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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Maryse Condé: En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux

Condé, Maryse (2010), En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux, JCLattès
ISBN 978-2-7096-3321-5

DSC_1546So, this feels a bit odd. En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the first novel I have read by Maryse Condé. Condé is, incidentally, nominated for the Man Booker International 2015, an award given not to an individual novel but to a whole oeuvre. She is nominated for having this large and influential oeuvre dealing with the African diaspora, questions of race, the Black Atlantic, history and feminism. I don’t think she should win it, but that’s largely due to the fact that Marlene Van Niekerk, László Krasznahorkai and Ibrahim al-Koni are also nominated, three absolutely brilliant novelists. I will say this: I can’t really comment on the broader oeuvre of Ms. Condé, because En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the only one of her books I have read cover to cover so far. It is not, let me say this outright, the best option if you want an introduction to Condé. From what I read so far, that option would be Moi, Titouba, Sorcière or you could jump right into the deep end and read her two volume historical chef d’oeuvre Segou. Lucky for you, these earlier books have all been translated into English already. She appears to be quite generously translated, overall, unlike last year’s Nobel winner Modiano (read my take on his work here), where publishers have been trying to catch up with the sudden rise in importance, interest and significance all year. So, given that this book is not the best place to start, you should take some of my broader assessment with a grain of salt. I will admit, I was not bowled over by Condé’s novel. It’s not awful, but surely awful is not what we’re shooting for with a novelist who keeps getting nominated for major awards. Much of what’s interesting about the book is structural or intellectual. The prose is nothing to write home about. I understand that the task before the novelist here was frequently to render the speech and tale of badly educated Creole and Antillean individuals into writing, but surely that could have been achieved more interestingly. There is an odd sense of disengagement between the author and her subject – odd because so much of Condé’s work in general retraces elements of her identity, asking questions that pertain directly to her personal identity. And yet, despite all this, it’s still an engaging read, the characters still come alive, and the ideas and political convictions sparke. Condé herself considers this the dark final chapter of her Segou books, but its effect is measured. Read it.

conde seguIn keeping with my earlier warning about the book and its place at the end of a long career in writing, here is one more caveat. The book’s characters have turned up here and there in other works and in the richness of its stories Condé also re-uses ideas from earlier novels. It’s not quite like reviewing Roth’s Exit Ghost without reference to Roth’s earlier Zuckerman books, but I’m sure there’s a gap between my understanding of the novel and that of an expert reader of Condé’s work. That said, there’s no obvious lacunae in the text or inexplicable artifacts demanding to be contextualized with older books. It wasn’t until I came across an interview with Condé that this connection was pointed out to me. I actually think the book’s structure might work better if you don’t know the backstory of Babakar and his mother Thècla, but I say this in ignorance of vast swathes of her work, especially Segou. This impression of mine is due to the way the book deals with history. All major characters introduced to us tell us their story in their own words. They get dedicated chapters, called “The story of X,” and this includes a chapter on Babakar. Additionally, the story briefly, in its most entertaining section, sketches the history of Babakar’s family, including his mother Thècla who is long dead when the story starts. That very brief sketch of the family history is deft and fun. It offers a magic realist take on a tale of the Middle Passage, only to allow the rest of the novel to mostly drop the magic realism in exchange for what’s probably best referred to as melodramatic/postcolonial realism. Yet that seed allows the novel to use a ghost as a literary device, commentator and cruel conscience, but also seeds all the realism with an implicit abyss of wonder. Throughout her life and in various interviews, Condé has always expressed skepticism towards terms like the “francophonie”, “négritude” and the like, a bit like Derek Walcott, who resisted the latter term as well. She does quite a bit of legwork in this novel to express both some concepts that are covered by the terms, concepts of history and community, without subscribing to some of the pathos they come from. The mild, deeply seeded magic realism here serves as a kind of emotional underpinning. Whereas Segou is dedicated to her “Bambara ancestress,” and ends with a note of thanks to various African scholars, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux stands alone.

