Yvonne Vera’s Obituary
April 15, 2005 Leave a comment
Last night I was Instant Messengering with Gimbiya Kettering, my newest friend who told me that she had just heard of Yvonne Vera’s death. Gimbiya, who is a great fan of Yvonne’s, told me of the powerful emotional and aesthetic impact on her of books such as Stone Virgins. Below is an obituary for a bright flame extinguished in the prime of life, to be missed by a Zimbabwe and an Africa that is in dire need of her unflinching gaze.
(Her titles: Without a Name, Under the Tongue, Stone Virgins, and Butterfly Burning. These novels were widely recognized, translated into seven languages and Vera won the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region), 2002 Berlin Literature Prize (work in Translation), and 2002 Macmillan (UK) Writer’s Prize for Africa (adult fiction).)
A tongue which no lover lives, no longer weeps. It buried beneath rock.
My tongue is a river. I touch my tongue in search of the places of my growing. My tongue is heavy with sleep. I know a stone is buried in my mouth, carried under my tongue – Under the Tongue, Yvonne Vera
Bulawayo is the second largest city in Zimbabwe, the cultural and economic hub of the western region. In 1964, when Yvonne Vera was born it was a township in Southern Rhodesia. When she left in 1980 to go to York University Canada, Zimbabwe was celebrating its independence. She returned to the city to work as the director of the National Gallery, and began writing her novels. Her poetic lyricism has immortalized the city and its inhabitants.
My first exposure to Vera was on a course syllabus, when Butterfly Burning was assigned in an African Writers Course. I had grown up in Africa and in literature courses had studied Achebe, Ngugi and Saro-Wiwa. But, it was only when I was a graduate student in Washington DC, in a course taught by an American, when I first came across Vera’s work. In the campus bookstore, I bought a trade-paperback edition of the slender novel. Its cover was elegant: a butterfly pattern that reminded me of Dutch-wax print cloth and a naked woman crouched on the cover, looking at the ground before her. It was a few months before I took it from my stack of semester-reading, expecting an easy read. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Vera’s prose is poetic, language so graceful that it cannot be read quickly. Each word demands its own time and its own meaning. I was halfway through the book before I realized that I didn’t actually know what it was about. In class the next morning, the professor summarized the plot of the novel so that we could discuss its themes: abortion, rebellion, dreams, and suffering. I took notes furiously, promising myself that I would find all of this in the novel when I reread it. Two readings became my reading pattern for Vera’s novels: First for the beauty, then for the story. The two only coming together after I closed the book, shut my eyes and allowed her words to flow over me.
Vera was unafraid of writing about the reality of life in Bulawayo, where many suffer poverty, violence, and despair. She took on the taboo subjects of rape, incest, abortion and the position of women in her country. Yet all of this is done in such compelling language that a reader gains hope in the strength of Vera’s characters. It is her novels that took her writing, and eventually Vera herself, out of Zimbabwe.
Her life seemed intertwined with Zimbabwe’s. She was born in 1964 when Ian Smith became prime minister and a year later declared independence under white rule. In 1980, when the Black African population won its independence, Vera left to read for a doctorate from York University in Canada.
I knew she had been in poor health. But I imagined her as a writer-in-exile, her eyes and her heart turning back to Zimbabwe as she tried to write about the place and people so important to her. The distance must have caused her pain. I imagine her broken-hearted, wasting away with homesickness. If I have used images more fitting to a novel than to real life, I suspect that Yvonne, whose characters’ vivid lives made ours brighter and better as a result, would approve.
PS: Please go to the African Review of Books for some good reviews of Yvonne’s work. Use the link below: