The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane. Archipelago Books. $18.00, 494 pp.
In the novel The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy, by Paulina Chiziane, fidelity is not scarce but actually in abundance. The reader just has to broaden their definition of what being faithful is, especially when the author puts it to the test in a story where five women realize that they all have been married to the same husband. This renewed concept of fidelity will have little to do with blind obedience because by the end of the story the women begin to have more faith in their own abilities to acquire work, new relationships, and independence on their own terms.
While the wives hold different opinions about how marriage has been redefined by westernized and non-western laws in their homeland of Mozambique, they all quietly address how they have witnessed or endured gendered violence against women. Polygamy is not seen as the alternative to monogamy but rather an exaggeration of it. Instead of promising to provide for one household, one has to devote a lot of time to several of them. The wives dig deep to realize that if they work together they can decide what rules from this arrangement can best help them, including their choice of the next new wife for their husband.
Do not be dismayed by the heavy plot. The First Wife is a novel that, like the main character Rami (the first wife) implores readers to “feel the weight” of her inherited position in a landscape that is made up of multiple cultures and influences. What Chiziane brings to the intimate and complex history of gender relations and colonialism that occupy the setting of her novel is a sense of humor. Upon finding out that her husband Tony has been seeing other women, Rami quips with confusion, “Modesty apart, I’m the most perfect woman in the world.” By the time she reacquaints herself with all the women in her life, not just the other wives but also the women in the marketplace and the elderly women in her family, including her mother-in-law, Tony’s nostalgia-based fantasies about gender roles pale in comparison to the everyday reality of experiencing resilience for this community. Even during their emotionally intense arguments, Rami’s humor emerges when she half-jokingly says, “You’re right, Tony, women nowadays just have no sense at all. Why don’t you go and marry my grandmother?”
The neighborly conversations among both men and women awaken Rami when she realizes that her desire all along was for everyone,
To advance together at the same speed. To view the horizon from the same perspective. Love is the two pans on a set of scales, each one lifting the other until divine equilibrium is achieved.
These advances come from a place of great empathy, where human difference is recognized as a strength and not a weakness. That “same” perspective is really a common hope that there will be a future for everyone in the community, not just for a select few within each family. This observation is also remarked by the second wife, Julieta, when she says, “We’re fighting because we’ve got things in common, see?” She does not mean this crudely, in that all of these wives have a limited pool of resources from their one husband. They also have the same need for opportunity and representation outside the home.
In an interview with The Paris Review, writer Mia Couto reflected, “We have a saying in Mozambique—women don’t have a tribe. This proverb evokes women’s capacity to cross boundaries and create more cohesive and harmonious identities.” However, Chiziane, the first Mozambican woman to publish a novel in her country, writes in The First Wife, “In my husband’s land, I’m a foreigner. In my parents’ land, I’m merely passing through . . . No woman has a home in this land.” I do not see these two perspectives as irreconcilable, rather they capture what changing boundaries can both bring and take away from a character like Rami who observes, “But traditions are born and die, like life” with such a matter of fact tone. Perhaps all of these changes, which have both given and taken loved ones away from each character, have led to a shared difficulty in expressing suffering.
What will happen to Couto’s warm enthusiasm and Chiziane’s chilled criticism over time? Hopefully more translations of their work will continue to be sought after anyway. To be clear, Chiziane’s views are not cynical. There is a brainy passion that erupts from all of the characters in The First Wife. Polygamy is not just used as a marriage plot but also as a metaphor for a system that is “out of control,” where one State is married to multiple exchange systems and whose children will inherit many histories to sort through once they become the heads of their own households and the next generation’s postcolonial writers.
Nirmala Jayaraman received a B.A. in Anthropology from Union College, Schenectady, NY. She has written book reviews for Allegra Lab: Anthropology, Law Art & World, the British Psychological Society’s The Psychologist, Anthropology & Aging, Anthropology, Bookforum, and Somatosphere.
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