SAR, Vol 13 No 4, August 1998
UNDER THE TONGUE
A NEW NOVEL FROM ZIMBABWE
A REVIEW BY JULIE CAIRNIE
Julie Cairnie, whose doctoral thesis is titled `Imperialists in Broken Boots': Poor Whites and Philanthropy in Southern African Life Writing, studies in the English Department at Toronto's York University.
Yvonne Vera. Under the Tongue. Harare: Baobab Books, 1996. 113 pp. ISBN 0-908311-93-1
In October 1997 I travelled by bus from Johannesburg, where I was doing doctoral research, to Bulawayo, where I would visit an old friend from university. This would be my first time in Zimbabwe since 1989, when I taught English in Mutorashanga, a chrome mining community north of Harare. It would also be the first time I had seen Yvonne Vera since she left Canada in 1995. Yvonne is currently director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo and, most recently, recipient of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book in the Africa Region. The book which won her such acclaim is Under the Tongue, her fourth and most compelling book to date. I looked forward to reaching my destination, to hearing Yvonne's reflections on these exciting changes in her life. Little did I know that the bus journey would be not only a memorable experience in itself, but that it would prepare me to read Yvonne's innovative and daring book.
The bus passengers were a microcosm of Southern African society in the 1990s: there were two white women, a mother and a daughter, anxious to return home in time to join their bridge club; a migrant worker and his family from Durban following the promise of a job in the mines across the border; several Zimbabweans returning from shopping trips in South Africa; a few South Africans en route to Victoria Falls; and me, a foreign scholar doing research in Southern Africa. While we were a diverse group (a diversity highlighted when we laughed during different segments of "Adam's Family Values," the film our hostess played for our entertainment), I was struck by our comraderie when confronted with border bureaucracy, and, especially, by the depth of some of our conversations.
As soon as I sat down a solitary man from Kimberley, on his way to the Falls, tapped me on the shoulder. "Are you a tourist?," he inquired. I replied that I was travelling to Bulawayo to visit a friend and that I was in the region doing research for my dissertation on Southern African literature. "Ah," he exclaimed, "I prefer literature to fiction." Intrigued, I asked him to explain the difference. He told me that "literature encourages you to think; fiction doesn't expect you to think at all." While his distinction seemed somewhat elitist (he used canonical European texts as examples of literature), his emphasis on thinking, with the expectation of intellectual and emotional effort on the part of the reader, resonated when I came to read Under the Tongue. But that was still in the future.
After fifteen hours of travel and border inspection, we finally arrived in Bulawayo. I remembered, then, the wide avenues and blooming jacarandas which characterize that small, neat city. I remembered, too, Yvonne's penchant for striking colours when I spotted her at the bus stop, dressed in vibrant pinks and purples. Her hair was different: she now wears it in dreads - particularly unusual for a woman in sleepy, conservative Bulawayo. Our greeting was prolonged, the greeting of friends eager to communicate a two years' absence. Over the next few days Yvonne took me to places that meant a great deal to her: the gallery where she works, Matopos, and, perhaps most importantly, her grandmother's house in the township. Yvonne is close to her grandmother, and I appreciated the depth of her gesture to bring us together. Neither of us spoke the other's language, but we managed to communicate through Yvonne. Relationships - chosen and familial, and especially between women - are central to Yvonne's life and to her most recent novel.
Under the Tongue is the story of how young Zhivzha finds her voice and reckons with her past. The plot is simple: Zhizha is reticent, until her grandmother's love and compassion enables her to divulge that she has been raped by her father. The book conveys emotional depth rather than action, and this is largely what makes it such a challenging read. The reader is invited to immerse herself in Zhizha's emotional experience, an unpleasant immersion given that Zhizha is struggling towards an articulation of her rape. At least one critic has expressed anger towards the writer for drawing him into such a horror story. There is no room for readerly passivity or objectivity in Under the Tongue; complete emotional involvement is required. The grandmother, however, provides balance, helps Zhizha, and the reader, cope with the horrifying discovery of incest. Zhizha learns that she is not alone.
Relationships between women are presented as healing relationships, while relationships between women and men are often abusive. Zhizha is not the only victim of male violence: grandmother is cruelly taunted by grandfather for failing to produce a healthy male child and Zhizha's mother is imprisoned for murdering her daughter's rapist. The book proposes that language and communication facilitate healing from such violence. It revises Freud's "talking therapy" to include reciprocality, particularly between women: grandmother, for example, tells her life story to enable Zhizha to tell her own life story. Furthermore, this healing is not solely personal, but political as well. In the end, the reader learns, Zhizha's abuse occurred at the moment of Zimbabwe's Independence from Britain. There is an implicit correspondence between a broken personal promise, the implicit promise that a parent will care for a child, and a broken political promise, the promise of something better after the demise of the colonial regime.
While making its own unique contribution, Under the Tongue fits into a pattern of Zimbabwean writing. It is tempting to draw comparisons between Yvonne's novel and Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions. Both are written by young, educated Zimbabwean women, and both focus on the psychology of young women in a transitional period, personal and political. Yvonne, however, eschews the conventions of realism in favour of the subtlety of lyricism. Although Zhizha moves towards voice, that voice is cracked, fissured; there is, the book makes clear, no way of matching exactly the experience of incest to language. In this respect, Under the Tongue most closely resembles the works of Dambudzo Marechera. Marechera, who died in 1987, defies authority in his writing - the authority of realism, the authority of political regimes. And, like Yvonne, he challenges taboos, quite often sexual taboos. The difference, however, is that Yvonne is primarily concerned with women - throughout her oeuvre - and is far more interested in establishing community, in being responsible to a community of readers, than the disturbingly solipsistic Marechera.
Under the Tongue redefines relationships - between grandmother and granddaughter, between writer and reader - to include reciprocality, exchange. Many readers of the book describe the experience of being pulled in, of being forced into a relationship with Zhizha and her grandmother. This experience mirrors Zhizha's own experience of finding her voice with the help of her grandmother. The writer manages to make readers think, to process emotional and intellectual experience, a requisite for (good) literature according to the man on the bus. Yvonne does not speak exclusively to an educated audience, but she does have high expectations for her readers. They, like Zhizha, have to work hard to discover meaning in relationships, in language, and in broken promises. And, again like Zhizha, Yvonne finds her own voice in Under the Tongue, a voice which promises to be with readers of Southern African literature for a long time.
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