Butterfly Burning

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Overview

Butterfly Burning brings the brilliantly poetic voice of Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera to American readers for the first time. Set in Makokoba, a black township, in the late l940s, the novel is an intensely bittersweet love story. When Fumbatha, a construction worker, meets the much younger Phephelaphi, he"wants her like the land beneath his feet from which birth had severed him." He in turn fills her "with hope larger than memory." But Phephelaphi is not satisfied with their "one-room" love alone. The qualities ...

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Butterfly Burning: A Novel

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Overview

Butterfly Burning brings the brilliantly poetic voice of Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera to American readers for the first time. Set in Makokoba, a black township, in the late l940s, the novel is an intensely bittersweet love story. When Fumbatha, a construction worker, meets the much younger Phephelaphi, he"wants her like the land beneath his feet from which birth had severed him." He in turn fills her "with hope larger than memory." But Phephelaphi is not satisfied with their "one-room" love alone. The qualities that drew Fumbatha to her, her sense of independence and freedom, end up separating them. And the closely woven fabric of township life, where everyone knows everyone else, has a mesh too tight and too intricate to allow her to escape her circumstances on her own.

Vera exploits language to peel away the skin of public and private lives. In Butterfly Burning she captures the ebullience and the bitterness of township life, as well as the strength and courage of her unforgettable heroine.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Vera makes the novel new in Africa."—Mandivavarira Taruvinga, Independent Extra (Zimbabwe)

"From the oral poetic tradition comes a new young writer, and we hail this arrival as we do the raincloud in the heat of day . . . Butterfly Burning is as passionate, volatile, loving, terrible, clear and confusing as any novel could be."—Nikki Giovanni

"A remarkable novel . . . Keen, vivid. The author's political sense, her critique of colonialism, is intrinsic, never intrusive . . . Vera writes gracefully, depicting with extraordinary elegance the chaos and disorder of township life, the surreal conditions of existence imposed by colonial authority upon the residents."—Michelle Cliff, Village Voice Literary Supplement

"Written in lyrical, metaphor-laden, heavily symbolic prose, this mesmerizing first U. S. appearance of Vera's work is sure to garner attention."—Publishers Weekly

"A rare work of beauty, capturing the oft-tragic poetry of life in a black township in Rhodesia in the 1940s . . . Vera's phrasing and style [give this] story of love, longing, and betrayal a lyric quality . . . Readers of Isabel Allende, A. S. Byatt, or Toni Morrison will all enjoy this introduction to fine African literature. Highly recommended."—Ellen Flexman, Library Journal

"This author is an unflinching guide, and if you trust her to take you off-road, she'll show you an exquisite piece of unmapped landscape."—Anderson Tepper, Time Out (New York)

