Masitera’s rich literary legacy

BETWEEN THE LINES:Phillip Chidavaenzi

LILLIAN Masitera, who died on Wednesday last week and was buried in Bikita on Sunday, was one of the country’s foremost authors and leaves behind a rich legacy of feminist literature that has contributed to society’s fight against toxic masculinity under the banner of patriarchy.

I have had the privilege of collecting her works — Militant Shadow (1996), Now I Can Play and Other Stories (1999), The Trail (2001), Start With Me (2011) and Saskam Express (2014) — which all belong to the feminist discourse.

Throughout her writing career, she was able to smoothly weave her way as a novelist, short story writer and poet.

It would have not been a surprise if Masitera had added a Mathematics text to her portfolio. A Mathematics teacher by profession, having taught at Queen Elizabeth School and lectured at Belvedere Teachers College in Harare, she was credited for formulating a way through which the vertical angles of cones could be calculated, while teaching at Queen Elizabeth in 1989. The formula was accepted as original by the University of Stanford in the United States and is now widely used by high school students.

Masitera belonged to a crop of Zimbabwean female authors credited with giving ordinary women a voice through their literary works. These included Tsitsi Dangarembga, the late Yvonne Vera and Barbara Makhalisa.

The late author’s books are an eloquent portrayal of a society whose younger generation of women is battling to extricate itself from patriarchal domination. In The Trail, for instance, she contended that women’s failure to close ranks and work as a single front works against their own interests as the tactic of divide and rule is used against them.

She demonstrated that the older generation of women’s experience under colonial rule and a staunch, intact patriarchal system have made them believe that nature intended them, unlike men, to have limited choices in life.

In The Trail, Masitera advocated for the empowerment of women through education. The book is set against a backdrop where educating the boy child is considered more important and valuable.

Masitera also explored a diverse range of themes in Now I Can Play, but they were also centred on the problems that women have to contend with in their day-to-day lives. Two women — a wife who does not have sons and a mistress with sons — contest for a man, and although one sympathises with the wife, Masitera showed that they are both “captives” of the man. A girl child is easily robbed of her innocence as she risks being married off in her teens. The girl who escapes an attempted rape is told by her mother to keep silent about it or she will “be ruined for life” and will be “accused of having asked for it . . . Besides, you’ll be called a prostitute for the rest of your life” (p. 49).

The perception by society of women as sexual objects is yet another thematic concern in Now I Can Play. In a bid to gratify their obscene sexual whims, men are shown to use their physical and economic power to abuse women who are defenceless and often dependent on them. In that particular trajectory, Masitera appeared to share the same concerns raised in Eva’s Song (Barbara Makhalisa) and For Want of a Totem (Vivienne Ndlovu, 1997) and virtually all the literary works by the late Vera.

The author is on record saying Now I Can Play was about women who fought, won or lost until they got to that place where they could say Now I can play.

Masitera, whose works seem to be informed by radical feminism, once indicated that to ensure that her ideas were put across to the reader intact, she had to be stubborn because the (women’s) issues she set out to explore are non-negotiable.

The multi-talented creative was also part of a group of women who published the first anthology of poems and short stories by Zimbabwean female writers in 1994. This was a pioneering literary work in which women writers from diverse backgrounds came together to put across their ideas as a single unit.

One of her poems, Enter the Teetotaler, which appeared in Militant Shadow in 1996, saw her writing her way into history after it landed her a merit award from the International Society of Poets the following year.

Masitera’s journey as an author was not always smooth sailing. A local publishing house refused to publish her poems as it preferred a multi-authored anthology. She said in one interview that some of the stories were eventually published in such an anthology, with another four appearing in an English textbook for secondary schools. Another, Eleven Twice, was translated into Shona and appeared in a Shona textbook.

Now I Can Play was probably a groundbreaking effort after Masitera decided to self-publish at a time when taking such a route was almost taboo.

It is common fare that a lot of authors share slices of their lives in their books, and such first-hand experience lends a high level of authenticity to the work. Many people that Masitera rubbed shoulders with in her life were written into some of her stories because, by her own admission, she used them “as ingredients in many cases. It is going to be difficult for me to write something totally fictitious”.

Like many writers who have gone to write their way into fame, Masitera’s muse surfaced, while she was still at school where she shared many of her pieces with other people.

She told one interviewer of an incident when she was reprimanded for writing something “indecent” and the teacher-nun who had summoned her quipped: “Nice girls don’t write like that.”

In 2011, Masitera published a new novel, Start with Me, in which she ran true to form, further probing the raft of challenges women still had to deal with in a patriarchal society incorrigibly set in its ways.

In the book, she extensively profiled women forced by circumstances over which they had no control to become breadwinners and cushion their families when married to irresponsible man.
This, in a way, exposed the limitations of patriarchal society, where women had to step in and do the work when men had failed.

There was, however, a slight departure from her traditional, well-worn path, with an acknowledgment that women needed some men on their side if they were to win the war against gender imbalances.

In Saskam Express, Masitera explored what has generally become known as “Zimbabwe’s lost decade” characterised with unprecedented economic woes in the country, with the sanctions imposed on the country over a soiled human rights record as the backdrop. The cash crisis, shortages of basic commodities and poor service delivery are all captured here. The main character, Laina, a retired lecturer, makes endless trips to the bank as she pursues her terminal benefits that had been deposited into her account.

Masitera may be gone, but she leaves behind a rich literary legacy. May her soul rest in eternal peace.

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