Temporalities of (Re)Naming: The Zimbabwean City Past and Present in Petina Gappah’s Rotten Row


  • Lena Englund Åbo Akademi University


Petina Gappah, Rotten Row, renaming, temporality, Zimbabwean city, buried city


The act of renaming cities, streets and other locations as part of nation-building processes carries political and historical significance, emphasizing a concrete shift from a colonial past to the present moment. After Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, a number of cities, municipalities and streets were renamed. This shift is also visible in contemporary literature, perhaps most prominently in Petina Gappah’s short story collection Rotten Row from 2016, where not only cities and streets are renamed but inhabitants too take on new names. The aim of this paper is to examine the role and place of the past in Gappah’s short stories through the act of renaming the Zimbabwean city and its inhabitants. Rotten Row manifests a new urban temporality where time goes beyond being a simple, singular continuum; stories in the collection do not appear in chronological order and the lives of characters intersect as they often appear or are alluded to in several stories. The paper draws on, among others, Ndhlovu’s study of Zimbabwean place names (2009) combining it with temporal perspectives originating in philosophy and human geography. Does the colonial past remain a burden to be cast off or can it coexist with these new urban identities? The process of renaming the Zimbabwean city and its inhabitants in Rotten Row exposes layers of the past and this process is here examined as an act of temporal excavation. Rotten Row also shows that nothing stays buried, least of all the past.


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