In my search for African continental writers who write in English, I realized that most of the authors typically emerge from Nigeria, Kenya, or South Africa. I’m guessing the heavy influence of the British Empire on these countries’ education system means more writers who are bilingual (or trilingual, even more likely) and who write novels in English. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover Yvonne Vera, from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. While I won’t be teaching Butterfly Burning this semester, it’s a short novel that I’ll be keeping in my queue for another class.
Butterfly Burning is an image-driven, memory oriented novel that focuses more on the construction of phrases and descriptions than it does on plot and character. The novel’s characters of emphasis are Fumbatha, a construction worker, and Phephelapi, a much younger woman with the ambition of becoming a nurse. Theirs is a story steeped in memory and imagination, until a tipping point that forces each of them to re-evaluate the choices they’ve made and the baggage they’ve each carried into their life together.
The novel is short but bursting with poetic images and phrases. You get a feel for the village and the history of Zimbabwe in the beautiful phrases and sentences that Vera strings together. The writing is gorgeous, but the plot and characters are not developed nearly as fully. It was hard to follow the story, and in some respects, harder to understand why the characters did what they did or said. I feel that Vera would be more interesting to read as poetry than a novel, but I would definitely teach this as an example of the workings of memory and imagination in fiction.