Interview: Vera Yvonne by Primorac

The Place of the Woman is the Place of the Imagination
Interview with Yvonne Vera
Ranka Primorac, Anglia Polytechnic University


In the past decade, Yvonne Vera (b. 1964) has emerged as one of the most intriguing
and challenging writers of postcolonial Africa, and the foremost Zimbabwean writer
of her generation. Vera is unique among Zimbabwean novelists in English in having
produced a series of novels – five so far – which address and represent a variety of
different moments in her country’s history. She has set her texts in the 1890s
(Nehanda), the 1940s (Butterfly Burning), the 1970s (Without a Name and Under the
Tongue
) and the 1980s (The Stone Virgins) – so that, together, they may be read as a
kind of a gendered Zimbabwean historical cycle.
In May 2004, Swedish PEN granted Yvonne Vera its annual Tucholsky award, a prize
awarded to writers in exile: shortly before that, Vera had left her native Bulawayo and
settled in Toronto. She is currently working on a sixth novel, Obedience. The
interview published here was conducted in Vera’s house in Bulawayo on 25 January
2001 – a Zimbabwean historical moment of escalating violence and stubborn hope.
Seizures of white-owned farmland had begun two years earlier; the elections widely
regarded as having been stolen by Robert Mugabe and his ruling party took place the
following year. Vera was working on The Stone Virgins at the time of the interview.
RP: I have just attended a conference on Zimbabwean literature at the University of
Zimbabwe [in Harare], and there was a speaker there who said that your novels have
been too influenced by American feminism, and that this is not necessarily a good
thing. Would you like to comment on this?
YV: Yes. There are several, in my opinion, reasons… Of course, I am the writer, and
maybe I don’t know, I might be insensitive to some of the responses, but what I’ve
observed could be about three issues. One is an issue of language. I say this from
some responses which I once received, concerning [my novel] Under the Tongue,
which the publisher sent out to readers and then they sent me these responses. And I
felt that one of the problems the reader was having was with the language. If they feel
a sophistication…It’s an old language debate, really, concerning our relationship to
English; to a language which came to us as an act of violence. There’s a natural
resistance to it, which I appreciate. And there is a feeling of comfort if someone uses
the language simply perhaps to translate… you know, the idiom, and to convey, you
know, something about the Shona or the Ndebele use. (Those being our two
languages, I will use that example). If you create a style which suggests an
immediacy, not through images, metaphors, which is what I do (I think, feel, I’m
close to the intellectual thought of the African peoples I know, the Shona and the
Ndebele) but if you write a language that is lyrical, or that suggests a certain
sophistication in phrasing, in its order of words, etc, and maybe that challenges the
reader, there’s an immediate resistance to what you’re writing. And then there is the
question of the feminism. If you write in a style which quickly tells the reader that you are situating yourself as a woman writer and that your act of writing perhaps is
structured around a particular idea of, I don’t know, body, or structures in the society
or independence; that you are making an argument about female identity –
immediately that is seen as transporting foreign ideas. You are not behaving yourself,
basically. You are hysterical. You are under the influence of…you see? But this is
ridiculous, because this is simply a failure to accept continuing challenges, you know,
which African women have had. They’ve only that struggle, and they’ve always
fought and if you read carefully what I’m saying, beginning with Nehanda, which is
set right at the beginning of our first encounter with colonialism, I’m giving you a
woman and her struggles. Political, religious, whatever; to with the body, to do with
death, to do with all sorts of philosophy. And that is before; that is in the instant of
contact. That encounter, that was vocalised and was synthesised by a woman figure.
But once you make the situation contemporary, then you find that [critics] see you as
having imported new identities, “invasions” of woman, which you haven’t. How do
you begin to talk about that unless you are reducing African feminism to something
that perhaps doesn’t even exist, never existed. Which one can never accept. That’s a
male argument.
RP: But in this case it was taken up by a woman.
