Review of Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera - Speech
Writing Yvonne Vera
Speech written and delivered by Robert Muponde at the launch of Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera, at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), Wednesday 23 October, 2002.
Some time ago I was asked by Sarah Nuttall why Mandi Taruvinga and myself chose to embark on this book of essays on Yvonne Vera’s work. It was accidental, I said. Of course, in recreating this archive for Sarah, I had excised a lot of anguish. She wouldn’t have guessed that for a long time I stood at the edges of Yvonne Vera’s world, knocking at her door, but terrified to enter, much like Njabulo Ndebele’s visit to the prophetess. For a long time I consoled myself with collecting her treasured signature, and some of her customised poetry at book fairs, when a new book of hers was being launched. In other words, I was watching her, collecting from her, without her knowing it.
I heard of how she did her Masters in less than nine months, and how she simply waltzed over her PHD in less than three years. More, the rumour mill churned out stories about how she wrote her first novel Nehanda when she was spiritually possessed; and how her second novel Without a Name was written in two weeks in the mountains of the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe; etc. More hair-raising was the story that we heard in Harare, that Yvonne had bought a house in Bulawayo and had converted it into a cave, and that she would retreat into the cave in order to write. Equally mind-boggling is the news that she has now not only moved out of the cave-house, but now lives in a house of stone, much like the stone houses of Great Zimbabwe. This stone-house stands side by side with an ancient fig-tree. There is a sense of beginnings, a sense of kinship with land and stone, a sense of retracing and inhabiting inaugural moments, a sense of caves, of depth, of mystery; and the desire to push possibilities to the verge in Yvonne Vera’s work.
As I have said, the idea of a book on her was accidental, but inevitable. A friend of mine, Mandi Taruvinga, came to my office one day, with a review essay she had just done on Yvonne Vera’s new book, Butterfly Burning, which had just won a Swedish Prize. She wanted my comment on it.
Mandi’s essay pulsed with the rhythms of kwela music. She had succinctly captured the novel’s force of metaphor and passion of thought. It’s soundscape. I saw and felt what she had seen in Yvonne’s work. We shared the same vulnerabilities, and the same desire to share her with the world. When Mandi came back later to collect comments on her essay, I said to her: why don’t we do a book on Yvonne. We both laughed long and loud. We knew that it was much more than a patriotic gesture: doing a book was in some cases, a trial of character. I am glad Mandi and myself are still friends. Our friendship has survived the book exceptionally well.
Marking the Terrain
It is not easy to read Yvonne Vera’s works without feeling disturbed, some rupture, and elation at the same time. She does not seek to soothe, so she massages the mind with spiked thoughts. Yet she does not seek to erode the mind and heart with endless tears: hence the healing, regenerative quality of her language. Language in Vera’s work has something of the qualities of a Shona ‘witchdoctor’: the enchanting incantations, the ability to transfix, to capture and terrorise the imagination as preludes to healing.
Some readers have expressed enchanted bewilderment with her writing. Some, unable to unlock her world, accuse her of being ‘difficult’. Yet others express outrage at the systematically shattered taboos. They are horrified by the unflinching descriptions of incest; rape; abortion; self-incineration; the dissolution and mutilation of the female body. They stammer the names of her characters (Nehanda, Nyenyedzi, Phephelaphi, Nonceba); wonder at some of her cultic idioms (‘under the tongue’); and yet they still find time to sway to the pulsating rhythms of mbira music in Without a Name and the sharp, energetic trills of kwela music in Butterfly Burning. It is this ability to meet pain with laughter; death with music; drudgery with poetry; silence with voice; absence with creativity, that underscores Yvonne Vera’s humanism.
Yvonne Vera’s work is a veritable feast: there is enough for every imaginative bent. It is this democratic spirit of her work which poses new vistas for the post-colony. There is an upsurge of insurrectionary feeling in the small people of her world. They negotiate the practice of everyday life in the cracks into which they are shoved by public histories. Yet, they insert their own ‘discordant’ voices in what Terence Ranger called the pauses and expectations of official history. These small men and women may not have body-bags to remind us of their roles in the liberation struggle; but they record their own stories as struggles, as memory; as history. Hence, Yvonne Vera’s work is a study in liberation politics: it portrays epic struggles against silence. She struggles against the tyranny of being pinned down in a single narrative, a single history; and the terror of a single capacious hell, and a narrow path to a single, exclusionary heaven. Her characters insist on living life on their own terms, and experiencing history bodily and psychically. It is a struggle against ‘nationalists’ and other self-proclaimed martyrs who insist on struggling, suffering, remembering and ruling on behalf of the ‘nation’. In this vein, what we may say about the present crisis in Zimbabwe is about the volcanic eruption of previously suppressed narratives, which are given presence and voice in Yvonne Vera’s poetic prose. It is a struggle about whose signs and taboos should rule us.
For Yvonne Vera’s characters, the ability to post a counter-voice to all-embodying histories and experiences, and the ability to draw the boundaries of one’s hell or heaven, is liberating. It is a creative moment. Her work is ultimately about setting off these creative moments and voices. It is a refusal to have one’s biography pared down to the details of one’s space and history. The terrifying fates of some of her most promising characters illustrate the desire to transcend the limitations of a history, a space, a body, a psyche, a soul. It is the desire to map one’s way in the world, without being circumscribed by it.
Here we find once again Vera’s inspiring dissidence frightening in terms of the larger existential possibilities it opens, and the newer contests that it calls into being.
The self is indeed a higher kind of struggle in most of Yvonne Vera’s work. Yet the self is enmeshed in the general struggles against tyranny, and forgetting. The self is autonomous in the sense that it can prioritise itself, while participating in the general fray. Inability to yoke the two terrains is often the source of tragedy for most of her characters. This is what makes Yvonne’s work hopeful. This is what makes her write when other writers’ pens run dry. It is not amazing that in a short space of time, a mere ten years, she now straddles the Zimbabwean literary landscape, and has become a medium of visions of the roads not taken in public culture.
Today we celebrate the beginnings of a long journey, a long dialogue with Yvonne Vera and her world. It is a dialogue of boundaries, and beyond boundaries and borders. It is a dialogue of common strivings across cultures. It is a quest for signposts towards ultimate humanity and freedom. For Yvonne Vera, the act of saying is itself a way of shattering taboos and opening up spaces for the voice, the body and the mind, for taboos are about inhibitions, exclusion and control. Yet, Vera insists that it is not enough to say: it is important to develop systems of signs that can communicate past and beyond the ruins of taboos and other sites of cultural and psychological excisions. The present volume on her work, Sign and Taboo, points to distinct directions of her work, its textures, pleasures and visions. It is an invitation to a world, which makes all the difference.
Review of Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera - Herald
Review from The Herald, Harare, 28 Dec 2002, Scribe’s Scroll column, by Farayi Nyandoro
Groundbreaking reader on Vera’s fictional works out
Title: Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera
Editor: Robert Muponde and Mandi Taruvinga
Publisher: Weaver Press, Harare, 2002
Reviewed by Aaron Mupondi
Renowned local and international academics and critics, most of whom are women, have published a groundbreaking reader on Yvonne Vera’s fictional works – Nehanda, Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals, Without a Name, Under the Tongue, Butterfly Burning and The Stone Virgins.
Vera has attracted a lot of critical attention because of her consistent focus on women’s problems and commitment to women’s struggles for freedom. In her fiction, Vera maintains a no-holds-barred confrontation with African men and the colonial system as she sees these as sources of women’s domination and oppression. The writer, therefore, belongs to the category of radical feminists in Zimbabwean literature.
Another element that makes her works outstanding is her unique style that is characterised by poetic prose and the blending of African orature with modernistic techniques.
Sign and Taboo deals with the above issues in Vera’s creative writing. For a reader on Vera’s fiction, the title Sign and Taboo is very appropriate. The ‘sign’ part of the title refers to Vera’s use of symbols and images to signify meaning and reality in her works. The ‘taboo’ part refers to such events as rape, incest, abortion, suicide, murder and women’s other expressions of freedom in the author’s works. ‘Taboo’ also denotes Vera’s courageous interrogation and challenge of the established systems through her alternative vision of society expressed in her works.
The reader has five parts and ends with a useful interview of Vera by Jane Bryce. In part 1, Kizito Muchemwa argues that Vera’s main concern in Without a Name and Under the Tongue is the recovery of the repressed discourse of women. Thus, in Muchemwa’s view, the two novels are ‘a strategy of reinscription and recovery’ of women’s identities and the ability to represent themselves.
Meg Samuelson, like Muchemwa, shows how sexual violence perpetrated on women by men in Vera’s novels traumatises women into silence. Samuelson argues that Vera sees the redemption of victimised women coming from other women as is the case with Zhizha, who is helped to recover her voice by her mother, Runyararo, in Under the Tongue. The critic sees this as an act of empowerment.
