The wretched of the earth are not meant to make art, we are supposed to be too busy surviving. (“Home Became a Thing With Thorns”)
The Wright Brothers were not the first to find flight. There are other histories, other sciences not recorded, but in this world when something is not written down, it does not exist. (“Plumtree: True Stories”)
There are some books that have weight beyond ink and page. They shimmer surreal yet carve a tangible space in their reader, deep enough to wound, or scar, or reshape. Not every enjoyable book has to be a marvel like this, but when one arrives, it commands attention, its impending impact evident. It’s a rare and precious find, this specific sort of experience, all the rarer for it to come in a debut story collection.
That is what you can expect with Yvette Lisa Ndlovu’s Drinking From Graveyard Wells. Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean sarungano whose work has been acclaimed and anthologized for years, and now she publishes a debut story collection that should position her, unequivocally, as a writer to watch, a star on the rise. Catch your breath now, because once you open these pages it will belong to the expert, poetic pace of Ndlovu’s prose.
These fourteen stories channel the voices of African women at home or within the diaspora. They traverse monstrosity and magic, hopelessness and resistance, the surreal realities of Zimbabwean womanhood under the Mugabe dictatorship. Ndlovu explores the intimacies of violent colonialism: the manifestations of appropriation, the supervillainy of capitalist selfishness, and the physical, intentional cruelty. She speaks specificity into wound, literalizes the inhumanity that is the post-apocalyptic mechanism of Western colonialism. She’s also brilliantly funny and often wry, breathing life into gods and inviting her readers to laugh through fury at the absurdity of imperialist ignorance. She wields this genre, the blade catching the light slightly differently in every story, evidencing her sheer skill and the versatility of her craft.
“Home Became a Thing With Thorns” explores the charged, choiceless sacrifice of “citizenship.” In “Ugly Hamsters,” a Black college student finds her fortune in the hands of a disaffected goddess navigating her Creator’s corrupt bureaucracy. The narrator of “Three Deaths and the Ocean of Time” is haunted by her ancestor, one of many African women heroes kept out of told and written history. In “Second Place is the First Loser,” a young woman reflects on how a trip home with a young white male peer begets a ravenous exploitative entitlement we now know by its thieved spelling as Lyft. “When Death Comes to Find You” invites you to ask, have you lived?
Who gets to define a woman’s virtue? How can a descendent know herself when her legacy has been burned, re-written by her people’s invaders? Where in your body do you carry the weight of your inheritance—your shoulders, your feet, your fists? The monster of neocolonialist capitalism is a ravenous thing, churning in its demand for fresh meat. Gentrification is a goddamn horror story. Ndlovu interrogates this and more with a shrewd eye, delivering visceral, exhilarating and at times excruciating work.
This is a deeply cohesive collection, ambitious and expertly executed. Devastating and hopeful in turn yet always resonant, each story successfully stands alone and feels integral at once, carefully placed in emotional context. Lines as clear and fraught as poetry. Worldbuilding immersive and masterful. The result is a volume that flows with its own rhythm. Each unlocks a door into the truth of the world and lets the light in, lets the blood out. Ndlovu’s voice is transportive and commanding. She writes with earned confidence, braiding motifs of tangible sacrifice, the many manifestations of imperial theft, and, in the face of unimaginable, unsurvivable monstrosity—love. Here is memory as tool, as resurrection. Storytelling as a means to unbury, unearth, remake. There’s a spare elegance to this command of prose. These are sentences you want to carve in stone or burn into the earth or shout into the biggest patch of night you can find.
Drinking from Graveyard Wells is a carefully constructed microcosm of soul and choice, rage and ache and love and legacy. While this writing is urgent, it also encourages you to take your time with this collection. Sit with it, savor. Because it will sit with you. Ndlovu confronts the indignity, the absurdity, the base inhumanity of racism within colonizers who have deluded themselves into mistaking their short-sighted selfishness for superiority. Blood diamonds and generational trauma. Shame and guilt and what it means to be a good daughter, grief and border and sacrifice. The many ways we matter to each other, the many ways we are capable of harm. These spirits come alive, at times in vengeance, certainly vindication. Ndlovu writes deftly, her approaches grounded yet electrifyingly creative, mesmeric, haunting and true.
This is a remarkable debut. Drinking from Graveyard Wells announces an astonishing fresh talent in Yvette Lisa Ndlovu. An utter triumph.
Drinking from Graveyard Wells is published by University Press of Kentucky.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Fil-Am and Jewish writer and poet. They have a short story forthcoming in the YA anthology Night of the Living Queers (Wednesday Books, 2023). She works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel. Find them on Twitter (@mayagittelman) or Instagram (@bookshelfbymaya).