Yvonne Vera (1964-2005) was one of the first women writers from Zimbabwe to get international attention and acclaim. Even though she lived major parts if her life in Canada, her fiction took place in Zimbabwe and centered on the lives of young Zimbabwean women. Vera described her home lands dark history under British colonization and oppression while also giving a sharp, feminist critique to the domineering and repressive attitudes of the men in the country. Yvonne Vera was an extraordinarily astonishing writer who died much before her time due complications of AIDS. Luckily she has left a great literary legacy behind.
Vera’s definitely most famous novel, “Butterfly Burning” centers around the life of a lively young and ambitious woman called Phephelaphi, who falls passionately in love with a much older man, Fumbatha. The two lovers move in together in hopes of happiness. But Phephelaphi wishes to educate herself and become a nurse, while Fumbatha pushes Phephelaphi for her life to find its only dedication to him alone (as the roles of men and women should play out in this culture). This causes a major conflict in the relationship, and Phephelaphi is forced to reconsider her love.
“Butterfly Burning” is Vera’s manifesto to independence and female liberation. Phephelaphi fights the patriarchical society to get the freedom she earns for. Through the character of Phephelaphi Vera portrays the difficulty women face when their strength and liberty is made clear. Phephelaphis only weapon is her determination. The novel has a bittersweet tone; even if Phephelaphi is strong and is ready to fight for her rights, she still must suffer continual heartbreaks at the hands of the patriarchical society.
In Fumbatha Vera depicts both an intolerant patriarch, but also a victim of the colonization. As a child he’s father is mercilessly and brutally killed at the hands of the Englishmen. Vera makes it clear that such crimes were too often committed during the colonization of Zimbabwe and gives the reader a clear image of the traumatic modern history of the country. Many habitants of Zimbabwe suffer from this history. Fumbatha’s anger is understandably due to his past; but Vera still gives him little sympathy when he tries to hold back Phephelaphi only because she is a woman.
“Butterfly Burning” illustrates independence which freshly emerges in women born into a male dominant society as well as habitants of a colonized land. Both must face great challenges to free themselves and gain self control. Vera’s novel tells in poetic and lyrical sentences of the harsh lives of the subjugated. The novel describes in frank words that the road to liberation is long, but reachable.
In “Without a name” the young woman Mazvita goes to drastic measures after first becoming pregnant and therefore being kicked out by her live-in lover. After giving birth to her child, Mazvita walks the streets of Harare ( the capital of Zimbabwe). Riots are breaking out in the politically hostile environment. Mazvita can barely survive the restless streets and sees little hope of being able to feed her child. As the riots unevenly rise and accelerate, Mazvita makes a heartbreaking decision.
“Without a name” gives, as the title suggest, an image of a woman with little identity in society. No one notices or cares about her and her child. The riots don’t scare her since she is not really a part of them, even if she witnesses vicious violence. Her own fate is already too ferocious for her to care about the fate of others.
“Under the tongue” tells the story of a girl who is left alone with her grandmother after her father is murdered by her mother. Zhizha, the girl, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father. The mother, unable to turn to any help, defends her daughter by killing him. She is then imprisoned. Zhizha loses her ability and courage to speak up and express her. As she vaguely remembers the horrors she’s lived through, her grandmother bound, teaching Zhizha to finally to talk and once and for all confront the abuse.
In “Under the Tongue” Vera illustrates the importance to talk about the dark and harsh realities. She sharply attacks cultures where women and girls (as well as men and boys) are hushed and denied the chance to tell their stories and therefore denied the right to properly heal. “Under the Tongue” is a dedication to language and the beauty of dialogue; it is through these two things that a society can end violence.
Yvonne Veras prose is unique in its use of blending versus with prose. Nature, humans as well as events are gracefully and elegantly portrayed. As nature is described as beautiful, the events and actions of humans vary from horrible to depressing to hopeful. The major theme of the novels being the lack of freedom. Too often must the women suffer and pay for the gender they were born into.
Yvonne Vera’s novels are must reads for anyone interested in women’s issues.