When I recently met Yvonne Vera, I had read her earlier works, Nehanda and Without A Name, only because the publisher had given them to a mutual friend in London. To date, all her novels have been produced by the highly respected Zimbabwe publishing house, Baobab Books, Harare. It is the fate of African writers who choose to publish their work on the continent to be less well-known internationally than those whose work is taken up by metropolitan publishers. Yet what I had read of Yvonne Vera’s work had left me with a burning desire to find out more about her, and this was a major part of my decision to attend the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, fifteen years after my last visit to the country in 1985.
Memories of my earlier visit, five years after Independence, were of upbeat optimism and restless creativity. Much had changed in fifteen years: political unrest, violence and intimidation had become the norm, the recent election results were being challenged in court by the opposition MDC party and staged invasions of white farms by so-called war veterans did nothing to conceal the effects of poverty, joblessness and hunger which were all too apparent on the streets. And in the grandeur of the landmark Monomotapa Hotel, an international literary crowd was ‘Celebrating Africa’s Books’ at a two-day Indaba. It was here I first saw Yvonne Vera.
Dr Yvonne Vera (she has a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Toronto), is a well-known and respected figure on the Zimbabwean cultural scene. Apart from being one of the country’s leading writers, she is director of the National Gallery in the southern city of Bulawayo and an activist on behalf of women’s rights. When she speaks on a public platform – which she did at the Indaba and in the more intimate atmosphere of Harare’s Book Café – she does so with a confidence and command of language and subject which are both authoritative and engaging. This is a woman who knows her mind and is not afraid to express it, in a context where women’s voices are all too often intimidated into silence.
I was disappointed when she abruptly left the book fair before I could interview her, but instead I flew to Bulawayo to interview her at her home. It was the best possible way of getting to know this multi-faceted woman, and the day I spent with her remains for me the best experience of the trip. After the interview, we drove some distance out of the city, to the famous Matopos Hills, an ancient sacred site, which was appropriated as the burial place of the imperial adventurer, Cecil Rhodes. Simply being there with Yvonne, experiencing with her the depth of its peace, watching her sit on a rock and meditate, revealed more about her writing and the sources of her inspiration than could be conveyed in words. In the strange, flat-topped rock formations, I recognised the topography of Nehanda, and the symbolism of that novel fell into place. I understood how profoundly Yvonne Vera, the writer, draws her themes and images from the soil and the material social reality of her part of Zimbabwe. The house she bought for herself on being appointed director, built in colonial days, is constructed, literally, out of the rock of a Matabeleland hillside. The way they had incorporated the land into their dwelling place gave one a sense of how the original owners felt for it – ironically, the same reason Yvonne had chosen the house for herself. The buildings had the simplicity of the traditional rondavel, with rounded walls and thatched roofs, and, built on a slope, the tree-tops were level with the windows of the room in which we sat. It was winter in Zimbabwe, and coming from Barbados, I had caught a cold immediately on arrival and was sniffling miserably. Yvonne lit a fire and shut the windows. Where before I had seen her from a distance, a public figure on a platform, and been impressed by her dignity and control, at close quarters, a guest in her house, I understood something else about Yvonne Vera, the woman and the writer. In the simplicity and warmth of her personal interaction with me, a relative stranger, her concern for my comfort and responsiveness to my interest, I glimpsed the root of her passionate engagement with a place and its people, the larger issues that drive her writing. We talked for a long time that Sunday morning, uninterrupted, and for the most part, it was Yvonne talking. If her writing is spare to the point of minimalism, in speech she has the eloquence of a traditional storyteller like her grandmother, themes and stories weaving together with almost unconscious artistry, producing patterns which are part of a larger design. The challenge for me, therefore, has been how to cut and select from this tapestry of words without losing the colour and texture of Yvonne’s distinctive voice. I hope what follows succeeds in doing that.