YV: Yes, but then you know, as I do, that patriarchy has always functioned via the
women themselves. You know, it’s my mother and my grandmother who said to my
father: “don’t cry like a girl”. And it’s a pity when it is an academic, someone you are
hoping has a consciousness of how that works, you see. So you find that… and there
was another woman who spoke on the radio - I think her name was Lilian Masitera -
she spoke on the radio once as well with two male academics saying the same thing.
And I remember simply finding it shocking. She made a statement in response to
Under the Tongue that three women can never live together. Three women of three
different generations - the grandmother, the mother and the child – can never live like
Vera is discussing, among African families. It was so ridiculous that I couldn’t even
imagine what she was talking about. ‘Cause I come from that kind of a background.
My friends – I can point them out and take them for you to see – are living [like that],
a mother, her daughter and her child. This is so normal, it’s much more common than
man, the “great father”, the father and the son. I’ve never seen that, in fact. Yet the
examples of women having to survive, because their men have left, either gone to the
city or died, or just abandoned them… It’s so common, you know, that it is just
accepted.
RP: Does it make you feel…how does it make you feel?
YV: It just feels like a misunderstanding. A tragic misunderstanding. Because you
want to…I wanted to put my hands through the radio speaker and …[laughs] touch
this woman and say, look, my sister… because, they get, I suppose, praise from the
male academics who are dominating the discussion, and then maybe they get
something out of it. Some approval. Some of us can enjoy disapproval because then
we are survivors, you know, but some people want to remain within those structures
which are the most limiting in our society. And there is an identifiable…I have a
strong mother. And when you see her, you know what I’m talking about. And she
represents in my family a generation of women: my grandmother, my greatgrandmother,
the spirit medium…When my grandfather was beating up my
grandmother, [my great-grandmother] caught a bus from Harare and came to shake
his cheeks. To tell him that, if I come back… and he stopped! Because he was afraid
of her, because she was a spiritual person. She was the first woman to ride a motorbike in this country. She was hired to help in a period of transition between
African and western medicine in the major hospital in Harare, but she wanted to
remain in her home. So they gave her a motorbike to commute. So, for me, I grew up
with these women who were tremendous, and who were always different, and who
enjoyed their difference and the challenge that this meant.
RP: So they were not surprised…they don’t mind what you’re doing?
YV: They love it! Because they recognise what it is. They recognise my
independence, you know. Because what some women also don’t recognise is the
necessity for them to have their own independence. Not just economic, or land. If you
are given land now, but you ignore intellectual independence, you in fact don’t own
that land. [Pauses.] You own nothing. So… it is a long journey. To arrive – where? At
that fine space where you are completely free of that very domination, in your act and
in what you say. It takes a long time for a woman to see that; that that is a place that
she could aim towards and in fact reach. And when you’ve reached it, to find a most
unexpected pleasure.
RP: So that means that… the fact that you are [resident in Zimbabwe] is conscious:
you want to be here, you don’t want to be in the West.
YV: I much prefer to be here. Even with those struggles…this it makes it even more
necessary for me to be here. You know, to be surrounded by this contradiction, as you
say. Another thing I was going to say was, sometimes also the response simply comes
from a matter of style of writing, technique. If your technique carries with it the
notion of an experiment, somehow you are not allowed to do that. As a woman writer,
perhaps. People forget that writing is not just about issues, such as the ones you and I
have been discussing. Writing is also a fulfilling search for expression.
RP: But there’s also theme, isn’t there?
YV: Oh yes, about taboo. You can also cover these themes – such as, in Under the
Tongue, to write about sex, [whispers] to write about incest…especially sex located in
a time of war, which was the most heroic for our nation. To write about abortion –
you know, in the book Butterfly Burning, that is a theme. It’s an unspeakable theme
and anyone who I’ve seen in Zimbabwe has omitted to mention that it is about
abortion.
RP: Was this part of the book hard to write?
YV: Extremely. But I write in a way which, for me, is also – I try to enter the role of
the character. And often people believe these things have happened to me. And then I
say to them, look, I couldn’t have been the victim of incest, killed my child, had an
abortion, been a spirit medium, committed suicide, and still be talking to you.
