Remembering Yvonne Vera

On this day, August 1st twelve years ago, in an in-depth interview with Jane Bryce in Bulawayo, Yvonne Vera noted with the expressive character that marks her work, “I would not write if I weren’t in search of beauty, if I was doing it only to advance a cause. I care deeply about my subjects, but I want to be consumed by figures of beauty, by story and character. It must be about perfection. Like a basket-maker or a weaver or a hair-plaiter, you are aware of what you are trying to accomplish from the first sentence.”

Whilst the full interview is a kind of testimony to the narrative shaman-like writer that Yvonne Vera was, it was those words especially that jumped at me like a familiar dream when I read the interview. They felt familiar because they  were reminiscent of why I  love blogging. Although a Black feminist consciousness may characterize MsAfropolitan, I don’t write to advance a cause. This writing is driven by a passion for the power of stories. In fact the story is the subject. Vera’s metaphoric terms in mind, I saw that this blog is a basket and I’m a basket-maker filling up my basket with a smorgasbord of thought, dialogue and forever shifting fragments of African heritage womanhood.

To those who are yet to come across her work, Yvonne Vera was a Zimbabwean novelist, an African feminist activist and an Arts Director whose life came to a tragic end in 2005 at the young age of forty. She is one of my teachers that I never met, one of the world’s most gifted writers who left a rich legacy of work behind that opens the heart so full of love it simultaneously splashes, jumps, dances. In a lyrical and poetic way her writing dealt with themes such as the effect (or curses) of colonialism, the struggle for freedom, the decolonising of the mind, the rewriting of history and the situations that African women grapple with due to their race and gender. She was an advocate for encouraging women to write despite inhibitions imposed by society and ingrained cultural beliefs even though she also acknowledged that to do so could be an “intense risk”.

I write this post to somewhat gratifyingly imagine what Yvonne Vera might have thought of new developments in women’s writing in the past seven years. How she would have encouraged the annual African Women’s Literary Symposium founded in 2010, or celebrated Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie winning the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007 and female African writers dominating the shortlist for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize 2011 with nine out of twelve positions. Furthermore, what would she have made of the successes of an increasing amount of writers whose works often tackle feminist issues, writers like Lola Shoneyin, Dayo Forster, Sefi Atta, Doreen Baingana, Taiye Selasi, Pettina Gappah and Nnedi Okorafor, writers who Vera might have said “have an imagination that is plain stubborn, that can invent new gods and banish ineffectual ones”.
This is, by the way, not to imply that such (stubborn) writers have not always existed. Rather it is from the pool of literary foremothers that the contemporary canon has arisen. Writers like Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emcheta, Mariama Ba and Bessie Head carved out a platform with feminist under- and overtones from where their contemporaries build on as they explore situations of African women.

Whilst it saddens me deeply that Yvonne Vera is not here to witness such new developments and to continue to enrich our world with her courage and insight, I wish to remember her here with joy, as a most precious story in my blog-basket, as the skilful raconteur and confident historian who reflected on Zimbabwe, Africa and humanity with razor-sharp and daring imagination. Vera’s matrilineal storytelling bravely scrutinized the pain inflicted on the African woman’s mind, body and soul by colonial and postcolonial patriarchies but never at the cost of imaginative expression, or the search for beauty.


Have you read any of Yvonne Vera’s stories? If so, do you have any favourites? If not, does she sound like your kind of writer?

  • Spectra Speaks

    Wow. Thank you for such a beautiful post, Minna. I’ve never read her works but I’m definitely going to! You kinda leave us all with no choice. Thank you for sharing her gift with me today. And happy women’s month! :) #afrifemlove

  • MsAfropolitan

    Thanks sis. You are in for a treat.
    Happy women’s month! (every month)!

  • http://www.ashy2classytnet Diggame

    Good look with this had never heard about her going to look more into her work

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the comment. I’m sure you will enjoy it.

  • Daisy

    Lovely post, Minna.

    I first came across Yvonne Vera when I borrowed an anthology she complied (Opening Spaces: Contemporary African Women’s Writing) and it changed the way I viewed African literature. I remember sitting down at a bus stop reading that book somewhere in the middle of suburbia America and a light bulb when off in my head, I thought “This is my voice” it gave me hope and I was particularly moved by the stories crafted by my fellow African women, each story was an ongoing conversation. African literature was no longer a required book on my Pan African studies syllabus, it was my voice.

    RIP Yvonne Vera.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks sis. It is in Opening Spaces she says the line of women writers with “an imagination that is plain stubborn, that can invent new gods and banish ineffectual ones”.
      Reading the anthology was indeed remarkable.

  • James Chikonamombe

    Thanks for posting, Minna. Yvonne Vera will always represent the best of Zimbabwean (and African) literature.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thank you, James.

  • dinoleegz

    Yvonne Vera is by far one of my very best feminist writers. I have re-read ‘Butterfly burning’ and ‘stone virgins’ and ‘without a name’ so many times. She had a lasting gift of presenting pain beautifully. May she continue to live through her works

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for your comment. Indeed, we give thanks for her vision and work.

  • Lola

    Thanks for introducing this writer to me. I have not read her work but amazon is about to get a very big order. You write about her with a love and conviction that is endearing and beautiful Sis. She sounds amazing; and her work, STELLAR. Very much my kind of writer. My must-read list is updated! Which is your favourite and most ‘mind fuelling’ work of hers?

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thank you sis. Glad you will be ordering her books. Check out her first book “Nehanda” and her last “The Stone Virgins” although I find it very hard to choose from the five or so that she published. Enjoy!

      • Lola

        Oh good. I ordered ‘Nehandra’, ‘Without a Name and Under the Tongue’, and ‘Butterfly Burning’. Think that should do it for the summer :o) I will treat myself to ‘The Stone Virgins’ in the winter. Thanks! x

  • Karl

    Thank you, you have made my morning. I will send this link to my mother also a Vera, I am sure she will be thrilled to read about her sis and that she is still remembered even though she passed on young and too soon. Great piece on her works..

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks a lot, that’s made my day too!

  • Cherie Nelson Harrington

    History instruction in the US relies heavily on textbook use. The lack of positive stories and myths for African Americans is a significant shortcoming of US textbooks. This fact has significant potential to damage African American students’ perceptions of themselves. There is power in healthy visionary myths and stories. Glory stories and visionary myths belong to all of humanity.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks so much for the comment Cherie.