Yvonne Vera: I’ve always been visually oriented, and before I worked at the National Gallery, perhaps my larger influence was film, and how images are prepared, constructed and made to move. I also have a strong leaning towards photography. When I’m writing – for example, when I was writing Without a Name (published 1994) – I start with a moment – visual, mental – that I can see, and I place it on my table, as though it were a photograph. In Without a Name, I had this ‘photograph’, or series of photographs, of a woman throwing a child on her back. This photograph is a very familiar scene in Africa. If you walk down the street, you’ll see it – a certain style and movement, a certain familiarity. And this moment came to me, how it’s done: the child is thrown over the left shoulder onto the mother’s back, she pulls the legs around her waist. Then I change it in one aspect: that the child is dead. But the mother performs the same action. So, I take this series of images, and I put them on my desk, so to speak, as I write. This moment, frozen like that, is so powerful that I can’t lose sight of it, visually or emotionally. From it, I develop the whole story, the whole novel: how do we get to this moment when the mother does this? Everything ripples around that, the story grows out of the image. I don’t even have the story at the beginning, I have only this cataclysmic moment, this shocking, painful moment, at once familiar and horrifying because of one change of detail which makes everything else tragic. For me, an entire history is contained in such a moment.
For instance, you’re looking at this woman, blind to that detail, so you don’t know what is happening to her. She, knowing the child is dead, is in an entirely other horizon of being. I always need to be anchored in such a way that I am inside a character, seeing this fragmented or fractured world, and how – usually a woman – is trying to bring the pieces together in her mind, to choreograph her life. Because that moment I described is choreographed, but how does she then endure, how does she perceive her reality, how does she survive it? That fascinates me, it’s so powerful and charged and electric and worthy of a novel. For any of my novels, I can place the moment that inspired me visually to write, that enabled me to say, ‘This is my story, I want to tell it.’
At the same time, one is not always willing to be too conscious of the process, in case you hinder it. There’s a level at which you simply follow your thought, pursue it, arrive there and preserve all the fences around which allow you not to be distracted. I protect it by quickly isolating myself and being completely alone, writing for days without interruption. I know if I move around or talk or discuss it while in the process of writing, I might lose sight, or I might just begin to question the strength of my resolve that this it. So once there, I just believe it. That’s it.
I live alone, and therefore it’s easy for me to close my door and just sit down at my desk. I also withdraw from my job, take some leave, sit continuously and write, and when I’m done, then I come back to society. If I’m pretty clear about the novel, it doesn’t take me long at all. What takes a long time is to believe in the idea and to pursue it. That can take me a year, and I will not have sat down to write. I’ll be thinking about it, but once I’ve got the idea, and if my life is at a certain stage where I can afford the time, then I’ll write it within a month, writing every day from six in the morning to eight in the night without interruption. I don’t like to write in an uncontinuous fashion. Right now, I’m doing a novel, and I took two months off in June and July – our winter, I love that time to write – but my young brother was preparing for his A-level literature, and I devoted the time to him. Then I panicked because I was going back to work, and I felt a huge sense of impending failure if I found myself back in the office without having written a single line. It would have been such a sense of dismal and absolute failure that I would have blamed someone else, which I didn’t want to do. So I had seven days left, and I said, Let me do it. And I did it. I thought I would write it in a panic, but it was very easy and calm and peaceful and serene, and very fulfilling, and I wrote chapters that I absolutely love. I look back and I feel happy that I waited that long, because whatever you write, you could only have written it then, with that mind-frame, with that feeling, those words in that order, those ideas and that expression. Because it’s not there in your head being carried, it’s only there as you write it. So if you’re satisfied with it, you cannot complain.
Writing is much easier the more I do it, and much more enjoyable as well. I’m much more conscious of what I’m doing as I do it. I’m my own best editor and that’s wonderful. I know what to throw out even as I write it, which line, which paragraph, which one to keep and polish, which to discard.
Nehanda (published 1993) was my first novel, and it came out of me almost like a dream. It has the feeling of a dream when I look at it now. And that suited it, because it concerned a myth, a legend. It was a story of spirituality, of ancestors, a mystic consciousness and a history… so it was much better to write it almost intuitively, out of my consciousness of being African, as though I were myself a spirit medium, and I was just transferring or conveying the feelings, symbols and images of that. I wrote it at a time when I could write it, the way one might write a folk-song. Today I would probably spoil it. I wrote it from remembrance, as a witness to my own spiritual history.