The critic also observes that Runyararo’s artistry (mat-weaving) represents Vera’s search for ‘a specific post-colonial writing that will retain the features of pre-colonial orality that the mats connote while simultaneously managing to offer African women a moment of intervention’.
In the same part, Carolyn Martin Shaw points out that Vera vividly freights her stories through an elaborate use of signs and images. The critic explores the use of colours and images in Vera’s story ‘The Shoemaker’ in Why Don’t you Carve Other Animals and novels such as Butterfly Burning, Without a Name and Under the Tongue in a very informative and refreshing way.
Jane Bryce in her essay in part 2 argues that photographic and cinematic texts help Vera to capture things in a convincing and all-encompassing way. She says that even taboo subjects – incest in Under the Tongue, infanticide and rape in Without a Name, female resistance and heroism in Nehanda – ‘are brought under the lens into focus, where they can no longer be ignored’.
Jessica Hemming’s forte is Vera’s use of cloth to convey meaning. She indicates that in Under the Tongue cloth refers to the fragile relationships between characters and the poverty that they are subjected to as they use cloths to create physical boundaries between them in one room. The critic further points out that in Without a Name cloth is a metaphor for Mazvita’s alienation and social malaise as Mazvita ‘sees herself as part of a torn social fabric encased in a body that is worn to the bone through years of unrelenting hostility’.
In the last essay in part 2, Lizzy Attree observes that in Butterfly Burning Vera fuses poetry with prose, poetry being the ‘private language of beauty and emotion’. She says that these artistic forms are woven around the fabric of kwela music that ‘threads through the novel’. The critic indicates that kwela music and the poetic prose in the novel are suitable devices to express freedom, resistance and soothe characters in very difficult situations.
The first essay in part 3 by Shaw reflects how perennial the suffering of women is. The critic observes that from Nehanda to Butterfly Burning Vera shows women suffering from generation to generation.
Shaw thus points out that the archetypal symbol of water in Vera’s novels refers to women’s ‘tears’ as well as their healing and biological identity as child-bearers. In her discussion of rape and recovery in Without a Name and Under the Tongue, Samuelson shows rape as a form of oppression of women by men and also points out that women can only genuinely recover from rape through memory, confronting the incident and thus coming to terms with reality.
According to her, trying to repress the memory of rape leads to self-destructive tendencies as shown by the case of Mazvita in Without a Name.
Ranka Primorac views women in Butterfly Burning as ‘iron butterflies’ due to both their resilience and vulnerability. These women are marginalised by both men and colonialism. The critic points out that the protagonist, Phephelaphi, makes a fruitless search for a space of her own and chooses death rather than stillness. Hence, in Primorac’s view, Vera’s novel reflects ‘a new perspective on what is meant to be a black woman in the country called Rhodesia’. However, ten years before the publication of Butterfly Burning, Tsitsi Dangarembga, in Nervous Conditions, had expressed concern about the double suffering of black women from patriarchy and colonialism.
Ruth Lavelle is of the opinion that Vera’s depiction of Mazvita is meant to make the reader understand the character’s situation and even sympathise with her and also other women in similar circumstances. This ensues from the fact that Mazvita commits infanticide to ‘salvage her freedom and heal the wounds of the past’.
In part 4, Robert Muponde attacks Vera for her limited understanding of the machinations of colonialism and the nature and role of the liberation war in Zimbabwe as reflected in her novel Without a Name in which Mazvita blames the land for her rape and abandons the national struggle for land in search of personal freedom in the city which is, ironically, the centre of colonial oppression.
However, Muponde reads Mazvita’s victimisation as an ‘indictment of the predatory and exclusionary revolutionary theory of the nationalists’. The critic further indicates that in Without a Name Vera shows that liberation of self is also possible in the context of liberation of the land and nation.
In his essay, Maurice Vambe is of the opinion that in Nehanda the positive contributions of women to society, especially Nehanda, shatter the identity of black women as mere victims of patriarchy and colonialism. The critic goes on to say that, in this respect, Vera challenges both the patriarchal and colonial ideologies and puts at the centre of the novel a woman-centred vision of society and meaning of independence.
Vambe, however, observes that Vera’s liberatory vision is embattled with contradictions based on the politics of gender, ethnicity, class and Vera’s use of the coloniser’s language (English) in her novels.
Khombe Mangwanda’s essay in part 5 sums up Nehanda as ‘a tale of land reappropriation that deconstructs the imperial narrative of appropriation’. Like Vambe, Mangwanda notes that in Nehanda, Vera re-maps colonial Zimbabwe using Shona mythology and symbolism that excludes whites.
Nana Wilson-Tagoe shows how Vera’s novels reconstruct history by recreating the images of women and also by creating space for women in a patriarchal and colonial society. She claims that the revolutionary story of Nehanda ‘unsettles the collective ethic and its assumptions and paves way for a possible re-constitution of leadership, authority and the social order’.
Emmanuel Chiwome points out that both Vera and Solomon Mutswairo depict Nehanda as a symbol of resistance and liberation and pay attention to cultural details in their novels about Nehanda to revitalise the legend vis-à-vis its distortion and suppression by the colonisers.
Chiwome, however, notes that unlike Mutswairo, Vera’s depiction of Nehanda’s death is ‘from a supernatural rather than an organic point of view’. The critic also attacks Vera for misrepresenting some of the African traditional norms and practices in Nehanda. He says that this act will unfortunately reinforce the outsider’s stereotypes about traditional African societies. Chiwome echoes Vambe when he reflects Vera’s dilemma of attempting to represent the African world in new ways using the English language.
In her essay on Butterfly Burning, Violet Bridget Lunga is of the view that space, time and memory shape identities and destinies in Butterfly Burning. She shows how women such as Phephelaphi, Dehuwe, Getrude and others are affected by the colonial space and time as black women. She shows how colonial constraints and patriarchal restrictions in the form of Fumbatha stifle Phephelaphi’s ambitions, causing her to react with suicide.
The well-known Zimbabwean historian, Terence Ranger argues that although The Stone Virgins pursues the victimisation of women by men, the novel marks a change in Vera’s engagement with history as the book is not one ‘in which narratives are compressed into a private tragedy’ but is one ‘about people caught up in and destroyed by a public disaster’. In other words, Ranger is saying that The Stone Virgins is not gender-biased but has a national perspective as its real focus is not Thenjiwe but the national tragedy in Matabeleland in the early 1980s.
After going through Sign and Taboo, readers will realise that some critics on Vera’s style and the poetics of her novels tend to end with stylistic criticism in their approach, while, on the other hand, other critics are more socio-historical in their approach, as they highlight Vera’s perception of social reality as a woman. Nevertheless, I find the reader very suitable for teachers’ college and university students and lecturers dealing with her works.
Review of Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera - Independent
Review from Sunday Independent, Johannesburg, 17 November 2002, page 17.
Shattering the taboos that exclude and control
For visiting Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera, the act of saying is itself liberating; a way of opening up spaces for the individual
by Robert Muponde
At a conference on African literature in Berlin in May this year, attended by Yvonne Vera, the Zimbabwean writer, critics referred t what has now become known as the ‘Vera phenomenon’. By this they mean the spiritual and intellectual whirlpool stirred by her profoundly disturbing subject matter and individual writing style.
Last month the Wits Writers’ Series invited Vera to conduct a writers’ workshop and to attend the launch of the first collection of critical essays on her work. She conducted the workshop at the Wits Writing Centre, and read from her works at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic research where she also spoke at the launch of the essay collection Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera (Weaver Press, Harare, and James Currey, Oxford). I co-edited the book with Mandivavarira Taruvinga.
I have long been impressed by the sheer energy and brutality of Vera's poetic prose. The gusto with which she shatters taboos is regenerative in a public culture tyrannised by a nationalist and patriarchal history, her ability to shore up doubt as self-critique sets her apart from those who follow blindly the traditions of protest literature.
Vera, who popularised fictional geographies of Bulawayo and Johannesburg in her award-winning novel Butterfly Burning (1998), was in Johannesburg for the first time. She only remembered flying over it to some place else, but remaining anchored to its fictional possibilities.
Born in Bulawayo, Vera is a doctoral graduate of York University in Canada and at present works at the director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo.
In denying the authority held by present public histories over the micro-narratives of women, Vera is not simply retaliating She is also opening up spaces for the body, the mind, and the voice.
In Without a Name (1994), Vera’s main character, Mazvita, refuses to be pinned down to one single narrative of struggle, the land. She rejects her lover, Nyenyedzi (a self-appointed custodian of the land), because she wants to live the experience of pain and defeat for herself.
