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Hairdresser of Harare - A very brave novel for our times
November 08, 2010
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.
that Huchu is brave. And there are two very striking reasons that
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
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.
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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