Yvonne Vera

Article Bio Works Merits
civil war, colonialism, gender
Written and spoken word (novel, short story)
Africa, Eastern
created on:
May 14, 2003
last changed on:
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Yvonne Vera
Yvonne Vera


"I hear my words like music"

Born in Bulawayo in former Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe, in 1964, Yvonne Vera is a star of Africa´s new post-colonial literature. Her short stories and award-winning novels do not glorify and try to authenticate a nostalgic image of Africa but rather search for a new identity. Her books tend to focus on experiences of the civil war for liberation, especially from a woman´s point of view.
Yvonne Vera began writing on having left Zimbabwe to study in Canada, where she experienced personal liberation but also thought about her African roots. Her first short stories in “Souls in Exile” (1997) and “Why Don´t You Carve Other Animals” (1992) are about the civil war in future Zimbabwe from 1972 to 1980. “We all know we were wounded and have various scars which are not all visible,” says Yvonne Vera. “Writing means accepting these wounds and is a process of healing and growth” (cited in “Kritisches Lexikon zur fremdsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur” 10/00).

Vera´s short stories describe and diagnose the wounds left by the war from the point of view of women who have won nothing and lost a great deal in it. A young woman in the tale “It is Hard to Live Alone” poses questions which are posed in all of her tales: “The land is in a state of confusion. Who still knows the rules? Who still knows what has to be done? Who knows what is really important? All we know are our loss, our anxiety and our silence.”

Vera experiences writing as a mania and a vision. She claims that she is able to write for ten hours a day as if possessed, till she drops from exhaustion. Then she does not even leave her room, so as not to be exposed to distractions. While writing a novel, she feels that nothing else exists for her and hears her words like music. She claims that she never really thinks about a theme until she starts writing, so she can write only about things with which she is already familiar and writes often about women. The metaphorical, lyrical English which thus arises is said to be unique in Zimbabwe.

The title heroine of her first novel “Nehanda” became a symbol of national identity after the war for independence and had already become a theme of patriotic lyrics in the 50s. Vera´s narration is not chronological but, in moving freely between past, present and future, tells us about the clan-spirit of Nehanda, which at the end of the 19th century spoke through the medium of a woman, who became the prophetic leader of the anti-colonial rebellion of 1896. This historically documented prophet persuaded the Shona to reject British colonial authority. At the failure of the rebellion, she was hung together with her helper, who was the medium of the spirit Kaguvi. Vera focuses less on the course of events than on the language and personal feelings of the participants. In effect the tale takes it for granted that the reader already has some knowledge of the events. Yvonne Vera´s version of the Nehanda myth celebrates with poetic pathos the force of traditional culture and the strength of women. Nehanda´s end remains an open question. She saves herself by withdrawing into a cave, where she intends to stay till her people are finally free.

Though the end of “Nehanda” points towards a coming salvation, the end of her second novel “Without a Name” (1994) offers no hope. Like her short stories, it is about the experience of the struggle for liberation from a woman´s point of view. After being raped, the protagonist flees into town. She there discovers that she is pregnant and is sent away by Joel, whom she is living with, since he assumes that the child is not his. In her desperation she strangles the child with a tie and then goes back to her village with the body of her child on her back. On arrival she finds that the village has been burnt to the ground, so all she has left is her dead child.

Like hardly any other black African author, Yvonne Vera finds an adequate expression for the life of southern African single women who do not socially or culturally conform. She manages to create memorable images of the anguish of her protagonists: “Her neck was twisted. A bone at the base of her neck told her that her neck had been twisted and twisted till it could no longer find a position of rest. Her neck had been broken. She felt a gruesome sting like broken glass on her tongue, on which she bore the fragments of her existence... On her neck was growing a lump... Her skin was peeling off her body.”

Her third novel, “Under the Tongue” (1996), for which she was awarded the Commonwealth Writers´ Prize for the region Africa, likewise broaches a social theme and breaks a taboo by showing how a family-web of dependence and repression leads to violence and incest. In this work Vera resorts to images traditional to the Shona and Ndebele. Her main symbol is the female tongue, which has fallen silent due to male dominance. Hence it “no longer lives, no longer weeps. It is buried beneath stones.”

The images in “Under the Tongue” are dark, but the expressions used in her fourth novel “Butterfly Burning” (1998) are powerful. The work is a gift to her city Bulawayo and celebrates the creativity, music, lanes, buildings and lamps of the city in the year 1948. It focuses on the young woman Phephelaphi, who falls in love with an older man. At first she lives only for this love then she evolves further and wants to be one of black Africa´s first nurses. On being granted a position as a trainee, she finds that she is pregnant. She fights but finally loses - the butterfly goes up in flames.

Author: Birgit Koß


Yvonne Vera was born on 19th of September 1964 in Bulawayo in Matbeleleland in former Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) as the daughter of a local businessman. She spent most of her childhood and youth in the care of her grandmother. Despite her sheltered childhood, the struggle for independence in what at the time was known as Rhodesia affected even her life. Members of the family vanished and were never seen again, and at school there was restlessness and anxiety. Again and again the residential district was combed for guerrillas.

She began writing on her arrival in Canada in 1985 to study English philology, art history and film making at York University in Toronto and got her degree in English literature with a thesis about jails in the colonies. She was the first woman from Zimbabwe to be awarded a doctorate. Back home in Zimbabwe she began writing novels.. In 1997 she was offered the post of director of the Bulawayo National Gallery, which is the second largest in Zimbabwe. She accepted and has since been more preoccupied with the visual arts but has also organised readings and concerts in the gallery. She is especially interested in offering young female artists more scope. She writes her novels during her holidays. As she said in an interview: “All members of the gallery can have 45 days holiday a year. I take my whole holiday so as to write. Some colleagues use the time for ploughing their fields. I plough the field of literature.”

The artist who suffered from HIV died in 2005 of meningitis.


A Voyeur´s Paradise ... Images of Africa

Published Written,
Nordic Africa Institute

The Stone Virgins

Published Written,
Novel. Farrar Straus Giroux: New York

Opening spaces (edited by Yvonne Vera)

Published Written,
Short stories. Heinemann: Oxford

Butterfly Burning

Published Written,
Novel. Baobab Books: Harare

Under the Tongue

Published Written,
Novel. Baobab Books: Harare

Without a Name

Published Written,
Novel. Baobab Books: Harare


Published Written,
Novel. Baobab Books: Harare

Why Don´t You Carve Other Animals

Published Written,
Short stories. TSAR: Toronto


Yvonne Vera´s books "Africa" and "Under the Tongue" were awarded the Commonwealth Prize. In 1993, 1995 and 1997 she received the award of the Zimbabwe Book Publishers´ Association. For her work "Voice of Africa" she received in 1999 the coveted and sizeable Swedish Literature Prize. For "Stone Virgins" she received the Macmillan Writers´ Prize for Africa followed by LiBeraturpreis (2002), the Premio Feronia (2003)
and the Tucholsky Prize for her complete works 2004 (Swedish PEN).