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nomorepotlucks » Literary Archives, Fictional Truths and Material(real)ities: The Yvonne Vera Project – Catherine Hobbs and Sarah Kastner

Literary Archives, Fictional Truths and Material(real)ities: The Yvonne Vera Project – Catherine Hobbs and Sarah Kastner

Photo by Ireen Dubel, Yvonne Vera Archives, 2012.

“Here, on his palm, the trace of a human being enraptured by the notion of flight.” (Obedience)

“However, they are not a people of returns. In this they are nomads. Their most supreme fear is confusing the gods. Not being inanimate objects, but brimming with contradictory impulses, they dare not adhere to a muteness however serene — in them such a satisfaction would be complacence, a suppression of futures, a type of forgetting. To remember, they must be away from the tangible forms they have created. Whom do they obey, and why is it so necessary?” (Obedience)


Catherine Hobbs: Hi, Sarah. It’s great to get together to talk with you now that the final push for your thesis is over. This seems like a good time for us to exchange thoughts on the Yvonne Vera project and the challenges and ironies of working with literary archives. I have long tried to bridge between literary scholarship and archival scholarship. For me, being second reader on your thesis is the perfect conflagration of many elements I have seen developing in literary study and in archives in recent years.

SK: Well, Catherine, it was such a pleasure to have you on my thesis committee; and I agree that it is really wonderful to have a chance to talk again about the many threads that we began to weave together during the last year.

CH: Before we get ahead of ourselves, maybe you’ll outline Yvonne Vera for us so that the context of this project can be clear for readers? I think it’s clear for us that our discussion and your thesis are a response to Vera’s powerful writing and to her personal situation.

SK: Yes, I think that’s important. The first time I heard about Yvonne Vera was when I read her obituary in the Globe and Mail. I had cut the clipping out to put on the fridge to remind myself to read her works, and to show my partner, who I knew would be especially saddened to hear of her death, since he is both Zimbabwean and an artist. Not only was Vera an accomplished writer, she was also a strong advocate of the arts both in Canada and Zimbabwe, and she acted as director of the National Gallery in Zimbabwe for a number of years.

Vera was only forty years old when she passed away. She was at the height of her career after a ten-year period when she published five novels and one collection of short stories, and she completed a Masters and PhD at York University. She was working on a sixth novel, Obedience, at the time of her death in 2005. Vera left an indelible mark on African literature, winning a slew of international awards, including the Macmillan writer’s prize for Africa, for The Stone Virgins in 2002, and the 1997 Commonwealth writer’s prize for best novel, Africa region, for Under The Tongue. It was just one year after Vera was awarded the highly prestigious Tucholski prize by Swedish PEN (2004) for “a corpus of works dealing with a taboo subjects” that she passed away in a Toronto hospital.

Five years later, Trent University was offered the chance to house Vera’s personal papers for a period of ten years. Lucky me, I was asked if I would take this project on as a Masters thesis in the Public Texts English graduate program. I would determine fonds, identify and describe each item as found in the archive, create a preliminary file list of those items in a spreadsheet, and write archival notes interpreting the custodial and creative history of each fonds.[1] During the project, I interviewed key persons about the archives’ creation to provide a context for the archives and to draw attention to the ways that Vera’s memory was being shaped by the archival process. In addition, I wrote a thesis that engaged archival theory and the particular resonances and challenges posed by the Vera archives.

From the beginning of the project it was clear that the circumstances of Vera’s death would figure substantially in the archive, particularly in its inclusions and exclusions. Canadian news coverage revealed that she had been living with HIV, a fact that she had not disclosed during her lifetime. The news that she had died of AIDS-related meningitis shocked the world, and as detailed in the archival material, writers and activists from around the world who work with HIV/AIDS issues were faced with complex questions about her decision to stay silent.

