Vera, Yvonne 1964-
VERA, Yvonne 1964-
PERSONAL: Born September 19, 1964, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia); mother was a schoolteacher. Education: York University, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., 1995. Hobbies and other interests: Photography, film.
ADDRESSES: Office—National Gallery, Box 1993, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Agent—c/o Baobab Books, P.O. Box 1559, Harare, Zimbabwe. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer. Regional director of National Gallery of Zimbabwe, 1997—.
AWARDS, HONORS: Second Prize, Zimbabwean Publishers Literary Award for Fiction in English and special mention, Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa Region, both 1994, both for Nehanda; Zimbabwean Publishers Literary Award for Fiction in English, Zimbabwean Book Publishers Association, 1995, for Without a Name; Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa Region, 1997, and "The Voice of Africa" Swedish Literary Award, 1997, both for Under the Tongue.
Why Don't You Carve Other Animals (short stories), TSAR Publications (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1992.
Nehanda, Baobab (Harare, Zimbabwe), 1993.
Without a Name, Baobab (Harare, Zimbabwe), 1994, published as Without a Name and Under the Tongue, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, (New York, NY), 2002.
Under the Tongue, Baobab (Harare, Zimbabwe), 1997, published as Without a Name and Under the Tongue, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, (New York, NY), 2002.
Butterfly Burning, Baobab Books (Harare, Zimbabwe), 1998, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2000.
(Editor) Opening Spaces: An Anthology of Contemporary African Women's Writings, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1999.
The Stone Virgins, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: Yvonne Vera is a Zimbabwean writer who has won acclaim for her fiction. She grew up in Bulawayo, one of the largest cities in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), and began writing as child. Educated at York University in Canada, she made the decision to move back to her hometown, where she accepted a position as director of Bulawayo's National Gallery. "I have always loved Bulawayo in a complete manner," she told World and I reviewer Charles R. Larson; "I hope to continue in this small town, with its gentle and unhurried pace." Vera's books, set in Zimbabwe, often address controversial issues pertaining to African women. "To the extent that women still experience the highest degree of social pressure and stigmatization in Zimbabwe, and that these various aberrations of human contact affect them the most, my writing is a critique of the weaknesses in my society," she explained to Larson. "The position of Women needs to be reexamined with greater determination and a forceful idea for change."
Vera's first publication, Why Don't You Carve Other Animals, contains fifteen tales set in Rhodesia during the turbulent 1970s, when that country was torn by conflict between the black majority and the ruling white minority. Many of the tales in Why Don't You Carve Other Animals are told from female perspectives.
Vera also probed racial issues in Nehanda, a novel published in 1993, concerning both the occupying English and the oppressed African natives. George P. Landow, writing for the Postcolonial Web, acknowledged Vera's contrasting of black and white cultures. Recalling an episode in which a priest attempts to convert a native to Christianity, Landow noted that Vera emphasizes the manner in which "each man comes from such a distinctly different intellectual and imaginative cosmos that supposedly identical, apparently shared ideas . . . mean very different things and resonate in different ways."
In 1994 Vera published Without a Name, a novel about Mazvita, a young native African woman struggling to survive during the downfall of Rhodesia and the consequent establishment of the Zimbabwean nation. Dissatisfied with life in the violent countryside, where guerrilla fighters vie with government forces for control, the pregnant Mazvita leaves her lover and heads for the city of Harare, where she hopes to find freedom and safety. In Harare, however, Mazvita merely discovers what Pamela J. Olubunmi Smith described in World Literature Today as the city's "own horrors and perils, its own warfare, unleashing false hope too readily, too soon." As a result of her perilous situation in the city, Mazvita kills her child and returns to her rural home. Smith described Vera's writing style as "terse, poetic, almost academic" and added that Vera's "metaphorical language [is] suggestive, suspenseful, [and] compelling." Smith described Without a Name as a "fine work of fiction."
Vera's next novel, Under the Tongue, is also about life in war-torn Rhodesia. Mail and Guardian writer Jane Rosenthal observed, "This novel, insofar as it has a plot at all, is about the rape of a ten-year-old girl by her father, returning from an absence during Zimbabwe's struggle for freedom from white-minority rule." Noting the controversial nature of the novel's theme, Vera told Rosenthal, "We should possess the courage to examine ourselves, not always go back to the empire—look at our own weaknesses." Rosenthal called Under the Tongue an "intensely poetic novel" and "a book which somehow grows richer with each reading."
