Going against the grain and writing in opposition to government or authority is a sort of character trait of most writers today. However, in countries where freedom of speech is not as free as it is here in America, this task can be daunting and tedious to a point where one’s ideas are never allowed the capacity to thrive. Yvonne Vera is not a writer in this position. Born July 19, 1964, Vera grew up during the Zimbabwe independence movement. Having gone back and forth between a colony and free country, by the time Vera was of age to join the fight, Zimbabwe was in the hands of Britain and was called “South Rhodesia.” Freedom was won on April 18, 1980; however the promises made when freedom was won has yet to be fulfilled. A couple years back, Zimbabwe’s economy was still declining, political turmoil still ensued, and corruption/mismanagement in governmental positions still polluted the countries so called “independence.” This is where Vera’s work became so important.
Known for its poetic prose, Vera’s writing centers around common themes such as government criticism, the rights of men and women, and Zimbabwe’s difficult and convoluted past. Her different novels cover an array of realistic and violent every-day issues that plague Zimbabwe leaving its people (often times its women) vulnerable and psychologically traumatized. Such victims are the heart and center of these stories. For example, Butterfly Burning (1998) is about the frustrated ambition of a trainee nurse who commits suicide when an unplanned pregnancy abruptly ruins her life; Under the Tongue (1996) deals with sexual abuse and incest; Without a Name (1994) centers around a wounded heroine who must kill her own baby. Although these are not easy topics, it’s the realism Vera uses that draws readers in. The characters she depicts are not some grand exaggeration of Zimbabwe’s people neither are they wildly under developed. Often times, they are strong women showing resistance to the patriarchy and violent male society. They’re relatable to those suffering similar situations and educational for those who may not understand the extent to which the political atmosphere has affected native Zimbabweans, male and female.
Vera’s relatability is not just found in the struggles of her heroines/heroes, however. Vera’s background has provided her with a strong, broad understanding of Zimbabwe culture. Born in Bulawayo, Vera’s family often moved back and forth between rural and urban societies. Both her parents were teachers so education was an important aspect of her childhood, even influencing her to become a teacher after secondary school, where she met her husband. A tourist from Canada, he first went to Africa in 1977 as a backpacker, but kept returning for love of the country. Eventually in 1984 he took a teaching position at Njube High School with Vera for a short period of time before moving back to Canada. Vera later visited him in Canada, where she earned her Undergraduate, Masters and PhD, and ended up marrying him in 1987. Although she was active and aware of the political strife in Zimbabwe, it seems it wasn’t until she moved to another country that she understood the extent of the repression and issues plaguing her home. This stark contrast influenced her writing and molded her into the acclaimed writer she is today.
In her short story, “Crossing Boundaries” found in her book Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals? those common themes as previously discussed are extremely prevalent. However, the stories in this book are all centered around a pre-independence era, where Zimbabwe natives are still slaves to the European intruders. “Crossing Boundaries” is a short story made up of short stories from different people on a settler’s plantation. Readers receive the perspective of the settlers, unhappy white people who long to go back to Europe but can’t afford it; the oldest slave who was a child when the settlers arrived; the children who have the potential to be more than slaves; the wives who just want to see their families thrive; and the slave in charge of the slaves, a man stripped of everything and made a pet to the settlers to name a few characters. The multiple perspectives is beautiful and gives so much depth to say a single scene in the hut. Her poetic prose thrives throughout the story as well from every perspective presented:
“The exiled soul insists on finding a connection between moments and histories, on securing a promise from the future that there shall be compensation. The banished wanderer insists on narrating, and on situating solutions that have been evaded by the past. Caught between memory and dreaming, the hopeful exile weaves a comforting performance out of a tale of agony” (Vera 8)
To narrow in on one character in particular, the elderly slave, reminisces often on his past, and looks at the present in disgust wondering how the settlers basically forced these natives to settle for less than they deserved. “After they had reached their destination, weighed down with grave regrets and luggage, [he recalls settling] on the dry barren landscape of the edges of another settler’s farm” (6) … “The old man’s mind could not let go of the thorns and cactus that populated the dry cracking terrain of his boyhood” (8). Vera’s poetic prose is so fluid and natural, conjuring a vivid image in the faded memory of this elderly man. Moved around like cattle, you get the sense that Vera understands the feeling of looking around and being disappointed in the setting, the displacement, the heartache, etc. The beautiful, thriving land the elderly slave once inhabited was stripped from him as he was forced from one place to another, trying to find something the white man hadn’t stolen.
With such a poetic prose, Vera’s work helps readers envision these slaves in a more humanistic nature as opposed to savages of the land. It is beautiful and effective as her writing has taken root and affected millions of readers today.
Habila, Helon. “Obituary: Yvonne Vera.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 April 2005, www.theguardian.com/news/2005/apr/27/guardianobituaries.books.
“Remembering Yvonna Vera.” The Herold, http://www.herald.co.zw/remembering-yvonne-vera/
“Yvonne Vera.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 14 April 2005, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/yvonne-vera-488793.html
“Yvonne Vera.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yvonne_Vera
Essof, Shereen and Moshenberg, Daniel. “Yvonne Vera: Everything would be changing soon.” Pambazuka News, 21 April 2005, https://www.pambazuka.org/governance/yvonne-vera-everything-would-be-changing-soon
Vera, Yvonne. Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals? TSAR Publications, 1992.
*book covers found on GoodReads