Yvonne Vera’s gardens

Tadiwa Madenga’s latest book offers us a biographical portrait of Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera written through her love of plants, gardens and nature.

Matopo National Park, Zimbabwe. Image credit Carine06 via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed.

Bulawayo is Zimbabwe’s second city, but it was once a dominant urban center with a network of railways and a flourishing industrial base. It is this city and its surroundings where Yvonne Vera set her award-winning fiction: six books published in a short burst between 1992 and 2002. She emerged as one of the great, idiosyncratic talents. The expansive landscape of Matabeleland was the canvas on which she imagined her fictional worlds that spanned back to the 19th century. In these fictions, we learn of Vera’s studious dedication to gardening and the natural world. But such an attachment to a place is a vexed and sometimes impossible experience.

In a newly published book, The Garden Letters of Yvonne Vera, Tadiwa Madenga gathered as much information as she could find about Vera’s gardens from an eclectic mix of sources: newspaper archives, biographies, interviews, as well as visits to and recordings of the places Vera lived and worked. It is a generous, small book. The book’s style is informed by the radical design ethos of the Chimurenganyana series, which is described as “a pavement literature project consisting of serialized monographs” that comprise “factions, essays, scores, interviews, linear notes, musical analysis, travel writing, personal impressions, political and social commentary.”

Though it’s a small book, the ingenuity of Madenga’s contribution to the series is that she offers us a biographical portrait of Yvonne Vera through her love of plants, gardens, and nature. Madenga’s book provides a richly emotional look at the inner life of a particularly introspective writer. It is a book that is personal and intimate, an original foray that opens new spaces in our reading and appreciation of Vera, beyond the tragic themes of her fiction. Altogether, it is a fascinating cornucopia. The question of what constitutes Vera’s gardens receives keen scrutiny and opens up the vistas of Vera’s imagination. 

For Vera, the garden was both a discursive and material space. She did not confine herself just to the domesticity of the back garden or front garden but often drove to Khami or Matopos to be in nature, to meditate. Vera’s refusal of the formal garden, an inheritance from colonialism, led her to embrace the wide swaths of landscapes in Matabeleland, physically, spiritually, and imaginatively. Throughout her life, Vera found not only solace but literary inspiration in Matabeleland. There is no doubt Vera was a writer of place and space. 

As Madenga observes, Vera’s garden letters reveal an unruly side. Vera wrote “the letters with a different DNA than that of her novels, more abrupt, less precise, less Godly. The bareness of the joy makes reading feel like trespassing on private property.” Despite the carefully welded prose of her fiction, Vera’s garden writing defies the writer’s desire for a prescribed form and shape. The fact that many of Vera’s garden letters were originally published in newspapers and not lifestyle magazines also demonstrates her rejection of the classed dimensions of this genre. Vera constantly returns to the garden in both her fiction and nonfiction, because it is a site that has historically refused the boundaries between physical and textual space.

Historically, Bulawayo was imagined as a paradise built on the ruins of King Lobengula’s kingdom. Cecil John Rhodes and his friends marveled at the beauty of the Matabeleland landscape and imagined a city in the wilds. They pictured a highly developed town surrounded by parks, flowers, and charming scenery. Rhodes desired that Bulawayo “be surrounded by parklands so that its people would never have far to walk to reach open country.”

The garden is an architectural fixture of the postcolonial Zimbabwean suburban home. It is not for everyone though. A well-tended garden signals wealth and extra space. It is an aesthetic expression of good living. This contrasts with the patch in township neighborhoods often called the vegetable garden, whose worth lies in utility rather than beauty. Vera’s homes, which form the basis of this book, are located in Famona and Hillside, Bulawayo suburbs that have larger yards and gardens.

Madenga’s curation leads us through these gardens; she offers us mystery and meaning, secrets and surprises, grief and glory. It is not meant to be a tidy book. Using collage, Madenga is able to bring disparate elements together, to make unexpected connections. We engage with Vera in a new way, not just as the writer of unspeakable taboos about generations of black African women. Vera, as we know from her fiction, invented enormously lovable but tragic female characters, all victims of or dealing with rape, infanticide, abortion, suicide, and murder. These characters emerge from this pastoral paradise that their author inhabits. 

The Garden Letters of Yvonne Vera is a book to be savored; sketching out a writer’s history with place, its text is as lively and informative as its subject is absorbing. Madenga successfully explores the affinity between texts and gardens. She shows us that gardens are among the most evanescent of our arts, because life is ephemeral; we are in eternal transit. As the South African poet Athambile Masola writes, with gardening we learn “to love beauty with the possibility of loss.”  

The archives of Vera’s garden writing opens us to a world we sometimes overlook because we’re easily distracted by politics. This small book also reminds us that the garden is largely absent from contemporary Zimbabwean poetry and fiction, perhaps because we’ve tended to consider the postcolonial garden a social privilege, born of class and money. In fact, the garden is a neglected setting in the wide-ranging corpus of African poetry and fiction as well, and the reason may have something to do with historical and sociopolitical factors. It boggles the mind, because the garden is no longer an exclusive preserve of successful whiteness. It has come to have multiple symbolic resonances, especially today, as we reckon with an impending climate disaster. 

Ultimately, we never fully see any of Vera’s gardens, because as Jamaica Kincaid once said, “I shall never have the garden I have in mind, but that for me is the joy of it; certain things can never be realized and so all the more reason to attempt them. A garden, no matter how good it is, must never completely satisfy.”

Further Reading