Butterfly Burning tells the story of young Phephelaphi and her lover, Fumbatha, who is twice her age. Phephelaphi is a free spirit, searching for fulfillment and independence; she enrolls in a nursing school, only to find out that her position there is jeopardized by the fact that she is pregnant. The girl gives herself an abortion—a scene that Larson called "one of the most harrowing that I have encountered in a work of fiction in many years"—with terrible consequences. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented on Vera's "lyrical, metaphor-laden, symbolic prose" that weaves together the sad tale. Booklist contributor Gillian Engberg, noting that the structure is "more meditative than plotbased," called Butterfly Burning a "shocking yet beautiful book," and Ellen Flexman in Library Journal described it as "a rare work of beauty" that captures "the oft-tragic poetry of life."
Vera's novel The Stone Virgins is set in Zimbabwe in the 1980s after the war of liberation, and tells the story of two sisters, Thenjiwe and Nonceba, who are caught up in the freedom movement. Vera, with her characteristic sensitivity, writes of the conflict between personal and national histories. Weaver Press's description of the novel states: "In this gentle but fearless book, Yvonne Vera enables her reader to respond truthfully to the catastrophic depths of unspoken wars."
Vera also edited a collection of stories titled Opening Spaces: An Anthology of Contemporary African Women's Writings. Adele S. Newson-Horst stated in World Literature Today that Vera's selection reveals her to be "a writer's writer, a visionary whose understanding of continental African women's concerns, commonalities, and differences has the power to inspire the most disinterested of readers." Vera brings together a collection of writers whose stories address such issues as AIDS, abortion, international education, and the politics of feminism. "Yet there is nothing heavy-handed or stultifying in the presentation of ideas," noted Newson-Horst. "The total effect is electrifying."
Vera once told CA: "As a woman living in Zimbabwe, my life has had both charm and peril. The beauty of our landscape is stunning, the position of women in society tragic and perplexing. In my work, I have tried to celebrate both women and landscape, to explore the conflict, with all its magic and beauty, in ways that fulfill my every passion. In Butterfly Burning, my city Bulawayo is the focus, its thorn bushes, its city women, mesmerized and borne by the musicality of change and an oncoming liberation of souls. I love to have written it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 32, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.
Booklist, August, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of Butterfly Burning, p. 2117; February 15, 2002, Kristine Huntley, review of Without a Name and Under the Tongue, p. 994.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2001, review of Without a Name and Under the Tongue, p. 1579.
Library Journal, September 15, 2000, Ellen Flexman, review of Butterfly Burning, p. 115; September 1, 2001, Reba Leiding, review of Without a Name and Under the Tongue, p. 237.
New York Times Book Review, March 17, 2002, review of Without a Name and Under the Tongue.
Publishers Weekly, August 28, 2000, review of Butterfly Burning, p. 58; December 24, 2001, review of Without a Name and Under the Tongue, pp. 40-41.
World and I, June, 1999, Charles R. Larson, review of Butterfly Burning, p. 282; November, 2001, Charles R. Larson, "Back to Bulawayo: Novelist Yvonne Vera's decision to leave Canada and return to her homeland of Zimbabwe," p. 263.
World Literature Today, autumn, 1993, p. 909; summer, 1996, p. 752; spring, 1999, review of Under the Tongue, p 382; winter, 2000, Adele S. Newson, review of Butterfly Burning, p. 230; summer, 2000, Adele S. Newson-Horst, review of Opening Spaces: An Anthology of Contemporary African Women's Writings, p. 565.
Complete Review,http://www.complete-review.com/ (March 13, 2003), reviews of Under the Tongue, Without a Name, Butterfly Burning, and The Stone Virgins.
Heinemann Web site,http://www.heinemann.com/ (March 13, 2003), biography of Yvonne Vera and review of Opening Spaces.
Mail and Guardian Online,http://www.mg.co.za/ (May 20, 1998), Jane Rosenthal, review of Under the Tongue.
Postcolonial Web,http://www.postcolonialweb.org/ (March 21, 2002), George P. Landow, "A Clash of Religions: Kaguvi Encounters the Christian Conception of an Afterlife."
Weaver Press Web site,http://www.weaverpresszimbabwe.com/ (March 13, 2003), description and reviews of The Stone Virgins.*