduate student in History, travels to Zimbabwe with a totally idealized picture of Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwean notion of racial reconciliation. Ben sees Mugabe as the embodiment of the spirit of Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, a logical candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. As an historian, Ben aims to tell the story of the Zimbabwean miracle of reconciliation to the world. When this young American arrives in Harare he meets a warm reception from high-level figures in the government and ruling party.  Plus, he finds a moment of romance with disabled former guerrilla Florence Matshaka. Ben’s plans seem to be proceeding nicely.

Then he embarks on a side research project, inquiring into the mysterious death of a ZANU leader, Elias Tichasara, who died in a car accident right before independence. Ever since Tichasara’s death, rumors have circulated about political plots and conspiring rivals. As Ben begins to probe this accident, he encounters layers of mystery, reticence, distortions, and out and out lies from people trying to protect their own interests relative to Tichasara’s death. At the same time, Ben takes a trip to Matabeleland (in the south of the country) to interview a former guerrilla comrade of Florence’s who teaches in a rural school.  During Ben’s visit the Army occupies the school and parades the teachers onto the soccer field as part of a hunt for “dissidents.” A sergeant beats the Headmaster and his underlings kidnap one of the teachers. Ben heads back to Harare as quickly as possible to publicize what he has seen. He believes Mugabe knows nothing of such events. Ben is desperate to inform his hero so Mugabe can bring the violence to a halt.  Predictably, Mugabe shows no interest in Ben’s concerns. In fact, Ben’s eagerness to bring the events in Matabeleland to light leads him to a confrontation with the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). From there Ben’s naí¯ve notions about Mugabe and reconciliation gradually unravel. His research becomes very complicated, his relationship with Florence becomes even more complicated, and he comes under increasing pressure from the CIO. Ultimately he is forced to not only abandon his hero worship of Mugabe but to interrogate  own role as an historian, especially as a white  expatriate researcher in an African country.  In brief, and without spoiling the ending, that is the story of We Are All Zimbabweans Now.

Let me now turn to explaining how history and fiction intersected in the creation of this work.

Developing An Approach to the History

Many writers of historical fiction ignore notions of approach or paradigm, often seeing a hard divide between history and historical fiction.  Author William Martin, for example, argues that:

The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale.  (2010)

Guy Vanderhaeghe concurs:

To what do I owe my primary allegiance? The demands of history, or the demands of the novel? In the end, I clearly opted for what I felt was necessary to ensure the artistic integrity of the novel. I entered the camp of Mark Twain who said, “˜First get your facts. Then do with them what you will.’ I decided the noun novel was more important than the adjective historical. (2005)


For many such writers, the goal is to achieve what is alternatively referred to as authenticity, believability, or verisimilitude.  The key to all this rests primarily in the details of setting. While lawyers, politicians and business leaders often proclaim that the devil is in the details, Vanderhaeghe offers a totally different slant:

As a writer of fiction I live and breathe minutiae, quirky odds and ends of information. For a novelist, it is not the devil that is found in the details. The details are where God resides. A novel cries out for texture to lend it verisimilitude. (2005)

In this same paper, Vanderhaeghe goes on to argue that writing historical fiction somehow liberates a writer from the shackles of academic rigor. As he put it: “the lack of evidence provided me with freedom.”

Hence, the reflections of writers of historical fiction often dwell on quests for the obscure, the hunt for memoirs which detail the color and textures of the curtains in the living room or describe how to make a jug of mead.  While I spent considerable time doing such research myself, (which I will discuss below), the authenticity of my story didn’t revolve around such details. d. Rather, the believability of this tale would ultimately hinge on my ability to recreate the political and historical landscape of Zimbabwe in the 1980s. This necessitated first of all deciding what I actually made of that history, where I stood on the debates and interpretations of Zimbabwean history in the 1980s and how that linked to my project of writing a novel in the early 2000s.

Doing this from 8,000 miles away in the absence of access to the Internet or a library, meant relying on a few books sent in[2] and tapping into my own knowledge and experience in an effective way. I began by reconstructing the evolution in my own thinking about Zimbabwean history. Enter here Professor Ranger and nationalist historiography, materials I first meaningfully encountered in 1983 when I was teaching Form 2 History at Harare’s Mabvuku High School.  The Ministry of Education had scrapped the Rhodesian syllabus and inserted a new nationalist curriculum in its place. The problem was, there were no textbooks or support materials available. We had to create our own. To teach the first Chimurenga/Umvukela, I secured a copy of Professor Ranger’s Revolt in Southern Rhodesia. I spent many hours pouring over the ins and outs of Kaguvi, Nehanda, and Mukwati, preparing detailed notes for my students which I then transferred to printed sheets via the mimeograph machine in the hallway outside the Headmaster’s office.

