Yvonne Vera

Writer and critic of the Mugabe regime

Yvonne Vera was the greatest writer of the post-independence era in Zimbabwe. The most consistently productive among Zimbabwean authors in English, Vera won national and international prizes, and her work has been translated into several languages.

Yvonne Vera, writer: born 19 June 1964; Director, National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Bulawayo 1996-2003; married John Jose; died Toronto, Ontario 7 April 2005.

Yvonne Vera was the greatest writer of the post-independence era in Zimbabwe. The most consistently productive among Zimbabwean authors in English, Vera won national and international prizes, and her work has been translated into several languages.

Being a critic of the government can be a dangerous vocation in today's Zimbabwe. Vera's last published novel, The Stone Virgins (2002), is an elegantly understated but terrifying and courageous account of the human trauma suffered as a result of Robert Mugabe's persecution of the Ndebele people in western Zimbabwe in the 1980s.

The Stone Virgins, however, also continues the key theme of Vera's fiction: female resistance to the patriarchal and often violent male Zimbabwean society. Critics have noted that all Vera's works contain an excess of violence and death: Butterfly Burning (1998) is about the frustrated ambition of a trainee nurse who commits suicide when her hopes are thwarted by a pregnancy; Under the Tongue (1996) deals with the taboo theme of sexual abuse and incest; Without a Name (1994) features a wounded heroine who kills her own baby.

And yet, despite the violence, these texts also contain passages that are intensely lyrical and moving. Although some have criticised Vera's work for its lack of discipline and its stylistic opacity, her novels have been widely praised for their intricate descriptions of plant and animal life, Zimbabwe's landscapes, and human gesture and movement. Above all, Vera was interested in the psychology of the vulnerable and the traumatised.

Vera's first novel, Nehanda (1993), tells the story of the spirit medium who inspired the African uprising against white settlers in 1896, and who became a symbol of anti-colonial resistance during Zimbabwe's struggle for independence. Before she was executed, Nehanda prophesied that her bones would rise again. What constantly rises in Vera's novels is the condition of young women who have to sacrifice themselves, or are sacrificed, again and again. The 15 short stories comprising her first book-length publication, Why Don't You Carve Other Animals (1992), are an accurate indication of Vera's later interests and preoccupations.

The Stone Virgins relates in detail the exquisitely choreographed murder of one female protagonist, and the physical abuse and slicing-off of the lips of another. (Caught in a moment of unspeakable violence, a male character moves "like an eagle gliding".) But in this novel, Vera also depicts the horrific death of a male victim of the government's notorious military unit tasked with the extermination of civilians, and enters the traumatised mind of the killer whom the government soldiers ostensibly hunt. There is little in Mugabe's Zimbabwe that has easily remained sane. Yet The Stone Virgins ends with a quietly understated hopefulness.

Vera herself grew up in Bulawayo, a city which her novels depict with love and affection. Having grown up in a colonial ghetto, she went on to take a doctorate at York University in Toronto, in 1995; then returned to her home city to become Director of the National Gallery in Bulawayo. She lived alone and this attracted opprobrium from a community where it is still widely regarded that a woman should lodge at either her father's or her husband's house. For the past year, Vera had lived in Toronto, undergoing medical treatment.

Among the prizes she won were the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, Africa Region (1997) and, in 2004, the Tucholsky Award of Swedish Pen. The latter is usually awarded to a writer in exile or undergoing persecution. Vera was never persecuted or politically harassed, and the Zimbabwean government press was swift to point this out. She had lived and worked, however, against a backdrop of increasing authoritarianism and intolerance of criticism - particularly criticism that found an international audience.

Had Vera lived, she too might have been swept into the abnegation against which her heroines so valiantly, but so often unsuccessfully, struggled.

Stephen Chan and Ranka Primorac

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