DSC_1548Orality is a central element of the book, without a supervising narrative that smooths everything in. We do get an omniscient narrator, but the facts told us in the oral narratives are never adjusted, discussed or corrected, even when they come from people that we have come to believe to be untrustworthy. There is, after all, a strong connection of the literature of the Antilles to orality. As Condé writes in her short treatise on Aimé Césaire (1978), the Créole of the Antilles developed to allow the slaves, imported from various parts of Africa, a common language. It is, according to Condé, a case of diglossia, not bilingualism – one is a dialect recognized to have a low social status, and one meant to be used in ‘proper’ speech and writing. The simplicity of Condé’s French, one feels now and then, is meant to reproduce that simple, low octane, low register speech for a kind of authenticity. At the same time, the convoluted structure of the book, which deploys narratives as it sees fit, juggles time, memory and events in a complex pattern, appears to counteract that linguistic strategy. Similarly, Condé offers us occasional Creole phrases. She never translates them, leaving us to guess, but she also uses very few of them in the speech of individuals who you’d expect to use more of them. These structural contradictions are not unexpected in Condé’s work who has consistently resisted easy readings, and who, intellectually, must be read carefully, in order to not trip over one of her many lines of connection and thought. One rather notorious example of this kind of ‘tripping’ is an essay by Anne-Marie Jeay called “Segou, les murailles de terre: Lecture anthropologique d’un roman.” It’s not long, but a deeply fascinating attack on Condé. The main issue, and one that the essay gets most quoted for, is a suggestion of both orientalism (and even racism), and of plagiarism. Both issues are connected to Condé’s use of historians’ works on the history of Mali. Jeay lists them triumphantly and demonstrates to what extent these texts have been borrowed, and, in a second step, how racist and offensive these texts are in the first place. It’s a spectacular misreading (my own reading of it owes much to Cilas Kemedjio’s excellent book on Condé and Glissant) of a text that, after all, thanks African scholars in the back, and which uses these scholars of Western academia in order to construct an image of Africa-as-found-in-books, contrasting it with a more deeply felt personal connection and highlighting, too, the disconnection Condé herself feels towards her ancestral home. Salman Rushdie famously wrote that exiles writing about their homelands are creating fictions, in his case “an India of the mind.” So in a way, Ségou is Condé’s ‘Mali of the Mind” and her elaborate web of quotes and references are a way of foregrounding that construction.

condéThis is a disconnection that we also find in En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux. Almost all of its central characters are lost far from their home, having to redefine home. The very family story of the novel’s protagonist Babakar, which I mentioned above, is a tale of the Black Atlantic, like many others. It’s laced with a bit of superstition, which in its generational sweep reminded me a bit of Toni Morrison, and recounts to us how Babakar’s ancestor ended up a freed slave on Guadeloupe. It is Babakar’s own mother, the mysterious Thècla who would, for money and adventure, choose to take the trip back to Africa, to become a teacher in Mali. She died, leaving her young son alone in the world, but not all alone. Her specter, heckling, disapproving, would haunt him for the rest of his life (at least as far as we are shown in the book). Babakar, who would become a doctor, spent much of his life in Africa surrounded by tragedy, loss, betrayal and civil war, until he, having lost everything, decided to settle in Guadeloupe, closing the circle. This is, more or less, where the novel begins. In its first pages he delivers a dying woman of a baby girl. In her last moments, the mother, a native from Haiti, asks of Babakar to bring her daughter home to Haiti, which, with the help of the woman’s last lover and his gardener, he eventually does, having practically adopted the child. That’s where the main plot of the novel unravels. The novel’s timeline ends in the 2010 earthquake, fairly open ended, which I think I can say without spoiling the book. I mean, the book is frequently compelling, but suspense has nothing to do with it. Unlike Ségou, this book doesn’t make the autobiographical connection obvious except through the author’s bio in the back mentioning her Guadeloupe origins. The Mali connection is not written into the book, that one depends on knowing more of Condé’s work. That’s not greatly relevant, however, since the book’s obsession with home and travel, with ethnic and cultural heritage and contemporary politics is obvious throughout. As a side note let me add that this is true for 99% of reviews/studies obsessing over authorial intention. Usually, if you read any text closely, its central concerns are fairly clear without knowing the author’s biography, which is likely to be more distraction than help anyway.

reading conde

Excuse the narcissism. This is me reading the book around Easter 2015.