By history, I simply mean a record. I felt I had an internal, intimate knowledge of our ancestors, and how they impact on our relationship to ourselves, to death, to life, to time, to sky, to rock… I had just become aware that I understood this, but that somehow it wasn’t anywhere in a book where I could read it, and I didn’t know why, except maybe the knowledge has become discredited by other ways of seeing. History begins in 1896 when the Europeans came here, and it continues like this: the spirit medium Nehanda did this, in such and such a year, in such and such year she was hanged on 27 April… And I realised, No, no, no! Our oral history does not even accept that she was hanged, even though the photographs are there to show it, because she refused that, she surpassed the moment when they took her body, and when they put a noose upon it, she had already departed. Her refusal and her utterances are what we believe to be history. What was the nature of that departure, and why we believe in it so much as a nation, when the history books say something else, were questions that were very very important to me. I wrote it a very emotional state of clarity of understanding that there arealternatives to ‘history’ and that in fact we had constructed it very differently in our lives, in our discussions, in our beliefs. When we went to fight in the liberation war it was because we believed that this woman was somewhere else, but nobody would openly – in a classroom, for example – acknowledge that. And I thought, I’d better write about it, since that’s where I can see a concentration of all our beliefs and what makes up our identity as a people, how we create legends and even how we recreate our history. Because, as Africans, our history is there to serve us, not us to serve it. In Nigeria, they can create new gods, isn’t it? That’s how we were as well. The legend, the history, is created in the mouth, and therefore survival is in the mouth. That’s what I wanted to capture in Nehanda.
[Here I asked about a statement she had made about events in Nehanda in a previous interview with John Vekris, of the Zimbabwean journal Social Change, August 1997, No 2/3, p 10: ‘ I am free from what actually happened and I want to be able to be convincing. So I would say that it is true but it is not verifiable!’]
I would still endorse that statement. I always say a novelist’s task is to be convincing, to convey something that enlightens. Sometimes the African novel suffers from being overtaxed, and a woman’s novel especially is given too many tasks to perform. There are many things a novel ought to do which don’t necessarily coincide with the expectations of all readers.
In many ways, spiritually, Nehanda is my most important book. I wrote it without a total sense of what it means, technically, to be a novelist. But the novel is a very forgiving medium, in that it’s not pre-structured. In general, someone writing their first novel is the same as someone writing their twentieth, in the sense that when you judge the work, it’s the experimental things that make it more original. That’s why I adore the form and I continue to be a novelist. I don’t go to write a novel with a structure already fixed in my mind, I allow what it is I wish to say – the feeling, the story, the characters – to structure what is to be told next. The voice that you find for that story continues to be intuitive even when you are most conscious as a writer. You find it by listening to the characters, knowing which voice you can sustain to match the mood to all the other technical aspects.
With Nehanda, I wanted to bring that woman who had led the first rebellion against the British to the forefront. I was conscious of the feminist elements there, and in fact it is a contemporary novel in terms of the issues. I wanted ordinary women in Zimbabwe to know there was nothing newin what they were attempting to do. At that time (early 80s), women were coming back from the armed struggle and people were not even recognising that they had gone. But a woman had led the first rebellion, not just physically but spiritually, which in fact was the basis of our entire armed struggle that followed – the Second Chimurenga. It’s based on a spiritual belief arising from her words: ‘My bones will rise.’ It wasn’t that we had arms or anything else, but we believed she would protect us. People had an absolute belief they wouldn’t die, that they were bullet-proof. But there’s this duplicity – people came back, and all the heroes are men all of a sudden.
Nehanda is really at the centre of our spiritual belief as a whole nation, and to write about her was very daring. It transformed me. I remember after I wrote that book, feeling physically so old because I felt so wise, I knew so much about the spirit world. I hadn’t travelled in it before in a concentrated fashion like that, and I felt as if I were a spirit as I wrote it. I felt in the end it came out of a state of possession. I had asked her in my traditional manner of asking – getting up before dawn to ask her guidance – and she had visited. And in the end I felt physically exhausted, and that I had lost my youth, because I couldn’t pretend to the world I was naïve. I felt a fierce sense of responsibility to tell this story, and to do so, I had to co-exist with this Nehanda spirit. It really gave me a lot of strength as a woman.
I thought I could never write another novel, but just the next year I came back to writing Without a Name. I felt it very strongly, that novel, especially the scene where the mother kills her child. I wrote it last because I kept postponing it, and the night after I wrote it, I had nightmares, because I had had to be this woman as she kills the child – I had had to kill the child – and it was terrifying. But I wanted the reader to feel how she feels as she does it, since one of my main goals is to bring a reader as close as possible to an experience.
For instance, in Butterfly Burning (published 1998), when the woman is having the abortion in the forest, I want you to be there, I don’t want you to hear about it, I want you to be a witness, which means taking part in what is happening each moment, as it happens. But I want to do it without crudity, with a certain elegance, so you feel you can still endure it and see beauty in it. And this beauty can only be in the language; I don’t see where else it can lie. That’s where language becomes important.
