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Vera’s mother makes history



Imagine that you are a world-renowned writer from Africa and after your death, your mother does not only publish her own creative book, but goes on to write your biography! That dual feat is a first in African literature! The late writer, Yvonne Vera’s mother, Ericah Gwetai nee Mugadzaweta, has written a very enlightening biography on Yvonne Vera. It is called ‘Petal thoughts: Yvonne Vera: A Biography.’ It was published in 2008. But, and this is more crucial; four years later in 2012, Ericah Gwetai writes and publishes her own novel called Embracing the Cactus. I have been wondering and tossing in bed, thinking: if your mother were to write your biography, what would she say or leave out and why? If you were a prize-winning author, would your mother’s book clarify certain key moments in your writings? Or, would it complicate them? Petal Thoughts is an amazing book as it shows that there are highly biographical elements in most of Yvonne Vera’s literature. Yvonne died in April 2005.
She wanted to commit suicide by being run over by a car… but when cars screeched and swerved to avoid her, I realised that she was determined to do it
Did you know ‘Yvonne was a result of an unwanted pregnancy’? Ericah Mugadzaweta, a Luveve girl, discovered by accident that she was two months pregnant when she felt dizzy and passed out at Lobengula Street bus terminus. Ericah was seventeen and the man responsible was one Jerry Vera who worked as a waiter at the Happy Valley Hotel in Nguboyenja township of Bulawayo. Ericah eloped to Jerry and they even tried unsuccessfully to terminate the pregnancy because Ericah wanted desperately to go for a nurse training course. Readers of Yvonne’s Butterfly Burning will remember that there is such an anguished woman in the novel. The girl, Yvonne, moved constantly with her mother to various teaching posts in Bulawayo, Harare and Tsholotsho. Yvonne’s parents parted ways in December 1970 after a huge quarrel when Jerry lost his job. Jerry found it hard to find another job and ‘he became aggressive’. Ericah and Yvonne eventually left for Tsholotsho where Ericah met and fell in love with one Lambert Gwetai. The girl Yvonne fell in love with butterflies out there in the countryside. In 1984, during her teaching practise (from Hillside Teachers’ College) at Njube High School, Yvonne met a Canadian Maths teacher, John Jose and they fell in love. They were married in 1987 in Canada. They remained married until Yvonne’s death in April 2005 although they sometimes lived in separate locations because of Yvonne’s insistence that she kept in touch with her Zimbabwean writing base. This biography shows that Yvonne’s life and writing culture were dramatic. For instance during one of her visits to Zimbabwe from Canada in 1994, Yvonne read a story from The Chronicle about a woman who had strangled her baby with a necktie. Yvonne immediately disappeared from home. Her people even reported her missing with the police. She returned home six days later with a manuscript that was to become ‘Without A Name’. There are indications in this biography that Yvonne was headstrong and had a temper too. When she left for Canada in 1987 to marry John she just left without saying goodbye to her mother. And more interesting Yvonne’s mother writes: “In 1996 Yvonne was going to interview some female artists who did woodcarving. It was in the evening and I told her that it was not safe for women to travel alone… We argued about that. She bolted out of the house and stood in the middle of Matopos Road. She wanted to commit suicide by being run over by a car… but when cars screeched and swerved to avoid her, I realized that she was determined to do it…” This book will surely open windows into Vera’s literature. It also contains testimonies by scores of people close to Vera like her best and long time friend, Kupukile Mlambo, (to whom Vera’s first full novel, Nehanda is dedicated), her editor and publisher, Irene Staunton, friends: Flora Wild, Terence Ranger, Virginia Phiri and others. The late Yvonne Vera is the most successful woman writer in Zimbabwean literature to this day, in terms of output and intense experimentation with prose. She specialised on abominations and those subjects that harm a woman’s body and mind like rape, abortion and suicide. These are subjects that Zimbabwean novels rarely spend their maximum length on. Vera’s women come out of it hugely scathed and with a statement that a woman’s meaningful space is very difficult to find in this world. Why Don’t You Carve other Animals (1992) is a collection of short stories that portray women in various circumstances that force them to step out of their ordinary roles as mothers and wives. In the background is the war of liberation of the 1970’s. Nehanda (1993), Vera’s initiation into hypnotic prose poetry writing is based on the Zimbabwean legendary liberation fighter from the 1890’s into the Chimurenga of the 1970’s. This novel is centred on fictionalising some central aspects of this world-renowned heroine. This novel was short-listed for the Commonwealth Prize of 1994. Without A Name (1994), is the most talked about of all Vera literature. Like Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Vera’s story is about a woman who travels across society, from one lover to another, in search of love, freedom and fulfilment. Her innocence is shattered much early in life when she is raped by a man in uniform. The touching moment in the text is when she kills her newly born baby and straps the corpse on her back and boards a bus back to her rural home. Under The Tongue (1996) marks the maturation of Vera’s style and maybe that is why it is considered as amongst her ‘difficult’ novels. It is generally a story of a child who has been raped by her father and who, as a result, loses her mother. There are suggestions that the mother kills the husband on discovering his crime and due to death or imprisonment, leaves the child (Zhizha) with her grandparents. This