Little Stones and Potholes in the Road: A conversation with Elizabeth Kuiper

By Janelle Koh in conversation with Elizabeth Kuiper | 11 Sep 19
Joshua Davis

Elizabeth Kuiper’s Little Stones opens with the image of a Shell petrol station logo with the words, “MUGABE MUST GO” scrawled across it in black paint. This is Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe; a world of gas rations, fragile economies and persistent racial tensions. It is a world rife with human rights issues, but is also a world dense with humanity, culture and community, as seen by a ten-year-old girl.

Little Stones’ protagonist is one Hannah Reynolds, a young white Zimbabwean girl. Through Hannah’s eyes, Little Stones moves adeptly from peanut butter sandwiches to gas rations, from playdates to political protests, with a naivete that is both precocious, but also deeply observant of a Zimbabwe that so often escapes the eye of the Western media.

“Part of what I tried to achieve with the book was tackling the idea that Africa is homogenous, and that the countries are all interchangeable…A lot of people tend to conflate what was happening in South Africa with what was happening in Zimbabwe, even though they had very different political histories.”

little stones

Elizabeth Kuiper’s ‘Little Stones’

This Zimbabwe is not just Hannah’s, but belongs also in part to Kuiper, who describes the book as “fiction that is heavily inspired by my own personal experiences”. Indeed, many of the images of Zimbabwe are drawn from Kuiper’s own childhood growing up in Zimbabwe, many of which appear in the book with a vivid clarity:

“I ran my hands along the cabinets in the kitchen, across the great wooden table that was too big to take with us, over the heavy walls of the hallway, into the master bedroom. I touched the teak dresser where Nana would sit me down and comb my hair, where she displayed all her lipsticks and bottles of perfume with big atomisers attached… I went to the lounge room where I had spent all my Christmases, sitting on the floor in my pool of presents as Barry White played through the hi-fi that was now sitting in the boot of the car. I went outside to the garden. I could hear Mum calling for me, but I had to say goodbye.”

The novel is dense with the imagery of childhood, suffused with the nostalgia of recollection, yet Kuiper does not merely wax lyrical about her childhood.

“The book was all about unpacking my privilege, and Hannah’s privilege as a white person, and never is that so clear when you’re dealing with refugees who are unable to seek asylum in Australia, whereas someone who is white and middle class like me, is able to leave a violent country, simply because of who we are.”

Thinly veiled behind Hannah’s childish naivete is the political reality of a life lived in Zimbabwe, one which Kuiper cleverly figures and critiques. This is evident in the first chapter of the book, where Hannah listens in to a conversation between her mother and her grandparents, where references are made to the land invasions that occurred during the reign of Mugabe. During this time, armed gangs known as “war veterans” would invade and take the land of white land-owners, seizures that were sanctioned by Mugabe himself.

“ ‘They’ve taken all the land in Norton, now they’re hitting Kadona,’ Grandpa said.

‘Aren’t Cliff and Sharon in Kadoma?’

‘They are.’

Mum,’ I insisted. ‘I don’t want us to give our farm away to another family.’

‘Another family?’ Mum sought clarification.

‘The Warvets.’”

It is at such moments in the book that Kuiper reveals herself as a politically astute observer, one who is deeply conscious of both her character’s own childishness, as well as her own privilege as a white, wealthy Zimbabwean. As Hannah and the book develops, her own innocence gives way at times to prescient insights about the state of Zimbabwe:

“They say that if a frog is dropped into boiling water, it will jump out. But if the same frog is placed in a pan of tepid water, which is gradually brought to the boil, it will stay until it dies. The erosion of infrastructure and depletion of the dollar did not happen overnight. There were people who had the means to flee, but chose to stay, adjusting to the heat.”

While the book sweeps through a range of issues, be it women’s bodies or queer politics, it is the questions of race, class and belonging which underpin Little Stones, and the Zimbabwe that Hannah grows up in. Through Hannah’s relationship with Gogo, a Shona woman who lived with and worked for the Reynolds, Kuiper attempts to hold on steadfastly to representations of Shona culture and heritage, in particular the importance of preserving Indigenous languages in Zimbabwe.  Characters such as Hannah’s father asks her why she is learning Shona, when “no one does business in Shona”, while Hannah’s Shona teacher, Mrs Muduma chides a Shona student for not knowing “the most basic words in your [her] own language”. Through such characters, Little Stones explores what Kuiper describes as “a devaluing of the Shona language, and by proxy the Shona people,” a critique that runs throughout the book.

“I think it goes without saying that language is so integral to peoples’ sense of culture, belonging and identity; and I think that what was so brutal about colonialism, both in Zimbabwe and Australia is that as a result of colonial violence, the Indigenous inhabitants of the country lost a lot of their language, and when you lose your language and your ability to connect and communicate with people, you do end up losing a lot of yourself.”

While Kuiper wholeheartedly supports the preservation of Indigenous languages in her book, she recognises the ambivalence of language too, and how the rhetorical power of Indigenous rights is liable to be misused.

Kuiper tells me about how the Mugabe regime’s attempts to cling to power were forged on the basis of a rhetoric of reconciliation and reparation. This rhetoric lead to the ‘taking back’ of white farmer’s lands by way of reparation in Zimbabwe, a move which completely destabilised the Zimbabwean economy. In our conversation, both of us recognised the resonance of this language today in Australia, and the importance it has for the processes of treaty and self-determination for Indigenous Australians – yet, its’ misuse in the Zimbabwean context provides a lesson of history that Little Stones does not shy away from.

“That’s what the tricky part is in the book, trying to convey that I understand the rhetoric [of reconciliation and reparation], I understand its’ anti-colonialism, but at the same time, there were white people who lost their livelihoods, and [it’s about] trying to balance those competing consequences.”

Little Stones exudes a thoughtful ambivalence, one wrapped up in the novel’s carefully chosen title. As Kuiper explains it to me:

“It [Little Stones]’ refers to this part of the book…where Hannah and her Mum are driving over these incredibly dangerous potholed roads in Zimbabwe. The people off the street would try to fix the road, trying to find bricks from a construction site or leaves or stones to try and plug up the road. Obviously it didn’t last long, but to me that symbolised a lot of things. It symbolised the insecurity and hard work of people of Zimbabwe, but also this country in trouble.”

Little Stones captures the sweetness of childhood is balanced against the sourness of political unrest; of a political rhetoric that sounds very good, but looks very bad. The novel lands not on the good or the bad, but the bittersweet – a life lived, as it is for many of us, in the in-between.