To show her that she does not quite mater in the land struggle, a guerrilaa (the current terminology is war veteran in President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe) rapes her even as he calls her his dear ‘sister’, even as he claims to be in the war for her sake. Similarly, a father rapes his young daughter in Under the Tongue while calling her ‘my child’.
The hollowness of the guerrilla’s rhetoric and the brutality of the rape drive Mazvita to the city (Harare) to seek her own horizons. Revolution, tradition, home, men/fathers (by extension, nation) betray and savage women in verb’s novels.
Her female characters distinguish themselves by their capacity to think through the horrors of their stories. They are not often defeated by a predetermined male history; they insist on controlling their own bodies and histories.
In Nehanda (1993), Nehanda, the spirit mother of the Zimbabwean nation, is executed by white settlers in 1896-7, but remains a death-defying icon, taunting the settlers even as they slip the noose over her head. Mazvita, finding herself undermined by an unwanted pregnancy, kills her baby in a frighteningly rational manner. she straps the dead body on her back, and climbs onto a bus headed for her rural home to bury both the baby and her past.
In Butterfly Burning, Phephelaphi, betrayed by an unwanted pregnancy, uses a thorn to abort the foetus in a barren part of the city, and goes back to her lover Fumbatha whom she allows to enter her sexually, in spite of the pain. She again falls pregnant, and decides to put paid to the traitorous female anatomy by dousing herself with paraffin, and setting herself alight.
In all these incidents, the female body possesses the initiative, whether in its own dissolution or recovery. Dissolution of the female body is in this case an act of self-retrieval, if not self-apotheosis, and self-flagellation.
In The Stone Virgins (2002) Vera’s latest novel, there is a remarkable shift in agency regarding the disposal of the female body, and bodies in general. In a very traumatic period in Zimbabwean history, the so-called ‘dissident era’ between 1981 and 1987, more than 20 000 ethnic Ndebele people were murdered by the present Zimbabwean government.
Vera focuses on one such incident where the brutality is most inexplicable. This is the beheading of Tenjiwe by an unnamed gunmen [.........must be gunman, see next line …….] and the savage mutilation of her sister Nonceba by the same man. A dozen more people are killed in cold blood by government forces while enjoying a conversation on the verandah of a rural store. The storekeeper is killed in a horrendous manner for allowing his shop to be used s a venue for rural gossip. This is a government and a twisted nationalism obsessed with what Achille Mbembe, a leading postcolonial studies theorist, calls necropower: the monopoly and discretionary powers to distribute death among its citizens.
The Stone Virgins questions this practice, by no means an invention of the Mugabe regime, but perhaps a continuation of the age-old practice of burying virgins alive with a king/chief when he died, an unsettling memory that is etched in stone in this novel. The implications of this analogy are many, and the trampling of the right to life of those who are ruled is quite evident in recent African history: mindless genocides in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa, Idi Amin’s Uganda and Rwanda are perhaps the most dramatic. What makes Vera’s work significant is its ability to institute memory both as oppositional critique and therapy. The various truth commissions in Africa have been perhaps too public and too official. Vera is concerned with that private loss, that private horror, which no amount of forgetting can get rid off [SIC ……..].
For her characters, the ability to post a counter-voice to all-embodying histories and experiences, and the ability to draw the boundaries of one’s hell, are liberating. Vera’s work is ultimately about setting off these creative moments and voices. it is a refusal to have one’s biography pared down to the essentials of one’s space and history. The terrifying fates of her characters illustrate the desire to transcend the limitations of a history, a space, a body, a psyche, a soul. It is the desire to map one’s way in the world, without being circumscribed by it.
The struggle for the freedom of the self is indeed a higher kind of struggle in most of Vera’s work. yet the self is enmeshed in general struggles against tyranny and forgetting. The self is autonomous in the sense that it can insert itself into the turbulence of public histories to which, ideally, it lends integrity. It is this fundamental and complementary significance of the self that is denied, often violently, in the histories interrogated in Vera’s novels.
Her work animates a dialogue of common strivings across cultures and histories. For Vera, the act of saying is itself a way of shattering taboos, for taboos are about inhibitions, exclusion and control. yet she insists that it is not enough to say: it is important to develop effective signs that communicate past and beyond the sites of cultural and psychological excisions. Her work is therefore a welcome invitation to visions of the roads often overrun in public narratives. Echoing the title of her first collection of short stories – Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals? – there are echoes of disenchantment with a dormancy of mind and culture. Indeed.
* Robert Muponde is head of literary studies at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.
Review of Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera - Sekai Nzenza
The Australasian Review of African Studies, Volume 25, Number 1, 2003
Re-examining Gender and the Politics of Social Change in Zimbabwe: A Critique of Yvonne Vera’s Novels and Chenjerai Hove’s Palaver Finish
Robert Muponde and Mandi Taruvinga (eds) Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera,
Harare, Weaver Press; Oxford: James Currey, 2003. pp. xvi +236,
ISBC 0-85255-584-9. (James Currey p/b). Chenjerai Hove, Palaver Finish, Harare, Weaver Press, 2002; M&G Books, Johannesburg, 2002. ISBN: 1 77922001 4 (Weaver p/b).
Available from: African Books Collective, 27 Park End Street, Oxford, OX11HV, UK.
Yvonne Vera stands out as the most remarkable female writer to emerge out of Zimbabwe and indeed, out of Africa, in the last decade. Her novels reflect the use of creative imagination to reconstruct rituals, myths and events absent in written political history about women in Zimbabwe. The narratives present women as the main actors in a genre traditionally occupied by men. The heroines exude spiritual leadership, inspiration and heroic passion. Vera not only claims the city for African women, she enables them to move between boundaries in the past and the present. In doing so, Vera’s women characters emerge from the spaces of silence and one is immediately made aware of the sense of urgency. In Sign and Taboos:Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera, Robert Muponde and Mandi Taruvinga have taken on an ambitious and detailed task to edit this collection.
This collection of essays is an important, well-researched and thoughtful account of Vera’s works by a group of critics from literary, historical, anthropological and political backgrounds in different continents. The editors are to be applauded for taking a remarkable task in bringing together such varied perspectives on Zimbabwe’s most challenging and gifted writer of surreal and poetic prose. While the novels present themselves as historical, the editors are quick to point out that they do not necessarily represent real events or facts, but attempt to ‘mark sites for metamorphosis and resurrection’ (p. xii). Some of the critics focus on the narrative technique and the use of imagery and less on the political and cultural nuances of change.
The book would not have been complete without the notable Terence Ranger’s chapter on ‘The Pressures of the Past’ in The Stone Virgins (pp. 203-216). Ranger problematises creation of fiction as history in Yvonne’s novels. In the end, however, Ranger appears to accept the notion that Vera is inspired by known events in history but is not writing about factual historical events. Nana Wilson-Tagoe sums up the use of history in Vera’s novels by recognising that Vera’s narratives ‘are not narratives of history, but narratives out of history’ (p. 177). For Wilson-Tagoe, Vera has written female agency in order to bring different historical meaning to colonial and traditional representation of history.
Despite their differences in approach, the common themes emerging from the essays show that Vera has recreated a gendered past and present absent in literature not only about Zimbabwe, but about the place of women in pre-colonial and colonial Africa in general. The critics have therefore helped us to rethink visions of Africa’s past, present and future. Vera celebrates the unheard voice of African women in literature. I want to put emphasis on the notion of the literary voice because I do not believe that African women were silent in the past. The lack of a written word does not mean the absence of speech as Vera demonstrates very well. In this regard, the critiques are celebrating the ‘speech’ accorded to the submissive and silent woman inadvertently undermine the strength of oral narrative.
At times the depiction of women’s behaviour and how they relate to small acts and objects is taken too far when framed within psychoanalysis. For example, Jessica Hemming’s ‘The voice of cloth: interior dialogues and exterior skins’ (pp. 57-62) portrays the use of cloth as representing the silence in social relations between men and women. Hemmings’ essay on Without a Name leaves us wondering whether a piece of cloth such as the apron can indeed be seen in that ideological and psychoanalytical framework. The most thought provoking essays, however, are Ranka Primorac’s ‘Iron butterflies: notes on Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning’ and Ruth Lavelle’s ‘Without a Name: reclaiming that which has been taken’. In these separate essays the two critics demonstrate the realistic unchanging being of Vera’s female characters. tragic heroines do not have control of their bodies but their connection to spiritual forces and ancestral voices help them to emerge intact. Similarly, Robert Muponde and Maurice Vambe’s essays on ‘Spirit Possession and Resistance’ explore women’s ability to claim symbolic space and defy the traditional bonds of patriarchy and colonialism.
