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Author: Jessica Hemmings
The Voice of Cloth explores the presence and purpose of cloth as metaphor, structure, and object in the fiction of late Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera.
Throughout this research, the production and consumption of cloth are understood to represent domestic graphologies, a term coined by Vera in her own Ph.D. work which refers to communication that goes unnoticed by conventional discourse because of the domestic, and therefore seemingly inconsequential, materials appropriated to convey information.
Here this often overlooked element of narrative and life - the textile - is shown to play a central role in the articulation of the often silenced experiences of incest, infanticide, abortion, and rape that make up the narratives of Nehanda (1993), Without a Name (1994), Under the Tongue (1996), Butterfly Burning (1998) and the Stone Virgins (2002).
Dr Jessica Hemmings holds a BFA (Honors) in Textile Design from the Rhode Island School of Design, an MA in Comparative Literature (Distinction) from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and wrote her Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh.
Jessica is a Contributing Editor to Selvedge, Tu tu re Materials and Modern Carpets and Textiles magazines and is author of numerous articles and reviews which explore textile theory and postcolonial literature.
She has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design, Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design and is currently a Reader in Textile Culture at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.
The voice of cloth in literature first came to my attention a decade ago when, as a student of textile design, I began to notice the presence of textiles in the literature I was reading. Rather than accept this as coincidence, I began to consider why textiles are a recurring component of narrative.
The presence of textiles in literature is not limited to an era or region, nor for that matter do textiles function with a single purpose in fiction. Textiles offer authors an incredible breadth of tools to deploy, just as they operate in life as objects with a multiplicity of functions.
In Yvonne Vera's preface to Opening Spaces: An Anthology of Contemporary African Women's Writing she states, "A woman writer must have an imagination that is plain stubborn, that can invent new gods and banish ineffectual ones" (1991:1). The voice of cloth in Vera's fiction is, in some small way, evidence of my stubborn imagination which reads the textile as central to all of her published fiction.
Vera's use of the textile is as imaginative as it is selective in its construction of a literary voice worthy of the burdens she asks her fiction to carry. It is my hope that this research suggests new ways of reading her fiction, which are as creative as her own approach to the writing of fiction.
Born in Bulawayo in 1964, Vera was educated in Canada and wrote in English. She died in 2005. Each of her published works of fiction is set in either colonial Rhodesia or the independent nation of Zimbabwe. Her writing disrupts the conventional form of the novel through the rejection of linear plots, consistent symbols or conventional resolutions to the narrative.
This reworking of the novel inspired the editors of a collection of essays on her fiction, Robert Muponde and Mandivavarira Maodzwa-Taruvinga, to entitle the collection Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera. Vera's innovative relationship to the written word is poetic fiction, all the more so when considering the beauty and sensitivity she brings to the contentious topics she has chosen to tackle.
The denial and silence with which rape, incest, infanticide and abortion are handled, not just in Zimbabwe, but around the world, requires the creation of new approaches and new voices. The textile is in an ideal position to begin such articulations.
As a postcolonial author Vera appropriates structures and metaphors useful to her writing, such as the novel and the textile, while feeling equally at ease with the rejection of previous patterns of use. Due to the consistent appearance of the textile across Vera's fiction, and because narratives share themes, this research is organised the-matically, rather than chronologically or by individual texts.
This approach echoes the very structures Vera has created in each narrative, which place little credence in the power of linear chronology and instead encourage a fluid and shifting understanding of the weight of the written word. Vera's fiction is systematic in its confrontation of violence against the female body and this research pays particular attention to the manner in which Vera addresses these crimes.
While often set in the context of national or cultural upheaval, these crimes are none the less rendered entirely individual experiences unique to each woman who endures them. This approach offers a sense of specificity, and with it a vital sense of respect, for the victims of crimes that are too horrifying in their intimacy to generalise.
Nehanda (1993) retells the life and death of a female spirit medium, Without a Name (1994) is a story of infanticide, Under the Tongue (1996) examines the subject of incest, Butterfly Burning (1998) depicts the main character's self-induced abortion and The Stone Virgins (2002) tells of the violent rape and mutilation of two sisters.