That said, I would like to return to some of Condé’s critical writing, especially that nifty little book on Césaire. Throughout her career, Condé has resisted easy categorizations, from being considered a writer of the francophonie to concepts in postcolonial studies like négritude. The latter, for example, is derided by Condé as creating a fictional image of black people that’s merely a reaction to Western ideals, an anti-western description, dependent on and already colonized by the West. The only aspect she allows for is the capacity to survive a great deal of suffering: “Un diction antillais did: ‘An nèg pa ka jin mo.’ En français, ‘un nègre ne meurt jamais.’” In a way, Babakar’s odyssee in En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux through pain and loss and his almost miraculous survival of it all is a literary reflection of that positive aspect of négritude. I may be ambivalent about her skills as a novelist, but her extraordinary resistance to easy concepts is impressive, even if it has caused a bit of a backlash, as Walcott’s decision to write in high register English has for some critics. An obvious starting point here is the novel’s insistence that Guadeloupe, not being an independent nation, but a DOM. People from Guadeloupe, according to the novel, and according to interviews given by Condé afterward, don’t have a country, they are homeless. They can say “Guadeloupe is my country” but that’s a sentimental rather than factual comment. In an interview with Francoise Simasotchi-Bronès, she even compares them to Romani, nomads, hated in the countries they live in, and the countries they travel to. There is an odd echo of that position in that essay by Anne-Marie Jeay I mentioned before, where she refers to Condé as being “black but Guadeloupian” (“noire mais guadeloupéenne”) – an inauthentic person to write about Africa, tainted by living in a French dependency. And yet, for DOM writers, France is not an easy place to call home. According to Bill Ashcroft, people and places are “transformed by diasporas” – and in many ways, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux dramatizes that transformation, by offering us multiple diasporas and showing us people disconnected from ancestral homelands, people changing in exile, people desperate to forge a link with home. For Babakar, that link is reified in the ghost of his mother Thècla, but most people are not so lucky. In the end, we learn, there is no real homeland for anyone, there are only the homes that we make for ourselves, the homes we create. Sometimes because we want to live there, sometimes because we have to make do, sometimes because of a duty.

DSC_1549This is even true for Condé. Intentionally or not, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the novel of a writer who has lived away from Guadeloupe for a long time. It’s not just her harsh criticism of the idea of Guadeloupe being a country. There are quite a few artefacts throughout the book that are odd. One of the most remarkable ones comes during Babakar’s story of his life in war torn Mali. As he returns to a town he lived for years in, only to see it having been utterly destroyed by war and strife, mostly obliterated, the author has Babakar remark: “On aurait dit que pareil à la Nouvelle-Orléans, l’ouragan Katrina l’avait ravagée.” It’s very odd, you have to admit, to have the #1 association, when finding a city destroyed by war, to say that it looks like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I think I would be excused to say that this doesn’t sound like Mali citizen Babakar recounting his country’s destruction and more like Maryse Condé, writer who taught for years at Columbia in New York. The decentered condition that hovers over most of the book and that has been theorized by Jacques Chevrier as “migritude” appears to also include the writer Maryse Condé. And ultimately, despite all the book’s literary shortcomings, especially as far as the prose is concerned, that’s what’s most compelling about it: it’s a book that wrestles with “migritude” on many levels, that keeps pushing ideas and narratives to center stage, including its own author’s biases. The lack of resolution, really, reflects the fluid and complex nature of the phenomenon. It’s a deeply unhappy book, but it doesn’t go for a Coetzee-style darkness. It doesn’t go for visceral brutality, it goes for inconclusive confusion. And that’s a good thing.


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