Review of Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera - Journal of Southern African Studies

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
ISBN: 1779220049

Journal of Southern African Studies
Vol. 29, No. 4, December, 2003
Reviewer: Tony Simones da Silva

Edited by Robert Muponde and Mandi Taruvinga, Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera (2003) seeks to account for Yvonne Vera's increasingly central place in contemporary Zimbabwean writing in English, and to explore her relationship to Zimbabwean literature in general. Given Vera's considerable output, a collection of essays on her work has been long overdue. The present textbook fills the gap with great success, and it consolidates the still rather flimsy web of critical work on the work of African women writers. Sign and Taboo brings together a rich and broad set of critical perspectives on Vera's novels. Essays range from narrowly focused readings of particular novels, with a particular accent on Nehanda and Under the Tongue, to overviews of both her writing and its place within contemporary Zimbabwean writing. One of the book's strengths is the patient, thoughtful and illuminating close-reading approach adopted by most critics. Many of the essays share a concern with Vera's complex weaving of politics and aesthetics.

Noted for her imaginative and provocative use of language and narrative strategies, Vera is a deeply political writer, willing, as the title of this essay collection suggests, to leave few taboos unbroken. Indeed, the editors' suggestion that Vera works outside any identifiable literary tradition is a rather odd one: some critics approach Vera as one of a number of writers working expressly within a women's tradition. In writing that is in turn poetically suggestive and brutally honest, Vera explores some of the decisive issues in contemporary postcolonial writing, especially as they reflect on nationalism and identity. On the whole, these aspects of her work are handled with great care and perspicuity, much as the emphasis on the political may at times seem lopsided. For if Vera is a Zimbabwean writer for whom the anti-colonial struggle offers a deep and rich source of material for her novels, all her texts seem to me to complicate definitions of postcolonial writing in ways that few writers are able to do. Drawing as she does on a range of aesthetic and political motifs for her work – a point the title of this collection of essays perfectly illustrates, with its overtly post-structuralist and psychoanalytical echoes – Vera challenges reading models and any reductive attempts to classify her as this or that kind of a writer.

Meg Samuelson highlights this aspect when she enlists Gayatri C. Spivak's work to suggest a way of reading Vera that veers away from allegorical or metaphorical readings of postcolonial writing, towards, precisely, a more specific focus on the texts as art, as aesthetic constructs in their own right, rather than as always addressing some colonial grand narrative (p. 93). The 'writing back' that Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin identify as one of the intentions or qualities of much postcolonial writing is not, and cannot be, the main criterion through which such narratives can be read. In Vera this is made particularly evident through her focus on women's experiences of, and in, the nationalist struggle, and of the trauma that ensues. For if at the heart of Nehanda, or Under the Tongue, resides a concern with (re)visioning the past, these are texts also essentially preoccupied with what Samuelson, citing David Lan's work, identifies as the hijacking of 'the symbolic system' (p.96) by men. Indeed, the collection's penultimate piece, a discussion by Terence Ranger of Vera's latest novel, stresses the way in which Ranger's own historical writing has been profoundly affected by Vera's novels. The implication, then, is that it is time African women novelists are seen to be initiating new critical and analytical parameters, rather than simply engaging with established paradigms.

Inevitably, a review of this nature can make only cursory reference to the excellent critical work offered in this collection. Let me move on to those essays that I thought most genuinely engaged with Vera's work. Meg Samuelson's essay, for instance, impresses in spite of, or perhaps precisely because of, a conscious realisation that the critic can only ever seek to provide partial answers. Similarly, Lizzy Attree's essay engages convincingly with Vera's work, although I wondered why, yet again, a reading of an African woman's work has to perform such an agonised interpretation of its feminist politics. Faced with a writer who so brutally foregrounds women's suffering at the hands of men – yes, coloniser and indigenous – why should the critic refrain from drawing on feminist reading models for fear of becoming infected by their western views? Jessica Hemmings' reading of four of Vera's texts within a cloth paradigm offers a rather structuralist, but imaginative, analysis of works that demand of the reader a deep and careful engagement. Similarly, through a focus on the kinetic quality of Vera's writing, Jane Bryce produces an analysis of some of the texts that is wonderfully attuned to their unique qualities, much as her essay risks trying too hard to find a pattern that 'fits' Vera's complex and unwieldly prose.