RP: I was intrigued by the references to thorns and dryness [in Butterfly Burning]. I
really liked the subtle intertextuality. You know: dry country, that’s a Zimbabwean
tradition – there are [Zimbabwean books entitled] Waiting for the Rain and The
Coming of the Dry Season
[by Charles Mungoshi] and there is Harvest of Thorns [by
Shimmer Chinodya] – the title is ironic as it is in Chinodya’s novel, and now you
appropriate the images and use them in your own context. Was that conscious?
YV: No. It’s not that one is unaware of that literature. But I wanted to… In fact for
me, it was this way: I was always afraid of writing a novel about my own land,
meaning this area I grew up in, because it seemed very flat. I mean, OK, now we are
here, with the trees, it’s not looking that way, but its natural element are these thorn
bushes. And it’s very dry in its driest time. Very dry, arid. The sky is so low it’s
frightening. What kind of a novel can I write in a place like this? I’d written about Mutare, the mountains, in Under the Tongue and Without a Name is set somewhere
else … and I thought - a book about Bulawayo – what would be the vegetation? How
can I write about thorns and such things? But I wanted to. And I felt very much that I
wanted to write a novel about my own city. About the people here. About the land.
And this story when it developed, as I was writing it, I wanted to incorporate into the
body of the story the land itself. Elements of it. You know, how [Phephelaphi, the
novel’s heroine] feels. In that chapter you can see that it opens with a wish, a feeling
which heralds the emotion of what kind of vegetation she would like to experience,
that would liberate, that would give her some freedom.
RP: She has a longing for land – but as a place where to do this to herself.
YV: Yes, and the land is implicated in the act.
RP: But the men have a different sort of longing for land in your books.
YV: Yes. I think your observation is correct. The connection to the land for the
women is that of the disturbance. Something negative. Mazvita [in Without a Name],
she is raped, and she sees that it as something that has come, the land has come and
physically… so she rejects it and the city is sort of landless for her. You know. It is
these concrete buildings and whatever, so she is not connected to it in the way that the
argument has been articulated by the men. And the same applies to Phephelapi. She
goes deep into it, with the sand and all that, and she uses it. But it is the most extreme
violation that she could make. It refuses to open up when she is trying to pick it. It
refuses and refuses. So she does not feel that harmony which [her male lover]
Fumbatha has been looking for and was born into and all that. For her, [land] is not a
treasure.
RP: Would you say… if you were to set a novel … Would you say it’s the same now?
YV: I have set a novel which I’m currently writing, in the ‘now’. Perhaps this [The
Stone Virgins] is my most brave novel, I don’t know. But it is set in the time of 1980
to ‘86. You have heard about the violence against the people of Matabeleland? And
there I had to…I wanted to talk about the Matopo [hills] – I don’t know if you know
them - the women painted on the rocks, and all these things, but in a way that is
surrounded by this war, and the man interprets this very sexually, this language of the
rocks. And the woman – in violence. And I’m trying there to again explore the
differences in how these groups – the men, the women – relate to the land. And I
think I made it less resolved in this new book. Because we have a woman from
Matabeleland, a place called Kezi. She meets a man from Mashonaland who has
brought who has brought in his pocket – there’s a seed, he ate a fruit and the seed is
stuck at the bottom of his pocket. And she takes and tastes this seed and she can taste
the remains of flavour of the fruit of that place. And she becomes more obsessed with
that fruit than the man. Until everything breaks up, breaks apart, you know? So I’m
linking her to a land that she has never even seen. That she doesn’t know. But that she
imagines. Therefore then the place of the woman for me is the place of the
imagination.
RP: It’s always struck me that your narrators are articulating in words – especially, I
think, in Under the Tongue – really, in Without a Name, Under the Tongue and
Butterfly Burning – something that these women could not have said themselves. The
point of view is of the women, and their minds are fully articulated, but I don’t think
they could have –
YV: Mouthed –
RP: - mouthed it in those words.
