Interview: Vera Yvonne by Palmberg

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Date: Mon, 11 Nov 2002 09:30:28 +0200
From: mai@africaonline.co.zw>
Subject: Stone Virgins interview


Comments on The Stone Virgins, Yvonne Vera's newest book


"This a must-read: a book that will help many to deal with the turmoil of the independence struggle, the dissident war and the current political violence. It is a book of pain but it is also a book of hope," Grace Mutandwa wrote in her review of The Stone Virgins in the Harare paper Financial Gazette 9th May 2002.

Yvonne Vera`s latest novel The Stone Virgins appeared from Weaver Press in Harare in May 2002 and will be available from the US publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux in Feb. next year. The ninety copies brought to the large Berlin Conference on African literature, "Versions and Subversions" in May disappeared as butter on hot stones. The book was launched in Harare and Bulawayo in May. It has already been selected for a prestigious award, the Prize for Africa, a new award for unpublished works of fiction, instituted by Macmillan Writers. The prize will be awarded in September in Nairobi at the East African Book Fair.

In this cyber-dialogue Mai Palmberg, coordinator of the project "Cultural Images in and of Africa" at the Nordic Africa Institute (Uppsala), speaks to Robert Muponde, researcher and teacher of literature at Wits in Johannesburg and editor of a book on Yvonne Vera's writing (forthcoming from Weaver Press), and Terence Ranger, well-known historian of Zimbabwe in general and Matabeleland in particular.

Mai Palmberg:
The scene of The Stone Virgins is Matabeleland, before and under the atrocities committed in the 1980s. From scenes painted of Kezi south of Bulawayo as the hub of meetings, longings and visions of its inhabitants and liberation soldiers the readers are thrown into the gruesome event of the summary beheading of a woman, and the pain of her surviving sister. Finally a kind man comes along, and takes her away from "the graveyard" of Kezi to the city, where slowly she regains confidence in him and in herself. There is no naming of ethnicities, nor any group label of the perpetrators or victims of violence. It is not a political comment as such, yet I suppose we would agree that this is literature with political significance. Could you comment?

Robert Muponde:
"The Stone Virgins (2002), can be viewed as a continuation of the explorations of historical moments clearly signposted in Butterfly Burning, Under the Tongue and Without a Name. The attractions and terrors of the urban and rural landscapes (Without a Name), the capacity for ceasefires to mislead (Under the Tongue), and the possibility of liberation movements to produce cadres who prey on the people they are supposed to be liberating (Without a Name, Under the Tongue) are skillfully merged and given emphatic treatment in The Stone Virgins. I want to believe that The Stone Virgins is a huge political statement, the clearest so far that Yvonne Vera has made on Zimbabwean history.

However, the fact that she does not mention who was to blame in the Matebeleland massacres of 1981-1986 does not mean that her fiction eschews the issue. The setting of The Stone Virgins (Kezi and Bulawayo), and the fascination with the history of Bulawayo (see also Butterfly Burning) within the larger space of the liberation struggle is not accidental. It points to deep-seated struggles in nationalist politics in Zimbabwe, linguistic and ethnic differences as well that continue to haunt post-colonial politics. Who was to blame? Which ethnic group was victim/victimizer?

Vera is aware that this is in the public domain, and repeating it is like recycling a folktale. She is also aware of the political sensitivities associated with the ZANU (PF)- PF ZAPU relations before and after 1980, and the present efforts to have the people of Matebeleland compensated for what they went through between 1980 and 1986. This is common knowledge. Vera is aware that 1980-1986 could easily become a political imaginary for those seeking to settle bitter scores with the present ruling party, just like 1896-7 (see Nehanda), and the years after constitute a political imaginary that seeks to unsettle white presence in Zimbabwe. How does one heal the wounds without entrenching ethnic and political differences and hostilities?

The healing process is much more important for Vera than rehearsing stocks of knowledge that are already public (although certain publics have not yet come to terms with their own roles in the attempted ethnic cleansing and genocide). Yet healing does not mean forgetting, because the marrow of memory runs deep. Healing means reworking memory into a vision that transcends personal and collective loss.  Vera's  vision of the new nation is therefore much more enduring than the populist and official discoveries of remembrances of pain and loss, the desire for revenge,  often peddled in the media, private or state-run.

