Interview: Vera Yvonne by Farai Nyandoro

INTERVIEWS
‘Why I wrote this book’
Farai Nyandoro talks to the author of Nehanda, Yvonne Vera.
Sunday Gazette Magazine, September 26 1993

DYNAMITE comes in small packages. This would seem to be true of Yvonne Vera who
celebrated her 29th birthday on September 9, 1993.
Vera’s first novel, Nehanda, was released by Baobab Books at the Zimbabwe International Book
Fair in Harare last month.
For our interview, Yvonne wore a simple multi-coloured skirt and a black and white house. She
arrived promptly at our offices, a day before her departure for Canada where she is doing a
doctorate in English at York University in Toronto.
Aspiring writers usually experience hardships in their quest to break into print.
These frustrations have driven many to desperation. Albert Nyathi, chairman of the Budding
Writers’ Association of Zimbabwe has confirmed this dilemman. “Publishers are busy thinking
about money, just like recording companies, and would prefer to settle for established writers,” he
said in an interview with the Magazine.
Vera has not encountered such hurdles; her literary voyage has been smooting-sailing. “I was
never rejected, thank God”, she said with a tinge of modesty.
As a child, she wrote poems but did not take poetry seriously. This period of apprenticeship
helped to sharpen her writing skills. The poetic language, which abounds in Nehanda emanates
from this background.
It was only after staying in Canada that she developed a passion for writing seriously. Yvonne
said what stimulated her to immerse herself in writing is complex.
In this foreign land she felt marooned; she was culturally alienated. Writing became an attempt
to identify herself with her culture. To her, “the creative process was a revelation, a liberating
act”.
The only poem she wrote in Canada was inspired by the death of her friend’s father. It was a way
of expressing her sympathy. Thereafter, she began to explore new avenues and broaden her
horizons by venturing into short story and novel writing. She is now steeped into the genres.
Referring to Independence Day, her first story, Yvonne said, “My goal was not to be published. I
just wrote with a sense of excitement. To me, it was the adventure of it”.

The story impressed a friend, who facilitated its publication in a Nigerian newsapaper. Since
Yvonne received only a photocopy of the story, instead of the actual paper, which carried it, she
suspects that the story was never published.
Of the 20 stories she wrote later, she sent four to a publisher for consideration. She sent in the
rest of the stories after the four had been accepted. This effort culminated in the publication of
her volume, Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals, by Tsar Publications in 1992. the tile, which
was short-listed for the Commonwealth Prize (Africa Region) for the Best First Published Book,
will soon be available locally, following arrangements to have it published in Harare under
licence.
Yvonne flew to Vancouver to promote the book. While reading It is Over on the radio, she was
moved by the waning relationship between two characters in the story, a mother and her daughter
who had returned from the war. Yvonne ended up crying on the air. “Who am I to publish the
private lives of others?” she felt.
During our interview she read the part that had disturbed her with a sense of involvement etched
in her eyes.
The hackneyed photograph of Nehanda. She felt that the picture did not capture the vision, and
imagination of this epic woman. For Yvonne, who believes in ancestral worship, being able to
capture this element on paper was a fascinating exercise. It was a way of liberating Nehanda
“from tat photographic space”.
She then read Terence Ranger’s Revolt in Southern Rhodesia, to scout for raw material for her
novel. She spent some time before writing, to allow the creative egg within her to hatch, to avoid,
she said, producing a documentary. The outcome is a work that has a creative element. It
presents Nehanda’s birth and childhood, aspects that do not feature in history texts. Referring to
this situation, Chenjerai Hove sad: “Vera was interested in creating fiction out of historical
character. The Nehanda we find in her work is not historically validated”.
Yvonne, who describes the historical Nehanda as a “spectacle, a myth”, felt that ordinary
language would not capture this extraordinary dimension, hence the use of poetic language.
While Yvonne was lunching with Ranger in Bulawayo, where they met recently, the latter
expressed his appreciation of the novel. “He absolutely loved it and gave it an excellent review”,
said Yvonne adding that she was thrilled to get that sort of response from a historian of the stature
of Terence Ranger.
Although the manuscript for Nehanda was readily accepted, it had a few flaws, a point which
Yvonne acknowledged. Initially, she was reluctant to make adjustments, but now feels that the
changes improved the work. Commenting on how she reacts to criticism, she said: “If it is
coherent, I am receptive to it. If it is positive, I celebrate it”.

The man to whom the book is dedicated, Kupukile Mlambo, is a long-time friend of Mlambo, is a
long-time friend to Yvonne and is studying for a doctorate in Economics in Sweden.
Their 15-year-old friendship has its roots in Bulawayo where they grew up together and used to
frequent public libraries.
It was then that Mlambo remarked that Yvonne was destined for authorship. According to
Yvonne: “When I lift my pen I recall those prophetic words. I am grateful for having such a
generous and reliable friend who encourages me to write. I wish everyone had a friend like that.
I could go on …” The two exchange ideas from their respective academic disciplines.
Yvonne remained tight-lipped on her marital status. She tilted her face upwards, as if in search of
an answer, then said in a low tone: “It is too personal”.
She could not even talk about a boyfriend. She criticised society for passing judgement on an
individual on the basis of his or her marital status. However, she made a general comment on
marriage: “If one has a liberated partner, that is good. It elevates them.”
To the question on how many children she has or intends to have Yvonne said: “I will choose to
be childless because I haven’t yet reconciled with my body to be inacapacitated for mine
months”.

In Nehanda, Yvonne tends to give prominence to female characters like the eponymous Nehanda.
This is inevitable since she is familiar with them by virtue of sex.
She said that in instances such as the birth of Nehanda, the focus is on women since such events
naturally require the presence of women only. Directing her attention at women is also an
attempt to give them a voice which they were deprived of for a very long time.
Is she a feminist? Yvonne, weighing every word carefully, said she does nto identify with
dogmatic feminism. “I am concerned about the freedom of women. If you were talking about
this, then I am a feminist”.
Yvonne was born at Mpilo Hospital, Bulawayo and attended school in the sedate city which
offered her imagination room to wander. “The place made me feel that I belonged to it and the
whole of Zimbabwe”.
At the age of 22 she went to Canada for higher education. After studying for three years she
obtained an Honours Degree in English.
Yvonne, who has been on a scholarship every year, completed a Masters degree
programme in seven months instead of normal two years. She clinched the
prestigious Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for a
Doctoral Fellowship.