Yvonne Vera: Butterfly Burning

Vera, Yvonne (2000), Butterfly Burning, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 0-374-29186-1

vera coverSo here is another example of me being awfully badly read. The late Yvonne Vera was a leading/important novelist from Zimbabwe, winner of multiple literary awards. And this is the first time I ever read any of her books. What’s worse is that I think I have only read 2 novels by writers from Zimbabwe, period. One is Vera’s novel, and the other one is the obvious choice that anyone who graduated from college has had to read at one point or another, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s fantastic debut Nervous Conditions. There’s a good likelihood that much of what follows is basically a comparison of the only two novels I’ve read from an African country with a rich literary tradition, which is awful and myopic, but there you go. In case you don’t make it that far, let me impress on you that if you read Dangarembga’s novel and expect anything close to the same from Butterfly Burning, you’ll be very surprised. Given that these are two women from the same country, the same generation, both writing about the plight of being a young woman in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, both fêted by Western literary critics and academics, it is quite stunning just how dissimilar the two books are. Vera’s novel is very unusual, a challenging read in many ways. At the time that I am typing this review I am not even sure whether it is very good. Stylistically, Vera opts for a language that is generally coded as poetic, but in the process she loses precision, accuracy and intellectual punch. If you read Dangarembga’s novel, you know it spreads out its problems and areas of interests for the reader to see and understand. Vera’s novel is just as personal, just as political, and targets similar issues sometimes, but the textual surface is like a wave of text hitting you. Vera shifts from explicit physical details to a poetic vagueness that sometimes appears to border on self-parody. And yet, as much as I was tempted to shore up its faults in a summary of the book, Vera’s commitment to her style, Vera’s intense presentation of her concerns and the sometimes almost impenetrable surface of the text all contribute to a literary power that can’t but impress. If you don’t like writers who describe sex as a couple “[falling] to a solitary passion” and “yielding to each other,” this is maybe not for you. If you want your African novels to be as clear as Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s early work or Dangarembga’s, then this may not be for you either. But for everybody else, Yvonne Vera has written an oddly compelling, deeply flawed but powerful novel about the female experience in an African country under British occupation. The final scene of confrontation and self-renunciation is genuinely fantastic.

One thing that struck me is that the novel’s near-obsessive account of what it feels like to be a woman in 1940s Zimbabwe and the density of its imagery and the vagueness of the language sometimes blinded me to the subtleties in the book’s overall construction. Butterfly Burning is written in many places like a novel about feminity and patriarchy, with a long, almost surreal passage where a women performs an abortion on herself by literally reaching inside herself; at the same time, it is also a novel about history. Yvonne Vera very carefully placed this novel, the intensity of which could suggest an autobiographical impetus, in a period almost two decades before she was even born. There is no simple identification as in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel, which follows a girl about the same age that the author would have been at that time, give or take a year. The way Vera’s novel is structured with respect to the broader historical narratives is deeply interesting: on the one hand, the story of the novel’s young female protagonist, a woman named Phephelaphi, is not particularly contextualized historically. We learn that certain kinds of education were not open to her, but unlike, again, in Nervous Conditions, we have no clear historical time-line, no extensive debates about the role of the colonizers and missionaries. Dangarembga is very specific even about the things that have changed in the lifetime of her characters. I suppose that’s what makes it such a popular choice in classrooms – reading Nervous Conditions gives you a fair idea of Zimbabwe’s history of the period depicted in the novel. An all you can eat buffet of educational opportunity, if you will. Yvonne Vera’s history is more hidden. There are no or very few British people in the novel, we learn next to nothing about the control that the colonizers exert over their colony and the restrictions that the colonized live under. The bad things that happen to Phephelaphi are not abstract deeds by some distant colonizing power – they are things that men do to women in many places all over the world. The sexually active women in the book, including Phephelaphi’s late mother and Deliwe, the proprietor of an illegal nightclub, do not distinguish between black and white men, and while a white policeman commits a murder in the book, it is not political or racist – it is a crime motivated by masculine jealousy which can turn to violence at any time in any country, something that hasn’t changed until today. So, given all these parts of the story that are primarily concerned with female experience, one could be excused if the novel appeared almost unpolitical, as far as the broader range of Zimbabwean history is concerned.