Muponde and Taruvinga have undertaken an ambitious task with significant results. However, after reading this fascinating collection, the question presenting itself is: whose theory? Western theoretical approaches to gendered narratives seen through the lens of an outsider, at a certain time and place is bound to present problems. I recognise that we cannot run away from theory. But I am left with numerous questions regarding meaning, intention, location and the appropriation of postcolonial feminist and other theories to provide meaning to the gendered experience of African women in Yvonne Vera’s fiction. Another problem arising from this text relates to the quest to reclaim the strength of African women in Africa’s past in the way that Vera re-imagines them. The essays did not go as far as to ask the extent to which Vera’s representations of the heroic past we now claim for African women subjects itself to critical scrutiny. In an interview with Jane Bryce, Vera acknowledges that she ‘recreates’ history. ‘Because, as Africans our history is there to serve us, not us to serve it’ (p. 221). Vera therefore creates mythic historical images of powerful women. These exemplary images are inspiring to Zimbabwean women. But such a major shift in recreating power in past gender relations would require new models to help us re-imagine the political and cultural place of women in Zimbabwe now. The critics fail to determine how the strength reflected in Vera’s characterisation of women might have helped us to re-imagine the future of womanhood in present day Zimbabwe.
Nonetheless, this dense collection of essays highlights the essential relationship between the African past, the period after independence and the plight of women in Mugabe’s present day’s Zimbabwe. It is also an important contribution to the problematic interpretation of feminism in the African contexts of post-colonial literature.
While Yvonne Vera’s critics focus on her novels written up till 1998, in contrast Chenjerai Hove’s latest book, Palaver Finish is set in 2002, at the height of what has been called the second ‘Chimurenga’ or the war to reclaim the land from the white farmers. There is a marked disparity between Vera’s gendered narratives and Hove’s essays, which takes us to the harsher realities of the present.
In Palaver Finish Chenjerai Hove presents the most ambitious and courageous critique of the political situation in Zimbabwe. He invokes the spiritual context of his past to capture voices of the struggling masses in Zimbabwe. In the past Hove wrote about the horrors of colonialism and how Africans took to arms to win their liberation. In 1982 he published his first collection of poetry, Up in Arms, in which he demonstrated the brutalities of Zimbabwe’s war of liberation. Since then, he has published several novels including Bones in which he depicts the heroic but tragic lives of African women and critiques patriarchal tradition of idealising the oppression of women. Hove, like the late Dambudzo Marechera and Yvonne Vera, represented the voices of the oppressed in search of their identity in post war Zimbabwe. At that stage, we were celebrating a nationalistic awareness of owning the country. But the land had not been won yet. While acknowledging inequality and the urgency for an equitable distribution of land, Hove here questions the chaotic and violent methodology used to reclaim land from the white farmers.
In Palaver Finish Hove has followed the footsteps of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiongo in fearlessly awakening us to the slow disintegration of morality, democracy and freedom in the postcolonial state. Although Hove has always been outspoken about the failures of independence, Palaver Finish is his most important commentary of current events in Zimbabwe. In Palaver Finish, Hove mourns the death of moral leadership and democracy in a country that Julius Nyerere used to call ‘The pearl of Africa’. Hove writes, ‘Violence and lawlessness will not end until our politicians examine their consciences and re-shape their sense of public morality and responsibility’ (p. 7).
Such a critique of the Zimbabwean state had not previously been done. Hove successfully helps us to see where, and to borrow from Achebe, ‘the rain began to beat us’. The essays in Palaver Finish leave us wondering where we went wrong, and how we should pick up the pieces and avoid the way of violent chaos ever so common in some postcolonial African states.
The Postcolonial Institute
Review of Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera - Research in African Literatures
Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera
edited by Robert Muponde and Mandivavarira Taruvinga
2002: (pp: 252) 215 x 135 mm
Research in African Literatures
Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring 2004: pp. 199-200
Reviewer: Neil Ten Kortenaar
Author Yvonne Vera is an author difficult to read and to characterize. As someone who believes that the better part of a critic's job is accurate description of the text, I am very sympathetic to the task undertaken by the critics in his collection. The subtitle characterizes Vera's fiction as 'poetic', and Lizzy Attree points out that the right-justified prose in her novels could easily be end-stopped in order to look like poetry. Vera's five novels and collection of short stories are all short, no longer than a volume of poetry. In the novels there is no narrative drive forward, no character development, and little reflection of a social and physical world outside the protagonist's perception. Instead there is a great deal of repetition, of words, of lines, and of imagery. As Ranka Primorac points out, there is a remarkable consistency of stylistic register and no concession to shifting narrative points of view. Meg Samuelson suggests that the author who might be closest to Vera in feel is the Trinidadian-Canadian poet Marlene Nourbese Philip (which raises the question of the influence of Vera's years at York University in Toronto on her prose).
Some of the critics, Attree for instance, rely on literary history in order to describe Vera's prose, classifying it as either modernist (Woolf regularly comes up as a point of comparison in this book, but Gertrude Stein is perhaps more appropriate) or post-modernist. As Kizito Muchemwa argues, however, the classification of post-modernist can be misleading: whatever Vera is doing, it is nothing like the counter-realism of her fellow Zimbabwean, Dambudzo Marechera. Unlike Marechera, Vera seems to write without reference to a literary tradition. Although highly trained herself, her novels, with their short sentences and rhythmic repetition, seek a level below consciousness. Her lyrical language does not deconstruct ideology and problematize language, as several critics here suggest, but would seem to promise direct access to a woman's experience as located in the body and as expressed directly through orality. As Meg Samuelson says, this is not language based on a mother's absence but on the recovery of a mother's presence. In their insistence on the body, Vera's novels refuse the allegorical almost completely.
Several critics try to come to terms with Vera's lyricism by focusing on the elements whose repetition constitutes its rhythm. Carolyn Martin Shaw looks closely at the way colors, especially red, and the four elements, especially water, function to create a textual world. Other critics take single images and build them into extended metaphors for the novels themselves. Jane Bryce shows that the novels are each constructed around moments frozen by photographs, an insight that accords well with Vera's experience as curator of the National Gallery in Bulawayo. Jessica Hemmings compares Vera's novels to textiles and Attree compares them to kwela music. Primorac relates the slow circular movement of the characters to the style.
Surprisingly little is made by the critics of the violence of Vera's subject matter, which deliberately resists meaning (and in this she is like Marechera). The novels all feature infanticide, rape, abortion, or suicide. The critics seem most interested in the treatment of history and of spirit possession in Nehanda. I cannot help but notice that Vera is admired by the women in this collection and criticized or at least regarded with suspicion by most of the men (with the important exception of Terence Ranger), but I am reluctant to speculate on what this difference means.
© The author/publisher
Review of Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera - Post Colonial Literature
Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera
edited by Robert Muponde and Mandivavarira Taruvinga
2002: (pp: 252) 215 x 135 mm
Reviewer: Eva Hunter
Yvonne Vera's fifth novel, The Stone Virgins, published in 2002, gained the author yet another African region award, the first Macmillan Writer's Prize for Africa. However, recognition of Vera's voice as one of the most exciting to have emerged in the continent in the last decade spreads far beyond Africa: the biographical notes to Stone Virgins state that some of the languages into which Vera's works have been translated are German, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Finnish and Norwegian. She has an American publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Some of Vera's appeal for western tastes lies, no doubt, in her style. Vera's writing is 'sophisticated', 'difficult', and 'dense'. It has post-modern characteristics: it is nuanced and ambiguous, and contains a meta-fictional commentary on the creative process itself. Criticism of Vera's work has, though, as Lizzie Attree says, 'tended to focus on her choice of taboo-breaking subject matter and the use of a female perspective', ignoring the way in which 'her language and imagery' provide 'an alternative, fluid and often ambiguous perspective' that 'identifies Vera's fiction with modernity' (2002: 63). Attree is just one of the international scholars who has contributed to the work under review. Muponde and Taruvinga are to be congratulated on filling a gap in Vera scholarship by including in this collection not only articles that focus on the subversive content of Vera's work but also several essays, such as Attree's 'Language, kwela music and modernity in Butterfly Burning' that direct us to the poetry, or, rather, the formal and stylistic aspects of the work of this remarkable writer.
With hindsight, Vera's first novel, Nehanda, published in 1993, can be seen as a forerunner in a trend in recent African writing to emphasize, through formal and stylistic aspects, the value of creativity, the aesthetic imagination, and sensory experience. But it is in the novels following Nehanda, Without a Name (1994), Under the Tongue (1996), Butterfly Burning (1998), and The Stone Virgins, in which Vera focusses on trauma inflicted during the liberation and (with The Stone Virgins) post-Independence periods, that it is of particular importance to understand the function of Vera's aesthetic choices. Appreciation of the potentially liberating implications of Vera's modernist and post-modernist characteristics enables the reader to understand not only how profoundly provocative and subversive Vera's novels are, but more especially how they offer Zimbabweans – and even, in The Stone Virgins, all of Africa's inhabitants – new ways of being and seeing.