In Ranka Primorac's essay we have possibly one of the most thorough and fascinating textual analyses of Vera's oeuvre. It is, in spite of its ambitious scope and the overview approach that the essay develops, possibly the most challenging contribution to the collection. Willing to question the dogma that all postcolonial writing is inherently about colonialism (how can it not be about it?), it imagines a time when Vera herself might begin to situate her novels in the post-independence movement (which she does in The Stone Virgins, 2002). Indeed, criticism such as Primorac's begins to suggest ways of reading, and of writing, that go beyond the rather linear apprehension of postcolonial literature as in some sense 'unlock[ing] the nation's conscience', to quote from Mangwanda's reading of Nehanda. It seems almost perverse, if ironic, that writing such as Vera's, Emecheta's, and Aidoo's, to name but a few of a growing body of African women writers, should be co-opted both to give birth to and nurture a nation that their writing repeatedly set out to critique and analyse. If Chimurenga was a struggle for freedom, for land, for justice and dignity, it was also a struggle fought by both men and women. Forms of resistance, as Fanon, Bhabha and Spivak have noted, differed greatly between colonial settings, but were equally inflected differently in terms of gender, class or sexuality. As numerous postcolonial critics have noted, resistance to colonial oppression was often, for the colonised woman, a transferral from one master to another. Vera's treatment of the rape of the black female body illustrates her emphasis on this aspect. Ruth Lavelle's 'conclusion … that perhaps [the] urge to reclaim masculinity may have contributed to acts of sexual violence committed by freedom fighters in an attempt to prove that they had not, in fact, been emasculated by colonial governments' (p. 110), naïve as it may seem in view of Fanon's pioneering work in The Wretched of the Earth, reflects provocatively on an issue that imaginative writers have yet to address in any detail.

Indeed, as Nana Wilson-Tagoe puts it in her dense and rewarding essay, in Vera's work the rape acts 'as a subtext that writes a discourse of gender within the text' (p. 170). If anything, I suggest that she puts it only too mildly – the rape of the female body and the trauma that ensues are inextricable from the way in which Yvonne Vera reads the postcolonial nation. In the words of Wilson-Tagoe, 'Such a writing of rape moves it beyond individual violation into the wider, socially constructed sphere that organises sexuality and power relations' (p. 171). She goes on to explore the significance of incest in Vera's writing, and especially her treatment of incest as a comment on narratives of liberation. Referring specifically to Under the Tongue, she writes: 'Herein incest has other connotations: it is an exploitation of women's powerlessness within a world constructed around their silence; on another level it is a negative symptom of a construction of masculinity embedded in the community and particularly heightened during the war' (p. 174). The point here is not that one should overlook the specific historical constraints on human, and notably male forms of behaviour, but to temper the urge to read all such actions as excusable in terms of a narrative of resistance that repeatedly silences women's participation in the anti-colonial struggle. Rape is not a 'battle of the sexes', as Samuelson proposes, drawing on a long list of such views, but a more insidious manifestation of gender structures, an exercise in power that is inextricable from a larger social model in which men and women are 'marked out' not as biological but as social beings.

However, Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera offers such a wide and rich array of readings of Yvonne Vera's work that might be read, in part, as the requisite response from a reviewer. I would recommend it to anyone encountering Vera for the first time, or engaged in a more detailed exploration of her work. Such exploration will, ideally, move on to attempt to situate her precisely within a complex web of literary, aesthetic and political affiliations.

© The author/publisher

Interview for Yvonne Vera - Grace Mutandwa

Yvonne Vera interviewed by Grace Mutandwa
Financial Gazette
May 23, 2002

Yvonne Vera: the person and the dreamer

The Zimbabwean publishing industry, still struggling to make its mark on the global market, is growing. Even with the country’s economic hardships of the past decade, the industry has given birth to and nurtured a sizeable number of award-winning writers.