This was the starting point of my engagement with nationalist historiography-the idea that the colonized were not mere passive victims in the process of colonialism but rightfully resisted. What a great leap forward this was from the leftover Rhodesian textbooks, The Patterns of History, which propagated notions like blacks being better suited for slavery because their dark skins made it easier for them to endure the hot sun.

Encountering the details of 19th century freedom fighters and connecting their armed resistance and cross-tribal unity seemed at the time to present a universal formula for freedom. The armies of ZANLA and ZIPRA had won Zimbabwe’s independence by drawing on the lessons of history which Professor Ranger had so wonderfully detailed in his seminal work.  In hindsight, how I wish both gaining freedom and writing history were that clear and simple.

The nationalist historiography advanced by Professor Ranger helped to inspire a vast history of nationalism which, among other things, unearthed pockets of African resistance in all corners of colonial society and demonstrated how the struggle for independence was a long, slow, uneven but inevitable process.  The insights of nationalism combined with my reading of Marxist political economy guided me through my teaching and writing in the 1980s. This culminated in contributing a number of chapters to what became the most popular O level textbook  in the country, People Making History (1991 and 1994), a book that, perhaps regrettably,  is still sold today.

Fortunately, my own evolution did not stop there. For while the nationalist historiography and Marxist political economy shed light on significant aspects of colonial and post-independence history, they also cast some rather malevolent shadows. In particular, the infatuation with the success and moral authority of the armed struggle made many of us too quick to rise to the defense of Mugabe and his inner circle.  Most tragically, the light of nationalist inspiration, blinded me and a large swath of people in Zimbabwe at the time (including historians) to the scale and significance of the military offensives by the Zimbabwean government forces in Matabeleland during the 1980s. We heard reports of slaughter and repression from people who lived in Matabeleland. We believed those tales but from our intellectual anti-imperialist nationalist comfort zone the violence in Matabeleland remained a minor blemish on a glorious movement, something akin to the Nhari rebellion or the assassination of Herbert Chitepo.  We were also certain that the bulk of it was instigated by the apartheid regime. Hence, at this point, the invasion of Matabeleland did not seem to present a systemic or paradigmatic problem. We still wanted to deny that ethnicity or regionalism could play an significant role in an obviously successful nationalist project. Not until the work of the Catholic Commission for Peace and Justice (1997) as well as research by Professors Ranger, Bhebhe (1995)  and others (Alexander et al., 2000) brought to light the scale and political implications of those incursions into Matabeleland did the depth of this aspect of nationalist historiography become totally clear. Ethnicity, region, political loyalties from the past-all of these things did matter.

But my discontent with this nationalist paradigm went beyond giving Gukurahundi and all its ramifications a rightful place in history.  There were class and gender issues which nationalist historiography also papered over. Most nationalist-oriented historians focused on the political realm at the highest levels-party structures and position papers, rivalries and intrigues within organizations, and post-independence twists and turns in policy and personnel.  My experience with domestic workers, both as a teacher in an evening school as well as in my research, brought my lens down to a lower level.  I adopted a “history from below” perspective, one which I saw at that time as a deepening of, rather than a rejection of the nationalist approach.  While I remained within the nationalist paradigm, looking at post-independence Zimbabwe from below prompted me to ask some bigger questions, particularly which classes benefited from the ZANU-led government and why.

Furthermore, nationalist historiography and histories of nationalism generally had a woeful record when it came to gender issues.  Much of nationalist practice and history kept women in the background.  Party political positions defended womens’ equality but practice and reality reflected something very different.  My research into domestic workers led  me to engage with another aspect of history from below, the gendered nature of Zimbabwean society and the experience of working class and rural women.  The gendered social history of the colonial period, particularly the work of Elizabeth Schmidt, Diana Jeater, Irene Staunton, Sheila Ndlovu, Everjoice Win and most importantly that of Teresa Barnes[3], guided me to yet another of the lenses through which an historian might view the world.

In addition to the above issues further consideration of nationalist historiography brought out critiques with regard to issues of ethnicity, spirituality/ religion, urban-rural divides, the implications of political violence as a strategy and the nature of democracy. Somehow I needed to draw all these threads together and weave them into a story.

Though I didn’t have a name for the approach to history I was adopting, I was at minimum determined that a reader of my work would neither conclude that Robert Mugabe was a saintly savior of the African people nor that whites in pre- and post-1980 Zimbabwe were uniformly champions of peace and racial equality.  But I had to complicate things much further while reminding myself that there were aspects of the nationalist historiography such as the emphasis on political economy and race which I could not be cast completely aside.

