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Drinking from Graveyard Wells

This week, Don reviews “Drinking from Graveyard Wells” by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu.

Yvette Lisa Ndlovu is a writer from Zimbabwe who is completing her MFA at U. Mass-Amherst. She identifies as a sarungano, which translates to both story and storyteller in the oral tradition. These 14 stories, none of which is what one would call realistic, are set in Zimbabwe, which used to be called Rhodesia, and in an unnamed America, although it would be more accurate to say most are set in no particular earthly place. They are folktales, myths, allegories, dreams, nightmares, superstitions, fairy tales and magic, a lot of magic.

“Plumtree: True Stories” is in fact a collection of folk tales, stories of marriage and virginity ceremonies, and one old witch who sells lightning in a bottle. Some veer closer to everyday reality than others. “Home Becomes a Thing with Thorns” is a particularly poignant, painful story. In this piece, the narrator, a young woman, tells of the high price of becoming a citizen in a new land. Her friend Jabu is an artist, a painter who paints scenes of their homeland from memory. That homeland, presumably Zimbabwe under the dictator, has a beautiful blue sky, but has become a thing with thorns. It is now ruled by a quartet of shavis, or evil spirits: Disease, War, Poverty, Corruption. It is impossible to live there, to go back there. The narrator says “I will sacrifice anything to stay here.”

The “naturalization priest” who performs the ceremony exacts a stiff price on each new citizen. He takes the artist Jabu’s eyes. Another character loses his entire family. Our narrator declares at the end: “I don’t know who I am.” She has, as an immigrant, lost herself.

“The Carnivore’s Lollipop” seems to be in set in Zimbabwe, but might have taken place anywhere. The situation is desperate. Hyperinflation has gutted the currency. A clever scoundrel has developed a complicated con game involving ants. The desperate and unemployed buy a box of black ants for 1,500 dollars, then feed the ants delicacies like lamb chops or organic dragon fruit and sell the ants back for $1,700 for a while. The narrator gets extra pay for enrolling new customers into the pyramid scheme. When the scoundrel CEO dissolves the company and flees, outrage and riots ensue.

The title story, “Drinking from Graveyard Wells,” describes a different, unexpected loss. In our narrator’s impoverished neighborhood, one by one, houses and their inhabitants are disappearing. In the morning, there is nothing there: “An empty spot where a house should be.” Is there a pattern? Most of the missing are poor, lonely people. The authorities, in this story and most others, are indifferent. In upscale Borrowdale Brook, no houses, no families go missing. The narrator’s Christian mother recites The Beatitudes. Somewhat sarcastically, the narrator wonders: if her house and she disappear, where will she wake up? “Perhaps tomorrow I will meet God. Perhaps tomorrow I will inherit the earth.”

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.