Grace Mutandwa (GM): When and where were you born and where were you educated?

Yvonne Vera (YV): I was born in Bulawayo on 19 September 1964 and attended Mzilikazi High School.

GM: When was the first time you received a prize and what form did it take?

YV: My first school prize was in Grade Seven when I was presented with a pair of scissors for the best needlework. The art of needlework often required the patience of good stitching. I still love the creativity of cutting, sewing, choosing fabrics for their emotion and mood. I love the smell of new fabric.

When I look at someone, I try to understand what their mode of dress and fabric announces. Clothes have been the greatest adornment in most human societies, our language for courtship, relaxation, celebration and even grief. At that stage, I was overweight and when I went to the stage to get my prize others laughed at me.

GM: When did you start writing?

YV: In 1991 I wrote a short story called 'Independence Day'. I did not feel then the uncompromising intensity I feel now for my pen. I found my balance elsewhere then. I did not know what a hunger, what a desire, writing could be.

GM: When you are writing, how do you best describe yourself?

YV: When I am not writing, which is most of the time … it is as though I am fasting. I am preparing myself. In other words, I no longer know what it is not to be consumed by writing. I anticipate sitting down with a story the way certain women anticipate lovers – with my breath held still, my knees shaking, a tidy room, a clean petticoat, and with no idea how the evening will turn out – in this case the book.

I will have had enough intimacies to acquire a general sketch, a thrill and a confidence. It is the same with books as it is with lovers. If you cannot feel your whole body move towards a book, then you are mostly doodling, or being quite separate from the act of writing. I spend many months between books fasting. I am meditative and spend many hours on my own, with my hunger growing. I love writing; it is a feast for my senses. I write to share this feast with a reader.

GM: How long did it take you to get published and what was the title of your first book?

YV: I had no great plan of being published really. I perhaps sent a story to a magazine in Toronto and was asked by the publisher if I had more stories. I said yes haphazardly, though I had none. He asked for them. Therefore I set off to write the rest! This was my collection of stories Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals. This was in Toronto of the early nineties.

However, I was at that stage already moving back to Zimbabwe. My challenge was to throw out everything I had imagined myself to be, till then. I had discovered writing. I loved to write as much as I loved reading. As a reader of books, I had never matched the authors’ joy in writing to my own experience of reading; but it is equal. All those marvellous sensations that keep us glued to a book also belong to the author, and are even more magnified.

GM: How did this discovery feel?

YV: To discover this was magical; writing was another way of reading. It was simply like turning over in bed. I still did not see myself as a writer, just someone who had discovered a private joy. I was twenty-seven. After my first novel Nehanda, my life changed dramatically. I felt a tremendous warmth for Zimbabwean writers and my country's literature. I was yet to learn what an enormous discipline writing requires. It is as vastly rewarding as it is demanding. It requires you to be still, to listen to each word as it wraps around a thought. I have to exist completely in another world for as long as it takes for the story to be told. I write for about nine to ten hours a day without disturbance, therefore I have to move from society in these times – telephones, the day's mail, meals, the price of milk. I fill the fridge with quick foods to last a long time – 40 yoghurts, cheese and dry bread. I cook after four days perhaps and, like a caveman, salivate at the taste of a fried egg. I have fruit salads, which I prepare quickly in a 30-minute lunch break and slide back to my desk – my mind never wanders form the page. I respect what I am doing. I am willing to protect this creative moment and can give up friendships for it, even permanently. I have never regretted claiming this sort of space. Fortunately, generous and giving colleagues and family members surround me; I am even luckier in my friends who seem to understand too well my desires for solitude.

GM: What are the frustrations of being a writer and do you always capture the audience you target?

