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Yvonne Vera: Butterfly Burning

The time is 1946. The butterfly of the title is Phephelaphi, a free-spirited young woman who witnesses the murder of her mother by her lover, a white police officer. She is mystified by the event and the aftermath. However, she soon meets Fumbatha, a much older man, who is immediately smitten by her and they move in together. But Phephelaphi is an independent woman and is not content with being the docile wife but wants to be the colourful butterfly. She becomes the first African woman accepted as a trainee nurse at the local hospital. However, they do not allow pregnant women so when she becomes pregnant she gets rid of the child. Fumbatha knows but, initially, keeps quiet but turns to Deliwe to comfort him. Eventually, he feels obliged to shatter Phephelaphi’s dreams and tells her about her origins (the woman she thought was her mother was not but brought her up, as her real mother did not want her around when she entertained her men friends.) Her dreams of her mother and her dreams of another life shattered, she heads for the flames.

Vera has a superb command of the language she uses – a poetical language to describe the colourful but naïve butterfly. She uses this language to convey the story of a free-spirited woman who is trapped – trapped by her own past, trapped by the close-knit society in which she is born and in which she lives, where everything is known and everything is controlled and, finally, trapped by the fact that she is a black woman in what is still a white man’s world. Phephelaphi initially has the strength but is unable to overcome all of these negatives except in the flames of her death.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Baobab Books, Harare