How NoViolet Bulawayo wrote Glory

The Booker Prize-shortlisted author on how real-world politics informed the vibrant prose and astute allegory of her second novel.

It’s often said that authors have a whole life’s worth of inspiration for their first novel, and then just a short while to come up with their second. For NoViolet Bulawayo’s Booker Prize-shortlisted and Women's Prize-longlisted novel Glory, that wasn’t much of an issue: sometimes, she says, “you wake up one day to find an unexpected story on your lap.”

Bulawayo’s second novel, and the follow-up to her debut We Need New Names, is a subversive, savvy satire about oppression, colonialism, and the power of political rebellion, whose inspiration came from the real-life fall of tyrannical Zimbabwean president Robert G. Mugabe but is told in allegory: Glory is a story about the animal denizens of “a bountiful land not so far away” whose balanced way of life is upset by the arrival of brutal colonisers. From there, Bulawayo spins a yarn as dazzlingly entertaining as it is poignant, mixing fine-pointed parody with a powerful message about hope in the face of seeming futility.

Here, we ask Bulawayo about the evolution of her second novel, the influence of her Zimbabwean roots, and the real-world specificity that brings Glory to life.

What inspired you to write Glory, your second novel, when you did? 

The immediate inspiration was the dramatic fall by coup of Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe in 2017. It was one of those things that simply happens to you – you wake up one day to find an unexpected story on your lap, and so I guess I was fortunate in that way. I’m glad for the instinct to immediately recognise the promise in the story, which is what made me gather my notebooks and pens, go all in, and commit to the writing for the time that it took.

That said, the book changed along the way. At some point it was necessary to refocus it, inspired of course by everyday people I met during my research, people who may have been left out had I simply focused on Mugabe and other key figures in the larger political drama. It was the individual and collective circumstances of these common people, my friends and family included – their hopes, dreams, struggles and lives in general – that showed me where the real story was; hence Glory as we’re reading it now.

In what way did being from Zimbabwe influence the telling of this story?

There’s really no Glory without Zim, since the novel is essentially about the country – its past, present, and future, and of course with the question of the nation’s freedom very much at the centre. In this respect I’m writing within the robust Zimbabwean literary tradition of political writing.

I was fortunate enough to be able to move home for this book and experience something I wasn’t used to: being consistently immersed in my material. It meant the story wasn’t just at my fingertips, it was also in my mouth; I could just taste it. This enriched the work, whether it was in identifying compelling storylines, in the sharpness of detail, clarifying and translating the moods around different moments. And then there is of course the gift of style – aside from Zimbabwean-ness, this is a book that very much benefited from my Ndebele language, as well as the folklore tradition I grew up around. 

Social media plays a huge role in Glory. Was your intention to critique its role in society and, in particular, politics, or did you have other aims?

It was impossible to not give social media due space if the novel was to be truly situated in both the present times, in which the internet has an endless impact on our everyday lives (including, obviously, how we connect), and in the real story that inspired Glory – one that literally played out on, and was made famous by forums like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. I was also so interested in social media as a site of collective resistance and dreaming, in the pitfalls thereof, and how to synchronise it to struggles that play out in real sites on the ground for effective results.

From an artistic perspective, social media turned out to be a useful and innovative craft device, capable of doing things such as moving the story forward, of capturing the collective voice, as well as mood quite quickly. It also layers and complements the devices of the folklore tradition that drive the story, the combination of which – this author hopes – rejuvenates the novel form.

The theme of hope is woven throughout Glory, and provides a glimmer at its end too. Why did this feel crucial to the book?

Because the just and free country I am writing toward cannot be imagined otherwise. Believing it can be a reality – especially when the yoke of oppression, of tyranny, seems inescapable – requires a measure of hope. We know books alone won’t bring change (otherwise the world would be a far better place), but they do so much to help, sometimes even inspire the kinds of conversations that can, when combined with the right action, help us imagine how we arrive at better worlds.

Glory is out now.

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