The outside back cover of the collection has the following statement:
Like other African writers, Vera's art is alert to public life whether this is manifested in significant moments of Zimbabwe's anti-colonial resistance, the emergence of Zimbabwe's township culture or the competing demands of the city and the rural home. Vera's originality, however, derives from a refusal to register these with a conventional realism that accords them a spurious stability. Instead in prose as densely allusive as poetry, she records public experiences through the consciousness of her women characters who experience more than they understand and see more than they recognise.
Muponde and Taruvinga's collection contains 17 essays, an interview with Yvonne Vera dated August 2000, and a useful bibliography. To this bibliography I would add a recent article entitled 'The Discourse on Zimbabwean Women in the War of Liberation and the Land Reform Programme: Myth and Reality' by Emmanuel Chiwome and Zifikele Mguni, University of Zimbabwe, www.gwsafrica.org/knowledge/zifikele (2003). The essays are grouped under five headings, Language, voice and presence; Language, technique and imagery; Body politics, memory and belonging; Spirit possession and resistance; and History, fiction and the colonial space. While the critics are drawn not only from Zimbabwe and South Africa but also Britain, the Caribbean and the United States, all except one have lived and worked for at least some time in Africa and the collection as a whole provides invaluable information on the culture, customs, and history of Zimbabwe. Such filling in of local and particularised detail is useful given Vera's avoidance of the techniques of realism.
© The author/publisher
Review of Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera - New Directions in African Literature
Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera
edited by Robert Muponde and Mandivavarira Taruvinga
2002: (pp: 252) 215 x 135 mm
New Directions in African Literature
Reviewer: Pauline Dodgson-Katiyo
Yvonne Vera has produced a significant body of work in a short period of time. Since the publication of a short story collection in 1992, she has written five novels and edited an anthology. This first critical collection on Vera’s work, written by scholars from Southern Africa, Britain and the Americas, examines the fiction largely within its Zimbabwean context.
In the section ‘language, technique and imagery’, Vera’s work is interpreted using theories of art forms other than the literary. Jane Bryce’s persuasive essay analyses the influence of film and photography in Vera’s aesthetics. Controversially, in her discussion of the camera-eye point of view in Vera, Bryce compares Vera’s technique with that of the anthropological film-making of Jean Rouch, arguing that both bring what is usually hidden or secret into view.
Jessica Hemmings’ essay combines an academic interest in textile design and literary criticism to produce an unusual article on the role of cloth in Vera’s fiction. Hemming was working on a PhD on Vera and her essay appears to be work in progress. The problem is that the design history she is applying to Vera’s work does not provide adequate theorisation of literary texts. To compensate for this, Hemmings is over-reliant on her own practical criticism of Vera’s novels. Nevertheless, her close readings draw the reader’s attention to the language of Vera’s work.
In other sections of the book, Maurice T. Vambe and Kizito Muchemwa analyse Vera’s use of orality and ritual. Vambe is more critical of Vera’s historical reconstruction than Bryce, arguing that Vera, in her appropriation of spirit possession in Nehanda, represents black women as speaking with one voice, and ignoring contradictions within their experiences. Rather than presenting a critical realist perspective on pre-colonial Zimbabwe, Vera presents a Shona society with a traditional idyllic past which, ironically, not only ‘normalise[s] the colonial discourse’ (130) it attempts to deconstruct but also fails to challenge a male-dominated discourse of nationalism. Muchemwa too takes issue with Vera’s rewriting of history. He argues that her reconstructed orality is essentialist and sits uneasily with the hybridity and postmodernism of her novels.
In contrast, Nana Wilson-Tagoe argues that Vera uses dialogism in Nehanda to represent history through the voices of those on the margins. In her convincing article, Wilson-Tagoe makes the important distinction that Vera’s novels are ‘narratives out of history’ rather than ‘narratives of history’ (160). According to Wilson-Tagoe, in Nehanda, Vera represents a world in crisis in which history itself is contested as it is rewritten in ways which challenge the official version. In a stimulating reading of Under the Tongue, Wilson-Tagoe shows how Vera, through writing incest into a narrative set during the liberation struggle and through presenting multiple perspectives, moves beyond retelling women’s history to interrogating gender and power relations.
Wilson-Tagoe contrasts Vera’s foregrounding of Nehanda’s chimurenga role with the emphasis the historian Terence Ranger places on the male medium Kaguvi. Ranger is the author of an essay in this collection which offers a historian’s commentary on Vera’s The Stone Virgins. The essay’s significance lies in the (auto)biography it relates as Ranger explains the influence he and Vera have had on each other’s work. Ranger rightly assets that The Stone Virgins breaks new ground as the first novel by Vera to confront history directly and also as the first Zimbabwean novel to delineate the horror of both army and dissident violence in Matabeleland during the early 1980s.
Large claims are made for Vera in this book, particularly by those critics, arguing from a feminist perspective, who see Vera as a pioneering writer, breaking the silence of traditional taboos and bearing witness in a newly created historical discourse. The essays, as a whole, demonstrate that Vera is worthy of this acclaim. The variety and quality of the essays in this well-edited collection suggest that it will be the definitive work on Vera for some time.
© The author/publisher
Review of Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera - Wasafiri
Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera
edited by Robert Muponde and Mandivavarira Taruvinga
2002: (pp: 252) 215 x 135 mm
edited by Irene Staunton
2003: (pp: 272) 204 x 138 mm
No. 44, Spring, 2005
Reviewer: Caroline Rooney
Yvonne Vera has emerged as on of Zimbabwe’s most prominent writers and Sign and Taboo is a collection of essays that gives due recognition to Vera’s literary significance. Its richly textured critical assessment of her achievements so far will serve as a crucial focus for further studies of her writing, whilst also having wider implications for those attending to a poetics of Zimbabwean and African fiction or interested in a potential cross-cultural poetics of women’s writing.
In Sign and Taboo, a clear critical consensus emerges in the characterisation of Vera’s writing as poetic or lyrical language that foregrounds a feminine presence of body and spirit in the visioning and re-visioning of Zimbabwean history. Where divergences arise is in the range of responses to such writing, especially regarding its import in philosophical and political terms.
In these well-organised volume, the first three essays are devoted to the exploration of the conflation of voiced language with presence in Vera’s work. In the opening essay Muchemwa boldly confronts – with reference to Derrida’s generalising of the grammatological – what he sees as the failings of phonocentrism and an homogenising essentialism of women, which constitute the pitfalls of an attempt to recover ‘the repressed discourse of woman’ (p. 3). Samuelson’s ensuing essay celebrates the same strategic project in terms of a fortuitous attempt to ‘write orality’ (p. 18), and in the affirmation of the continuity of mother–daughter or female genealogy against the fragmentation of the feminine. Muchemwa aptly draws attention to a desire to express ‘the collective woman’, or , it might be said, the feminine as such, since what does seem to be at stake is nothing less than an attempt to address the ontological in terms of the feminine. Ultimately, beyond the treatment of sexual violence against women and its ensuing effects on them that Vera unflinchingly confronts, it might be this that is taboo, the unspeakable beyond the sign: femininity as being, and as being beyond all prescriptions. But whilst Muchemwa’s critique is faithful to deconstruction, – can one be ‘faithful’ to deconstruction? – it could be further considered that Derrida’s scepticism regarding speech and the mystical logos as presence pertains to a Western tradition in which masculinity is equated with presence and femininity with absence. Whilst Derrida pursues a logic of spectrality as implicitly a de-presencing of the masculine, the question remains as to whether and to what extent a creative presencing of the feminine is permissible. Can it be attempted? Can it be allowed? As variously taken into consideration, Vera perhaps quite consciously rejects the Western privileging of the Authoritative written word (fixed, preserved), in favour of a language capable of expressing transient yet ongoing living beings, an experimental and embodied consciousness. Hence, the poetic.
The next essay in this section by Martin Shaw convincingly addresses the frequency and insistence with which Vera uses water imagery, and other related imagery, but leaves the reader wondering as to its significance. Linking Shaw’s observations with the previous essays, my conclusion is that the prevalence of the ‘watery’ could supply the ontological with an expressible but unfixable creative fluid, let us say ink as opposed to the typewriter key, a formative rather then formal element. The next three essays take up aspects of Vera’s use of language that can be understood in terms of non-linguistic expression, that is, in the narrow sense. Bryce, with admirable dexterity, explains how Vera’s work tends to unfold from a visual image best understood as a photograph. Bryce works with and against the usual treatment of the photograph as spectral to reveal its political significance in African writing as a realisation or creation of reality. Hemmings and Attree respectively draw attention to an aesthetics of cloth and of kwela music, thus of texture, sound and rhythm. The documentary photograph, texture, sound and rhythm, may all be said to bring together that which signifies with that which is signified, e.g., a matted texture signifies ‘matted texture’.
