Yvonne Vera – an ingenious mind lost

By Tinashe Chimedza

A SHORT message on my email on April 10 announced the death of Dr Yvonne Vera at 40 in a hospital in Canada.


He

r death is a blow not only to the intellectuals who have studied Vera’s work but more so to the silent multitude that are now struggling to carve their alternative liberating spaces between a globalising and marginalising world on the one hand and a daunting political situation on the home front.


Her writing helped break the male-dominated publishing field in Zimbabwe and must continue to be an inspiration to young women who must express their understanding of this society and invoke thoughts of liberation from a male-dominated society.


Vera worked for some time at the National Art Gallery of Bulawayo and she studied English in Canada at York University and also took up a post as a writer in residence at Trent University. Her doctoral thesis was on African writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Soyinka, Ruth First and Breytenbach.

Her death has robbed Zimbabwe of a legendary women writer who did not believe in silence but deployed her skill to write, expose and attempt to deconstruct social and cultural limitations that gagged society, especially women. Her work will remain in many people’s hearts and minds.


She leaves a legacy of a liberating expression that confronted not only the question of gender and sexuality but also the thorny issues of ethnicity, violence and with some deeper analysis the limitations of the nationalist liberation movement in Zimbabwe.


Her most popular works include, Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals (1992), Nehanda (1993), Without A Name (1994), Under The Tongue (1996) which won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, Butterfly Burning (1998) and Stone Virgins (2003) which won the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa.

In 2004 after leaving the National Art Gallery of Bulawayo she won the Swedish Pen Tucholsky Prize and was described as “Zimbabwe’s greatest writer”. In 1999 she also won the Voice of Africa award and in 2002, the Initiative LiBeraturpreis Germany (or German Literature Prize). In Zimbabwe her exploits were numerous. She won in 1995 and 1997 the Zimbabwean Publishers’ Literary Award for Without A Name and Under the Tongue respectively. Her works has been translated into various languages like German, Spanish, Danish, Norwegian and Italian making her one of Africa’s celebrated writers in the ranks of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo and Shimmer Chinodya.


What was even more striking about Vera was her prolific capacity to continuously write and publish works that did not diminish but increased in quality and provocation. Commenting on her engaging writing Eva Hunter observed: “It is the intensity and elegance of Vera’s ‘poetic’ prose, with its use of repetition, ellipsis, and accretion of metaphorical meaning, that compels the reader’s engagement with content.” Thus her work’s impact and effect can never be doubted.


It is her seething revelation and incomparable capacity to unearth that part of our “new” history that the ruling elites have sought to hide from us that distinguishes Vera from other contemporary writers and she confronted and achieved this task with bravery, passion and powerful expression.


In Stone Virgins she straddles the social, cultural and political processes of “post-colonial” Zimbabwe; she wields her pen to slice through the traumatic experiences of a people butchered in their own “independent” country. Vera wrote with a brilliant and unparalleled compassion that did not shy away from taboos but her writing also painted the human spaces that define who people have become, how they have come there and how this mélange has been mixed and becomes undefined and even confusing in a “post-colonial” setting that more and more resembles the violence and subjugation of yesteryears.


In the same book, Vera vividly constructs the streets of Bulawayo, the beautiful, peacefulness and spirit of the City of Kings and its colonial history and its identity is captured with immense emotion and expression that one’s mind travels back into history to identify that which was Bulawayo and that which it is now. Her powerful description of the streets of Bulawayo remind me of a walk in the streets of Bulawayo and in Mpopoma in 2004 with my father who grew up in Mpopoma who relayed stories of soccer weekends after scrubbing the houses ready for inspection and how often he had to hide when house inspectors made their rounds because he stayed illegally in the male quarters with his brother who worked at the Zimbabwe Sugar Refinery (kusugar).


What is to be found without doubt in Vera’s work is a challenge to a “mass conformity” society produced and reproduced in modern society on one hand and the contradictions that still tear down the appeal of the nationalist rhetoric that brought us to where “we” are. This is the legacy that Vera leaves for generations present and to come, of challenging the concocted but in all this we are reminded to search and accept the plurality, diversity and fully reconcile with the painful episodes of our history and social structures — but only through speaking out, transformation and liberation.


It is not easy to do justice to what Vera wrote and it will take years of writing, peering and in certain cases re-reading her work to understand it and fully come to its consciousness. In an interview with Eugene Soros in 2002 she commented that “I am against silence. The books I write try to undo the silent posture African women have endured over so many decades.” In an era in which the past is being conjured as the future and the present has become so blurred in this political moment, Vera’s writing consistently invites us to a threshold of seeking our identity and most importantly liquidating social constructions like sexism and racism that take us into the drudgery of a past that is gruesome and grotesque.


Consistently in her published work she constructed characters who are able to create their own corners of love and solidarity but they are perverted by the terror of a male-dominated society. Her writings and carved “corners” create hope of love, peace and solidarity that she consciously brings to us a possible path to liberation and true expression of our humanity. Indeed her writing sets us onto the path of reclaiming liberation, replacing the dominance and official “history” with a plural, diverse and maybe more true history of this great house of stones.


Rest in peace Yvonne Vera. Your work is the work of a fine, reflective and ingenious mind.


*Tinashe Chimedza is a Zimbabwean studying and writing from Sydney, Australia.