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The Hairdresser of Harare - A very brave novel for our times
Fungai Machirori
November 08, 2010

Immediately after reading Tendai Huchu's novel, The Hairdresser of Harare, the first thought to form in my mind was that the author is uncommonly brave.

Set in current day Harare, this contemporary novel tells the story of Vimbai, a hairdresser whose dominance as Khumalo Hair and Beauty Treatment Salon's finest is challenged by the arrival of the enigmatic character, Dumi, the male hairdresser who is able to bring out the woman in even the most ungainly of female creatures.

With time, the twists and kinks in the two characters' relationship soon revolve less around the hair that they comb, straighten and braid and become more personal as they grow ever closer.

But still, there are demons to be fought, severed relationships to be mended and bone-breaking secrets to be confronted and concealed. Huchu wends these into the storyline with such great skill that one gobbles up chapter after chapter in pursuit of the answers.

I re-assert that Huchu is brave. And there are two very striking reasons that prove this.

The first is that he assumes the voice of the main character, Vimbai, who narrates the entire story to the reader. Huchu is male and I have rarely encountered, if ever at all, a male author whose female character narrates an entire text (or vice versa). This is refreshing in that Vimbai's femininity becomes somewhat eclectic. The voice is not omniscient and all-knowing like the non-gendered third person's voice would be, but it is also not the typical femininity - in emotional and mental expression - that one would encounter from reading the texts of most female authors.

At times, Huchu's gendered experience of being male still comes through (in the structure and choice of language) in some of what Vimbai says and thinks. Sometimes it works and at other times, Vimbai's words seem mechanical, her descriptions of a man she finds attractive somewhat repressed and formulaic.

Now, no one is to say what the 'authentic' female voice and experience should sound like. Women and females are of course a disaggregated group of human beings with different worldviews about their femininity. There can never really be one voice that speaks on behalf of all women. But I dare say that at times while reading the text, I could feel an almost-palpable absence of 'woman' in Vimbai's words.

The second reason why I say that Huchu is brave is that he tackles the great Zimbabwean taboo topic of homosexuality. To say anymore about how it manifests itself within the text would be to 'let the cat out of the bag'. But what I can summarise is that Huchu, through this novel, is able to dispel various myths around homosexuality while showing the dire repercussions of gayness, particularly when those with political power can use it against individuals.

You will find this book a treat if you enjoy easy reads that discuss Zimbabwean society in a contemporary light. You will also enjoy it if you have a liking for some parody of Zimbabwe's politics and its politicians. I challenge you try to guess early on in the novel who the minister known as Mrs M__ might be a parody of, as she will play an unexpected role in the plot's development.

Thankfully, Huchu does not dilute the novel's plot with convoluted explanations about Zimbabwe's economic and political situation. Enough has already been written about this by his predecessors. There are references to hyper-inflation, farm invasions and abuse of power - but these are factored naturally into the storyline and do not stick out like clumsy boring explanations of the protagonists' environment.

Huchu is brave but he is also funny, imaginative and succinct (the novel is 189 pages long). However, I felt that the novel could have done with a few more pages as the sequences towards the conclusion happened in a brace, leaving me suspended and unanswered on a few questions. Perhaps Huchu has plans for a delightful sequel novel . . .

All in all, The Hairdresser of Harare is a great achievement and a refreshing addition to Zimbabwe's growing body of post-2000 literature. And by the time you are done reading, you too might be left with this debatable question, "Just who is the hairdresser of Harare?"  

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