Pleasingly, given the above noted resistance to ideality, the following essays go on to address a politics of the body together with questions of belonging. Here Primorac may be said to get to the crux of the issues at stake with her compelling observation that the minds of Vera’s characters are: ‘lively, mature and free from the very outset of their stories. It is their bodies that they do not fully possess, and therein lie their tragedies’ (p. 107). In a subsequent essay, Muponde serves to tease out some of the complexities that this implies through attending to how Vera’s fiction negotiates the counter-pulls of autonomy and commitment. Essays by Vambe, Mangwanda and Chiwome usefully contextualise Vera’s treatment of the Nehanda legend, creating an arena of debate. Whereas Vambe, with, ambivalent nuances, assesses Vera as writing in the mode of an authenticising cultural nationalism, Chiwome draws on Shona sources to maintain that Vera ‘invents’ her Africa and Mangwanda emphasises both Vera’s deliberately foregrounded mythical treatment of her material and her affinities with a nationalist agenda. Finally, there are some fine essays on the fictional relation to the temporal and historical in wider terms. Lunga writes observantly of the treatment of the constraints of the spatio-temporal in Vera’s work and Wilson-Tagoe offers an important essay on Vera’s advancement of the historical novel away from a Lukácsian representational realism towards a lyrical interplay of voices that serve to question the notion of singularised history in terms of again, a ‘fluid immediacy’ (p. 160). Terence Ranger writes movingly of the effects of Vera’s work on his own and dialogically engages with her The Stone Virgins, whilst Vera attests to the reciprocation of his influence on her in the interview that concludes the study, an interview that clearly foregrounds her commitment to the registering of historical moments.
What I remain somewhat dubious about are the occasional designations of Vera as a postmodernist writer. That she is an experimental avant-garde writer does not necessarily mean that she writes in accordance with a Western aesthetic of late capitalism. Her interest in the text is not, I would argue, an idealist one but a materialist one; this emerges strongly across this critical study and seems confirmed by her emphasis on reality in the interview she gives. Perhaps, with the editors’ sub-title in mind, she could more appropriately be termed a ‘poetic realist’ than a ‘postmodernist’?
Poetic realism is a term that would be fairly accurate for the range of contemporary Zimbabwean writing represented in the reflectively and defiantly named Writing Still, whilst the title may further be alluding to the ‘Walking Still’ (1997) of a master of the genre of the short story, Charles Mungoshi. Well-established writers such as Mungoshi and Vera are represented in this anthology alongside lesser known or emergent voices, a scope reflective of the constituencies of ethnicity, gender, sexual orieantation and generation. Vera’s ‘Sorting it Out’ offers a warmly humorous and modestly self-ironic story of a female genealogy and family crypt that issues in a thwarting of infanticide whilst Mungoshi’s ‘Sins of the Fathers’ is a superbly crafted narrative of personal and political disvowal gradually exposed. Whilst these two stories are delivered with poised assurance, they are not necessarily the most accomplished of the stories included, for there are a number of contenders here. For example, Chikwava’s ‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ greatly impresses as a witty and jazzily composed urban bricolage, whilst Chinodya’s – isn’t Chinodya just as accomplished as the other two? – ‘Queues’ intrigues as it deftly blurs and invents the literal and the metaphoric, the personal and the historical. Many might find the most powerful story in the collection to be Freedom Nyamubaya’s ‘That Special Place’, a story that manages to find the right register and tone to deliver an account of torture. The torturer in the story demands of those intimidates, ‘narrate your story as it should be: no lies, no exaggeration and no withholdings’ (p. 224). The story itself answers back to that, word for word, with a layered and telling lucidity that one would be reluctant to summarise. Generally speaking, the stories are concerned with the interweavings of personal and political histories, and threat of suffering, self-reckoning and, now and again, mutedly reconfigured optimism, where there is an unsparing condemnation of the governance of the Mugabe regime. While white writers tend to convey an apologetic or humble stance, many of the African writers write of despair without resentment. A certain national consciousness comes to express itself in precisely shared disillusionment with former cultural and ethnic nationalisms. Furthermore, racial boundaries are rendered questionable through the crossings of other differentials such as sexuality, class and generation. Whilst the gay white man of Kilalea’s ‘Mea Culpa’ finds echoes of his father in his African lover, the African narrator of Kanengoni’s story sees his fathering his white farmer neighbour, and Chingono’s ‘Maria’s Interview’ observantly dramatises the déja vu of the ‘white madam’ in the ‘black madam’. Although, unsurprisingly, some of the stories could be said to be more effective than others, the inclusion of each is justified with respect to its particular contribution to an understanding of contemporary Zimbabwean experiences and sensibilities. There is a noticeable experimentation with the off-setting of voices within the stories (by, for example, Chihota and Gugu Ndlovu), whilst a number of stories (say Mupfudza’s and Brickhill’s) are movingly written in a voice of quiet truth. Finally, one of the most memorable effects of this collection is its creation or capturing of spirit in either character or narrator: Musengezi’s ‘Mukoma Amos’, Saidi’s ‘Tambudzai’ and Wilson’s ‘woman in red’, to name a few instances of this. Wilson’s ‘The Twelve Chitenges’ concludes the volume, and, until I noticed that the sequencing was alphabetical, I thought this was deliberate for its concluding paragraph acts as a kind of summary of the collection as a whole. Not only that, it offers a meta-commentary that is also a literality or actuality as regards the poetic or lyrical realism that this review has been trying to draw attention to as quite definitive of modern Zimbabwean writing. For that reason, I should like to cite the paragraph in full as follows:
'And as the sweet voices and guitars blended with the rhythm of the bus, people began to clap their hands and join in. It was soon obvious that every single person excerpt him knew every word of every song by heart. And was able to sing along in perfect tune. At least, he was familiar with the music and as the clapping and singing increased, interspersed with piercing ululations from the Woman in Red now sitting directly behind him and drumming on the back of his seat, he began to get into it and pretty soon was grooving along as well. The live voices and the recorded music were indistinguishable, as Oliver and the girls with their angel voices were actually there amongst them, on the bus, singing out their pain and suffering, their joy and love, uniting them all as they sped through the dark towards Harare. (p. 252)
Congratulations are due to the editors and Weaver Press for these two wonderful landmark collections of critical and creative writing.
© The author/publisher
Review of Obituaries - Yvonne Vera
Daniel Moshenberg and Shereen Essof
'Death has a name which we can carry in the mouth
without dying' (Yvonne Vera)
Daniel Moshenberg and Shereen Essof
George Washington University
Thursday, April 7, 2005. A Zimbabwean feminist novelist, activist, artist, storyteller, dies. How does one celebrate the life and works of Yvonne Vera? How does one think through and keep alive her concerns as explored and re-explored through her life work? Concerns that remain even more real, vibrant and urgent given the current Zimbabwean context?
Sunday, April 10, 2005, Washington D.C. Zimbabwean artist Berry Bickle speaks about her art and her work Sarungano, which translates in two Shona dialects to mean both the storyteller and the story told.
Much of the attention paid by those assembled was to the techniques and processes of composition and production of the artwork. This even though Bickle spoke compellingly, if quietly, about the fate of her earlier installation, Say-So, which, when exhibited in Harare in 2002 was condemned by the government. Say-So was an installation piece set up in four parts, three walls and a construction or sculpture between the walls. On wall one, to the left as one faced the installation, were letters to the editor of the Daily News, which was banned in 2003, soon after. On the right-hand wall were personal letters and testimonies to daily life in Zimbabwe. The centre wall was a blank blackboard on which observers were invited to write … anything. The central construction consisted of a television playing ZBC, the state- controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Television, in a wheelbarrow; a set of three well-worn suitcases, stacked, on top of which sat a rusty, broken typewriter, mirrored in some way through three similar typewriters suspended above the central black board. The storyteller and the story told. The history of the installation piece would suggest an attempt at story denied.
It is this denial that in some way was at the heart of Vera’s work. Vera insisted on telling those Zimbabwean 'stories' that ordinarily, would have been denied. 'Those stories' were often women’s stories, they were alternative narratives that challenged mainstream/malestream understandings and constructions of history under the current regime. Vera, in a similar yet different way to Bickle, across the arc of her work from Under the Tongue in 1996 through to The Stone Virgins in 2002, was concerned with the investigation of voice, language and subsequently text. Taking very seriously the relationship between history and memory and challenging what can and cannot be said, what this meant in the everyday lives of women, men and children in colonial Rhodesia and postcolonial Zimbabwe, and what this recasting of history would mean if translated into an agenda for social change.