What I also think is radical in her narration is the remembrance of Ndebele  history into national memory. You will recall that Cephas Dube, a Ndebele archivist in The Stone Virgins, is concerned with restoring the past, in this case that of kwoBulawayo, founded by Lobengula, the king of the invading settlers (whose presence in Zimbabwe also recalls imaginaries of pain and loss among the Shona, hence the genocide attempted on the Ndebele-speaking people in 1980-1986 by a largely Shona battalion has often been linked to, again, the settling of old scores). Vera does see the Ndebele as an integral part of the new nation, as national subjects, but still remains within the usual binaries of colonizer and colonized when it comes to white and black relations."

Terence Ranger:
"None of Yvonne Vera's novels are political in character, except perhaps Nehanda, which is set in the 1890s and deals with the struggle against colonial invasion. This book is a celebration of cultural and nationalist resistance. In Nehanda the women are the guardians of tradition. Vera's following books - which are set in the colonial twentieth century - represent a critique of the mere repetition of the slogans of African tradition. Custom has become the means by which adult males control, dominate and abuse women. Their power is sustained by many silences which prevent inquiry into and action against incest, rape, domestic violence etc. (Yvonne Vera famously shocked an Indaba audience at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair by graphically acting out adult abuses of children under the cloak of traditional authority). There is certainly a sense in which these books are a 'political' criticism of the sort of male, nationalist power which has prevailed since Independence in 1980 and which still privileges 'customary law'. But the political criticism is very indirect. After all, before The Stone Virgins, none of Vera's books is set in independent Zimbabwe after 1980. They could and perhaps should be taken as an indictment of what colonialism did to a valid and empowering tradition. The most important point, perhaps, is that 'politics' of any sort is very much secondary to human tragedy, and particularly to the tragedy of suffering women.

The Stone Virgins is different in many respects. It is largely set after independence. Its violence does not arise from perverted custom nor patriarchal abuse of power, even though it comes from the souls of men twisted by war. Nor is its violence only directed by men against women, even though the two main female characters are respectively beheaded and maimed. The violence of The Stone Virgins is directed against the whole civilian population. The male store-owner and the old men who drink in his store are just as much victims as the two women. The women are the victims of a 'dissident' from out of the Matopos; the store-owner and his customers are the victims of the soldiers of the new Zimbabwean state. This is 'political' violence which springs out of a perverted politics.
The Stone Virgins is impressively even-handed. The arbitrary violence of both sides in the Matabeleland war of the 1980s is depicted. It is as far as it could possibly be from a political tract. Nevertheless, it is a very courageous book. There have been plenty of Zimbabwean novels about the liberation war of the 1970s, but until now none about the violence of the 1980s. There have been a handful of histories - Richard Werbner's Tears of the Dead, Terence Ranger's Voices From the Rocks, and Jocelyn Alexander, JoAnn McGregor and Terence Ranger's Violence and Memory. Yvonne Vera has read these but has transcended them. The killings of the 1980s remain a very sensitive and explosive subject in contemporary Zimbabwean politics. For these reasons the book may be controversial. It would be difficult to use The Stone Virgins for partisan purposes, however. The male killers in the book are the product of a twisted nationalism, but it is the twisted nationalism both of ZAPU/ZIPRA and of ZANU/ZANLA. The book is really about suffering and redemption: the human (and environmental) cost of violence and the human capacity for healing and binding up."

Mai Palmberg:
Many, perhaps all, of Yvonne Vera`s novels and the first book of short stories are situated in time, many of them a few years before independence 1980. The Stone Virgins has two parts, named simply 1950- 1980 and 1980-1990. Despite this precise localisation in time, none of Vera`s writing is chronological narration or documentary in disguise. How would you explain her use of history?

Robert Muponde:
"There is method in all this unpredictability. The consistent quest for the landmarks of Zimbabwean history and an enduring iconography to redefine its memory, its sense of place, is a distinctively Vera obsession. The years 1896-7 (Nehanda), 1977 (Without a Name), 1979 (Under the Tongue), 1946 (Butterfly Burning) and 1980-6 (The Stone Virgins) recall, not the historian's fascination with dates, facts and occurrences, but certain imaginative and spiritual journeys of a colonized and oppressed people. These dates mark sites for metamorphosis and resurrection.

