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Book Review: The Polygamist by Sue Nyathi

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Quote: "Reading the book creates a feeling of having an intimate and passionate conversation (or gossip) with a friend who has safely tucked away her judging spectacles. It is a light read and has a chatty flavour, but the message is heavy..."

How Sue Nyathi describes herself:

I became Sue because my 3rd grade teacher was unable to pronounce my full name, Sukoluhle - a Ndebele name which means "Beautiful Day". I guess it must have been for my parents when I made my debut into this world 34 years ago. My love affair with books began at a young age. I loved to read and books transported me beyond the borders of Bulawayo where I grew up with my three siblings.

 

As I got older, my passion for reading eventually translated itself into a desire to write. In high school, I gained popularity through my books which were circulated like a rental DVD. All my classmates figured I would become a bestselling author but as life had it I ended up studying finance and investment at University. Nonetheless this did not diminish my first love - writing. Even though I worked in financial markets I would nurture my writing after hours. The economic demise of Zimbabwe forced me to seek opportunities in the Diaspora. Incidentally, it is in Johannesburg where the doors to the world of publishing were opened to me.

Writing for me is pure escapism especially from an arduous role as a consultant in an economic development and strategic planning firm. When I'm not chasing deadlines I love to let my locks down and relax. For me this means being in the company of family and friends, enjoying good food and good wine with a generous helping of love and laughter. Of course there has to be good music playing in the background. Certain songs narrate the episodes in my life.
The Polygamist Book Review:

Gender empowerment and female emancipation are narratives of change ardently addressed in many societies. The third of the UN millennium development goals is the empowerment of women and achieving gender equality; depicting just how engrossed the world is in discussions of equality and empowerment.

However, to clearly examine issues of gender empowerment, one has to delve into the private and every-day living of men and women and observe how, sexuality, gender identities and stereotypes are constantly (re)constructed and negotiated. Zimbabwe born author, Sue Nyathi, delves deep into the lives of four women passionately drawn to a wealthy and powerful man, Jonas Gomora. She succeeds in making their private lives both public and political in her debut book "The Polygamist".

Set in modern-day Zimbabwe, "The Polygamist" reminds its readers of the once rich and flourishing country. Nonetheless, it is the every-day living of ordinary individuals that makes the book a page-turner. Joy is Jonas Gomora's first wife. Having been raised in a well off family, she represents everything Jonas wants in life. What Jonas wants, he gets. She supports him as he rises up the ladders of power and wealth, and thinks she knows how to exemplify and satisfy him as a wife, until she meets his second wife, Matipa. Matipa is an ambitious and educated woman who loves the powerful and finer things in life, and this includes Jonas.

Essie - Jonas's first love and childhood friend - is the only woman Jonas feels he can be himself with, without having to prove his wealth. Lindani is the youngest. She has the beauty and the body and is not afraid to use it to get men who will give her a comfortable life. As Jonas gets older, Lindani becomes the woman he sees to feel in control, validate his masculinity, and quench his insatiable appetite for women.

The story is narrated through the thoughts, actions and dialogue of these women. The imagined reader is offered a dynamic representation and characterisation of women in African societies and African literature: shrewd, feisty, sexy, and somewhat self-absorbed.

The author is refreshingly and brutally frank, delving into the erotic by describing sex and sexuality as sources of pleasure and power not only for the man but more importantly and radically - at least among African female authors - for the women. Early philosophers, such as Michael Foucault have equated sexual relations to social relations, thereby establishing the intricate correlation between power and sexuality. Nyathi writes of a hyper sexualised modern African society, where women are preoccupied with money, spectacular dressing, their bodies and sex as a source of self-pleasure and power.

Reading the book creates a feeling of having an intimate and passionate conversation (or gossip) with a friend who has safely tucked away her judging spectacles. It is a light read and has a chatty flavour, but the message is heavy.

The author employs an old tradition, polygamy, to tease out issues of sensual enfranchisement and victimhood in modern African societies. I am reminded of Nigerian womanist and literary critic Chikwenye Ogunemi's analysis of the re-construction of polygamous marriages in modern Nigeria. She is keen to note that many young women now opt for a polygamous marriage to enjoy the security - financial and otherwise - of having a husband and the freedom of him not being at home all the time. Nyathi explores the grey areas between agency and victim in modern day polygamy.

Nyathi further unpacks different forms of female friendship and solidarity in cloaked oppressive places. She explores the silent spaces occupied by gender based violence, marital rape, choice (dis)ability and HIV/AIDS among middle class and upper class women; women who consider themselves empowered. She cleverly employs popular literature to articulate how social and biological epidemics are unbiased of economic and social position. More importantly, the author has been able to capture how androcentrism in modern African societies has evolved, and how women unconsciously continue to enable the very system that seeks to oppress them.

There is a thin line between victimhood and empowerment in Nyathi's book. And she cunningly leaves it to the readers to decide where to draw that line.

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