YV: My audience is the reader who likes to contribute something to the act of readers. A passive reader will find my work too demanding. You must be as fascinated as I am with the order of words, with emotion. I aim for a reader who wishes for new encounters in expression, language and thought. I respect my reader. I think our entire universe could not have been created without poetry. The most curious scientist is a poet and humanist. So I have no specific audience because I think anyone with a sense of wonder is my reader, from scientists to artists – the language of the universe is one – it is poetry. You only have to look up at the stars and the constellation or at the human body to believe this. Therefore, whether I am writing about tragic matters or not, my aim is to find the right words to capture the movement of the stars and to celebrate the human body.

GM: When you laugh, you radiate the makings of a free spirit but why do you always relate such sad tales?

YV: I learnt to laugh freely from my mother. She is a woman with vitality and much harmony in her bones. I watched her for years and only learnt this freedom from her in my 30s, after 1995. I do not laugh often, but with the right friends I do – like my best friend Mandi – we laugh even when the roof is falling. With over-confident people, bureaucratic men, gregarious administrators and government officers, or even a meticulous lover, prison walls spring up and I am trapped in my own body. I spent last month in Helsinki laughing like an escaped convict with South African writer Achmat Dangor and Ama Ata Aidoo from Ghana. You should have heard us in taxi-cabs and along tram tracks and dining houses, fighting that cold spring air with our voices. Both of them understand ironies and enjoy a good laugh, willing to fall asleep at the dinner table after eating a good salmon steak. I can laugh with such gifted, brilliant, yet ordinary people. I laugh with minds that see the absurdities of our time here on earth. When that absurdity is crystal clear, either we weep or we laugh. I dance with poets.

GM: What kind of writer do you want to be?

YV: I want to be a writer who can give you the illusion that you have two hearts. My tales are tragic, rather than sad, meaning they have a catastrophic force. Some writers can give you two heartbeats – one for the beauty of the words, another for the event. I want to be a writer who can give you the illusion that you have two hearts. In Helsinki, I discovered that Ama and Achmat are also these sort of writers.

GM: How do people react when they see you for the first time and are some readers justified in assuming that your books are mostly about yourself?

YV: Often people expect me to be taller. Someone walked up to me and said she had expected me to have wider shoulders! It is hard to smile in such situations. Sometimes the events I write about are believed to have happened to me. When people look at me as though I have just been raped, then it is hard to return that gaze with anything else but an impatience for the moment to pass. I also wonder if all the people who say these things have met me or if they are looking at a bad photograph in a magazine.

GM: Apart from writing and heading the national gallery in Bulawayo, what is your formal work experience and how does working affect your writing?

YV: I have worked as a cotton picker in Chegutu, on the farms as a child. This was my first paid work. I've been a waitress in a fast-food chicken and ribs place and in Italian restaurants. I have taught literature for many years, in high schools and at universities, in Canada and Zimbabwe. I have been an art director for five years since July 1997.

GM: What changes have you introduced to the gallery and in what ways, if any, have the perceptions of the community changed towards the role of a national gallery in their lives?

YV: Since I took over, my aim was to make the gallery able to absorb the artistic creations of a range of participants, including marginal groups such as the handicapped. I held the first sculpture exhibition for the blind in Zimbabwe which has since been repeated by other galleries. I have worked with a lot of young artists and I always enjoy the first solo exhibition of a young artist. I like to see someone grow. I did a photo exhibition curated by local people called Thatha Camera. This was so popular that Thatha became a street language, a code in Bulawayo. One spin-off has been the dance drama Thatha by Siyaya Arts, which they are taking on tour throughout the world. I wanted the community to love their gallery and feel embraced by it. A lot has happened there in five years, and we dream on. We had Thatha Bhasikili, an exhibition of adorned bicycles, which was again very well received. I have done my work there and feel satisfied. The National Gallery is well-loved internationally and celebrated. We are a good team there. It has been a good home for me and complements my own writing very well.

GM: Of all the literary awards you have won, which one was the most emotional for you and which of your books was the most difficult to write and why?