I have the advantage of speaking three languages [Shona, Ndebele, English], and knowing the cadences and music of languages from other parts of Africa from the township where I grew up, among many languages and dialects. My relationship to English is similar to my relationship to Shona and Ndebele, only it’s a more flexible language than either. You can do a lot of harmonious damage to the language. It can capture a lot of expressions that belong to another culture, more than Shona can. I remember walking through Amsterdam with (Zimbabwean writer) Chenjerai Hove, who writes in Shona as well as English, and he was describing to me in Shona how those canals were made, and I have never laughed so much in my entire life. Suddenly these activities, which would be enlightening if they were described in English, were absurd.
It wasn’t that Shona was inadequate, but it was incongruous. If you want a word to describe a tunnel of water between houses, you can make it up, but it’s so incongruous that it’s riotous. And I wouldn’t have realised this quite so thoroughly if I hadn’t been with Chenjerai talking Shona in Amsterdam. English just has more ability to capture things. It adapts to different places – India, Africa – and if we have a struggle with it, it is only political. As individuals, we carry a lot of this big history the historians write about, but in a language that is not familiar to everybody. In fact, it’s individual languages. What I try to do is to show this.
I hope that I am telling stories that are more than stories. I also want to capture a history, but history is in a moment. A woman is in the forest, she’s alone, the ground is bare. What is her relationship to this landscape, and who is she in this moment? She’s endured all these other things, but at this moment, her mind is collapsing. How does she endure this moment? And not only this moment, but everything else she has gone through. I try and connect these two things, so that an individual is not isolated – though they are offered in isolation. I use the isolated individual to explore how they are connected to everything else. Experiences are not always flowing, non-fragmented, but floating. I’m fascinated with the individual, especially the woman, especially the woman in Africa, and how they are forced to endure without having a nervous breakdown – because they cannot afford it. But they collapse inside, and I’m keen to capture that collapse. I’m writing, in a way, the biographies of unknown women, but I’m also interested in our national history, so they are always against the backdrop of a particular time. In Butterfly Burning, for example, it’s a time for music and creativity. It celebrates some of the elements of urbanisation which came with colonisation, and the creativity which it unleashed for people to survive these things, music especially, and sexual freedom, and the new way of loving which couples then created around themselves… Of course, I’m writing aboutmy city, Bulawayo, and I’m celebrating it. Even if the story is tragic, I hope I wrote a novel that shows some joy and some love and some togetherness and celebration.
I would not write if I weren’t in search of beauty, if I was doing it only to advance a cause. I care deeply about my subjects, but I want to be consumed by figures of beauty, by story and character. It must be about perfection. Like a basket-maker or a weaver or a hair-plaiter, you are aware of what you are trying to accomplish from the first sentence. I must be able to taste the words on my tongue. I can’t write passively. My grandmother, when she tells a story, tells it in a way that captures you, the audience. If another member of the family hears laughter and asks what story she’s been telling, and my grandmother starts to tell it again, we’ll sit through that retelling because she’s going to tell it in a way that will still keep us interested, with new proverbs and sounds and nuances and expressions. That’s how we witnessed story-telling – as something in which the teller is also absorbed and feels transformed by, like an actor. And I think the same applies now, to writing.
This last book I’ve written [The Stone Virgins, Weaver Press. 2002] is set in the period of the dissident movement after Independence (1980-1985). [During the liberation war, the Shona and Ndebele peoples were represented by the different armies, ZANLA and ZIPRA, with different leaders. At Independence, it was the ZANLA leader, Robert Mugabe, who took power, while Joshua Nkomo was sidelined. There ensued a backlash by the ruling ZANU-PF party against the Ndebele in the south.] It’s a very difficult subject, but I have a scene – a ‘photograph’ – of a woman being decapitated. It happened – they would cut your lips or your nose – but cutting someone’s head off… A man comes into the village and does that: how does he do it? How do I convey that in a way that interests the reader? I knew for a month or two that that was my opening scene, but the challenge was to find the words to make this work in the novel, both to make it believable, dramatic, but to do it in way that celebrates writing. It’s difficult, but I don’t want to say, Ah, it’s so awkward, ugly, messy, bloody, I’m not going to write it. No, I have to enable it to be read, when it is encountered, as an astounding, beautiful, creative experience. So I have to choreograph it. The death becomes like a dance, the way the man kills this woman is almost sexual, its skill and passion and intimacy, while maintaining the violence and blackness of the scene, which was true of the experience in Matabeleland. That scene had to capture all the scenes of horror, which visited this region where I am. There were many other horrible scenes. One woman for example was given an axe and told to chop off her husband’s head and if she didn’t do it, they would shoot everyone, and the husband whispered, ‘Do it, do it,’ and she did it. She was mad for about five years.