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the 1940s, the choices for women in British-ruled Zimbabwe were depressingly few, as Vera (thrice shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize-African region) illustrates in this slim scorcher. Beautiful, innocent Phephelaphi appears to middle-aged laborer Fumbatha as if in a dream, when she wades out of the river that winds through the black township of Makokoba. He immediately desires her "like the land beneath his feet from which birth had severed him." Her carefree spirit soon tires of his devoted love, however, which she cannot return, although she continues to live with him without the benefit of marriage. Before her mother's tragic murder, Phephelaphi was given a smattering of education, which she knows is the key to her freedom and to her self-realization. "She wanted more than obligation, not a fleeting excitement among male strangers with enticing tongues and a flirtatious oneness. She wanted a birth of her own." After gaining a coveted position at a local nursing school, however, Phephelaphi is grounded by the unthinkable: she learns she is pregnant and no longer eligible for the training course. A searing chapter describes an abortion Phephelaphi performs on herself, which changes the course of her still uncertain destiny. After learning of Phephelaphi's abortion, Fumbatha destroys what little is left of Phephelaphi's self-worth by admitting to adultery and shedding a tragic light on her own parentage. "Falling to pieces, easy, easier than she imagined. Much much easier than holding a man in your arms," she muses. Written in lyrical, metaphor-laden, heavily symbolic prose, this mesmerizing first U.S. appearance of Vera's work is sure to garner attention. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Zimbabwean Vera has received wide acclaim in her homeland but is relatively unknown in the United States, where her work has appeared in an anthology and through a small press. Her latest novel is a rare work of beauty, capturing the oft-tragic poetry of life in a black township of Rhodesia in the 1940s. Surrounded by poverty and oppression, where blacks are not even permitted to walk on the pavement, young Phephelaphi searches for her own freedom and fulfillment in spite of the love of Fumbatha, a construction worker more than twice her age. Vera's phrasing and style make mundane tasks like cutting tall grass or waiting for a train sing with a music all their own and give a simple story of love, longing, and betrayal a lyric quality. Readers of Isabel Allende, A.S. Byatt, or Toni Morrison will all enjoy this introduction to fine African literature. Highly recommended.--Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Anderson Tepper
...this author is an unflinching guide, and if you trust her to take you off-road, she'll show you an exquisite piece of unmapped landscape.
Time Out New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374291860
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/12/2000
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 650,386
  • Product dimensions: 5.51 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.47 (d)

Meet the Author

Yvonne Vera is one of Zimbabwe's best known authors. She was born in Bulawayo, where she now works as the director of the National Gallery. Her novels include Without a Name, and Under the Tongue, which recevied the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa region).

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Read an Excerpt

Butterfly Burning

one

There is a pause. An expectation.

They play a refrain on handmade guitars; lovers with tender shoulders and strong fists and cold embraces. Birds coo from slanting asbestos roofs. Butterflies break from disused Raleigh bicycle bells.

In the air is the sound of a sickle cutting grass along the roadside where black men bend their backs in the sun and hum a tune, and fume, and lullaby. They are clad in torn white shorts, short sleeves, with naked soles. The grass burns over their palms where they reach over and pull at it, then curve over the sickle and beyond, pull, inward, and edge the grass forward with the left palm. They bend it toward the left shoulder and away from the eyes. Sweat drips like honey over the firm length of the arms tearingand tugging and splitting the grass. Often they manage to pull the roots out of the ground; to free something; to conquer a stubbornness; to see what is below; to touch what keeps something alive and visible. Sharp rays of the sun drop along the sharp curve, and flow along the rotating glint of the silver sickle. The arm agile, the arm quick over the grass.

The tall grass sweeps across the length of their curved bodies, above their bowed shoulders, and throws a cascade of already dry seeds over their bare arms. The grass is a thin slippery tarnish as it waves smoothly. It sways away and again away in this current of heated air. There are seeds, light and flat, like tiny baked insects. Falling down, with their surfaces rough, flat. They waft into the thickness of grass.

Each motion of the arms, eyes, of the entire body is patiently guided. The palms are bleeding with the liquid from freshly squeezed grass. The brow is perpetually furrowed, constricted against this action, and against another, remembered; against regret for a possible inaction, and against each memory that dares not be understood. A silence, perhaps, or something near and anticipated but not yet done. There is waiting.

Their supple but unwilling arms turn, loop, and merge with the shiny tassels of the golden grass whose stems are still green, like newborn things, and held firmly to the earth. The movement of their arms is like weaving, as their arms thread through each thicket, and withdraw. This careful motion is patterned like a dance spreading out, each sequence rises like hope enacted and set free. Freed, stroke after stroke, holding briskly, and then a final whisper of release. The grass falls. Arm and arm and arm of it. It falls near and close to each curled body. The grass submits to the feet of the workers who step over it to arrive where the grass is high and stands defiant. They hug it indifferently, concerned only to keep its tassels from their eyes, spreading it away. With an easyease they escape the fine flutter of dry seeds raining downward. The men cut and pull. Cut and pull. They bend, cut, and pull. It is necessary to sing.