YV: Yes. Which is really true, because in fact, in my experience, that is the condition
of the women. And what I wanted – what I want even now, to show, is –are - the
contradictions in their minds, the experiences which are, you know, kept down, which
are in their minds, and I wanted to reveal that. So that men, or people in general, or
the nation – can be as close as possible to women’s experiences. And the experiences
which are in their minds are the experiences which are not articulated, and my role as
a writer is to articulate them, but in a convincing manner. In a manner which doesn’t
force the woman to mouth it, because in fact she wouldn’t, in these circumstances.
But I want you to know, still, what her conflict of emotion means. How she harbours
these feelings. And therefore how much more difficult that life is, you know. For
someone whose mind is full of termites, you know. Can I put it that way?
RP: But they’re complex at the same time. These women don’t want to be protected,
even if it’s [by] a loving partner. I was thinking about Mazvita…
YV: And that also applies to Phephelaphi. She – she - the chapter where she really
says how she wants to know the method, the manner, the way of loving yourself, your
own eyebrows before someone loves them and gives them to you as a gift, you know.
To just know your own body and accept it and love it, before someone says to you,
you are like this, you are like a flower, you know. So that you have strength, and your
strength is not dependent on another being.
RP: So there’s poetic style, but there’s also complexity of character. Because, as I was
saying about Mazvita, she actually, without much thinking, manipulates a male
character.
YV: Well, once she’s in the city, and this is what she’s looking for anyway, are
possibilities. And he is a possibility. She’s looking purely for possibilities. But I
would not… and I’m sympathetic to her search or possibilities because we’ve been
given the background, and he… and she realises quickly she’s a commodity, ‘cause
he is using her also. And therefore just simply sees a possibility for time, to do
something for her mind to sort itself, to be comfortable really. So she in a way
exploits the possibility which he presents. But at the same time she does it with a
sense of despair, and dismay, not with a sense of celebration, of triumph. And
therefore she understands that the city… in the end she understands that this is not
freedom, either. And in a search for freedom, you are so confused. Because for me, I
don’t really like to say it’s so clear. It’s never clear, even in my own life. Every
moment I’m thinking over the same issue, it’s not working to the same conclusion and
sometimes it takes some stubbornness to retain one’s position which one has
discovered. Otherwise it quickly changes. So she undergoes that same intensity of
struggle. To find a meaning, to find resolve. Some women have said, you make your
female characters fail. You don’t see them as succeeding. Phephelaphi doesn’t
become successful, Mazvita she ends up in despair, so what are you saying about
women, that they can’t accomplish anything? Of course I get annoyed with this kind
of question, because my duty as a writer is to explore things as I see them.
RP: You’ve written you liked [Shimmer Chinodya’s 1998 short story collection] Can
We Talk.
YV: I do.
RP: Can you comment a little bit more on how you relate to it? Because it’s really
about the difficulties of sustaining a “traditional” male identity in Zimbabwe.
YV: Yes, and I think I liked the sense of…I felt a… Especially the title story, Can
We Talk, which is about a relationship between a man and a woman in current Zimbabwe – I found it to be very honest, very raw and very hard-hitting. And the
image of the woman is not a very pleasant one. She is quite a difficult woman.
RP: But the image of the man is not a very pleasant one…
YV:.. either. So it’s quite a… I think it’s very honest writing. And very familiar. All
the details of the – medical aid, hairstyles, and everything. So I really enjoyed the
male character’s struggle, the female character’s struggle as well. I think he did that in
a way that just simply demonstrates not a solution, but just a desire for
communication. For dialogue. Can we talk about it? Because there is a need… it is the
silence which the man finds difficult. He is the one who seeks some kind of contact,
because he can’t see his relevance as a modern man. He doesn’t have the same
assurances he had in the past. Because he’s living in an environment in which he
realises that women now have new perceptions of him and his identity. They are
outspoken and they are completely able to sustain themselves. Therefore they are able
to speak, but not perhaps to say what you wish to hear them say.