Vera's brave confrontation of crimes that have long been considered too intimate or difficult to discuss presents us with a desperately needed step towards breaking the culturally and individually imposed silence that so often smothers discussion of such topics. Vera demands new strengths and powers of the written word, which is denied a static role and forced it into dynamic, if unconventional, positions in an effort to articulate both the depths and complexities of her chosen topics.
After the publication of a collection of short stories entitled Why Don't You Carve Other Animals in 1992, Vera published Nehanda the following year. Nehanda retells the life and death of the female spirit medium, borrowing from oral myth and inserting new fictional elements. Nehanda is an example of a postcolonial narrative that reworks myth through Vera's own distinctive relationship to language and history.
Oral tradition tells us that along with Kaguvi, a male leader and warrior, the female spirit medium of Nehanda inspired an uprising against British colonial rule in what was Rhodesia. Vera's rejection of Nehanda's execution by the British offers the most overt parting of fact from belief.
While it is accepted that the British were successful in their execution of both the bodies of Nehanda and Kaguvi, myth purports that the female spirit medium of Nehanda overcame her execution by departing from her human body before the moment of corporeal death. Death as a form of empowerment, or at least metaphor rather than final ending, is a theme that recurs throughout Vera's writing.
In 1994, Vera published Without a Name, a story set in 1977 that cycles between the rural landscape of Mubaira and the urban setting of Harari.1 The main character, Mazvita, is both economically and emotionally unable to raise her infant child alone and commits infanticide. Her decision is motivated by several factors. Joel, her partner at the time, rejects her pregnancy because he is unlikely to be the father.
This rejection, along with the difficulties she has experienced finding work in Harari leave her with little economic independence. The man likely to be the child's father, Nyenyedzi, remains on the rural tobacco farm where he works, unaware of Mazvita's pregnancy. While Mazvita's departure from Nyenyedzi is described as a search for the opportunities she believes the city will offer, her desire to leave the rural setting is also motivated by her experience of rape - described early in the narrative.
Mazvita does not reveal this violation to Nyenyedzi or Joel, but the experience causes her to distrust the land and, in particular, the inequality of men and women on the land. Without a Name is organised so that the chapters shift between rural and urban settings, fragmenting narrative sequence and location to reveal the act of infanticide only after the reader has been made aware of the difficult circumstances under which Mazvita is living.
Under the Tongue, published in 1996, tackles the equally difficult topic of incest. Like Without a Name before it, the story is set in the late 1970s before Zimbabwe's independence in 1980. The narrative traces Zhizha's struggle to find a voice capable of expressing the violation she has endured from Muroyiwa, her father and perpetrator of the crime. His wife, Runyararo, is jailed for his murder, a crime she commits after learning of the violence he has inflicted upon their daughter.
While Runyararo is in jail, Zhizha lives with her maternal grandparents and learns of the burdens and sorrows her Grandmother has also endured. As occurs in Without a Name, the experience of incest is not clearly revealed until the end of the narrative, although references to the act are made throughout. Zhizha's story is, perhaps, Vera's most overt example of the main character's search for a voice capable of exposing the horrors she has experienced.
Published in 1998, Butterfly Burning also centres on an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, although in this case, the man with whom the main character, Phephelaphi, is living is the father of the child and does not support her decision to terminate the pregnancy. Set in Makokoba in the late 1940s, Phephelaphi dreams of becoming a nurse, a future she knows is not possible when she realises that she is pregnant. Phephelaphi's own life is the result of an accidental and unwanted pregnancy.
The character that she understands to be her mother, Gertrude, is in fact her mother's friend, a woman who takes the child and raises it as her own. She spends her childhood living with Zandile after her "mother" is murdered, only later learning that Zandile was in fact her biological mother.
Phephelaphi's relationship with Fumbatha, a man much older than herself, fulfils Fumbatha but leaves Phephelaphi craving more from life. After aborting her pregnancy, she falls pregnant a second time, and in the final moments of the book immolates herself. [...]