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The Nation and the Subaltern in Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning

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Abstract:

Yvonne Vera’s death in 2005 brought to a tragic close the career of one of Zimbabwe’s, indeed Africa’s, more engaging contemporary writers. But her powerful novel, Butterfly Burning continues to mirror an aspect of Vera’s enduring concern: the place of African women in the context of power both within the colonial and the postcolonial moments. This image of the “woman in shadows” also resonates in the kernel of the subaltern subject in Spivak’s essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” I draw from Spivak’s canonical essay, but simply as a critique of its notion of the burdened subjectivity of the colonized reified in the widow’s self-immolation, and seen as a problematic condition of representation—a form of impotent silence. In contrast, I suggest that Vera’s Phephelaphi directs our attention by a votive suicide that speaks. This essay thus proceeds from a re-reading of the discourse of subalternity to situate Yvonne Vera’s novel as an act primarily of resistance against the situation of patriarchal enclosure under colonialism.

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