This is not the case. The book begins with a hanging, a result of the first uprising in Zimbabwe in 1896. The stark image of men hanging from a tree and a mother leading her son to see and remember what happened is what the book wants us to use as historical context. Now, Dangarembga’s novel doesn’t end at the 1977 war of independence, but the sequel (which I have not read) continues the time-line to end up right there. Vera, who was born a mere five years after Dangarembga declines to choose the war of independence as her marker. Instead she makes the failed rebellion almost a hundred years earlier her historical touchstone. The boy who watches his father hang from a tree becomes, 40 years later, the much older lover of Phephelaphi, a construction worker named Fumbatha. Thus, the vast bulk of the novel is set almost exactly between the two rebellions, and Vera can rely on her evocation of the first one to implicitly also evoke the second. What’s more, the interrogation of urban social structures in the book, not focused on class but on gender, also speaks to the author’s thinking regarding the underpinnings of the movement that ended up finally gaining independence (although that’s obviously speculation since I’ve read none of her other books). If politics is made by men, because women have no space in it, because women have to fight for their own spaces and their own bodies first, then what follows is that politics are always undergirded by violence. This is not even just about the Mugabe administration and its violent acts. A few months/weeks ago I read this book about the Zimbabwean economy by Hevina Dashwood and it is an utterly dispiriting read about how a country that was founded on vaguely socialist principles, coming as they did out of a popular revolution, descended into market-driven liberalism, marked by a decline in social welfare and a decline of popular participation and interest in government. There was no general change of mind in the population – it was a decision driven by the then finance minister in cooperation with the world bank and the IMF. The minister had to slowly convince first the bureaucratic apparatus and then the ruling party’s internal debating structures before informing the public of this new direction. Social disengagement is its own violence, and markedly, in Burning Butterfly, it is abandonment, lack of employment and social cohesion that lead to the book’s dark ending. Originally written in 1998, after free market reforms were completely implemented (according to Dashwood, the process ended in 1997), it is hard not to see at least some implication here regarding political action and inaction.

butterfly coverYet despite all this history, the core of the novel remains its dealings with feminity. There is a strong tension between motherhood and sexuality that the novel does not resolve or judge. Sexual openness is dangerous, but that’s due to patriarchy, not because the act itself is a problem. Motherhood itself, however, is also restrictive and oppressive. There is a strong connection of sexuality to freeing people from the bond of repressed memory, but encounters with motherhood can also lead to almost painful epiphanies. As Grace Musila has pointed out, “nationalist discourses constituted the African nation as the feminine victim of an aggressive colonial master” and “the prostitute’s body became a convenient index for the degraded postcolonial nation.” Vera reacts very strongly against this appropriation of the female body for the purposes of political rhetoric. Butterfly Burning reasserts the primacy of the female body over political discourses. Phephelaphi resists the seizure of her body twice, with an increased rate of violence and insistence. Vera has places this female story very carefully and very intentionally within the historical framework without making it a direct part. The connection is Fumbatha, Phephelaphi’s lover. Phephelaphi herself resists. In a way, the novel’s own language is a bit like an act of resistance. The intense smell of poetic writing, i.e. writing that is written as “poetic” and not writing that is itself powerfully poetic is all over the book. While Dangarembga’s novel is written in crystalline, sharp English, with short, precise sentences and thus fits discourses of order and narratives like that very well, that is not as easy for Vera’s novel which I think intentionally reaches for a kind of feminine écriture. The effect is that the novel reminded me immediately not of other African writers I know but of North American feminist postmodernism, specifically Carole Maso’s books. Another reference would maybe be Daphne Marlatt or even the female sections in W. Paul Anderson’s Hunger’s Brides. While those parts of Anderson sometimes read like parody and I very specifically didn’t like Marlatt’s book, the urgency of Vera’s novel elevates the sometimes murky and sentimental phrasings to a different level. Given the book’s thorny relationship to the history experienced and pushed by men, this style appears to provide another layer of resistance. I will admit, I was a bit annoyed. Half of the pages I marked in my copy of the novel featured some borderline outrageous formulation. Yet towards the end of the book, especially during an extremely graphic scene of abortion by a character’s own hand, the style proves useful beyond the sometimes challenging readability. We never see the scene 100% clear and the style contributes to that – but Vera manages to do two things at once: to not shy away from the intricacies, sometimes brutal, of the female physical experience, without delivering a clinical description that would hand epistemological control right back to the patriarchy. It’s an interesting effect and absolutely worth having to wade through what feels like overly flowery language (and not the good, Thomas Wolfe kind of flowery).

This writerly strategy may be due to the fact that Vera, while a writer from Zimbabwe, is also a Canadian writer, who lived with her Canadian husband in Toronto when she died. And while I have some difficulties contextualizing Vera’s writing within what I have read of African literature, I would have no such difficulties with a comparison to Canadian literature, where that kind of writing is not uncommon, from the aforementioned Marlatt to the widely admired Margaret Atwood. At the same time, I do not mean to suggest that Butterfly Burning is a Canadian novel in the sense of a novel written for a Canadian audience. Unlike writers like Maryse Condé whose 2010 novel (cf. my review here) contained a baffling comparison involving Hurricane Katrina, betraying the extent to which Condé’s life and references are centered around Western Europe and the US, Vera’s novel was first published in Zimbabwe, only later in the US. Its primary audience is African, and its message is urgent. The politicization of the private, of the female body, does work out rather well, especially, when, intentionally or not (I can’t decide), the novel’s final scene evokes iconic images of protests like the monks who protested the Vietnam war.

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