31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 31: “Crossing Boundaries” by Yvonne Vera

May 31, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals

Why_Don't_You_Carve_Other_AnimalsDescribed by The Independent as “the greatest writer of the post-independence era in Zimbabwe,” and the “most consistently productive among Zimbabwean authors in English,” Yvonne Vera died in Toronto in 2005 at the age of forty. Born in what was at the time South Rhodesia, Vera had returned to Toronto, where in the 1990s she acquired a doctorate at York University, to undergo medical treatment for the meningitis that ultimately claimed her life. Vera’s five novels and one story collection are mainstays on post-colonial studies reading lists, and she is remarkably consistent in her themes: the asymmetrical power dynamics, both racial and gendered, in Zimbabwe during and after decolonization.

“Crossing Boundaries,” the first (and longest) story in her 1992 collection Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals, is somewhat atypical in that it features a pair of white characters in among the black “natives,” though as Anna-Leena Toivanen admits, the whites in the story are “admittedly rather caricatured.” The pair are colonial settlers: Charles, the landowner, and his wife, Nora.

In the story’s opening scene, James, one of the native “squatters” on the settlers’ land, has come on behalf of his brother to ask Nora for more land to farm. This scene is instructive, both for the way it is constructed and for the way it illustrates Vera’s thematic preoccupations. From the opening line of the story, Vera employs a lyrical approach that relies on metaphor and imagery, but note how the comparison evokes violence right from the outset: “James spoke as if opening a wound, cautiously and painfully.” Without context or setup, this sentence immediately has the reader on guard, fretful as to the specific subject of this interchange. Further on in the paragraph, thunder sounds, thusly: “A whip cracked above, wrapping painfully around their exiled souls.” Here again is an image of physical anguish, and one that at least implies the notion of corporal punishment meted out by whites on black slaves in American history.

At this point, of course, we still do not have any understanding of who these two people are, other than the fact that one of them is called James. It soon becomes apparent that even this is not as clear-cut as it might seem: James is not the man’s birth name (or, as Vera puts it in the story, his “native” name), but rather a name that Nora has bestowed upon him because she finds his real name too difficult to pronounce:

She had named him James. She claimed “James” was easier on her tongue than his native name, which she did not try to learn or understand. He held his old name between his lips whenever he encountered his new name, and in this way he expressed a power and authority over his identity.

The ability to name someone is a key indicator of power and independence in many black cultures – this motif crops up in the work of Toni Morrison, as well – and the power that James cedes to Nora by allowing her to change his name is significant. “Namelessness was what she gained for him by her alienating manner of identification.” This namelessness is literal in Vera’s story, since readers are never told what James’s original name is. We, too, know him only by the name the white settler woman has chosen for him.

The other significant matter is that James makes his petition to Nora and not Charles. He does this because he is more confident of a receiving a favourable response from her, even though it is technically not her land to give. There are several shifting layers of power dynamics at work here: black and white, male and female, colonizer and colonized.

The story’s opening scene is canny in the elliptical way it unfolds: James is hesitant and humble in his approach to Nora, fearful of the “proposal” he has for her. Nora is pictured taking refuge behind a piano, which she uses “to protect herself against him.” The fear and hesitation, along with the explicit use of the word “proposal,” initially puts the reader in mind of a nervous suitor hesitantly proposing marriage. That, of course, would imply a relationship that, should the proposal be accepted, meant that man and woman were social equals (in theory, at least: Vera is a feminist writer, who has much to say about the gendered nature of power, especially in Zimbabwean culture).

However, James is not there to propose marriage, but to ask that his brother be allowed to farm a portion of the white settlers’ fallow land. The humility with which he makes his approach indicates a distinct power imbalance, one that strikes even him as incorrect: “Why was it necessary for him to be humble, to beg, to ask for something that perhaps belonged to him?” James’s family live as squatters on the colonials’ property; they pay no taxes, but act as manual labourers for Charles. When the white settlers took over the land, the native inhabitants were given a choice to either leave or stay on in what amounts to indentured servitude. James’s family, including his aged, invalid father, chose the latter. It is telling that Vera refers to both classes of blacks as “exiles.”

This is a word she also uses to describe Nora, who detests the African heat, and dreams of returning to England. But Charles remains committed to the cause of colonialism, to bringing English civility and efficiency to the country and its people:

Charles clung to his dry contempt of the natives, whom he separated from the land itself.

“If given the land, the natives would not even know how to use it.”

The irony here is thick. Charles expresses contempt for the country’s natives and their putative inability to live off of the land he himself is responsible for ejecting them from. That the black population had been doing just fine prior to the English arrival never seems to cross his mind.

In the background of Vera’s story are repeated references to a “bush war” that is being waged by native factions, a rebellion that will ultimately result in decolonization and, in the fullness of time, the rise of the Mugabe regime. This is a matter for another day, and indeed, Vera became a passionate critic of Mugabe’s government. “Crossing Boundaries,” however, focuses on the inequalities and irrationalities inherent in the colonial mindset. It is a fitting introduction to a writer who is not nearly as well known in her adopted country of Canada as she should be.

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