Zimbabwe’s socio-political landscape and the acutely complex circumstances of the Zimbabwe diaspora informs the eleven stories that form Andrew Chatora’s fourth book and debut short story collection, Inside Harare Alcatraz and Other Short Stories. Told from the viewpoints of several narrators living in diverse locales, Inside Harare Alcatraz and Other Short Stories touches on the themes of turmoil, tenacity, broken society and sometimes sheer desperation.
When it reaches the bookshops in your neighbourhood this February 2024 you may see that Inside Harare Alcatraz and Other Short Stories offers a fine assembly of different tones, voices, and settings, giving a view of a Zimbabwe and her Diaspora that is multifaceted writes Tariro Ndoro.
The collection opens with the scene of a man being thrown “kicking and screaming” into a Harare jail cell in the title story, “Inside Harare Alcatraz” which takes place in Harare’s maximum-security prison. The prison is nicknamed ‘Alcatraz’ after the now defunct impenetrable and infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary Prison off the coast of San Francisco. In this story, Chatora weaves the tale of an unnamed man who is assigned to go to this prison and pretend to be a prisoner in the same cell as two “infamous” political prisoners, highlighting the harsh and politically abused environs of Zimbabwe’s correctional services. In this story, Chipendani the protagonist must make difficult and surprising choices that will change the shape of his life forever.
However, the bulk of the book is set in Dangamvura, a township in Mutare, Zimbabwe’s third largest city. Although Chatora has affectionately mentioned both Dangamvura and the greater Mutare in his first two books, it is in Inside Harare Alcatraz that he fully pays homage to his hometown.
“Estelle the Shebeen Queen and Other Dangamvura Vignettes,” for instance, is the story of a Dangamvura shebeen queen who runs a not so covert brothel in which she employs her own daughters:
I was privileged enough to be neighbours with Estelle and only lived two doors away from her. Estelle was an unmarried woman in her late fifties with a brood of daughters, who mostly were single mothers crowding at her famed 4 roomed house; kwaMagumete as it was called; though it beats me how they were able to live comfortably under such squalid conditions of overcrowding, constantly stepping on each other’s toes. The irony growing up in my hood, Estelle’s house was termed four roomed house but in reality, they were two bedroomed houses itself an indictment of the colonial regime which never seem to take into account the big number of African families and how they could benefit from corresponding adequate housing.
Chatora fully describes the underbelly of township life as he details Estelle’s and her daughters’ methods of ensnaring hapless patrons and then mortgaging their debts to the hilt. These women are villains but, like in Yasher Kemal’s Memed My Hawk, the villain can as well be a plausible hero. Estelle and her daughters must be hitting back at society that has always disposed women.
In one other story in this book, one family, the Chatikobos, barely survives. Later on, Chatora delineates the foibles of the newly rich black middle class in “Of Sekuru Kongiri and Us” as one man sacrifices his cultural upbringing at the altar of upward mobility. His wife is a louder expression of what Kongiri is able to hide about himself. After the sinister matter-of fact tone displayed in “Estelle the Shebeen Queen,” “ Of Sekuru Kongiri and Us,” one has already experienced a more playful side of both Dangamvura and the author.
Chatora then uses the template of court hearings and legal procedure to illustrate gender politics and the violence that often surrounds sex. Two such stories are “A Snap Decision” and “Tales of Survival: Avenues and Epworth.” The former takes place in the United Kingdom, in which a woman; Pamhidzai has been accused of killing her mother’s lover. The story is, in many ways, reminiscent of Jag Mundhra’s 2006 film, Provoked, which tells the story of a young Indian woman who migrates to the United Kingdom for an arranged marriage and yet she only face years of abuse at the hands of her husband. Seeing no other way out for herself, she snaps and burns him alive. Chatora has a knack for steeping his stories in legal complications. You may want to coin a term legal-literature around Chatora’s works.
In “A Snap Decision,” the protagonist, Pamhidzai, endures abuse at the hands of a revolving door of men who date her mother. In the end, she stabs the last one to death. Pamhidzai’s story also highlights the effect of emigration on African families, a theme Chatora often visits in his other books:
It was moments like these when I felt myself spiralling into a dark pit of despair, I was unable to extricate myself from or to claw myself out of. Why did I have to belong to such a dysfunctional family as ours? I hated mummy more and blamed her for driving dad away in the first place.
“Tales of Survival: Avenues and Epworth,” on the other hand, describes the life stories of several sex workers living in one of Harare’s diciest ghettoes – Epworth. Herein Chatora highlights the social and economic ills that force young women to take to sex work when they are robbed of other choices. But the most important thing is that several key people try to put a stop to all this. Whether this is achieved or not, is for the reader to decide.
Andrew Chatora’s Short stories remind me of what Elizabeth Bowen’s words that the short story, more than the novel, is able to place man alone on that “stage which, inwardly, every man is conscious of occupying alone.”
Chatora’s other books, Diaspora Dreams, Where the Heart Is, and Harare Voices and Beyond are set in Thames Valley, England with several scenes set in Zimbabwe. The three books have the story of one family told in long form fiction over a long period of time. Not so with Inside Harare Alcatraz and Other Short Stories. In this instalment, Chatora uses more characters to inhabit more locales and the greater part of the book is set in his native Zimbabwe. From the jail cells of Chikurubi to the leafy suburbs of Harare, Chatora methodically reveals the desperate lives of the base.
Inside Harare Alcatraz and Other Short Stories is available through https://kharispublishing.com and major online retail sites such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christianbooks.com, Walmart, etc., or by contacting the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org Order your copy today!
Tariro Ndoro is a Zimbabwean poet and storyteller. Born in Harare but raised in a smattering of small towns, Tariro holds a BSc in Microbiology and an MA in Creative Writing.
Her work has been published in numerous international journals and anthologies including 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry (Brittle Paper, 2018), Kotaz, New Contrast, Oxford Poetry, and Puerto del Sol. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe Poetry Prize and awarded second place for the 2017 DALRO Prize. Agringada is her debut collection.