They cut and level the grass till the sun is a crusty and golden distance away and throws cool rays over their worn arms, and the sky dims, and everything is quiet except the spray of light breaking and darting between the grass tossing back and forth above their foreheads and above their eyes now filled with fatigue. The grass is swishing hopelessly below the shoulder, under the armpit, grazing the elbow, and its sound folds into a faint melody which dims with the slow dying of the sun, and each handful of grass becomes a violent silhouette: a stubborn shadow grasped.

The men twist the grass together and roll it into a large mass, stacks of it, and gather it into heavy mounds to be carried away the following day. Their bare soles grate against the stubble now dotting the ground, raised like needles, and where the grass is completely dried, turning to fierce thorns. The men, adapted to challenges more debilitating than these, discover welcoming crevices, empty patches where the grass has been completely uprooted and the soil turned to its cooler side. So they place their soles to safety, their heels to a mild earth. The work is not their own: it is summoned. The time is not theirs: it is seized. The ordeal is their own. They work again and again, and in unguarded moments of hunger and surprise, they mistake their fate for fortune.

As for healing, they have music, its curing harmony as sudden as it is sustained. It is swinging like heavy fruit on a low and loose branch, the fruit touching ground with every movement of the wind: they call it Kwela. It is a searing musical moment, swinging in and away, loud and small, lively, living. Within this music, they soar higher than clouds; sink deeper than stones in water. When the branch finally breaks and the fruit cracks its shell, the taste of the fruit is divine.

This is Kwela. Embracing choices that are already decided. Deciding which circumstance has been omitted and which set free, which one claimed, which one marked, branded, and owned. The beauty of eyelids closing; a hand closing; and a memory collapsing. Kwela means to climb into the waiting police Jeeps. This word alone has been fully adapted to do marvelous things. It can carry so much more than a word should be asked to carry; rejection, distaste, surrender, envy. And full desire.

Trust lovers to nurture hope till it festers. Always wounded by something—a word, a hope, a possibility. After all, they are the kind of people to get caught by barbed-wire fences. A part of them calcifies, dries, and falls off without anyone noticing or raising alarm.

Bulawayo is this kind of city and inside is Makokoba Township where Kwela seeks strand after strand of each harsh illusion and makes it new. Sidojiwe E2, the longest street in Makokoba, is fresh with all kinds of desperate wounds. Bulawayo, only fifty years old, has nothing to offer but surprise; being alive is a consolation.

Bulawayo is not a city for idleness. The idea is to live within the cracks. Unnoticed and unnoticeable, offering every service but with the capacity to vanish when the task required is accomplished. So the black people learn how to move through the city with speed and due attention, to bow their heads down and slide past walls, to walk without making the shadow more pronounced than the body or the body clearer than the shadow. It means leaning against some masking reality—they lean on walls, on lies, on music. One can always be swallowed by a song.

The people walk in the city without encroaching on the pavements from which they are banned. It is difficult, but they manage to crawl to their destination hidden by umbrellas and sun hats which are handed down to them for exactly this purpose, or which they discover, abandoned, at bus stations.

They understand something about limits and the desire that thisbuilds in the body. Their bodies long for flight, not surrender, simply the need to leap over the limit quickly and smoothly without bringing attention to oneself. This they do, often and well.

After all, they are the ones who keep the pavements clean and sweep the entire city. They have the duty by virtue of their own humility and obedience to pick up the white men fallen on the pavements while the door swings open, once more, from the smoke-filled taverns, and voices are heard briefly before the door swings back in. They help these men into an upright and respectable position, then lead them into solid black cars. Then they spit on the pavements and move on.

