A Review of Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera

Eva Hunter, Associate Professor of English University of Western Cape, Bellville, South Africa

Yvonne Vera's fifth novel, The Stone Virgins, published in 2002, gained the author yet another African region award, the first Macmillan Writer's Prize for Africa. However, recognition of Vera's voice as one of the most exciting to have emerged in the continent in the last decade spreads far beyond Africa: the biographical notes to Stone Virgins state that some of the languages into which Vera's works have been translated are German, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Finnish and Norwegian. She has an American publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Some of Vera's appeal for western tastes lies, no doubt, in her style. Vera's writing is 'sophisticated', 'difficult', and 'dense'. It has post-modern characteristics: it is nuanced and ambiguous, and contains, a meta-fictional commentary on the creative process itself. Criticism of Vera's work has, though, as Lizzie Attree says, "tended to focus on her choice of taboo-breaking subject matter and the use of a female perspective" , ignoring the way in which "her language and imagery" provide "an alternative, fluid and often ambiguous perspective" that "identifies Vera's fiction with modernity" (2002:63). Attree is just one of the international scholars who has contributed to the work under review. Muponde and Taruvinga are to be congratulated on filling a gap in Vera scholarship by including in this collection not only articles that focus on the subversive content of Vera's work but also several essays, such as Attree's "Language, kwela music and modernity in Butterfly Burning" that direct us to the poetry, or, rather, the formal and stylistic aspects, of the work of this remarkable writer.

With hindsight, Vera's first novel, Nehanda, published in 1993 can be seen as a forerunner in a trend in recent African writing to emphasize, through formal and stylistic aspects, the value of creativity, the aesthetic imagination, and sensory experience. But it is in the novels following Nehanda, Without a Name (1994), Under the Tongue (1996), Butterfly Burning (1998), and The Stone Virgins, in which Vera focusses on trauma inflicted during the liberation and (with The Stone Virgins) post-Independence periods, that it is of particular importance to understand the function of Vera's aesthetic choices. Appreciation of the potentially liberating implications of Vera's modernist and post-modernist characteristics enables the reader to understand not only how profoundly provocative and subversive Vera's novels are, but more especially how they offer Zimbabweans--and even, in The Stone Virgins, all of Africa's inhabitants -- new ways of being and seeing.

The outside back cover of the collection has the following statement:

Like other African writers, Vera's art is alert to public life whether this is manifested in significant moments of Zimbabwe's anti-colonial resistance, the emergence of Zimbabwe's township culture or the competing demands of the city and the rural home. Vera's originality, however, derives from a refusal to register these with a conventional realism that accords them a spurious stability. Instead in prose as densely allusive as poetry, she records public experiences through the consciousness of her women characters who experience more than they understand and see more than they recognise.

Muponde and Taruvinga's collection contains 17 essays, an interview with Yvonne Vera dated August 2000, and a useful bibliography. To this bibliography I would add a recent article entitled "The Discourse on Zimbabwean Women in the War of Liberation and the Land Reform Programme: Myth and Reality" by Emmanuel Chiwome and Zifikele Mguni, University of Zimbabwe, www.gwsafrica.org/knowledge/zifikele (2003). The essays are grouped under five headings, Language, voice and presence, Language, technique and imagery, Body politics, memory and belonging, Spirit possession and resistance, and History, fiction and the colonial space. While the critics are drawn not only from Zimbabwe and South Africa but also Britain, the Caribbean and the United States, all except one have lived and worked for at least some time in Africa and the collection as a whole provides invaluable information on the culture, customs, and history of Zimbabwe. Such filling in of local and particularised detail is useful given Vera's avoidance of the techniques of realism.


Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera. Edited by Robert Muponde and Mandi Taruvinga. Harare, Zimbabwe: Weaver Press, 2002; Oxford, UK: James Currey, 2003. ISBN: 0-77922-994-9. Distributed in the USA and Canada by the African Book Collective: [email protected]; .

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Last Modified: 21 March, 2002