14 September 2016

Zimbabwe: Remembering Yvonne Vera

The year is 2004. Yvonne is lying in her bed in Canada, weak and ravaged by meningitis. She has not been responding to drugs. She has been in and out of hospital. Her husband, John Jose, is still hopeful that she is going to be well so that they can walk again in the park where she loved posing in her crimson gown to reduce with her amazing figure, "the foliage to a supporting role".She picks up the phone, calls her loving mom Erica Gwetai in Bulawayo and says to her, in an animated voice, these words: "Mom, I am not afraid to die but afraid to leave an unfinished book."

Vera's words show her courage to conquer the deathly spectre hovering over her. Her words are also touching, emotionally too burdensome for a mother who has been hoping her daughter would recover soon to resume writing. As if knowing that writers do not die but simply surrender to a certain 'grief and love', she writes a poem, the last poem that she writes before she breathes her last.

We raise our arms

In surrender to grief

And love

The above loosely re-created last scene in Yvonne Vera's last moments in 2004 /2005 is captured in the book "Petal Thoughts" (2008, Mambo Press), a biography of Yvonne Vera written by her mother Ericah Gwetai.

"Writers never die, but mutate," Pathisa Nyathi would say it all in a few words in his tribute (to Vera) which, along with other tributes, is included in the biography.

On Monday, September 19, the writing world will be celebrating the 52nd anniversary of Vera's birth. We celebrate the woman who through the written world inspired the world and, even in death, continues to inspire.

The birthday anniversary comes in this same month of September in which another great African female writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born on the 15th (tomorrow).

That Yvonne was not afraid of death but afraid to leave behind an unfinished manuscript speaks volumes about her undying passion for her writing craft.

Somewhere in the biography she is quoted saying, "I want to be a good writer. It is my passion. My life."

Erica Gwetai writes from a motherly and critical reader's perspective, vividly bringing Yvonne and her books back to life.

The biography starts from the time when 17-year-old Erica discovered she was pregnant. Although an "unwanted pregnancy", it had its own chosen destiny. Desperate attempts by Erica and her husband Jerry to terminate 'the chosen destiny' failed and a baby girl Yvonne was born and started its own journey through life.

In the biography Gwetai provides significant real incidents in her daughter's life which found their way into her (Yvonne's) fiction and given a deeper meaning by the muse that she possessed.

The biography also shows that the gift of writing in Vera became specific and even started showing early in her childhood. The gift concretised as the girl matured.

Apart from playing with other children in New Luveve (Bulawayo) in the nearby park, at the railway station, at the bus terminus or in the sanitary lanes, Yvonne enjoyed storytelling by her grandmother.

"Some of the stories Yvonne was told inspired her as a writer in later years," writes her mother Erica Gwetai.

When five-year-old Yvonne started school in Harare where her mother has found a job as a teacher, she exhibits a gift in creative writing. In a year, Yvonne is already ahead of her peers particularly in creative writing.

It happens that mother and daughter move back to Bulawayo and then to rural Tsholotsho where Gwetai, as a teacher, is posted.

For young Yvonne, the rural landscape is another inspiration which she would use in her work.

Later, Yvonne's mother finds a place to teach in Bulawayo, thus prompting her to move back to the urban area where the child Yvonne reunites with her grandmother MaDube, obviously a reunion with a great storyteller. The greatest influence in Vera's early life in those pre-Independence times, according to the biography, came from her great-grandmother Masidengere, a renowned spirit medium, an indigenous business woman who rode a motorbike and owned a grinding mill. Yvonne, who had learnt about the legendary spirit mediums Nehanda and Kaguvi at her school, "took an interest in her great grandmother's spiritual activities".

Later, as an adult, Yvonne would reveal her love for Gogo Masidengere in an interview which also appears in the biography. "If she were alive today, she would be me!" said Yvonne (page 47).

In the chapter "Secondary School and College", Gwetai shows again how intellectually and spiritually gifted Yvonne was. At secondary school Yvonne starts writing but the nearest writing form she finds is the letter.

Gwetai says Yvonne used to write letters to her even when they were in the same house!

At Mzilikazi Secondary School, Yvonne meets Kupukile Mlambo, a friend with whom she shares her passion of writing. Years later, she would dedicate her novel "Nehanda" to him.

In his memoir published in the biography, Mlambo recalls, "Yvonne's letters read like a perfect painting and always left me panting for more . . . " Mlambo is now a qualified economist with a renowned institution.

The value of the book "Petal Thoughts" is outstanding to budding and established writers, critics, scholars and anyone interested in knowing Yvonne.

The biography is imbued with additional, touching memoirs from the late author's friends in and outside Zimbabwe. The remembrances are profoundly centred on Yvonne the friend, the writer, the artist, and above all, Yvonne the 'mystic' figure. It is hard to say Yvonne had a one-dimensional gift; she was just a phenomenal woman as seen in the memoirs by her local and international colleagues.

Truly, as writer and critic Memory Chirere noted, this biography "will surely open windows to Vera's literature".

However, the last part of the biography titled "Yvonne Vera - Story in Pictures" is dismal. It contains faded black and white photographs of the late writer.

Yvonne strongly believed in art as exemplified by her successful reign as Director at the National Gallery in Bulawayo where she, for instance, led photographic exhibitions. It could have been more captivating an honour had the photographs in "Petal Thoughts" been glossy and life-like as those of the late writer Dambudzo Marechera in the biographical book "Dambudzo Marechera 1952-1987" published in 1988 by Baobab Books.

After Yvonne's death in 2005, a writing competition named after her, the Yvonne Vera Award, was initiated at the Intwasa Arts Festival koBulawayo. It was an annual short story competition but it seems the competition no longer exists. Like her 'twin' literary genius Dambudzo Marechera who was once honoured with the establishment of the Dambudzo Marechera Trust after his death, Yvonne's legacy in Zimbabwe still clamours for pragmatic timeless recognition.

Vera's published works are the short story collection "Why Don't You Carve Other Animals" (1992), novels "Nehanda" (1993), "Without A Name" (1994), "Under the Tongue" (1996), "Butterfly Burning" (2000), and "The Stone Virgins" (2002). Her awards include the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Africa Region) in 1997 for "Under The Tongue", the Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa in 2002 for her novel "The Stone Virgins" and the 2004 PEN Tucholsky Prize.

May her soul rest in peace.

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