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Reviewed by:
  • Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera
  • Eva Hunter
Robert Muponde and Mandi Taruvinga, eds. Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera. Harare, Zimbabwe: Weaver, 2002; Oxford, UK: James Currey, 2003. xvi + 236 pp.

This book, the first collection of essays on Yvonne Vera, one of the African continent's most distinguished and progressive writers, suggests the growth of interest in her fiction and the range of critical and theoretical problems raised by her work. Robert Muponde and Mandi Taruvinga, both of the University of Harare, have grouped these seventeen essays 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." The editors have included authors not only from Zimbabwe and South Africa, but also from Britain, the Caribbean, and the United States. All except one have lived and worked in Africa, and the essays provide much local and particularized detail on the culture, customs, and history of Zimbabwe, information that will be invaluable to some given Vera's avoidance of the techniques of realism.

The essays take readers to the heart of some of the most pressing concerns in the study of postcolonial fictions. For instance, contrary to both the essentialized ideas of African culture embedded in patriarchal nationalist discourses and the notions of what is truly African among diasporic scholars, Vera's fiction records how indigenous cultures have been transformed during Africa's colonial and postcolonial histories. Thus, Kizito Z. Muchemwa and Lizzy Attree note that Vera blends modernist and postmodern features, such as a metafictional commentary on the creative process itself, together with traditional linguistic elements drawn from orature.

Vera's writing, in that it incorporates specificities of Zimbabwean experience, stands in contradistinction to the term "African," used as a nonspecific generalization. Yet such specificities have proved a stumbling block to fuller response to the distinctiveness of Vera's writing. Her narratives are described by some as "poetic," by others as "lyrical," and Vera says, "I would not write if I weren't in search of beauty" (224), but most criticism has, prior to this collection, focused on her choice of taboo-breaking subject matter and the use of female focalization/voices in the context of gendered Zimbabwean nationalist ideology. This collection remedies this gap in Vera scholarship: most of the essays—Attree's "Language, Kwela Music and Modernity in Butterfly Burning" is just one of them—direct us not merely to formal and stylistic aspects, but indeed, to how these contain and express [End Page 802] Vera's subversive ideals. In addition to the seventeen essays, the collection includes an interview with Yvonne Vera by Jane Bryce 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, (2003).

Many of the essays resuscitate the debates originally stimulated by French theorists such as Cixous and Irigaray around feminist writers' ability to express resistance to patriarchal features of language through developing alternative discourses. If voice and voicing are given due attention, so is silence as a measure not only of submission but also of resistance, as suggested in the two essays by Meg Samuelson. Scholars of gender/feminist studies will find these essays stimulating.

With hindsight, Vera's first novel, Nehanda, publishedin 1993, can be seen as a forerunner in a trend in recent African writing (another Zimbabwean, Chenjerai Hove is a further example) to emphasize, through formal and stylistic aspects, the value of the aesthetic imagination. But it is in the novels following NehandaWithout a Name (1994), Under the Tongue (1996), Butterfly Burning (1998), and The Stone Virgins—that Vera focuses on trauma inflicted during the liberation and (with The Stone Virgins) post-Independence periods. These novels are of particular importance in appreciating the potentially liberating implications of Vera's modernist and postmodern characteristics, how they offer Zimbabweans new ways of perceiving and of being. Thus, on the outside back...


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