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Yvonne Vera: The fearless taboo queen
Munyori Literary Journal
March / April 2009
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
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
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.
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
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 " (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.
Zimbabwe Society: Reminiscences of Yvonne Vera
Yvonne Vera, 40: A powerful voice Quelled
Vera: Breaking the Silence. World Press Review Online.
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