Yvonne Vera (born 1964), one of Africa's most esteemed writers, has been showered with awards and her work has landed on feminist and African studies curriculums at universities across the world. Vera was born and raised against the backdrop of faltering colonialism and vicious guerilla warfare in 1970's Rhodesia, Southern Africa. Her childhood was spent watching men go off to war, many never to return, and watching women struggle to survive in a society where being a woman meant being a second-class citizen at best, ignored and abused at worst. Vera was just 15 when the guerilla armies triumphed over the colonialists, and Zimbabwe, declaring its independence, was born.
As Vera finished her secondary studies, Zimbabwe was fitfully learning how to be a post-colonial nation. Though the country's white oppressors had been shaken off and black men were enjoying new freedoms, black women were learning that freedom would not yet be theirs. Traditional culture kept them down, in the kitchen, in the fields, in the bedroom, quiet and submissive. Paraphrasing the title of Vera's 1997 book, Zimbabwean women were expected to keep things "under the tongue," to suffer in silence. These oppressions—colonialism, racism, war, and sexism—have fueled Vera's writing.
Educated Amidst Revolution and Sexism
Vera was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, on September 19, 1964. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father, unlike many Zimbabwean men, supported his daughter's education. Even as a schoolgirl, Vera showed the promise of the future writer she would become. According to literature professor Charles R. Larson writing in The World and I, "A love of books was established before [Vera] began attending primary school (she could read and write before her formal education). Perhaps more important, she began writing when she was still a child. She remembers leaving notes and poems she often wrote for her mother. In school, other students identified her as 'the writer.' "
Of her early education Vera told The World and I, "I had an idyllic education in the sense of landscape. I was first educated in the rural schools of Matabeleland. It was marvelous. We ate, played, slept, and read under the moon. We had wild fruit and smoke from fires. Then I came back to the city and attended school in the townships of Luveve and Mzilikazi." Vera continued, "This offered a contrast and introduced me more fully to the urban African milieu, with all its contradictions and spontaneity. This was in the seventies, and all the rumblings of an armed struggle were about." This contrast between the beauty of the land and the horror of war has also become a dominant theme in Vera's writing.
Became a Writer in Canada
Following her secondary education in Zimbabwe, Vera traveled to Europe and encountered Western art and culture. Art galleries and the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the cities impressed her. This experience helped motivate her to apply to York University in Toronto, Canada. There she majored in film criticism and literature eventually earning a bachelor's degree, a master's, and a doctorate. She also penned her first work, 1992's Why Don't You Carve Other Animals?, a collection of short stories. Of her segue into the role of writer she told The World and I, "Writing crept upon me and surprised me, then I discovered that I loved the process and art of writing. It came by degrees, through my fingers to my body… . I wanted to be a writer and could answer at airports and immigration points and borders that I was a writer."
Vera was still living in Toronto when she wrote her first novel, Nehanda, a historical novel based on Mbuya Nehanda's struggle to lead Zimbabwe out of the clutches of colonialism. Brinda Bose wrote in World Literature Today that Nehanda "speaks to both post-colonialism and feminism in the historical context of Zimbabwe. Nehanda
[embodies] the essences of both the hope and the despair that mark the story of Zimbabwean."
Unlike her first work, which was published by a Toronto company, Nehanda was published by Baobab Books, a Zimbabwean publisher based in Harare. This collaboration marked the beginning of a very close relationship between Vera and Baobab Books. The company has since published all her works. Though the loyalty of this relationship has allowed Vera to truly explore her themes, some critics noted that this same relationship may have been what has kept Vera from the international literary radar for so long. Regardless, the literary awards that have been heaped upon her work have declared Vera one of the top African female writers. Nehanda received Second Prize for the Zimbabwean Publishers Literary Award for Fiction in English and special mention for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa Region.
Spoke the Unspoken
With the 1994 publication of Without a Name, Vera began to explore darker themes, such as the tragedies that effect women. Without a Name details one woman's struggle during the tumultuous war of pre-independence Zimbabwe. A victim of rape caught between the ruthless, racist regime of the colonialists and the violent uprisings of guerilla fighters, she sees escape and a new beginning far from her rural home in the city of Harare. However, even worse consequences await her there and in desperation she kills her newborn child and returns to mourn in her home-town. This novel was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
In her third novel, Under the Tongue (1996), Vera tackled another taboo subject that gnaws at the hearts of women—incest and rape. As in her previous novel, Zimbabwe's war for independence is a major character in the novel. Under the Tongue won first prize in the Zimbabwe Publishers' Literary Awards, was awarded the 1997 Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Africa region), and two years later won the prestigious Swedish literary award "The Voice of Africa."
Butterfly Burning was published in 1998 and set in a black township of Southern Rhodesia in the late 1940s. It is a bittersweet love story between a young girl and her much older lover. As he spends more and more time away on construction projects, she begins to follow her own life and is selected to train as one of the first black nurses in the country. When an unwanted pregnancy jeopardizes her training, she retreats alone to the harsh land and, with the long thorn of a bush, performs her own abortion.
Of the recurrence of normally private, painful themes in her novels, Vera told The World and I, "The position of women needs to be reexamined with greater determination and a forceful idea for change. In Zimbabwe, as perhaps elsewhere in the world, there is limited understanding of each moment of a woman's worst tragedy or her personal journey. Women have been expected to be the custodians of our society as well as its worst victims, carrying on no matter how hemmed in they feel and how abandoned in their need." By bringing the shameful, hidden tragedies that mar women's lives to the surface, Vera demanded that her culture change.
Became Director of Art Gallery
During these prolific years, Vera moved back to Bulawayo. She told The World and I, "I spent eight years in Toronto trying to grow up. I finally realized the necessity of my return to Zimbabwe and my hometown. I have never regretted it." In 1997 she was appointed Director of the National Gallery in Bulawayo. Voicing the challenges of running a gallery in her hometown, Vera told Radio Netherlands, "There is no word for gallery in Ndebele, the local language of Bulawayo. The building used to be a huge, half empty room with paintings. In a country where as many as 17 people have to live together in one room, which is maybe 3 meters by 3 meters, all that space was senseless." With that in mind, Vera has focused on making the gallery relevant to the community and to the townships. She has installed local folk and fine art and instituted workshops for women and children.
The Stone Virgins was published in early 2003. In it Vera tells the story of two sisters, Thenjiwe and Nonceba, living in the rural village of Kezi following the independence of Zimbabwe from Britain in the early 1980s. A soldier murders Thenjiwe and then rapes and multilates Nonceba. Vera once again calls to the forefront the terror of war and the heavy price that women in her culture have paid in the process.
Library Journal, September 15, 2000.
Publishers Weekly, February 17, 2003.
Village Voice, Literary Supplement, September 2000.
The World and I, June 1, 1999.
World Literature Today, January 1, 1995; June 1, 1996; Spring 1999.
Brown University, www.landow.stg.brown.edu/post/Zimbabwe/vera.html.
Radio Netherlands, www.rnw.nl/culture/html/zimbulawayo991217.html.
Universitat Bremen, http://www.fb10.uni-bremen.de/anglistik/kerkhoff/AfrWomenWriters/Vera/VeraIntro.html.
University of Australia, www.arts.uwa.edu.au/AFLIT/VeraEN.html.