I found my current book club quite by accident, via WhatsApp in a heated discussion on contemporary cultural practices. And as a result, I found myself reading Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s “The Theory of Flight”.
Siphiwe is a Zimbabwean scholar, writer and filmmaker who was born in Zimbabwe and currently lives and works in South Africa. The Theory of Flight is her first novel. It was published by Penguin Random House South Africa in 2018. She described it in an interview as her “thinking around love and loss… [and having] a lot to do with my preoccupation with history”, themes which feature prominently in the book.
In the book, Genie, lies in a coma in hospital after a long illness. Her family and friends struggle to come to terms with her impending death. She has gifts that transcend both time and space. Siphiwe writes the book to tell her story, and that of her forebears. Genie hatched from a golden egg, and spent her childhood playing in a field of sunflowers while her country emerged from a civil war. Her grandfather quenched his wanderlust by walking into the Indian Ocean, her father spent countless hours building model aeroplanes, her mother was a singer self-styled after Dolly Parton with a dream of travelling to Nashville, and her grandmother did everything in her power to raise her children to have character. Siphiwe writes “…what happened to Genie did not happen in a vacuum: it was the result of a culmination of genealogies, histories, teleologies, epistemologies and epidemiologies – of ways of living, remembering, seeing, knowing and dying”. This sentence, right at the beginning of the book, frames the story and reminded me of the importance of family within our cultural setting, and of our unique African ways of living, of perceiving the world, of creating memories, of sharing knowledge, and of interacting with death. It also reminded me of the truth that the lives of Africans are not best made sense of as a product of their times. To put this in another way, the lives of Africans are determined by many things including the genealogies before them and occurrences from different times.
The story is told in familiar African settings – the farm, the rundown city center, the formerly white colonial suburb now inhabited by a well-to-do black family. Many African States have these settings in their present day, a remnant of land use planning and urban planning regulations used by occupying governments under the colonial system. It incorporates cultural references specific to an unnamed Southern African country – the Everlasting sweets, Highlanders biscuits, the mapantsula, the Scania pushcarts. Again, in different parts of Africa we have our characteristic delicacies and scenery, things that say to us ‘this is home’, and that we speak about in our day to day conversation and take as a natural part of our existence. These are intertwined with global references that are in many ways both western and African – the Carpenters, Dolly Parton. My generation grew up listening to country music and joined a global rap music audience – it’s amazing that we had European colonial masters and yet gravitated to American music. In the interview mentioned earlier, Siphiwe justifies this interwoven nature of the story with a profound statement “I wouldn’t know how to write something that’s just an ‘African novel’. Africa exists in the world, and the world has always been in Africa.”
The story unfolds as an observation of beauty that exists in the presence of great injustice. Marcus and Genie begin their life playing in a field of sunflowers that stretches as far as the eye can see and Genie “never stop[s] to think that [the field] could contain anything harmful or dangerous.” They discover an atlas that had “been printed in 1965 and did not contain the name of their newly independent country,” and this presents “them with more possibilities as well as more challenges” as they imagine themselves in different parts of the globe. The farm is owned by a settler who Siphiwe describes as a “fair-minded man” because he did not require the African occupants of the land he was allocated to vacate it. We learn how unfair this was when she writes, “it was not lost on him that a readily available labour force would be less expensive than a labour force that came from afar.” The narrative tells the story of how injustice does not leave the continent, even after the settlers are gone. It visits the farm again when the ‘sojas’ invade it at the instigation of ‘the man’ and commit mass murder. Jestina, Genie’s caretaker, declares “there was a time, not so long ago, that we thought only white people capable of such hatred and anger, such evil. We know better now. … Evil does not discriminate. It visits all of us with equal opportunity.” It explores our growing interrogation of who we call African with Genie’s partner, Vida, being described by academics in the book as “a truly postcolonial artist,” while at the same time being denied this honour by ‘the man’ who finds him “too white” for the role. It explores the possibilities that exist in Africa, the options we have as Africans when faced with the impossible – Genie writes about this in a note, “… in Genie’s handwriting, are the words, ‘Remember, there will be the time of the swimming elephants.’…” an experience that is later defined as “A rite of passage made sacred by its sheer audacity”.
In a magical realist tale, Siphiwe shares, through the lives of a few families and a single piece of land, decades of national history, taking us from the colonial period through the HIV scourge to the modern African nation. In mysterious and magical turns, she tells the story of personal triumphs, and why they matter in a context scoured by disease, corruption, war and occupation. She succeeds at sharing with her reader a balanced narrative that shows both how history defines lives, and how nonetheless lives transcend history. And in letting Genie “choose her own ending” and in launching herself into the sky, she offers her characters the option to fly rather than sink or swim in their troubled country.