RP: But there’s a faith there that they can. That there can be a dialogue, I think.
YV: There’s a wish for it. It can be quite painful because it remains absent. But
there’s faith here. So I think it’ quite splendid and brave writing. Because also as
women we might leave the men behind and talk to ourselves.
RP: We’ve all seen Zimbabwean men go through the motions of this sort of round –
we go drinking, and then we go to work, and then we go womanising. I like the fact
that one of them has said, in writing, and publicly: this is hard for us.
YV: Yes, we’re just trying to be men, and we don’t know what that is.
RP: So you would say yes, as an answer to that title, Can We Talk?
YV: Yes. [Laughs] I thought we were talking. I would say to them, I’ve been talking,
have you not been listening?
RP: Are you thinking of writing something about [a place other than Zimbabwe]?
YV: No. Not for now, because I have to feel it as necessary somehow, you know.
There’s so many writers who are all over the world, who are doing such a splendid
job at present I don’t feel the need to do that.
RP: So to go back to the question of readers. Do you think about “here” and “there”?
Are you aware of any doubleness, thinking, there is a need for me to say things to
Zimbabweans about Zimbabwe, but it’ll also be heard outside?
YV: No. My first commitment is to the act of writing. Especially finding a voice for a
particular story. And once I have it, I’m so liberated and excited that I’m not
considering the audience. I’m considering the characters, the story, the voice I found,
the language I found. When it’s finished, I always think a book will find its audience.
When Under the Tongue was published, it was the first book to sell out in one year in
Zimbabwe. Of any book, ever. Now, this is very amazing. And the kind of people
who were reading it… I certainly know that – because I didn’t have a car, some of
them were taxi drivers. You know, they spend so much time waiting to be called,
going to pick up… Other people were waiters, ‘cause they were telling me, you wrote
that book, Under the Tongue, it’s so African, you know. Because they could
understand the grandmother, the language, everything. And it made me so happy and
liberated to see that people were reading it, and telling each other to read it, and
loving it. Just ordinary Zimbabweans, not even academics. You prepare for the story
and you present it. And then you find overseas readers also enjoy it. And so the main
thing is for you as a writer, to remain committed to your voice and to search for new voices which can give your story the authenticity, the originality, the uniqueness
which makes a… which can capture a reader, and keep a reader interested and
involved in the world which you’ve created. We read books from all over the world,
and we realise – maybe we are reading Gabriel [Garcia] Marques, and this story is so
absurd, but we love it for this absurdity, for its difference. And I feel excited, I almost
want to dance sometimes, when I discover a story which just surprises and turns
around my world. And I know that this is why I’ve been reading international
literature. I’m reading it in order to be amused, to be stimulated, and to actually… to
discover the new and foreign.
RP: You sound like [Dambudzo] Marechera.
YV: Do I? I don’t know. I’ve only met him once for two minutes, in ‘87. And I’m
glad for that meeting. But I think I miss him – Marechera, who I didn’t know.
Because I think he would have understood why we write. The pursuit, you know, of
writing. How your heart beats as you write. How it should beat. You must feel it, you
know. You must feel it and experience it as something which transforms you. I always
feel, with each paragraph I write, I have to be at a new threshold. Either in my own
mental state, or in the voice and the language, in what I have discovered about the
character, about the moment, about the art of writing, the act of writing. Paragraph by
paragraph. I feel transformed. And I always feel at the end of the day, when I manage
to write, I panic, my heart beats, and I think, if I had not written today, I would not be
where I am right now, right now, this moment. But people don’t know that, you know.
They just read, sometimes, and they just know the theme, they think everything is
[decided] in advance, you know, of the act [of writing]… But it isn’t.
RP: How about [Chenjerai] Hove? He is another Zimbabwean man who has written a
lot about women. Can you comment on his writing?
YV: Chenjerai grew up in a family in which he was very close to his mother, and his
aunts, and all that. He grew up…his mother wanted him to be a girl.
