/ 24 January 2020

‘Writing is about revelations and reversals’

Yvonne Vera (Mai Palmberg)
Flying high: For Innovative novelist Yvonne Vera, writing was a transcendental experience (Mai Palmberg)

I was born and raised in Bulawayo. It is the second city, so to speak, in Zimbabwe. Each of the inhabitants here feels a certain marginal identity, and therefore an irrational and fierce love for being here. Bulawayo people have always shaped their identities around the notion of being peripheral, of being drought stricken, for example, and at different times, of political secondariness.

The landscape is very distinct, flat for distances, and the thorn bushes scattered everywhere in their sparse vegetation, blooming when they can. And anthills. The sky so low you could lick it. Very blue in winter.

In all my time in Canada, I never lost its heartbeat, and I was never complete. I felt I was in transit, even more marginal there, than I could ever be, though Canada is lovely and peaceful. It is almost true that I could never find my vocation without my residence there. Finally, I had to be me, no longer in transit under another sky.

I have always loved Bulawayo in a complete manner. The weather is beautiful all year, very high temperatures in October, but good weather. I missed my home and knew I had to return. Perhaps none of it would work and I would have to set off again, to some other land. I have never wanted to be a writer in exile — I hope never to have to make a decision to leave Zimbabwe, for whatever reason. I hope to continue in this small town, with its gentle and unhurried pace.

I want to be a writer who can give you the illusion that you have two hearts. My tales are tragic, rather than sad, meaning they have a catastrophic force. Some writers can give you two heartbeats — one for the beauty of the words, another for the event.

There is no essential truth about being a female writer. The best writing comes from the boundaries, the ungendered spaces between male and female. I am talking of writing itself, not the story or theme. Knowing a story is one thing, writing is another.

Each time I publish a novel I learn something new about a paragraph, about interpretations concerning the text I have just finished, about the nation for which I have composed it. Writing is about revelations and reversals.

The voice that you find for that story continues to be intuitive even when you are most conscious as a writer. You find it by listening to the characters, knowing which voice you can sustain to match the mood to all the other technical aspects.

For me writing is light, a radiance that captures everything in a fine profile. Within it I do not hide. I travel bravely beyond that light, into the shadows that this light creates, and in that darkness it is also possible to be free, to write, to be a woman.

In many ways, spiritually, Nehanda is my most important book. I wrote it without a total sense of what it means, technically, to be a novelist. But the novel is a very forgiving medium, in that it’s not prestructured. In general, someone writing their first novel is the same as someone writing their 20th, in the sense that when you judge the work, it’s the experimental things that make it more original. That’s why I adore the form and I continue to be a novelist. I don’t go to write a novel with a structure already fixed in my mind, I allow what it is I wish to say — the feeling, the story, the characters — to structure what is to be told next. The voice that you find for that story continues to be intuitive even when you are most conscious as a writer. You find it by listening to the characters, knowing which voice you can sustain to match the mood to all the other technical aspects.

When I wrote Butterfly Burning, I just wanted to see my city in a book, just to see the name Bulawayo. Margaret Atwood talks about this, about how she wanted to see Toronto in a novel. I understand that. But the main task is to write well and convincingly, and I have not written about Toronto, though I lived there eight years, because I don’t recognise myself there.

I had a feeling of being always in transit, suspended between two destinations, but when I got back here, one morning I was hearing the sound of snowploughs in my head, and I realised, you know what, I wasn’t in transit. I had brought the sound back with me. It taught me a lot about living in particular spaces. You have to grant yourself permission to say, “Okay, I’m living here.”

When I’m writing — for example, when I was writing Without a Name (published in 1994) — I start with a moment — visual, mental — that I can see, and I place it on my table, as though it were a photograph. In Without a Name, I had this “photograph”, or series of photographs, of a woman throwing a child on her back.

This photograph is a very familiar scene in Africa. If you walk down the street, you’ll see it — a certain style and movement, a certain familiarity. And this moment came to me, how it’s done: the child is thrown over the left shoulder on to the mother’s back, she pulls the legs around her waist. Then I change it in one aspect: that the child is dead. But the mother performs the same action.

So, I take this series of images, and I put them on my desk, so to speak, as I write. This moment, frozen like that, is so powerful that I can’t lose sight of it, visually or emotionally. From it, I develop the whole story, the whole novel: how do we get to this moment when the mother does this? Everything ripples around that, the story grows out of the image.

I don’t even have the story at the beginning, I have only this cataclysmic moment, this shocking, painful moment, at once familiar and horrifying because of one change of detail, which makes everything else tragic. For me, an entire history is contained in such a moment.

And then there is the question of the feminism. If you write in a style that quickly tells the reader that you are situating yourself as a woman writer and that your act of writing perhaps is structured around a particular idea of, I don’t know, body, or structures in the society or independence; that you are making an argument about female identity — immediately that is seen as transporting foreign ideas. You are not behaving yourself, basically. You are hysterical. You are under the influence of … you see?

But this is ridiculous, because this is simply a failure to accept continuing challenges, you know, which African women have had. They’ve only that struggle, and they’ve always fought and if you read carefully what I’m saying, beginning with Nehanda, which is set right at the beginning of our first encounter with colonialism, I’m giving you a woman and her struggles.

Political, religious, whatever; to do with the body, to do with death, to do with all sorts of philosophy. And that is before; that is in the instant of contact. That encounter, that was vocalised and was synthesised by a woman figure.

But once you make the situation contemporary, then you find that [critics] see you as having imported new identities, “invasions” of woman, which you haven’t. How do you begin to talk about that unless you are reducing African feminism to something that perhaps doesn’t even exist, never existed, which one can never accept? That’s a male argument.

I try to enter the role of the character. And often people believe these things have happened to me. And then I say to them, look, I couldn’t have been the victim of incest, killed my child, had an abortion, been a spirit medium, committed suicide, and still be talking to you.

My first commitment is to the act of writing. Especially finding a voice for a particular story. And once I have it, I’m so liberated and excited that I’m not considering the audience. I’m considering the characters, the story, the voice I found, the language I found. When it’s finished, I always think a book will find its audience.

This is an edited extract of Yvonne Vera’s profile in Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats, edited by Tinashe Mushakavanhu with Nontsikelelo Mutiti
In June, 2020, BLACK CHALK and Co will publish We Laugh Even When the Roof is Falling, a multimedia book looking at Yvonne Vera’s legacy in visual arts and literature