WOMEN OF LETTERS Society

Near the bone

Yvonne Vera

Yvonne Vera

In a short, lyrical essay titled ‘Writing Near the Bone’, the late Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera (1964-2005) describes her childhood years spent at her grandmother’s, her initiation into writing and her discovery that the body could be a magical writing surface:

“Using the edges of my fingernails or pieces of dry grass broken from my grandmother’s broom, I would start to write on my legs. I would write on my small thighs but this surface was soft and the words would vanish and not stay for long, but it felt different to write there, a sharp and ticklish sensation which made us laugh and feel as though we had placed the words in a hidden place.”

Her playmates and she, says Yvonne, learnt to write “near the bone”, “deep into the skin” and “under skin where the words could not escape”. Since they often used pieces of dry bark as pens, they sometimes bled in dots as they drew their bodies and the bodies of their grandmothers amidst the letters. “This was bleeding,” says Yvonne, “not writing”. When you read Yvonne’s fiction and set about joining the dots, you conclude that “bleeding” is the most appropriate verb to describe what she is doing.

Pain is a given

For Yvonne does not write about easy things. Nor is her writing style easy or picture book pretty. Pain is a given. Bleeding underwrites every word. Yvonne’s is visceral writing, writing which has the texture of bold organicity and makes the leap into that strange place in which subjective truth resides.

Born and raised in the 1970s in a Rhodesia rife with guerrilla warfare, Yvonne was acutely aware of the heavy price that her fellow country women paid for freedom, the unspeakable brutalities they were left to process. Yvonne chose to look the unspeakable in the eye and to write about it in prose that bleeds but is also filled with light and lyricism.

As I read her novella,  Without a Name, I had to remind myself to breathe. For Yvonne writes trauma, the emotional, imaginative truth of it, in much the same way she wrote on her body as a child — near the bone. Mazvita, the protagonist of the novella, flees her war-torn village after being raped by a soldier. In her desperate attempts to put some distance between herself and her past, she lives for a while with her lover Nyenyedzi, dreaming all the while of an escape into the city. Mazvita arrives in Harari where she has an affair with another man, Joel, before discovering that she is pregnant. But Joel refuses to take responsibility for the baby. The novella ends with the murder of the infant by Mazvita.

Erecting fences

Reading  Without a Name is best described as a slow walk through sludge. We live the nightmare that is Mazvita’s life, see the ways in which her body quite literally keeps the score. This is a master class on writing the trauma specific to women’s bodies. The continuous, stream of consciousness prose locks us into the story:

“Mazvita closed her eyes and saw the dust all over the woman’s face. The woman had returned from the window to her seat. The woman followed Mazvita into her dream, into the place she chose to hide. Mazvita could not keep the woman from following her. She remembered the soldier she had seen through the window. The soldier must have shot this woman, because he had stood on just this side of the road. No. The woman was still living. It was only that she, Mazvita, had closed her eyes to keep the woman away. There had been no soldier on the side of the road yet Mazvita remembered that the soldier had held a gun. Where had she met the soldier, then? Mazvita felt a dizzying and painful motion stir inside her, with her memory. She folded her chest and felt the baby shift on her back.”

Unlike most women writers whose writing lives tend to be discontinuous, Yvonne gave herself permission to follow her train of thought, to erect fences around her time so she could write without interruption. In an obituary in  The Guardian, Helon Habila describes how obsessive Yvonne was in her writing habit, how she compared time away from writing to “a period of fasting”, how she spoke of being ready to sacrifice her closest relationships at the altar of writing. Indeed,  Without a Name could only have been written in the throes of an uncompromising obsessiveness by a woman who knew just how to erect fences.

K. Srilata is a writer and independent scholar who is currently writing verse that re-imagines the  Mahabharata.


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Printable version | Jun 23, 2022 5:03:00 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/society/yvonne-veras-work-is-a-master-class-on-writing-the-trauma-specific-to-womens-bodies/article65362696.ece