is a novel with a very haunting quality to it. It won the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, Best Book). Butterfly Burning (2000) is about a girl, Phephelapi, who meets an older man, Fumbatha, in Bulawayo during the 1940’s. Their relationship offers the girl a certain measure of comfort but her pregnancy shatters her desire to become a nurse. A resultant abortion ruins her relationship with her man. After her second pregnancy, she kills herself by dousing herself with paraffin and setting herself alight because again, the pregnancy is connected with her failure to join nursing. This excruciating novel highlights the plight of ambitious women in a colonial set-up. The Stone Virgins (2002) won Vera the Macmillan Prize for Africa in 2002. In 2006 it won the Aidoo/Snyder Prize, two years after its publication. Set in the outskirts of Bulawayo, this novel explores the trials and tribulations of very close sisters, Thenjiwe and Nonceba, during and just after the war of liberation. It opens up the effects of the counter warfare between government forces and dissidents on the lives of ordinary people. Ericah Gwetai should be commended both for her courage and ingenuity. It is interesting to note that she even studied some of her daughter’s books for her degree in English with the Zimbabwe Open University. On the other hand, Embracing The Cactus, Ericah Gwetai’s own novel leaves you with unprecedented questions in African literature; Is Ericah a better writer than her daughter, Yvonne Vera? Or, are there elements of Yvonne Vera style and thought in her mother’s novel? Or, is Ericah now writing her own story outside the Vera story? Embracing The Cactus makes you think as you read along…What happens when a married city man marries a second wife without the knowledge and consent of his people and that of his rural wife? Turmoil and tenacity. Such an experience is at the centre of Ericah’s novel. It is around 1950 and a train driver, Sabelo Moyo, meets Janet Gumede, a very beautiful Bulawayo nanny at Shangani railway station. They fall for each other instantly. Within a year, they get married. But Sabelo is already married to Immaculate with whom he has three children. Immaculate stays in Sabelo’s rural home not far from Bulawayo. Sabelo and Getrude are fully aware of what they are doing and are not prepared to follow tradition. When Immaculate eventually learns about it, she becomes bitter because tradition has not been followed. She has been taken for granted. The headman in Sabelo’s own village explains what should have happened: “Polygamy is part of our culture. There are, however, certain procedures and rituals to be followed and undertaken by a man who intends to take in a second wife. First… the man should send his sisters to inform his first wife about his intention… If she allows her husband to take another wife a ritual is performed… A goat is slaughtered and shared equally between the first wife and her rival. The goat symbolises the man that the women would share equally… the ritual is called ukuhlanganiswa meaning to be united with your rival.” Ill-luck strikes and Sabelo loses his job in Bulawayo. He has no choice but to take Janet and her soft urban children to face Immaculate and her rural children in the rural areas. A bitter turf war begins. Janet and her children are declared trespassers in Immaculate’s compound. Immaculate decides where they are going to be sheltered temporarily. They have to seek her clearance whenever they have visitors or want to have a family function. Immaculate decides that since she is Sabelo’s legitimate wife, she can have Sabelo in her bedroom six nights a week only allowing him to see Janet once a week. One day, Janet travels on the scotch cart from the bus stop with one of Immaculate’s sons. From nowhere, the boy rudely tells Getrude that she must get ready for him in the event that Sabelo dies or becomes invalid. Getrude is shocked and notices that the boy may actually rape her. She escapes into the bushes, calling for help. The boy pursues his father’s illegitimate wife. His mother has been saying many nasty things about this woman from the city. As they are doing that, Getrude tragically falls into a smouldering saw mill dump and is burnt severely. Subsequently, her legs have to be amputated. As if that is not enough, Getrude is rejected by her own daughter, Precious. Her complaint is: Mother, why did you marry father when you knew that she was married to another woman? Precious has a meeting with Immaculate just to say: I am sorry that our father went on to marry our mother, violating your own marriage. Precious sides with Immaculate, against her own mother. Eventually, she escapes to Australia where she becomes a nurse. And when there is turmoil in her family back home, she writes a letter clearly stating: GIVE ME A BREAK! This book is going to challenge all those readers and scholars who are into feminism, womanism and other related ideas. Tradition demands that women be respected and consulted in matters that involve them yet more often, we are told that it is tradition that oppresses women. However, readers must be warned that although Ericah Gwetai is mother to Yvonne Vera, she is her own woman. Here you do not find Yvonne’s intense prose poetry but a deeper and more amazing understanding of African cultural intricacies, rendered in a far simpler and unaffected prose. Her episodic chapters and very unpredictable plot constitute the Ericah Gwetai signature. However, the production of Embracing the Cactus is not impressive. On pages 2, 3, 5, 18, 114 and in so many other places, the paragraphing and annotation are not regular. One wonders if the editors and typesetters ignored the fact this book would definitely attract an international audience. The cover too was rather hastily done. If the artist was going for an abstract representation, then it was overdone. Not any abstract painting can smoothly transform into a useful picture for a book cover.

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