These scenes of intimidation, which we witnessed, were part of a political strategy. Why we’re revisiting the horror of this is to ask how it was possible. I was here through it, and in a story I call ‘Cooking Chameleons’, I retell one of these scenes. A woman puts her laundry out to dry on the hedges, and when it’s dry, as she’s collecting it, these men come from the bush and say, ‘What are you carrying?’ She says, ‘I’m carrying clothes for my family.’ So they say, ‘Are you sure you aren’t sheltering somebody?’ and they look through the sheets and they find a chameleon. They say to her, ‘Who is this chameleon?’ and she says, ‘Ah, I must have collected it with the clothing.’ And they say to her, ‘Eat this chameleon. Eat this chameleon. Eat it.’ And she has to eat it, alive as it is, chew it and swallow it, and she does that until she starts to vomit, and she starts to vomit, until she starts to die, and she dies.
The thing is, when the story was told, it was not being told to me, but it was being told in my presence. So I’m listening to the story, and then I say to my grandmother, ‘But why did she not cook it?’ A very, stupid, innocent, child’s question. And my grandmother said to me, ‘How do you cook a chameleon?’ One grew up with such bizarre stories at that time, absurdities, and from a child’s point of view, you could only ask your naïve questions because you weren’t aware of the political situation. We can all ask our naïve questions, as though that makes a difference, as though that makes a chameleon edible, as though therefore she would survive the moment. But sometimes there is no survival of the moment, of an encounter with brutality.
In fact, the summary of that period was that there was no escape from the encounter with brutality. If there were witnesses, then we heard what had occurred, but otherwise it just happened. This was going on for almost six years, so you can imagine how many things happened. I didn’t want to write a novel about those six years at all. But (British historian) Terence Ranger is a huge influence on me, and he’s now written a history of Bulawayo covering a thirty-year span, including the period when the novel is set, and he’s calling itBulawayo Burning. So it’s a response to Butterfly Burning, but a historian’s response. We have a very close friendship, even though I’m a novelist and he’s a historian and we come from different traditions and all that. We have the same commitment to telling stories, and we have had an influence on each other. His latest book, launched last month, is Violence and Memory [James Currey and Weaver Press, 2000] and the novel I’m writing now is also on theme of violence and memory, though it’s fiction. You’ll recognise the same historical events depicted in Ranger’s book. We talk a lot about things, and eventually I say, Ah, OK, I’ll do a novel on it. So, he has again influenced me in regard to this novel, in that I want to show that space and time. As a writer, you don’t want to suppress the history, you want to be one of the people liberating stories, setting them off. But that task and challenge takes long. You have to be removed enough from it to depict it with all its shock and trauma. But people did live, as well, and fall in love, at this time.
When I wrote Butterfly Burning, I just wanted to see my city in a book, just to see the name Bulawayo. Margaret Atwood talks about this, about how she wanted to see Toronto in a novel. I understand that. But the main task is to write well and convincingly, and I have not written about Toronto, though I lived there eight years, because I don’t recognise myself there. I had a feeling of being always in transit, suspended between two destinations, but when I got back here, one morning I was hearing the sound of snow-ploughs in my head, and I realised, you know what, I wasn’t in transit. I had brought the sound back with me. It taught me a lot about living in particular spaces. You have to grant yourself permission, say, OK, I’m living here.
Enough talking. I don’t know if you understand what I mean?
Nehanda. Baobab Books, Harare, 1993.
Without a Name. Baobab Books, Harare, 1994.
Under the Tongue. Baobab Books, Harare, 1996.
Butterfly Burning. Baobab Books, Harare, 1998.
Without a Name. Baobab Books, Harare, 1994.
Under the Tongue. Baobab Books, Harare, 1996.
Butterfly Burning. Baobab Books, Harare, 1998.
Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals. Baobab Books, Harare, 1994.
Yvonne Vera, ed. Opening Spaces: an Anthology of Contemporary African Women’s Writing. Heinemann, Oxford, Baobab Books, Harare, 1999.