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Yvonne Vera: The fearless taboo queen
Ivor Hartmann, Munyori Literary Journal
March / April 2009

"I am against silence; the books I write try to undo the silent posture African women have endured over so
many decades" -Yvonne Vera

Yvonne Vera was born in 1964 and raised in Zimbabwe's second largest city Bulawayo during British colonial era and under the Rhodesian minority regime. Growing up, Vera was somewhat graced by her family status. Her father was a prosperous businessman and her uncle was a former local football star and manager of a top hotel (Ranger). Together they were both politically involved and friends of Joshua Nkomo, who would become a pivotal figure in the second Chimurenga or Zimbabwean Liberation Struggle. Vera's mother (Mrs. Ericah Gwetai), was a school teacher and early on extended her love of books over to her daughter to take up the mantle. Vera did so and between them they convinced her father to find a way and successfully obtain an adult library card when she was twelve, in the "Whites Only" main Bulawayo library (Ranger).

Vera's parents did not go unrewarded for their attention; she became a top student at Mzilikazi High, and went on to do the same at Hillside Teacher Training school. Vera's first teaching position was at Njube High where she met her future husband John Jose, a math teacher from Canada. This was to prove a pivotal point in Vera's life for through their growing friendship John would invite her to Canada, and she would honour that invitation (Dunphy).

On the third visit to Toronto, Yvonne and John married and she began to attend York University. In only eight years Vera completed her Undergraduate, Master's and PhD degrees. It was however during Vera's Master's degree when she discovered her true joy and talent was writing. Diagnosed with HIV in 1989 Vera undeterred and perhaps motivated by, began writing short stories. These would grow into an astounding collection which became her first published book, Why Don't You Carve Other Animals in 1991, released by Tsar Press, a Canadian independent publisher. With this collection of vivid short stories Vera set the landscape for her future novels.

In writing, Vera consciously and carefully sought to openly and honestly break what she perceived as the crushing, enforced silence of her Zimbabwean countrymen for the last 100 years. A silence started by colonisation that stemmed the ancient flow of oral traditions that held history, myth and legend. Vera sought to bring these traditions alive again and be a voice for the silent to now emerge, and once more bring the storyteller to prominence in society.

In 1993 through her first novel Nehanda, Vera affirmed her pledge and gave voice to the life and times of Mbuya Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, who led the first uprising against colonial rule in 1896. A legend in her own time Mbuya Nehanda was the spiritual leader of the Shona people. Nehanda is the name given to the Lion Spirit, whose first incarnation was the daughter of the first King of the great Munhumutapa Empire, Mutota Nyatsimba. Charwe Nyakasikana (a powerful spirit medium) bestowed this name on Nehanda when she became, Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, and was considered to be the female incarnation of the oracle spirit Nyamhika Nehanda Lion Spirit (Matshobana). Mbuya Nehanda together with Mukwati and Kaguvi two other spiritual leader they instigated the 1st Chimurenga or uprising. After two unsuccessful attempts Mbuya and Kaguvi were captured in 1897, a public press photograph was taken by the British to display their success abroad and both were executed by hanging shortly after. It was this photograph that survived time and found its way to Vera. She was reminded of her grandmother's stories and the reverence with which Zimbabwean's still hold for Mbuya Nehanda. As it was the actions of Mbuya Nehanda that would (73 years later), read to the ten-year 2nd Chimurenga War of Independence. Culminating in victory and independence of Zimbabwe in 1980, when Vera was sixteen. Taking on the mantle of a true storyteller Vera unflinchingly wove a tale around Mbuya Nehanda creating a legend that wove masterfully between mythology and fact. In her unique style, Vera through Nehanda began a literary voyage that would cut to the bone, revealing the absurdity of many long-standing inequities against and within her own people.

Yvonne Vera once said, "Our forefathers crafted a language (Shona) 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 as to convey the message. But for subjects like incest and are not allowed to mention it. Even to your mother, who must pantomime the news if she tells your aunt " (Soros).

Without A Name was published in 1994 and gained Vera critical international acclaim by winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa and the Zimbabwean Publisher's Literary Award. During this time she taught at Trent University until 1995 when she returned home to Bulawayo. Two years later in 1997 Vera released her third book Under The Tongue, through Baobab Books in Zimbabwe. That same year she was named Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo. But she continued to write and in 1998 released Butterfly Burning though Baobab. Two years later Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishers in America, reprinted Butterfly Burning with international distribution. The novel gained a widespread fame and became required reading and study in many university literary courses, and was awarded The German Literature Prize. The year 2002 also saw the release of her fourth and last novel The Stone Virgins.

The Stone Virgins won the Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa later that year and undeterred as usual, Vera set to work on her new novel Obedience, dictating to John, as she lay in bed too weak to rise (Dunphy). Her fortitude took the upper hand and she seemed by 2003 to be on the way to a full recovery, but in April 2004 she was struck by virulent meningitis, and her condition deteriorated rapidly. John quickly flew her to specialist care in Toronto. Aided by the care and John she began to once more recover and started work again on Obedience, but the meningitis relapsed. On the day her mother arrived from Zimbabwe, Yvonne Vera on the 24th of March 2005, finally succumbed to a 16 year adversary and died in hospital at the age of 40 (Dunphy).

Yvonne Vera leaves behind a legacy in her novels, short stories and many essays. In reading her works you can see she stuck firmly to her initial intent; set out with Why Don't You Carve Other Animals and ending in The Stone Virgins. Through her writing she sought to expose and illuminate all aspects of life, and if they were considered taboo she did not flinch but persisted in revealing the truth. This applies to her very style of writing in which she broke and flaunted all manner of traditional forms to create a world that taught directly through the experience of reading it alone. All of Vera's works depict a rich and multifaceted world that questioned everyone and everything, sparring with no quarter in the true timeless voice of the storyteller. Though there can be no other like Yvonne Vera, her voice will go onward and all who listen will be forever changed by that journey. For Vera, writing demands full participation and cuts through the barriers of disassociation to leave the reader marked and changed by the experience. So like all our legendary storytellers of ages past, what Yvonne Vera left behind does continue to change the fabric of our global society.


Works Cited

Ranger, Terence. Britain Zimbabwe Society: Reminiscences of Yvonne Vera

Dunphy, Catherine. Yvonne Vera, 40: A powerful voice Quelled

Ezika Matshobana. Bulawayo 1872

Soros, Eugine. Yvonne Vera: Breaking the Silence. World Press Review Online.

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