African Literature

Yvonne Vera: Breaking the Silence

Yvonne Vera
Photo courtesy Baobab Books

In most of Africa, and certainly in Zimbabwe, it is unthinkable that a woman would dare to speak publicly about rape, incest, violence against women, or how women have suffered in Africa’s wars, without being exposed to backlash.

But 38-year-old Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera is challenging the taboos with her novels and introducing the continent’s public discourse to a new voice—the voice of its women. Her powerful, lyrical novels have propelled her onto the international scene and established her as African women’s literary ambassador to the world. She would likely reject the title; there is a decades-long tradition of excellent prose by African women. And yet critics, persuaded by the astonishing frankness of Vera’s writing and her work as the editor of Opening Spaces: An Anthology of Contemporary African Women’s Writing (Heinemann, 1999), persist in applying it to her.

“I am against silence,” Vera says. “The books I write try to undo the silent posture African women have endured over so many decades.”

“Our forefathers crafted a language that made it difficult to address these contentious issues. In African culture, for example, to talk to my father, I bow. If I am announcing that somebody has died, I use a particular language, a particular tone… so as to convey the message. But for subjects like incest and rape… you are not allowed to mention it. Even to your mother, who must pantomime the news if she tells your aunt.”

Vera’s earlier works—Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals (Baobab, 1992), Nehanda (Baobab, 1993), Without a Name (Baobab, 1994), Under the Tongue (Baobab, 1997), Butterfly Burning (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000)—shared a concern with the constraining legacy of colonialism and tradition on Africans, and particularly, African women. In Butterfly Burning, children play in England’s trash: “An empty box of matches. A single leather shoe with laces still attached… An inkstand says London. A magnificent metal spoon with a dove embossed on it. Selborne Hotel is written along the broken handle of a ceramic pot."

Deliwe, a central character in Butterfly Burning, routinely breaks laws she finds absurd, selling alcohol to her neighbors:

"Deliwe had once been locked up for a whole night in a police cell for selling alcohol and moreover in a dwelling. She threw her head back and laughed like a madwoman when she was told that this square shelter with its falling roof, its colorless weak walls, and nowhere to make love to a man, was a house. That was when the policeman slapped her. . . . She never explained that the deafness in her right ear was caused by the beating she received during her detention."

“My tales are tragic, rather than sad, meaning they have a catastrophic force,” she says.

But it is her latest work, The Stone Virgins (Weaver Press, 2002) that has seen her moving into more controversial and contentious territory than most writers, be they men or women, have dared to write about. In The Stone Virgins, she delves into the experiences of women during Zimbabwe’s two-decade “War of Liberation,” the ethnic violence of the early 1980s, and the current political violence, narrating the hardships, the pain, and the courage of women who still bear the brunt of men’s conflicts. 
So far, her reliance on poetic devices to make serious social comments has kept her out of trouble. Others seeking to address the troubles Zimbabwean women face haven’t been as lucky. In 1997, Ingrid Sinclair’s film, Flame, which treated the same topics The Stone Virgins, was banned in Zimbabwe, though it went on to win international accolades. 
Vera will not say if she is working a new book already. But speaking to Grace Mutanwa, a journalist with Harare’s independent weekly Financial Gazette, Vera explained how she spends her time when she is not writing:

"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."

Until her new book is released, Vera’s fans will spend the months “fasting… their hunger growing.”