Last September, in The Guardian, in the lead up to the Booker Prize, South African writer Achmat Dangor saw the potential enrichment of African literature as a matter of taking to the streets. Leading the charge, as it were, was Yvonne Vera: 'I have also observed with some relief how other African writers have taken to the streets, as it were. Yvonne Vera beautifully evokes Bulawayo in her novel The Stone Virgins, Moses Isegawa's depiction of Idi Amin's Kampala in Snakepit is heady yet claustrophobic. Zakes Mda's Ways of Dying accurately captures the sprawling, elegiac architecture of peri-urban South Africa. African writers are starting to reclaim the African city from the colonialists who by their association with it had poisoned it as a centre of culture and 'dark, gleaming light'.'
Vera’s work was a perpetual claiming and reclaiming of the spaces of everyday life, and in particular of women’s everyday lives. The Stone Virgins, as one example, opens: 'Selborne Avenue in Bulawayo cuts from Fort Street [at Charter House], across to Jameson Road [of the Jameson Raid], through to Main Street, to Grey Street, to Abercorn Street, to Fife Street, to Rhodes Street, to Borrow Street, out into the lush Centenary Gardens with their fusion of dahlias, petunias, asters, red salvia, and mauve petrea bushes, onward to the National Museum, on the left side.' It’s all about Selborne Avenue, 'the most splendid street in Bulawayo'. To enter Yvonne Vera’s literary world was always to enter the space and time of real places, even in the more fabulous works like Nehanda, which work ironically concerns a historical figure. Women’s spaces and times. Shona women, Ndebele women, `Indian’ women, 'coloured' women, 'European’ women. 'Rhodesian' women, 'Zimbabwean' women, and, as Christine Sylvester has noted, in Producing Women and Progress in Zimbabwe, Zimbabwean 'women', a floating signifier if ever there was one.
Yvonne Vera’s readers had to learn to know, to admire and to revere the ways in which Zimbabwean women live. Note that we do not say survive, for not everyone survives the moment. They live their lives in intense spaces, in the neighborhoods of and surrounding Bulawayo, Kezi, Mubaira, Harare. They live in the cities, townships, locations, and the bush. They struggle with incest, rape, torture, civil war, betrayal, and even peace. And even peace in Zimbabwe cloaks 'its women' in violence. They live the intensities of love, tenderness, forgiveness, and hatred. Though they often seem to stand perfectly still, the women of Yvonne Vera’s works are in constant movement and continuous turbulence. They constitute the flowing waters that can be touched an infinite number of times and only once.
The characters in Vera’s work occupy time. They live in real material historical time, marked in years. Mazvita’s story of struggle against circumstance and betrayal, personal and collective, in Without a Name, is cadenced by the invocation of 1977: 'After all it was 1977 (22). 'It was 1977, freedom was skin deep but joyous and tantalizing (32). 'The streets smelled of burning skin. Nyore Nyore. It was like that in 1977 (33). 'The city pushed forward. It was 1977. It was nothing to see a woman with a blind stare on her face, with a baby fixed spidery on her back. It was nothing to be sorrowful (43). 'Freedom was a thought tantalizing and personal. You had to wear your own freedom to be sure it had arrived. 1977. That is how it was expressed. People walked into shops and bought revolutions (55). 'The carnival was necessary and complete, so they lay in the dead bodies which they had rejected in the heightening clamor of the voices of their men, in the turmoil of faint-hearted whispers. The year was 1977 (72). '1977. People were known to die amazing deaths. Natural deaths were rare, unless one simply died in sleep. … 1977. It was a time for miracles. If you arrived at your destination still living, then you prayed desperately to continue to live (87). '1977. Everyone was an accomplice to war (88).
And how does Without a Name end? The last chapter loops around the simple incantatory statement: 'It is yesterday. 'It is yesterday. The trees are heavy with pod (114). 'It is yesterday. Mazvita sees the smoke and hills (115). 'It is yesterday. The village has disappeared (116). In the end, 'the silence is deep, hollow, and lonely (116).
It is 1977. It is yesterday. All of Vera’s people, in particular all of Vera’s women, live in real time and real places, in Zimbabwe. In one book, it is 1977; in another, Under the Tongue, it is 1980, 'the end of loneliness and unfulfilled desire long kept (232), 'a time to shorten distances to desire (233). In Yvonne Vera’s work, it’s always yesterday, it’s always today, it’s always the moment in which women refuse the offers of patience and the supposed rewards of silence as acceptance. Yvonne Vera offers her readers the courage, the full heart, of deliverance, deliverance understood not as deliverance from, as flight, but as deliverance into. Deliverance is the final word of The Stone Virgins, her fifth and as it turns out final completed novel. Who today is writing the story of Zimbabwe, and of 'its women, the story that keeps whispering, 'It is 2005, and how will it end?
For this is the challenge. Under a broader lens, how will it end in a world that in so many ways negates the meaning of postcolonial Zimbabwe. A world that refuses to hear Zimbabwe’s women and to see and read the challenges facing Zimbabwe for what they are. As a Zimbabwean writer, this invitation is threaded through Vera’s work. To read her work is to confront and act upon the challenges and take up the invitation. Or at the very least to re-look and re-think. It is 2005 and how will it end?
In 2003, Irene Staunton published Writing Still: New stories from Zimbabwe, in which appeared Yvonne Vera’s last published story, 'Sorting It Out. It is a short story, as dazed and circular as Zimbabwe’s history. It begins: '"A woman who cannot forgive her husband’s infidelity can climb the highest tree in her village and drop her infant to the ground." I hear my grandmother say' (237). It ends: 'A woman must forgive the infidelity of her husband in order to save her children' (242). It is yesterday, it is 2005, women and unfaithful husbands and saved children abide within a realm of necessary forgiveness.
Hamba kahle Yvonne, hamba kahle.
© the authors
On Monday morning I sat down at my desk and checked my emails. The first I opened from a fellow Zimbabwean, Diana Mitchell, told of the death of Yvonne Vera. Stunned into silence and sitting in a grey and foreign land I immediately allowed my thoughts to travel back to my first meeting with her first at a book launch in downtown Harare. It was a small gathering for at the time she was still a fledgling writer. The venue was Ndoro Trading – full or beautiful African crafts and cloth. Yvonne looked arty and African in a serene way. I had gone to pass on greetings and congratulations from a mutual friend. We spoke for a while and I congratulated her on her book, spontaneously she hugged me and put me at my rest and seemed happy and relaxed.
One could not but held feel awe in her presence. Yvonne Vera was regarded by many as almost a female equivalent of Dambudzo Marechera. She explored taboo subjects with a breathtaking honesty that was sometimes disturbing and unsettling. She was not afraid to express her views – or if she felt she had been wronged or slighted she would have no hesitation in defending herself. She could be both incredibly warm and terrifyingly intimidating!
Her first book was Why Don't You Carve Other Animals (1992) but it would take the publishing of Nehanda (1993) to place her under a spotlight would she would not leave until her death at a tragically young age on 10 April 2005. Gregory Gipson ('Mutable Semantics: Three Texts and the Term Postcolonial', in English 27, Autumn, 1997, see http:www.//landow.stg.brown.edu/post/poldiscourse/gipson4.html) described this pioneering work as the creation of a myth and 'addressing the issues of tribalism and nationhood so critical to Africa's decolonized peoples'. He saw Yvonne as creating 'a culture hero for several cultures', to be the 'wind' that 'covers the earth with joyful celebration' (p. 118).
I remember Yvonne at the Gottenberg Book Fair in Sweden where she travelled to receive the Voice of Africa Award in 1999. She was the first recipient of this award initiated to honour Swedish author Henning Mankell, by his publishing house. At the time Chirikuri Chirikuri, Spike Gaura, Sindiwa Magona and myself were at the book fair to promote the Zimbabwe International Book Fair and appointed ourselves her unofficial fan club. Yvonne addressed two meetings. At the first Spike and I arrived late with Margaret Ling. We tried to slip in quietly but Yvonne immediately stopped at greeted us warmly as fellow Africans – not to embarrass us but more to draw us close to her. We sat in a semi-circle as she read from her novels. The room hushed as in her quietly moving and measured voice her words came alive. She invited us to attend a supper given in her honour and we spent a lovely evenings eating prawns in a sisterhood which is hard to recapture in this article.
Yvonne wore her hair in dreadlocks – one of the first prominent women to do so. She always looked stunning and dressed beautifully and dramatically at the same time - a cloth around her shoulders, a beautiful mud-print shirt, a Ghanaian style scarf – always a glorious celebration of her African womanhood. But at times the burden of the books she created weighed heavily on her. She was emotionally vulnerable. At a later meeting, a larger gathering, several questioners tried to draw her out on the subjects she chose to write about. They pressed her to say whether she was writing from a personal perspective – but Yvonne would not be drawn and instead retreated into herself.
I met Yvonne several times during my time at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. When she addressed the ZIBF Indaba with a presentation that stunned the international gatherings, her descriptions of the plight of some children reduced members of the audience to tears. Although we managed to find a tape of her presentation she would not allow us to transcribe it and reproduce it in our Indaba book. It was almost as if her words were too fragile to be said again and no amount of pleading would change her mind. Yvonne saw herself very much as a voice for those whose voices had been quietened by the cruelty and harshness of life.
Although her unpredictability and sensitiveness was sometimes unnerving and difficult to respond to, Yvonne was never unapproachable. She agreed without hesitation to speak at a Zimbabwe Women Writers function at the Book Café – even though there were many more prestigious demands on her time. But if she decided she did not want to do something it made no difference how important the gathering was – she would not budge.
Yvonne breathed fresh life and a sense of pride into the National Gallery in Bulawayo. She developed the Gallery into a space were all felt at home and where historically disposed people reclaimed ownership of their art, their music and their culture. I remember in particular her Exhibition of Township Photographs from the 50s where the Cool Crooners helped open the Exhibition with a warmth and style that was distinctly African – and warmly 'Skies'. She had an amazing capacity for knowing and understanding people but was always hardest on herself. Yvonne was very much a writer's writer and an artiste in the fullest sense of the word.
To her husband, mother, family and friends, to Irene Staunton, a confidante, and to all who knew and loved her I extend my sympathy. Her loss seems to highlight the tragedy Zimbabwe continues to experience and I cannot imagine being home and her not being there.
(Pat Brickhill is a writer and administrator who worked for the Zimbabwe International Book Fair from 1993 to 1999.)
Eulogy for the late Dr Yvonne Vera - Mandivavarira Taruvinga
The eulogy for the late Dr Yvonne Vera was read at the Memorial Service at St John's Cathedral, Bulawayo, on Saturday 23rd April by Mandivarira Taruvinga, Yvonne's oldest friend.
'I speak this afternoon in memory of my dear friend of 23 years, Yvonne, whom I affectionately called Voni.
A doctoral graduate of York University, Yvonne was born on 19 September 1964 and died on 7 April 2005. While we mourn her passing we are hear to celebrate her life. Oh, what a life!
Her outstanding work and achievements as a multiple award-winning writer has been extensively and eloquently documented in Zimbabwe, Africa, Europe and America. I will refer briefly to some of the highlights of her illustrious life and work.
Dr Yvonne Vera taught at York University and was a visiting scholar to many universities in Europe, but writing and not lecturing was her passion. It is self-evident that she was a determined, disciplined, committed and prolific writer publishing a collection of short stories, five novels and editing an anthology of stories by women writers within a decade. At the time of her death she was writing her sixth novel, Obedience. Her works have been translated into more than nine languages and her books are being taught at universities throughout Africa, Europe and America.
As the first woman Director of the National Gallery in Bulawayo, Yvonne created a site and space for cultural and intellectual for the community, turning the arts into the lived experience. Terry Ranger comments on “her strong visual imagination combined with the sense of vitality of urban culture, to create a sense of memorable exhibition – of Township photographs, decorated township bicycles, a projected exhibition to recreate the atmosphere of Bulawayo’s western frontier and market in Lobengula street.”
It is also evident that Yvonne “had successfully crossed the great divide that separates the purely academic world from the broader cultural sphere.”
I stand here today to pay tribute to this Bulawayo woman, a towering intellectual giant, a patriotic Zimbabwean and an internationally acclaimed writer. I also pay tribute to the city that nurtured her. Although Canada anchored her academically, it is Zimbabwe, and Bulawayo in particular, which evoked her creative imagination, hence her return to her roots. Yvonne and Bulawayo were inextricably linked, for it is here where her umbilical cord lies. I am sure I speak for all when I say she will stand tall in the Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and international halls of fame alongside other great luminaries whose distinctive and distinguished contribution to humanity can not be doubted or wished away.
In a letter Yvonne wrote to me on 2 September 1993 she asks, "Have I ever told you of my love for Bulawayo? It is the longest love affair I have had – landscape. I love Bulawayo. In fact I find it very difficult to relate to Zimbabwe in any meaningful way without having Bulawayo as the centre of that definition. I suppose it is the idea of having grown up there, and bonding with it from an early age. … I live for the moment when I shall be on my native earth once more – a retreat to my roots." She went on to say, "I have heard all kinds of discouraging reports about the economy etc., but to live here is to know the negative of cultural isolation and exile! … As a writer I have learnt to love my country more. Learning can take all kinds of subtle forms. I don’t regret having been away this long but I also know more clearly who I have become. I see only a blue sky grazing my forehead, I see long necks of giraffes majestically grazing, I see the stripped backs of zebras sauntering into the bushes. I see me." It was not a blind and unquestioning loyalty for everything Zimbabwean. She did not passively accept the status qou? She questioned it, critiqued it and challenged our silences while giving us a voice on the most taboo of subjects.
Yvonne was different things to different people. She had a special personal and unique relationship with every person she related with. She left an indelible mark on those who engaged with her or her ideas. She was a woman of vision, of many words, sometimes few words, and she was a woman of many ideas, a woman with spiritual wisdom. Even in her silences she communicated a lot.
Her gaiety, gracefulness, style and strong sense of purpose was anchored in sound values and beliefs that sought to give and restore human dignity, hope, justice and freedom among the marginalised, oppressed and exploited women and girls. Yvonne could engage with the academic elites and authors of this world, yet she remained simple and humble, remain[ed] inspired and connected to ordinary people from the townships and rural villages. These inspired her more. Her most distinguished contribution was to the development of young budding writers and artists. Her simplicity and accessibility made her connect with budding artists. She turned the gallery into a workshop of ideas through the actual creation of art works She seized each moment to learn, to teach, to enjoy and to reflect.
On the 2nd of September 2001 it was my daughter Chiedza’s fifteenth birthday; Yvonne took us on a visit to Lobengula’s Old Capital at Kwa Bulawayo where she often spend time. After emerging from the hut that belonged to Lobengula’s sister, Yvonne gave Chiedza a new and additional name, Mcengence, as a birthday present and an honour to this woman whose hut had allowed to go back in time to the 1890s. We call Chiedza by this honorary name, Nini, from time to time, which is the nickname of the rather tongue twisting Mcengence, whenever we have thought and missed Aunty Yvonne. Such was Yvonne’s ever-present sense of history, how that history defined us and her reverence for women historical figures.
Utilising multiple perspectives from multiple disciplines and using her inimitable poetic – prose, she interrogated the multiple realities of our existence across gender, ethnic, religious, race and class categories.
She lived many lives as an author, academic and artist, but like us she was also a child, a sister, a wife, a cousin, a granddaughter and a friend. The family will sorely miss her compassionate, considerate and understanding ways. She was a source of joy, pride, a mentor and a role model to all of us. Oh how we will miss Voni’s laughter, humour and playful ways!
Yvonne lived a very public life and also a very private one, though very often society, and indeed humanity, would like to convolute the public and private in a very intrusive manner. I am aware it is a matter of great debate whether the two can be dichotomised.
Yvonne’s biography is “the story of a thought", a work in progress, for even up to her death she was writing and the world busy translating, analysing and critiquing her works – “hinting a deeper relationship between author and text.” She lives on, and let us celebrate this life, for are we not a part of what has been written about?
As will all mourn and as the world mourns, I will admit that the public sense of loss converges with the private loss and I cannot say one surpasses the other. However, for the family and for Zimbabwe, it brings our loss into sharp relief.
Yvonne spoke to us in may ways and I hope that you can have a chance to listen to two of her most favourite songs, Nina Simone’s To be Young, Gifted and Black and Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. She had an enduring belief in the possibility of individuals, especially the young, attaining their fullest potential and finding their purpose in life regardless of the challenges.
I cannot find enough words to celebrate this illustrious daughter of Zimbabwe, a humble but profounder thinker, and a creative doer. Indeed a speech of a few minutes cannot adequately capture the diversity, sophistication of Dr Vera’s short, but full life.
I leave you with her own thoughts on death as quoted in a letter she wrote to me on 27 August 1992, after hearing the news of the death of someone who was close to both of us. She wrote, "These are terribly trying times indeed and the capacity of our humanity is being tested. It is as though we have arrived at the very edge of our being, and though it is possible we might survive, we will be thoroughly transformed. Perhaps we will be stronger, but there is no doubt we have been thoroughly wounded." Indeed, we are almost fatally wounded.
Hamba kahle, Famba zvakanaka, farewell Voni. You lived the good life and, like an eagle, your spirit soars high alongside that of Nehanda, for there shall be a new beginning, perhaps an arrival. This African literary legend, Yvonne Vera will return, again and again like Nehanda.'
© Mandi Maodzwa-Taruvinga