YV: The Stone Virgins was emotionally difficult due to the subject matter. In it are the worst scenes of violence and devastation that I have ever imagined. My mind was competing with an even more macabre and gruesome history. I had a challenging task. I wanted to capture the moment of betrayal when one human being transforms himself, deliberately and consciously, into the enemy of another being who thinks he is his or her kin. To trace this violence as delicately as I wished required me to mentally witness certain events and to elaborate very intimately that sense of uneven power. I wrote those paragraphs without blinking, basically with an absolute terror lacing my fingertips. It took me weeks to look normally at another human being and months to trust my own shadow. Yet I also wanted The Stone Virgins to be a beautiful book, to be about love and art. It was a fine balancing act. The cave was my art gallery where human histories reside and passion is born. The cave replicates the mind. I wanted the hills of Kezi and their beauty to resonate through the book. The Stone Virgins is also a novel about a place. It is also about a good man, Cephas Dube. Of all my characters, he is the most faithful man to our human dignity. In writing about him, I too learnt something about the possibilities of love. I liked getting the Macmillan Prize because it is for an unpublished manuscript. I was able to feel calm about the many agitating themes of The Stone Virgins. It is easily the most emotional prize, though of course I appreciate all the other prizes I have received; they helped to build and identify my effort. I feel hugely honoured by all the prizes I have received either in Zimbabwe or abroad. Other things kept happening. Peter Genge, the Bulawayo librarian, wrote to me to say did I know about an actual place called The Stone Virgins in the communal lands of Gulati where my novel was set? Of course I knew nothing about that. This coincidence stabilised me. I am ready to move on now.

GM: Was there ever another time (before The Stone Virgins) when you felt strongly that you had written your signature book?

YV: Before The Stone Virgins, I thought Butterfly Burning would always be my signature book. In many ways it is. It has been translated into 14 languages, the most of all my books. It is also set directly in my hometown of Bulawayo. It is musical, with Kwela music infusing the pages. It is a happy book, but some readers found it agonising to witness the self-induced abortion of the main character, others felt shattered by the suicide and the manner of it; such readers will perhaps enjoy the hopeful ending of The Stone Virgins, though it carries more brutal periods of Zimbabwean history.

GM: What do you read for relaxation?

YV: I read every night in bed and every morning before I rise, even if for an hour. I read anything palatable. Right now, I am reading a biography written by Simon Garfield on the Englishman Perkins, a man who discovered the colour mauve in 1856. Next I wish to read a new book by Ian McEwan called Atonement. On my bedside is also The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, which has won many awards in America and was on the Pulitzer shortlist. If any book lands on my desk, I am likely to read it. I get many gifts of books from people who feel I might need new books to read and, as we do not import the sort of books, I would want to read them. I depend on the good taste of friends and colleagues abroad. I read Zimbabwean books as soon as they are released and most writings from Africa. I would hate to be told about books from my own community by a visitor or tourist! People who declare at dinner parties that they do not read must depend hugely on other sensory perceptions – how else do they grow?

GM: Does music have a place in your life and what other life's pleasures do you indulge in?

YV: I am still discovering my music. I spent seven years without a music system, just reading. I am musical in my writing. To borrow a phrase from Vikram Seth, I am looking for an equal music. I think if I could play the mbira, I would have great spiritual harmony. It is a music whose dark side is so close to the skin. In Without a Name, I have a bus scene played to mbira music. It is our most poetic music yet I feel getting into it might shatter me. I feel that about things that are too beautiful. It's like looking at the sun, too beautiful for the eyes, which is very contradictory. However I do not mind Nina Simone, Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Wynton Marsalis or Louis Armstrong, but single tunes tend to carry me off and I have had Leonard Cohen phases and music from Mali phases, but mostly African-American. I also love films and I have set up a cinema at the National Gallery where I show really great films from the world every Saturday at 5.30 pm. I watch a film, or even two, every week. My taste is limitless when it comes to film and what I really like is to see a quintessential actor on the screen – currently Denzel Washington licking up his role in 'Training Day'. I love gardening and cooking too. I often cook with my brother and I make the world's greatest salad. My brother and I love having candle-lit breakfasts and for me to take time over a meal is the greatest indulgence.

GM: How would you like to be remembered?

YV: I would like to be remembered as a writer who had no fear for words and who had an intense love of her nation.

© The author/publisher