Saturday, February 4, 2012
Yvonne Vera: I laugh even when the roof is falling.
I came across a rare piece of work, the interview that Grace Mutandwa did with the late Writer, Yvonne Vera for the Financial Gazette in May 2002. Wonderful work, Grace! Some bits of it here:
Q: When was the first time you received a prize and what form did it take?
A: My first school prize was in Grade Seven when I was presented with a pair of scissors for the best needlework. The art of needlework often required the patience of good stitching. I still love the creativity of cutting, sewing, choosing fabrics for their emotion and mood. I love the smell of new fabric. When I look at someone, I try to understand what their mode of dress and fabric announces. Clothes have been the greatest adornment in most human societies, our language for courtship, relaxation, celebration and even grief. At that stage, I was overweight and when I went to the stage to get my prize others laughed at me.
Q: When you are not writing, how do you best describe yourself?
A: When I am not writing, which is most of the time… it is as though I am fasting. I am preparing myself. In other words, I no longer know what it is not to be consumed by writing. I anticipate sitting down with a story the way certain women anticipate lovers — with my breath held still, my knees shaking, a tidy room, a clean petticoat, and with no idea how the evening will turn out — in this case the book. I will have had enough intimacies to acquire a general sketch, a thrill and a confidence. It is the same with books as it is with lovers. If you cannot feel your whole body move towards a book, then you are mostly doodling, or being quite separate from the act of writing. I spend many months between books fasting. I am meditative and spend many hours on my own, with my hunger growing. I love writing; it is a feast for my senses. I write to share this feast with a reader.
Q: How long did it take you to get published and what was the title of your first book?
A: I had no great plan of being published really. I perhaps sent a story to a magazine in Toronto and was asked by the publisher if I had more stories. I said yes haphazardly, though I had none. He asked for them. Therefore I set off to write the rest! This was my collection of stories Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals? This was in Toronto of the early nineties.
However I was at that stage already moving back to Zimbabwe. My challenge was to throw out everything I had imagined myself to be, till then. I had discovered writing. I loved to write as much as I loved reading. As a reader of books, I had never matched the authors’ joy in writing to my own experience of reading; but it is equal. All those marvellous sensations that keep us glued to a book also belong to the author, and are even more magnified.
Q: How did this discovery feel?
A: To discover this was magical; writing was another way of reading. It was simply like turning over in bed. I still did not see myself as a writer, just someone who had discovered a private joy. I was twenty-seven. After my first novel Nehanda, my life changed dramatically. I felt a tremendous warmth for Zimbabwean writers and my country's literature. I was yet to learn what an enormous discipline writing requires. It is as vastly rewarding as it is demanding. It requires you to be still, to listen to each word as it wraps around a thought. I have to exist completely in another world for as long as it takes for the story to be told. I write for about nine to ten hours a day without disturbance, therefore I have to move from society in these times - telephones, the day's mail, meals, the price of milk. I fill the fridge with quick foods to last a long time - forty yoghurts, cheese and dry bread. I cook after four days perhaps and, like a caveman, salivate at the taste of a fried egg. I have fruit salads, which I prepare quickly in a 30-minute lunch break and slide back to my desk - my mind never wanders form the page. I respect what I am doing. I am willing to protect this creative moment and can give up friendships for it, even permanently. I have never regretted claiming this sort of space. Fortunately, generous and giving colleagues and family members surround me; I am even luckier in my friends who seem to understand too well my desires for solitude.
Q: How do people react when they see you for the first time and are some readers justified in assuming that your books are mostly about yourself?
A: Often people expect me to be taller. Someone walked up to me and said she had expected me to have wider shoulders! It is hard to smile in such situations. Sometimes the events I write about are believed to have happened to me. When people look at me as though I have just been raped, then it is hard to return that gaze with anything else but an impatience for the moment to pass. I also wonder if all the people who say these things have met me or if they are looking at a bad photograph in a magazine.
Q: When you laugh, you radiate the makings of a free spirit but why do you always relate such sad tales?
A: I learnt to laugh freely from my mother. She is a woman with vitality and much harmony in her bones. I watched her for years and only learnt this freedom from her in my thirties, after 1995. I do not laugh often, but with the right friends I do - like my best friend Mandi - we laugh even when the roof is falling. With over-confident people, bureaucratic men, gregarious administrators and government officers, or even a meticulous lover, prison walls spring up and I am trapped in my own body.