/ 6 March 2024

Yvonne Vera: Collage of place and space

Chaos Granitique De Matopos Nationnal Park, Zimbabwe
Rock garden: Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera would go into the wilds of Matabeleland to meditate. Photo: Sylvain Cordier/Getty Images

Bulawayo is Zimbabwe’s second city but it was once a dominant urban centre with a network of railways and a flourishing industrial base. 

It is in this city that Yvonne Vera, who died in 2005, set her award-winning fiction: six books published between 1992 and 2002. She emerged as an outstanding, idiosyncratic writing talent. 

The expansive landscape of Matabeleland was the canvas on which she imagined her fictional worlds, which reached back to the 19th century. In these works of fiction, we learn of Vera’s studious dedication to gardening and the natural world. But such an attachment to a place can be a vexed experience.

In a new book The Garden Letters of Yvonne Vera, Tadiwa Madenga gathered as much information as she could find about Vera’s gardens from an eclectic mix of sources: newspaper archives, biographies, interviews, as well as visits to, and recordings made in, the places where Vera lived and worked. 

It is a small, but generous, book. The style is informed by the radical design ethos of the Chimurenganyana series, described as “a pavement literature project consisting of serialised monographs” which comprise “factions, essays, scores, interviews, linear notes, musical analysis, travel writing, personal impressions, political and social commentary”.

The ingenuity of Madenga’s contribution to the series is that she offers us a biographical portrait of Vera through her love of plants, gardens and nature. 

The book provides a richly emotional look at the inner life of a particularly introspective writer. 

It is a book that is personal and intimate, an original foray that opens new spaces in our appreciation of Vera, beyond the tragic themes of her fiction. 

Altogether, it is a fascinating cornucopia. The question of what constitutes Vera’s gardens receives keen scrutiny and opens up the vistas of Vera’s imagination. 

For Vera, the garden was both a discursive and material space. She did not confine herself to the domesticity of the home garden but often drove to Khami or Matopos to be in nature, to meditate. 

Vera’s shunning of the formal garden, an inheritance from colonialism, led her to embrace the wide swaths of landscape in Matabeleland, physically, spiritually and imaginatively. 

Throughout her life, Vera found not only solace, but literary inspiration, in Matabeleland. She was a writer of place and space. 

Yvonne Vera2
Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera. Photo: Eric Beauchemin/Wikipedia

As Madenga observes, Vera’s garden letters reveal an unruly side. 

Vera wrote “the letters with a different DNA than that of her novels, more abrupt, less precise, less Godly. The bareness of the joy makes reading feel like trespassing on private property.” 

Despite the carefully welded prose of her fiction, Vera’s garden writing defies the writer’s desire for a prescribed form and shape. The fact that many of Vera’s garden letters were originally published in newspapers, and not lifestyle magazines, also demonstrates her rejection of the classed dimensions of this genre. 

Vera constantly returns to the garden in both her fiction and nonfiction, because it is a site that has historically refused the boundaries between physical and textual space.

Historically, Bulawayo was imagined as a paradise built on the ruins of King Lobengula’s realm. 

Cecil John Rhodes and his friends marvelled at the beauty of the Matabeleland landscape and imagined a city in the wilds. They pictured a highly developed town surrounded by parks, flowers and charming scenery. Rhodes desired that Bulawayo “be surrounded by parklands so that its people would never have far to walk to reach open country”.

The garden is an architectural fixture of the postcolonial Zimbabwean suburban home. It is not for everyone, though. A well-tended garden signals wealth and extra space. It is an aesthetic expression of good living. 

This contrasts with the patch in township suburbs, often called the vegetable garden, the worth of which lies in utility rather than beauty. 

Vera’s homes, which form the basis of this book, were in Famona and Hillside, Bulawayo suburbs that have large yards and gardens. Madenga leads us through these gardens; she offers us mystery and meaning, secrets and surprises, grief and glory. 

It is not meant to be a tidy book. Using collage, Madenga is able to bring disparate elements together, to make unexpected connections. 

We engage with Vera in a new way, not just as the writer of taboos about generations of black African women. Vera in her fiction invented lovable, but tragic, female characters, victims of, or dealing with, rape, infanticide, abortion, suicide and murder. These characters emerged from the pastoral paradise their author inhabits. 

The Garden Letters of Yvonne Vera is a book to be savoured. Sketching out a writer’s history with place, its text is as lively and informative as its subject is absorbing. 

Madenga explores the affinity between text and gardens. She shows us gardens are among the most evanescent of arts, because life is ephemeral; we are in eternal transit. 

As South African poet Athambile Masola writes, with gardening we learn “to love beauty with the possibility of loss”.  

The archives of Vera’s garden writing opens us to a world we sometimes overlook because we’re easily distracted by subjects such as politics. 

This book also reminds us the garden is largely absent from contemporary Zimbabwean poetry and fiction, perhaps because we’ve tended to consider the postcolonial garden a social privilege, born of class and money. 

In fact, the garden is a neglected setting in the wide-ranging corpus of African poetry and fiction, probably due to historical and sociopolitical factors. It boggles the mind, because the garden is no longer the exclusive preserve of successful whiteness. It has come to have multiple symbolic resonances, especially today, as we reckon with climate disaster. 

Ultimately, we never fully see any of Vera’s gardens, because as the Caribbean American author Jamaica Kincaid once said, “I shall never have the garden I have in mind, but that for me is the joy of it; certain things can never be realised and so all the more reason to attempt them. A garden, no matter how good it is, must never completely satisfy.”

This review was first published in Africa Is A Country.