In the midst of juggling the complexities of all this, a further complicator arrived one day at mail call,  Luise White’s book The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo (2003). Her work tore apart notions of absolute historical truth in Zimbabwe, freeing me from the idea that all history must be knowable, that circumstances could never overwhelm the intrepid researcher in a quest for truth. Her work reminded that the historian’s task was not always to find that final truth, but to illuminate. History was not a murder mystery to be solved but rather a set of questions to pursue, guided by a curiosity and at times a desire to be surprised by what you find rather than to simply uncover more evidence which already substantiates what you “know.”

Luise’s work was crucial to me in the sense that I was trying to write a story that would have some tension, the outcome of which would not be a simplistic known such as the triumph of the liberation forces over the Rhodesian government or the seizure of white farms. Though Hollywood, pulp publishers, and ebook proprietors may disagree, fiction plots,  may not ultimately answer all the questions raised. For an historian, all questions are never answered. An appropriate question appropriately researched leads to far more questions.

This morass of ideas continually raced through my head as I lay on various prison bunks or stood in line for trays of goulash in places like Lompoc, Tracy and Susanville. But without the time for reflection with which prison authorities were kind enough to provide me, I would never have been able to complicate Zimbabwean history enough to write a novel with any measure of authenticity. In my mind, no historical fiction could carry much weight if the writer wasn’t as concerned with the interpretations and debates of the history, indeed the politics of the history, as in the vitality of the story. Unlike Martin and Vanderheaghe, my allegiance was as much to history as to the novel. History in this instance was not only the facts, but how historical theories, interpretations, and debates enter the political arena.


Truth v. Fiction: What to Fictionalize

The second issue I want to address in linking history and fiction, is the question of fictionalizing versus telling the whole truth. The spectrum of historical fiction ranges from acute realism to magical realism to alternate history to historical fantasy- from tracing every little fact and detail in precision to making it all up.

As an academic historian of sorts and a history teacher, it’s not surprising that I fell on the realist end of the spectrum, especially since I chose to write about events that took place in Zimbabwe at a time I lived there.  Making use of my own experiences seemed to be a vital contribution to  the authenticity of my work.

However, since this exercise would inevitably rely heavily on my memory of events rather than historians’ accounts, I decided to fictionalize all the characters who actually appear in the story with the exception of Robert Mugabe, who was central to my tale. To write a novel situated in post-1980 Zimbabwe with someone other than Mugabe as leader would have crossed the border into alternate history or fantasy. I could live without Mugabe’s supporting cast, but “Bob” had to remain.

This wasn’t simply a creative choice. In the absence of access to sources, I wasn’t confident I could gather the necessary details of the lives of people like Eddson Zvobgo, Enos Nkala or Joyce Mujuru to avoid major errors of fact. Both as an historian and as a potential target for a law suit, I didn’t want to take such chances.

Of course there were some grey areas in terms of fictionalization. A number of the characters in We Are All Zimbabweans Now bear quite close resemblance to real people. The most obvious example would be Elias Tichasara, a liberation fighter whose untimely death in a car accident looks a lot like Josiah Tongogara’s.  I chose to fictionalize him simply because his totally fictionalized son and former lover were central characters in my plot. From where I was I had no idea if there was a Josiah Tongogara, Jr. or even an ex-partner of Tongogara’s who had his child. Rather than run the risk of slandering such people if they existed, I chose to fictionalize the character, perhaps at the loss of some authenticity. [4]

Another example, was the character of Professor Dlamini, who bore some obvious similarities to Professor Stanlake Samkange. On this score, I plead guilty to simply being unable to resist inserting into my setting Samkange’s colorful collection of real life property and possessions- a genuine English castle in Harare, a black Rolls Royce and a beret. These details lent so much richness to his character I just couldn’t discard them. Samkange’s truth was more imaginative than fiction. However, since in my book Professor Dlamini engages in an intrigue in which the real Professor Samkange never took part, I elected to change the name.

Many other characters are amalgamations.  For instance, the somewhat Zvobgoesque character of Pius Manyeche ultimately has a Maurice Nyagumbo ending. And some of Ben’s confrontations with local culture, like kneeling down to a Shona-speaking woman, are incidents which actually occurred to people that I knew in Zimbabwe in this period.  At times, my line between fiction and true history was quite fine.

