Elizabeth Kuiper’s Little Stones (UQP) is KYD’s First Book Club pick for June. Read Elizabeth’s Shelf Reflection column, Ellen Cregan’s review of the novel, and join us at 6:30 TONIGHT for an in-conversation event at Bargoonga Nganjin, North Fitzroy Library!
My childhood home in Zimbabwe is the most beautiful place I’ve lived in – and having moved houses roughly 11 times in 23 years, there has been competition. That home is the one I pictured when writing Little Stones. I remember the warm light-yellow walls and the terracotta living-room tiles which absorbed heat from the sunlight that poured through the sliding-glass doors – these were the tiles I sat on to paint and draw pictures on weekend afternoons. The garden had everything a kid could want: a swimming pool, a wendy house (‘cubby’ in Australia) and a tyre swing, plus plenty of trees to climb and bugs to find. Sprawling nasturtiums lined one side of the brick driveway. I remember watching my grandfather pluck one and pop it in his mouth to show me they were edible, then tasting the peppery plant for myself.
Even years after we’d left Zimbabwe, I was able to close my eyes and feel as though I were there. But putting things in writing caused me to second-guess myself. I started to wonder if my past truly resembled the vision I held in my mind. Was the garden as expansive and alive as I had remembered, or did it just feel that way because everything is big and brimming with potential adventure when you’re young and smaller? It’s not uncommon for one to doubt the accuracy of long-held memories, especially those from childhood. But for me, the concern was greater than the possibility of writing something inaccurate. It was a fear that the memories I kept alive in my mind, that I retreated to for comfort, that connected me to my past, may not be real. If my sense of identity is the product of my memories – those formative early experiences with the world – and these memories had strayed from their basis in reality, what would I have left?
If my sense of identity is the product of my formative early experiences, and these memories had strayed from their basis in reality, what would I have left?
In the summer of 2016–17, my mum and I returned to Zimbabwe for a holiday. At this point, I’d already started working on my book in earnest. I didn’t know what was going to come of it or if I’d even share the story with anyone but myself. I did wonder, though, whether the trip would somehow alter my perception of the past and if new memories might supplant old ones.
My childhood home was sold to Phillip Chiyangwa: an entrepreneur, ZANU-PF member and Robert Mugabe’s nephew. He is a man my mother has repeatedly described as incredibly charming and charismatic. The Zimbabwean media casts him as a flamboyant businessman at times, a corrupt land baron at others. When she sold the house to him, Chiyangwa had planned to use the building for his personal office space. On our second or third day back in Zim, we set out to visit it. As we drove over, I realised my recollections of the leafy Alexandra Park suburb had held true. Great, big trees reached across the road to embrace their neighbours, forming a thick canopy overhead. The verges were now completely overgrown, but still green and lush in a way that showcased the fertile nature of the land – I couldn’t be convinced that this untamed slice of nature was anything but beautiful.
Pulling up to the familiar address at the end of the street, we spotted something of a construction site: a half-finished, multistorey building looming ominously over the top of the fence, where the brick driveway would’ve been. Shortly after we arrived, the old black gate was peeled open a fraction and a man appeared, asking us to explain our presence. My mum told him we used to live there many years ago – a lifetime ago – and asked if we could take a look around. The man regarded us with suspicion but opened the gate further and led us through. There we saw not one half-built concrete edifice but two. The rest was rubble. The only thing left that resembled anything close to our past life was the pool – empty, save for a small puddle of algae-filled water in the deep end.
Before returning to visit my childhood home, I’d had to let go of the fear of losing my memories. Before writing my book, I had to do the same.
From the poolside we attempted to orient ourselves and piece together where our home would’ve been. The man relaxed somewhat, presumably realising we were genuinely nostalgic visitors and not there to cause any trouble. He informed us that several years before, Phillip Chiyangwa had set out to build a medical clinic on the land but, for one reason or another, the construction had stopped. Chiyangwa had been intermittently paying him as an informal security guard to keep squatters out, except he hadn’t been paid for many months now and the water had been turned off. We walked around some more, carefully scaling piles of bricks, skirting past a series of large solar panels on the ground that looked incongruous amongst the debris, and reached a spot where the man showed us a small crop of maize he had planted. Just nearby stood a small room, missing a roof, weeds poking through the cracks in the tiles – our old kitchen.
Before we left, the man introduced us to some of the people who had made one of the buildings their home. There was a fire going and some lunch preparation occurring, young kids running about and a sullen teenager playing what I recognised as Candy Crush on his iPhone. I realised that their presence was likely the reason the man had been wary of letting us in. We thanked him for allowing us onto the property; he’d humoured our sentimentality, even though there was little left to reminisce.
Before returning to visit my childhood home, I’d had to let go of the fear of losing my memories. Before writing my book, I had to do the same. But it was misguided of me to be so concerned; to think my return home as an adult would be akin to watching a magician turn off his smoke machine and reveal a hidden cabinet. I wasn’t time travelling. Things had changed. My house had changed. The country had changed. There was no objective truth of my past to be discovered. I only have what I can remember. The same was true for the writing process. Conducting research and learning more about my country as an adult didn’t bulldoze any memories or perceptions, nor my ability to write authentically from the perspective of a young girl. Quite the opposite: the more I researched and spoke to other people about their experiences, the more I remembered, synapses flaring as one event sparked the recollection of another. I figured it didn’t really matter, in the end, if the colours of the walls of my home were yellow, or oat-coloured, or even apricot. What matters, is that they were warm.
After we left the property that day, my mum shared the story of how she and I had come to live there. In 1996, she was finalising divorce proceedings in South Africa, planning a return to her home country of Zimbabwe, and needed to find a place to live in the city. My mum hadn’t seen the house in person before she bought it, relying solely on some photographs my grandmother had sent her in the mail. She told me that those photos helped her visualise a new start to life with her baby girl – not yet a year old – and it was what helped her through that tumultuous period. She’d hold the pictures of the house in her hands and think about how, once she got there, she’d put a safety net on the pool and paint the walls yellow.