RP [laughs]: Well, I didn’t mean him, I meant the way he portrays…
YV: No, but this is his explanation. Because after he explained it to me, he said to me,
Yvonne, now you’ve got the data, right, on those characters in [my novel] Shadows,
on those characters in Bones. And so I make a constant joke with him about having
the data. You know, meaning that, you now have the information. Because for him, it
goes back to that. If you ask him about any of the characters, he will tell you about his
life.
RP: They are very different from your female characters.
YV: They are. But you know, as a man – like Nuruddin Farah, or writers like that in
Africa, who have shown attention to female characters – the way they do it is
different, still, from how I do it, or [how Tsitsi] Dangarembga would do it. In the
same way that maybe I am also different when I’m writing about the male characters.
Beause what we are writing about is what we know. From within, really. And making
an argument in a different way. But one has to appreciate that sensitivity, also, which
Chenjerai showed throughout his books. Starting with the novel Bones – a very
female world. And a desire to interpret and to understand what is being said. And he
writes from his own… So I’m sympathetic to his feeling about women characters.
And to his… What I wanted to say is, I don’t think there’s an effort, you know. It’s
not something he struggles to do. It comes naturally from him, himself as a man, as a
person. He grew up differently from some of the men his age, his generation. He’d
been around the fires, around with women, and he became a storyteller because of that. Because the women were telling stories by the fires. And therefore he became a
storyteller. So he is different that way in his own life. I don’t think our lives should
necessarily be used to read our books, except he does.
RP: So how are your women [characters] different? How is what you are saying
different? In the context of the Zimbabwean novel, what do you think you’ve said that
other people haven’t said?
YV: What I think I’ve said… I’ve certainly crossed the taboos. And therefore that’s
different. To explore, not with romanticism, women’s characters. But with accepting
the violence that accompanies their existence. That’s what I’ve done differently. And
to have understood the intimate complexity of their mental worlds, and their
emotions, and to have explored those moments of tragedy without, you know,
withdrawing from them; without covering up. To go into the moment of the abortion,
and say it; and moment-by-moment of a woman’s feeling of tenderness towards
herself, and violence towards herself: both those things. I’ve not been… I’ve been
able to talk about them So I think that’s my contribution, and difference in that.
RP: Let me ask about what you read before you left [Zimbabwe]. Did you read Shona
novels, or Ndebele novels, at all, when you were at school?
YV: I read Ndebele novels.
RP: Which ones? Can you give names?
YV: Usethi ebukhweni bakhe [Sethi at her place of betrothal] That one, not only did I
read, but I listened to it over the radio…
RP: OK, what have you just said, is that the title?
YV: Yes.
RP: Who’s the writer?
YV: Oh, I don’t remember…
RP: [Ndabezinhle] Sigogo?
YV: Sigogo, yes…
RP: Did you like it? What did you think?
YV: I liked it, at that time, except you see, all this…And I read others I think, I’m
forgetting them now. But some were Zulu, from Zulu language. But it always seemed
that it was about the city, and it was about women failing in the city, or sometimes it
was about women, and marriage, you know… And things were very much in this
way…Marriage – is she accepting the marriage or not. And that, eventually… ‘cause
there was a… maybe you know about this: these writers were asked to write in a
certain way.
RP: Yes.
YV: …in a certain moral…so their writing was very contained. So it was lacking in
terms of that. But it was the first literature we grew up with.
RP: Did you feel a revolt against it then? Did you have any feeling that…
YV: Noo.
RP:…that “I could do this better”?
YV: No, no, not at all. I didn’t even know I’d become a writer. I think we enjoyed the
stories because we were… we sat by the radio and listened, and laughed at the
characters. We were just amused. And we just enjoyed the language also – the
Ndebele language is very beautiful, really… So one didn’t overthink it, ‘cause one
didn’t even position oneself as a writer. Just a listener. RP: Did they… I haven’t read them ‘cause I don’t know Ndebele. The impression I
get is – lots of events, lots of plot. And then this happened, and then that happened.