However, relying on so many fictitious characters meant paying attention to the accuracy of other elements of the novel. Other than trying to ensure a factual accuracy in terms of events of the period, I also spent considerable time trying to re-create the sensory context so important for a work of fiction. My God wasn’t in the details but I couldn’t neglect those details either. I didn’t want to fictionalize sadza into pasta or Tanganda Tea into Liptons.  I spent hours making up what writers call a “sensory diary”, a listing of things I saw, heard, smelled, tasted or touched during my time in Zimbabwe. This list was greatly enhanced by the opportunity to read novels by Shimmer Chinodya (1989) and Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988), as well as the brilliant collection of interviews, Mothers of the Revolution by Irene Staunton (1991).

This discussion about fiction and truth, particularly for someone writing from a venue as isolated as a prison on another continent, inevitably raises notions of memory. While most of the writing in the field of history concerns the memory of sources, in this case the memory issue pertained to the writer.  How much had my own perception and analysis of events altered my own memory of them over the years? Could I trust myself as a source? How could I verify my own memories given the limitations of my status of incarceration?

For example, I was convinced that I could still accurately recall the coating that roasted matumbu left on the roof of my mouth and that a sip of cold Castle would wash it away. I was also fairly sure that rural bus conductors used to walk around on the top of moving buses but I couldn’t exactly recall an incident of this taking place. From a California prison cell, I couldn’t test such hypotheses. I chose to accept them as authentic, though I could not verify their absolute “truth.”  I suppose in that sense, I exercised the freedom from evidence referred to by Vanderleaghe.

I have briefly attempted to outline how I engaged with two questions that confront any author of historical fiction: developing an approach to history (or choosing not to) and deciding what to fictionalize. But I also chose to inject history into my novel in yet another way, as a plot device. Let me now proceed to that discussion.

Historical Debate as Plot Device

In the first draft of We Are All Zimbabweans Now, Ben Dabney wasn’t an historian. Then I read The DaVinci Code. While many criticisms can be made of Dan Brown’s work, The DaVinci Code very effectively demonstrated the connections between the power to write and propagate history and the actual wielding of political power. Ultimately the journey of Brown’s protagonist was a quest to unpack the powerful forces that lurked behind popular perceptions of the church and religious history. I believed Zimbabwean history held at least as many controversies and intrigues as the history of the church, so I sought to write a novel that would unpack a few of them. Hopefully, though,  I didn’t make up quite as many events and historical forces as Dan Brown did.

Historical debate enters the plot thread of We Are All Zimbabweans Now via Ben. He is an historian who begins with a project of writing the story of his hero, Robert Mugabe. At this point Ben sits squarely in the “great man” school of history, albeit with a nationalist slant. However, shortly into his research, his very supportive supervisor leaves and a Professor  Latham takes over.  Latham is a Briton who longs for the days of the empire. He immediately calls Ben’s most basic assumptions into question, citing the use of biased terms like “freedom fighter” and “racist regime” in his  proposal.  Latham imposes a condition that Ben must agree to interview more whites from the previous government to assure continued funding for his research.  This is the first force which begins to tug at the historical approach that informs Ben’s work. The debate inside the historian part of Ben’s mind has already begun to rage.

Then come the ruling circles, including cabinet ministers Titus Mawere and Pius Manyeche.  They welcome Ben’s  project, promise him red carpet treatment including an interview with Mugabe if he follows their recommended path. They are lining him up to write what likely would have been the “patriotic” history of that time.

Not long after, Ben meets Elizabeth,  a  young British historian,  at the archives. They enter a short, stormy affair where Ben momentarily becomes a part of a cynical expatriate circle, those who are revolted by the racist attitudes of local whites but denigrate any expectation that a Mugabe-led government can do much better. They push Ben toward yet a third historian’s role, that of  distant, comfortable expatriate eating roast beef dinners served by domestic workers, bemoaning the lack of a good red wine in the shops, and writing obscure tomes about minutiae.

Then, through various sets of circumstances, Ben moves out of his trusted circles and travels to the townships, then to the rural areas. His discussions with Marxist guerrilla-turned-agricultural co-op chairperson, Wonder Chitiyo, alert Ben to a hidden history, the story of what took place in the past and what continues to go on in the fields and high-density areas of Zimbabwe, the places where the majority of the population lives.

Ben’s journey as an historian unfolds as he tries to sort out which path to follow. In the course of his explorations, he stumbles into the violence in Matabeleland and another side of hidden history emerges. When he tries to bring it to light, he runs up against the authorities.

As Professor Dlamini has told him, “history is not an academic exercise in Zimbabwe, my friend. Whoever controls the past, controls the future.” (46)

Throughout the book I have attempted to portray this historical debate not only through Ben’s experience but in his internal monolog as well. Unlike Dan Brown’s characters, Ben is an historian. He can use the terminology of history to frame the discourse of the monkeys that chatter away in his head.

