Africa Today 49.2 (2002) 166-168
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Yvonne Vera has been a leading light in Zimbabwean letters for more than a decade, beginning with the 1992 publication of her collection of short stories, Why Don't You Carve Other Animals? Now Farrar, Straus and Giroux [End Page 166] have done American scholars and teachers of African literature a great service by reprinting, together in one volume, two of her early novellas, from 1994 and 1996. Reading them back to back reveals the logic of pairing the two works in this way: most obviously, both novellas are set in the late 1970s, during the civil war against Ian Smith's white minority regime, and they depict the effects of the war on poor and working township dwellers. In this regard, these works join a burgeoning subset of Zimbabwean literature bearing witness to the trauma of the protracted and bloody war, works including Shimmer Chinodya's Harvest of Thorns and the poetic and fictional works of Chenjerai Hove.
Both of Vera's books are explorations of memory and forgetting, with
characters seeking asylum from the past. Hence for Mazvita, the pro-tagonist of Without a Name, who flees her war-ravaged village, and the soldier who has raped her, the attraction of Harare is that the city "banished memory, encouraged hope. . . . Harare challenged the demarcations between day and night, offered distances from time, for part of being here was the forgetting of boundaries to days, of challenging futures" (pp. 64-65). Similarly, the grandmother of Zhizha, the young protagonist of Under the Tongue, who has been raped by her father, tells her it is "sometimes good to forget, to bury the heavy things of now, the things which cannot be remembered without death becoming better than life. Such things are for forgetting, for burying beneath the earth. But a woman must remember the moment of birth and of death" (p. 131). These works draw a connection between language and violence against women, and demonstrate the capacity of words and names to wound and heal, to destroy and rebuild.
Set in a time of radical transition, both novellas are deeply concerned with themes of rebirth and new beginnings, themes that offer promise and danger, hope and disappointment. Mazvita, longing to leave rural Mubaira, has convinced herself that "there is no war there [in Harare]. Freedom has already arrived. . . . It is the perfect place to begin" (p. 30). After a few months in the city, however, her faith in departures begins to wane, and she reflects that "She knew about departures because she had mistaken them for beginnings. Departures were not beginnings, they were resolutions, perhaps" (p. 50). Despite this ambivalence, Under the Tongue ends on a seemingly optimistic note, with the cease-fire that ended the war in 1980 and "a newness, something hatched, pure and bright with surprise. Something not yet known, to be, almost, felt. A touch. The cease-fire had brought them a burst of hope" (p. 222).
These novellas present themselves initially as seemingly plotless vignettes, which jump around erratically in time, but the narrative threads gradually cohere into a circling pattern—the narrative orbits around events that are perhaps too painful to describe directly. Then too, the fragmented and confusing narrative reflects the unpredictability of these characters' situations: the willful amnesia of the city, the constant scramble of life in the townships, the violence of civil war. The narrator of Under the Tongue tells us that "History had become dazed and circular" (p. 233); so too have these stories. They often lapse into stream-of-consciousness dream poems, [End Page 167] surreal and hypnotic. Vera's hallucinogenically lyrical prose, combined with her attention to the gritty details of township life, make her one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary African literature, and these novellas are among her finest work.
Sam Houston State University
Chinodya, Shimmer. 1989. Harvest of Thorns. Oxford: Heinemann.
Vera, Yvonne. 1994. Why Don't...