So, good entertainment. Was it like that?
YV: Yes. It was very entertaining, that’s why it could be made into a radio – it could
be read by different characters over the radio. Because it was really entertaining.
Although it was looking at disintegration of culture, as was observed by this particular
writer, in the city. And therefore warning us, you know, against losing our moral
values and all that. So it was calculated to do that. To make us see the dangers –
especially of the city.
RP: Yes. They were Literature-Bureau sponsored. How about white writers? Were
you aware – I’m asking you as a reader now, as somebody who was there in the
seventies, rather than Yvonne Vera, the famous novelist. Peter Armstrong, Daniel
Carney…
YV: No… Daniel Carney, I thought – when I read that – I said yees, I read one book,
called… maybe if you gave me a title, I would remember…
RP: White Death.
YV: No, not that one.
RP: There was one called The Raging something…
YV: Whispering something.
RP: Sorry?
YV: Whispering…Death or some strange…
RP: Whispering Death.
YV: Isn’t it? I think that’s the one I read. [Laughs]
RP: It’s a slim thing about the war. About guerrillas.
YV: [Laughs]. Yeah.
RP: Did you read it before independence?
YV: Yes.
RP: How did you come across it?
YV: I don’t know, I just found it in our local library. In the township.
RP: That’s interesting, because…
YV: ‘Cause they just threw those books there. You just read them without knowing
much about the author. You just read what you found. ‘Cause I read a lot.
RP: In the townships?
YV: M-hm.
RP: Which one?
YV: Luveve.
RP: You found Daniel Carney there?
YV: I think that’s where I found it, ‘cause I never had left the township to go
anywhere.
RP: Because that is…You know it’s been studied by Professor Chennells… It’s one
of the prime carriers of Rhodesian propaganda, if you like…
YV: Yes, because they would distribute these books all over, and we just read
whatever was there. You didn’t go to the library and say, I’m looking for this author,
I’m going to read this, this – you just read this shelf and then you read the next shelf, and [laughs] the next shelf. So if it was just shelved there, in whatever order or
disorder, you just read that. And you just looked at covers, and you said, I’ve read
this, I’ve read this, I’ve read… You didn’t really think of the authors.
RP: A lot of them were, in my opinion, adventure stories.
YV: They were adventure stories. And they were very popular. Because in the
township people read, you know, these popular thrillers and things like that. It was a
great pastime in the townships, to read, you know. You sit on your garbage bin and
you read, you know. And this was what you did, you know. In the morning, in winter,
you…in the sand…
RP: You must have been what, a teenager?
YV: Yeah, around ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…[sic].
RP: Can you remember at all, ‘cause I didn’t expect you would say yes…
YV:..on that one!
RP: Yes, Whispering Death, it was a slim volume, I think it came out locally and
overseas – what on earth could you have thought about that?
YV: It was strange, just made you a bit frightened, isn’t it – it was a thriller. It was in
the war, or something – can’t remember.
RP: It was about the war, it was about this guerrilla leader…who was like an animal,
who was like a demon…
YV: Yes. But I didn’t understand that at all you see. Because I wasn’t conscious of all
these things. All we just knew was that it was a story. And you just read and put
things aside. Sometimes you were reading books which were too macho for you. And
you then go back and read the enchanted forest, or something, you know [laughs].
And you felt better, you know, whatever you read. So… but the books were not
organised properly in these libraries. It was just a pile of books.
RP: Do you want to talk about politics?
YV: It depends what it is you’re asking.
RP: Now, things… the situation in the country is obviously very tense. And there’s
obviously a lot of violence. Do you want to comment in any way at all?
YV: Yes. I’m one of the people considered, you know, dream children. People who
were born [before], or grew up with the aim, the goal of independence. And therefore
with and understanding that we would accomplish our parents’ dreams and would be
better than them, and do everything…fulfil all the obligations. Get into the jobs which
my parents had never heard of, because before that, you could only become a
schoolteacher or a nurse. But now you could come home and say you work on
television or you are an engineer. Suddenly the professions opened which Africans
could never have done before, because there was a need for them to fill those jobs.