When they arrive back in Makokoba, Sidojiwe E2 is flooded with Kwela music. The feet feeling free. Hostilities too burdensome to give up. There is a search in the narrow gutters for passions and separations. The people smoke burned-out stubs and tone their fingernails with nicotine, and lovers mourn with joyful release. We do it together. This and that—fight, escape, surrender. The distinctions always unclear, the boundaries perpetually widening. Kwela music brings a symphony of understanding, then within that, other desperate confusions. Poverty prevails over innocence. In such times, a song is a respite.

Dying in your sleep. Not once, but several times. Fleeing from an image reflected from translucent shop windows. And then, again, sleep. Afterward, a brief resolve not to bend. Then saying yes.

Kwela strips you naked. Anything that reminds of pride can be forgotten in the emptiness introduced. A claim abandoned. A lover lost. It is the body addressed in its least of possible heights. A stone thrust. The knees down and the baton falls across the neck and shoulders. Kwela. Climb on. Move. Turn or twist or ... move. No pause is allowed, and no expectation of grace. Kwela. Cut, pull, bend. It is necessary to sing.

Then one chaotic evening the word is pulled back from the police Jeep by whoever is listening in sleep as a car tire digs along Sidojiwe E2.It is freedom and style and survival with no fear of flight or stagnation. This is the city and the pulse of possessing desire. Something that can be recovered, must be restored. Even if it may now be frayed or torn. It has to be put back somewhere where there could be a hint of belonging fastened on somebody. If not freedom then rhythm.

Patience is abandoned and something else witnessed: a raised eyelid; a handshake; fingers snapping. Then slow courtship under the tall trees which divide the houses from the red roofs of the police camps. These trees have been brought from faraway lands. They are the sort of trees which do not seem to need water, or when they do, send tentacles that burrow deep, no matter how hard the ground. With no regard whatsoever for the lack of pliable soil, or absent drops of edible rain.

Underneath these trees, the lovers stand forlorn in the cluster of large silver-and-white peelings which are curled among the thin pointed leaves now fallen, where forked roots break the earth. The dead leaves cling to their tinge of green, resisting their separation from the tree. A shell expands, dries. Pods explode and spread black rounded seeds to the ground. The seeds have hard surfaces, with gray veins.

So tall, these trees, firm and impossible. They look as though they have been built by hand to carry improper histories. A strong scent rises from the base of the tree, from the roots perhaps, like a fading dream. A beautiful, precious, remembered scent. Wafting and vanishing like a mist. The trees make the search for love good by their strong presence and brief odor. In the night—moonshine, words, a happy tune, fate, and distance are shared. The lovers bask in immaculate dreams. Kwela includes the harmonies one can name, and misname. There is night.

Kwela in daylight is incessantly bold. No parting or other phenomenon of rupture. Some fighting. A slap and a slash and more Kwela. Torn leather shoes rubbing against cement. Tar melting in the hot sun as though newly spread. The sanitary lane carries the secrecy and stenchwhich envelopes the waste of every character—wasted time, wasted love, wasted this and that.

Time flips like a tossed coin and in the luster and swinging surprise it is nothing on a single day to hear a thief leap over hedges on Sidojiwe E2 and by noon to listen to bicycle bells in the city center. There copper coins crash and jingle onto the pavement as they are swept out in the early hours of the morning from empty city taverns which have NO BLACKS signs, WHITES ONLY signs, and CLOSED signs which say OPEN on the flip side signs and dangle CLOSED from ornate door handles, and outside ...

There is music.

Copyright © 1998 by Yvonne Vera

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2014

    The gathering ( GET THIS MESSAGE TO YOUR LEADER!!!)

    Search ' wings of fire the lost heir' only result be there at 6:30 p.m. pacific.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2014

    Snowsun

    Dozes

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2014

    Swirlwind

    "May I join Burntclan" she asks.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2014

    BurntClan ///Camp\\\

    Scorchedstar

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2005

    awesome book

    A beautifully written book about colonialism and the alienating influence it has on people who lose touch with their roots as they try to adapt to the changing times. I enjoyed this rich, challenging and fascinating story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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