Beyond allegorical – Fellows’ seminar by Maria Olaussen

8 December 2022
Speaking otherwise about human-animal relations in NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory                                                                                                    

“When animals speak in literary texts, we often read them as allegorical animals, expressing concerns by and for the human. Literary critics increasingly try to turn away from the allegorical mode, insisting on readings that focus on what the text expresses about animal life and trying to reveal the values concerning animals that form the basis of such figures of speech,” said Maria Olaussen of the School of Languages and Literatures, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. “In my project on speaking animals in African fiction, I look at the animal figure in novels that depict the vulnerability of human societies in the face of political repression or environmental disaster and rapid social change. Animals in contemporary African fiction nearly all deal with political opposition in public spaces, they deal with the colonial legacy of land, animals and environment as well as reflections on art and creativity. There is also a comprehensive relationship to the oral tradition.”

STIAS Fellow Maria Olaussen

Olaussen’s interdisciplinary project, which draws on animal studies, environmental humanities and socio-historical studies, deals with the representation of the narrating animal in present-day African texts in English, French and Portuguese.

In her seminar, she focused on NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel Glory and the challenges the animal figures in this novel present in moving beyond the allegorical animal. Bulawayo worked on Glory whilst she was Artist-in-Residence at STIAS in 2019 and it was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.

“I was excited to hear Bulawayo was writing about animals,” said Olaussen. She explained that Jidada (the kingdom in which Glory is set) is populated by farm animals and the work is directed both at the 2017 coup that ousted Mugabe and the Gukurahundi genocide between 1983 and 1987 in which the notorious 5th Brigade was tasked with violently eliminating the political opposition.

“Due to the ever-present censorship in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo had to look for ways of reworking these experiences in novel form,” said Olaussen. “The preface points to both the influence of Orwell’s Animal Farm and oral traditions passed from her grandmother. These are very different legacies with different expectations.”

Animal Farm, published in 1945, was an allegorical commentary and critique of Communist Russia from the 1917 Revolution through the Stalinism period. It’s set on a farm run by animals who, initially free and equal, over time become increasingly repressed and difficult to tell apart from humans. The often-repeated quote from the book is: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’.

Breaking with the form

In a strict allegorical form symbols are used to convey hidden or ulterior meanings, typically moral or political ones – using one thing to stand in for a different, hidden idea.

“Allegory is basically an extended metaphor,” said Olaussen. “We are invited to look beyond the surface story and, in the case of using animals in this form, expected to look away from the animal to the human.”

Allegories reach beyond literary texts, and are used in everyday life to structure experience. However, the meaning doesn’t make sense unless we know what an animal character means in a particular cultural context.

Although allegory is often used for protection and to allow less direct critique, Glory is very politically explicit and direct.

“One review said it was an original and real-life account,” said Olaussen. “The allegory doesn’t protect anyone. Bulawayo also does not sustain the form. For example, in the social-media scenes she picks up the voices of people living in turmoil, responding to an actual event which is not usually what an allegorical novel does.”

“The allegory does not conform to our expectations,” she continued. “It doesn’t follow the usual patterns. It’s something more dynamic. The novel combines features of the oral tradition with the novel form and therefore needs to be read as encompassing more than what we would normally see in an allegory.”

Olaussen also pointed out that some reviewers have said that because the animals are given arbitrary categorisation they don’t conform to what we have received from the oral tradition. “It’s difficult to think about some of the characteristics as those of animals and they question why certain animals have been used for certain purposes.”

“Bulawayo’s gesture towards the oral traditions of animal tales is important but the farm animals in Glory do not always conform to our expectations. They use cellphones and communicate on twitter, they drive cars, dress and use cooking utensils and they represent different ethnicities, religious and racial groups, irrespective of their animal identities,” explained Olaussen. “Even the crocodile turns out to be a myth, it doesn’t come into its full ‘crocodileness’.”

Olaussen also pointed out that when Glory depicts suffering due to political violence, it refers to specific historical incidents of politically motivated atrocities and the animal characters experience and remember these directly as violence against humans. This means they remain unconnected to the deeper racialised discourses around land, environment and animal welfare produced by the political crisis. The allegory does not build on animal suffering leaving out references to events involving the torture and killing of farm animals in Zimbabwe which was a feature of some of the state-endorsed land expropriation and was covered in many literary works (including Cathy Buckle’s Can you hear the drums and Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight).

Another interesting aspect is that Bulawayo introduces ethnicity and race as something that divides the animals in Glory adding a specific form of anthropomorphism described by some critics as “too much”.

“How are we to read such an insistence on the anthropocentric in the depiction of these animal figures in Glory?” asked Olaussen. She offered a reading that points to the use of Animal Farm as a metonymy (a figure of speech in which a concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with it), “a general expression of the political situation, taken up and used in the novel as part of a pattern of call and response, inspired by oral traditions”. Olaussen believes Glory develops intertextual references, not only to Animal Farm or animal suffering, but to other novels that have come before depicting atrocities committed against humans – primarily to the work of fellow Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera (whose last work before her death in 2005 was The Stone Virgins).

In discussion, the sense of Bulawayo’s whimsicality and playful exploration of a new form was raised, as well as the need for more exploration of the linking of animals and clans in African cultures, and the use of English to avoid censorship in Zimbabwe.

“You can do more in a novel published in English,” said Olaussen. “It’s less of a target for the censors. English novels are too expensive for most Zimbabweans therefore it isn’t going to be as widely distributed. Graffiti, street performance and public activism are more likely to get you into trouble – for example, Tsitsi Dangarembgwa was arrested for activism, not her writing.”

“I think it’s also a gesture to a larger tradition,” she added. “Breaking out of Zimbabwe to the global context.”

“In offering a different interpretation to the standard repertoires, Bulawayo offers new ways of thinking of writing animals,” she concluded. “You get a feeling of community, of producing a story out of a living moment.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan

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