However, as you know, twenty years later we found ourselves a changed people. We
have a feeling that we have betrayed our own dream as a country - those of us who
thought we would become better in our sense of duty, responsibility…Because even
morally we felt superior to the enemy then. So now we don’t have that. We feel that
we have failed ourselves. And that we have a new obligation, which is to create a
social change within this new environment which has resulted from our independence.
So, as a writer, you can not be detached from that. ‘Cause you write… you are
implicated in that process of change. I’m not saying that I will take the position of
Chinua Achebe, and say that the writer is a teacher, or something like that. Because
what you… it’s … part of your consciousness to comment on what’s going on. Even as you write in a subtle manner, or you can make a public statement outside your
novel, outside your poetry. You can make a statement directly related to either issues
of politics, or gender, or whatever.
RP: OK, so outside your novels, what do you think needs to happen in Zimbabwe
now?
YV: I certainly think that what needs to happen is what is already happening. Which
is that Zimbabwans, they’ve got more of competing publications, for example
newspapers, and therefore opinions are encouraged, you know, so it’s an environment
which I feel anyone who wants to say anything can say what they wish. They can
engage in the debate that is ongoing. And therefore even the younger people grow up,
now, knowing opposite opinions and that in fact they exist. That’s not how it was in
the 70’s, or even in the early 80’s. There was no feeling that other newspapers could
really challenge what was being said in another newspaper. So publications are very
important, and this is happening, with the Daily News, the Independent, and then you
can read The Chronicle, or you can read the Daily Mirror. And magazines explore
different opinions. And even when something which might seem to represent
repression, or to be opposite to international opinion, such as when our President says
something about gay rights, that is negative – I think it was in the Book Fair of ’95 –
however – it still resulted in a healthy atmosphere, in the sense that that was published
in so many newspapers, people had to ask what are you even talking about. People
had to take a position. So I think … and even today an editor doesn’t hesitate to
publish a story on gay rights, or anything like that. So positions and opinions – in my
opinion there’s a healthy mix. People are able to talk about things. And people also
understand better that their vote counts to create change. We saw this with the
Parliamentary elections, that people understood this. Yes, there are things which have
to continue to happen. The understanding of your own authority as an individual. You
don’t wait for Chenjerai Hove to speak on your behalf. That you must speak for
yourself, because that’s only one voice. As a writer, I can say something – it won’t
change anything. But you, as a voter, here is your opportunity. And Zimbabweans are
understanding that. Zimbabweans didn’t even use to go to and vote! Believe it or not.
It was a non-event, the last election we had. So I don’t believe that will be the case in
the coming years. It will be an event. Because Zimbabweans are suddenly realising
that they have the same obligation they had in 1980. To not be complacent. To
understand how issues develop. That when you have problems, economic or social, or
whatever, that we, by our silence or complacency, we have created the problem. Not
the president. That we have stood aside, and hoped that everything would just
somehow happen. So even in their duties at work, and all that, our understanding of
responsibility has to change as well. And I believe it is changing. Unfortunately
people wait for the worst moment of their experiences, you know, mostly, before they
can actually assume a position that creates change that allows them to be heard.
RP: Are you scared of violence?
YV: And we are more united as a nation, now, I think than in a normal time. Am I
afraid of violence?
RP: Not you personally. I worry a about possible outburst of violence in the future.
And I worry about people dying… There’ve been deaths already.
YV: I know. As I mentioned to you, I’ve written a novel about that ‘now’, because of
that observation that we are in another moment where we know that we need to
communicate more effectively without resorting to violence. Both sides have got to
learn how to do that, and have got to see it as a responsibility. ‘Cause that affects our whole nation, and how we are viewed by outsiders. Because we are not isolated
things. We exist in co-operation with other nations. So we need to put into place
methods of communication. We can be in disagreement, but we don’t have to be in
disintegration, which, if we are not careful, of course can very easily happen.