From Nehanda (1896-7) to The Stone Virgins (1950-1980; 1981-6), one discerns an unwavering determination by a writer to trace and reposition the stepping stones that saw an oppressed people ford the turbulent colonial rivers. Particularly, Vera retraces the footsteps of women in that great, bloody trek called the Zimbabwean revolution, and she is constantly inventing an archaeology that would uncover and record the women’s footprints beneath the sand, and a memory that would recall and revive their songs lost in the wind.

After Nehanda the woman's story in "the great trek" seems to have been completely reduced to an ineffectual palimpsest. There is therefore in Vera's works an emerging chain of female voices, and a new spiritual and psychological cartography of female consciousness, that could signal the emergence of a tradition. Vera's imaginative odysseys are ultimately moored in the quest for representational and ontological strategies required to right the balance of national visions in the post-colony and reconstitute the "rivers" in the mouths of women once again (see Under the Tongue) and for all time. The fact that her fiction is rooted in critical and decisive moments of Zimbabwean history point to Vera's desire to erect an alternative and enduring psycho-social signage for the new nation, however it might be understood by its subjects. The "great trek" was not the only journey - many treks made Zimbabwe – and is therefore not the only journey women undertook, or could have undertaken.

Vera's Without a Name demonstrates that the search for nationhood can be undertaken concurrently with the quest for the self as a higher kind of struggle. Therefore the liberation war is not the only fight worth fighting in Vera's novels. Her novels are a timely intervention in that they remind us that the crisis of nationalism and governance in Zimbabwe today has to do with whose and which signs and narratives should define the national subject, and whose and which narratives should be put on hold."

Terence Ranger:
"The Stone Virgins is certainly not documentary in disguise. Nevertheless, it seems to me to represent a development, or at least a change, in her relation to history. Before The Stone Virgins Yvonne Vera was explicitly critical of academic history in her interviews, and played both funny and tragic games with it in her novels. In Nehanda the inspired prophetess is born, grows old and is transfigured all within the six years between 1890 and 1896. Colonial history was, of course, part of the repression of Africans. But even nationalist history just stood colonial history on its head. Nationalist historians tell us that Nehanda was hanged in 1897 but Vera has said that what Africans need to know is that she never died! History even at its best is a male narrative of relentlessly successive events. Vera's novels consciously represent a female discourse, endlessly circling around and back to some private, domestic occurrence. They occur in the 'pauses' and 'expectations' of official history. Butterfly Burning is set in Makokoba township in Bulawayo in 1946, just before the general strike of 1948: there is a feeling that something public is going to happen but meanwhile it is a private tragedy unfolding. Her other novels end in 1980 but not as a moment of nationalist triumph: it is a moment in which the women wait for their men to come home - another pause and expectation. The terrible things which happen to women in these novels are archetypal rather than based on historical events.

The Stone Virgins is very different. It begins in the 1970s. It has wonderful passages on the expectations of 1980, using returned female ZIPRA guerrillas as its signs of transformation. But then we see what actually happens. The pause ends; the expectations are dashed. In the second half of the book we find ourselves in the relentless realm of events; like the two main women characters we are caught up in a male historical narrative. What happens to them is a private tragedy but it is the result of a public political madness. The atrocities are not imagined by Vera. She could have chosen from the historical record yet more extreme and appalling horrors. In a way the novel is about what happens to everyone when male military narration runs crazy and takes over everything. This is a reflection on a 'real' history. But there is another dimension to the book.

A horror with such a cause can perhaps only be resolved by the imagination of another, positive, male historian. And so, astonishingly, the main male character in the book is indeed a historian; a man working to reconstruct the past and to erect that great symbol of gathered community, the bee-hive hut. Historians, the novel implies, need not merely chronicle thrusting events and conflict and wars. They can rebuild and put back together; heal and make possible a future. As a historian myself, I certainly hope that this is true."

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SENDER:  Mai Palmberg (Ms), Research fellow
Coordinator of the research project
"Cultural Images in and of Africa"

The Nordic Africa Institute
PO Box 1703
S-751 47 Uppsala, Sweden


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