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Butterfly Burning

Butterfly Burning

4.8 6
by Yvonne Vera

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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


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.

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.\

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.37(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 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 tearing and 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 motionof 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 easy ease 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 dosing; 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.


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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