In addition to using Ben’s experience to reflect historical debate and struggle, the contestation of history surfaces in the title of the book as well. Ben first hears the phrase “we are all Zimbabweans now” from an elderly working class gentleman in a café where Ben is the only white person. As Ben takes his food from the counter and looks for a seat, the old man slides out a chair at his table and offers it to Ben, saying, “take a seat, we are all Zimbabweans Now.” In this instance, the phrase is inclusive, reflecting a new attitude where blacks and whites can sit together at the same table in a way they weren’t able to do before independence. All that segregation is apparently ancient history.

By the end of the book, Robert Mugabe has appropriated the phrase and it embodies a new politics.  When he says “we are all Zimbabweans now”, he means that everyone must come under the hegemony of one party – ZANU. To be Zimbabwean is to be ZANU. To be outside the party or critical of the party is to be something other than Zimbabwean. Expropriating the expressions of ordinary people and using them to express the political project of a ruling party is part of the process of re-writing history- akin to dubbing the farm seizures the Third Chimurenga or labeling MDC members dissidents as part of the process of constructing a patriotic history.  The power to write history, is also the power to create the discourse which is used to convey that history. This is another way in which history is embedded in the plot of my novel.


This paper illustrates how I drew on my experience as an historian, a high school history teacher and a resident in 1980s Zimbabwe to gather the material to create a work of fiction which attempts to reflect the complexities of history.  In taking on the project of writing historical fiction, I placed a high priority on ensuring that the interpretations, debates and struggles over Zimbabwean history informed the setting, characters and plot of my novel.

In the absence of access to academic resources, I relied primarily on reflections on my own intellectual evolution along with my political and sensory experiences of Zimbabwe in the 1980s to construct We Are All Zimbabweans Now.

Also, the paper outlines how ultimately I decided to insert debates over Zimbabwean history and broader questions of historical approach into the plot of We Are All Zimbabweans Now.

For me the paper raises a number of questions, the foremost of which is the extent to which I can trust my own memory as a reliable source even for a work of fiction. In an era where virtually any fact can be verified within a few seconds, I operated in a world where, in the final instance, imagination and guess work prevailed.  While I attempted to ensure the accuracy of my recollections, at times I had to defer to subjective instincts.

Another important question is the extent to whether my research process was truly impoverished. Certainly at a technological level, I took a step back in history to the pre-Internet era.  Also, my isolation from other scholars or even people with a rudimentary knowledge of Zimbabwe was clearly a handicap.  Yet, in some ways, incarceration  provided opportunities to reflect and analyze that few scholars and writers in the twenty first century experience. I had no meetings to attend, no children to pick up, no email to check. I was “free” from such responsibilities.  I’m not sure that I’m richer for this experience or that I will lock myself away in a room to engage in reflection for further works, but I’m also more certain than ever that there are many roads to understanding and the production of knowledge and all of them are not paved with URLs and RSS feeds.




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Tendi, Blessing-Miles, A Review of Becoming Zimbabwe c. 850-2009, Nov. 18, 2009 accessed at http://davidcoltart.com/p=1069 on October 3, 2010

Vanderleaghe, Guy, “Writing History vs. Writing the Historical Novel’, A Talk Presented to the Montana Historical Society, October 2, 2005. Helena.

White, Luise, The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo: Text and Politics in Zimbabwe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003)

[1] For an interesting discussion of the way incarcerated writers use writing as a way of transcending their imprisonment, see Berry (2010).

[2] The books I received which specifically dealt with Zimbabwe included Ranger (1985); Lan (1985); Staunton (1990) , White (2003), Chung (2006)) plus novels by Dangarembga and Chinodya.  I only received a copy of Terence’s Ranger’s piece on Patriotic history in 2007. Teresa Barnes, who sent it to me, penned at the top: “whatever you’re doing, stop it now and read this.” I followed her instructions and was glad that I did.

[3] For purposes of full disclosure, Teresa Barnes is my wife.

[4] One reviewer decried this choice, claiming that I missed the chance in my novel to “solve” the question of who murdered Josiah Tongogara, as if by writing a fictionalized solution into my story it would have assumed the mantle of truth.

James Kilgore is a research scholar at the University of Illinois. His newest novel, Freedom Never Rests: A Story of Democracy in South Africa has just been published by Jacana Media in Johannesburg. His first piece of crime fiction: Prudence Couldn’t Swim is scheduled for release later this year.

This Paper was originally presented to the Conference: Making History: Terence Ranger and African Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, October 13-15, 2010.


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