In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Yvette Lisa Ndlovu’s Drinking from Graveyard Wells is the most impressive debut story collection I have read since Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. These stories combine folktale and realism to magical effect.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“Ndlovu, an oral storyteller of the Shona tradition, debuts with a collection of swift and often sharp-edged stories that vary from the realist to fantastical and spotlight the experiences of African women in their home communities and abroad.”
In her own words, here is Yvette Lisa Ndlovu’s Book Notes music playlist for her story collection Drinking from Graveyard Wells:
In traditional Zimbabwean fairytales called Ngano or Inganekwane, music and song is an integral part of the form. The sarungano, the storyteller, sings to the audience in a call-and-response format. The way oral fabulation is supported by instruments such as the mbira, the drums, and hosho to me functions in the same way that films today have scores. These accompanying soundtracks and background music work to heighten the audience’s emotions and suspense, to set the mood for a particularly evocative scene, to enhance the dialogue, and to call attention to the interactions between characters and their interiority. The stories in Drinking from Graveyard Wells engage with various elements of Ngano, including music. I’m excited to share the soundtracks that kept me company as I drafted the collection. I think of these songs as calling to me and my stories in turn responding in a conversation across space, time, and borders.
Drinking from Graveyard Wells is a genre-bending collection that blurs the lines between social horror, AfroSurrealism, and fantasy to tell the story of Black women taking on the patriarchy and capitalism. The golden nugget of AfroSurrealism for me is absurdity. In the story, “The Carnivore’s Lollipop” an exploited gig worker might just protest corporate greed that strips workers of their humanity by commanding flesh eating ants to consume the corrupt billionaire that laid off workers. I imagined her and the group of fed-up workers playing Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” as they march on the billionaire’s mansion, ravenous ants in tow. This poem which is set to music opens with the lines,
You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
This is a call-to-action that when the revolution comes, there will be no room for passive consumption. The characters in “The Carnivore’s Lollipop” become active participants in a worker’s revolution.
The revolution will not be televised
Will not be televised
The revolution will be live
The last lines evoke presence, that the revolution will be live, here, and now in the present. Presence is a key element of AfroSurrealism which renders the absurdity of the RIGHT NOW, of the contemporary Black experience. In the collection, I explore horrors of the present and so Gil Scott Heron’s words felt like an anthem for the entire book.
This Beyonce ballad is about a lover slowly drifting away until they are gone, about realizing that you love someone after they are no longer in your life. I imagine the main character in the title story, “Drinking from Graveyard Wells,” listening to this song after the guy she has a crush on disappears. In this story, a neighborhood gossip wakes up one day to find that houses in her neighborhood are mysteriously vanishing in the night, along with the families in those houses. The question of where are the houses going and who is next to be disappeared hangs over the people left behind. This cosmic horror story about gentrification, neocolonialism and water scarcity due to government negligence is also a love story about what it means to be pulled apart by forces beyond your control.
“Water No Get Enemy” brings together Fela Kuti’s soulful saxophone along with evocative lyrics based on a Yoruba proverb about the power of nature and living in harmony with the environment. In my story, “Water Bites Back” freshwater mermaids defend the environment by taking on corrupt politicians who seek to destroy the environment and pollute their waters in the name of so-called human progress and economic development. As I was listening to this song and drafting the story, I was thinking of Ubuntu. The southern African philosophy often translated to “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” Humans have a symbiotic relationship with each other and the planet we live on yet with our consumption we act like we are above the ecosystems that we are part of. Fela Kuti reminds us that we must work alongside nature and the mermaids in my story caution humanity that we are just one species on a diverse and rich planet.
This song is in the imperative register, repeating the lyrics “Bvuma! wasakara” which means admit it or accept that you are worn out and old. The song has long been taken as a criticism of Zimbabwe’s late dictator Mugabe who ruled well into his nineties. This scathing song is in conversation with my story, “Turtle Heart” about an immortal leader who will not leave the seat of power and what it means to live under an authoritarian regime in perpetuity.
This rap song about immigrant labor and the sacrifices immigrants make in leaving home to make a home elsewhere is the anthem for the story, “Home Back a Thing With Thorns” about the surreal experience of being an immigrant. In this story, immigrants have to give up something that they love in order to become citizens and they don’t know what the state will take until its gone. The state priests can take body parts, family members, a skill, language, recipes etc in a sordid naturalization ceremony. At the beginning of the story an artist loses his eyes to the state.
This song by Zimbabwean musician Chiwoniso is actually a cover of the same song by legend Thomas Mapfumo, I like to think of them as calling and responding to each other. It starts with the ethereal melody of the mbira. The word “zvichapera” has two meanings for me in the song. One asks the question “when will it end?” and the other is an affirmative statement that “it will end/ this too shall pass.” “Swimming with Crocodiles” is one of the realist stories in the collection about a war veteran grappling with the broken promise of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and the ongoing oppressive climate that Zimbabweans continue to live under. When I think of my homeland, I often ask myself “when will it end? And a small radically hopeful voice answers “it will end. This too shall pass.”
“Ngeke Bengimele” is a rap song in Ndebele which means “They can’t stand me.” I would consider this the soundtrack for “Three Deaths and The Ocean of Time.” This time travel story engages with an East African non-linear conceptualization of time which hypothesizes that time is actually moving backwards not forward. That as we age, we move not toward a future but towards the past, toward death and a yesterday where we will all be forgotten. So there is only the present and the past and no future, and that the idea of a future is an illusion. The character in this story is the descendant of a Ndebele queen and uses this conceptualization of time as a mechanism to time travel to speak with her ancestor that has been written out of history by male historians. Awa addresses misogyny in rap and spits, “I’m still here, I’m still Queen.” Both the song and my story are about cherishing the present moment while refusing to be erased.
Yvette Lisa Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean sarungano and an MFA student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who received her BA from Cornell University. Her work has been supported by fellowships from the Tin House Workshop, Bread Loaf Writers Workshop, and the New York State Summer Writers Institute.