Since I could not speak directly with Vera about her papers and the issues of disclosure that arose during the archival process, I relied on Vera’s literary executor and dear friend, Mary Polito, and Vera’s ex-husband and long-time close friend, John José, to help me navigate and interpret the papers. While José explained that none of the material was intended or envisioned as an archive, he also helped me to understand its context and his effect on Vera’s record-keeping activities at various stages of her life. He informed me about some documents that he and Vera had created together, like their wedding album, and others that began as collaborative projects but that shifted as time went by. For instance, they began collecting newspaper clippings and reviews in a black scrapbook during the early, exciting days of Vera’s success, but this activity lessened as “time went on (and) success became routine and notices more numerous and we grew less thorough” (Kastner, 6).  Elsewhere, he explained the ways in which he saw his approach to texts as different from Vera’s, saying that he liked “to read from a detached perspective, with road maps and binoculars in hand, so to speak; while she (Vera) writes from the tumult of no man’s land, where nothing is quite in focus and the senses cannot cope” (Petal Thoughts, 80). These insights helped me to identify José’s role as a creator and collaborator of the documents in the first fonds, which shows Vera’s documents in the context of their relationship, and also helped me see how Vera’s relationship to documentation shifted under different circumstances.

By locating mutually informative sites of excision, silence, and absence in her published writings and in the archives, I have also tried to theorize Vera’s personal archive as a site fraught with questions of agency, authority, and autonomy in postcolonial and globalized environments. I saw my role as archivist as two-fold: I wanted the archives to remain embedded in their relational origins and I was also interested in recovering and retaining Vera’s creative voice somehow. These two archival energies seemed interwoven and mutually informative.

CH: When I first began to write about personal archives (the archives of people) and literary archives, it struck me that archivists were not “doing right” by the archives of individuals because we were not looking closely enough at the behaviours of the creators in making and keeping their records for individual reasons of their own. It struck me repeatedly that both archival theory and deconstructive constructs of archives were leaving out personal situations and the individual’s creativity and space to reject or reformulate ideas. 

As we discussed briefly during the email exchanges for the thesis, I do think that postmodern theories have an unsettling relationship with “actual” archives.  Theorists like Derrida and Foucault have been tremendously influential, with many productive offshoots for archives. However Derrida’s and Foucault’s works are often used to analyse a traditional idea of archives as a centralized repository of official records presided over by the archivist as the gatekeeper and emphasizing centralized discursive power. 

Archives coming from individuals are, after all, not formalized bodies of records (like the records of companies or government) but the documents created from people’s everyday lives and work.  In response, I have tried to help broaden scholarly writing about personal archives.

It is from there that the focus on the site of creation becomes useful and we can see how personal archives and creative archives might unsettle this vision of centralized discursive power. For example, if your archives contain scraps of inspirational material or old receipts kept for sentimental reasons, does their placement in your archives talk back to centralized power and a formalized official record from a highly personalized place?

Archivists are in a fraught situation because we are dealing with living or recently deceased creators of archives, and yet we seem not to have been asking what importance or interpretation could be given to the archives by trying to see them in their personal contexts as opposed to through those other lenses. Imagine, for one moment, how it might feel to have the archives of your own life taken in by a repository: aren’t there fairly obvious grounds for wishing that the archivist does it right in your lifetime? I was marking, in my own writing, a responsibility of the archivist to the individual behind the archives.

As Maryanne Dever so eloquently put it, archives are a “net held taught over pockets of nothingness.”[2] Documents are threads that we are left with; the air around them is innocuous and at the same time filled with possibilities for interpretation. 

On the other hand, imprisoned Chinese visual artist, architect, and writer Ai Wei Wei writes: “Utilitarian function is dictated by how you use something, how you use it simultaneously dictates who you are, and the implications of your existence.”[3] In this way, we can see documents as helping the individual to develop and define a life.

So, it is in the space between the responsibility to the site of creation and the creation of documents for the originating creator of the archives, and the paradoxes of trying to interpret the archives in a way that does not further efface or construct, or at least may be seen as appropriate, that the archivist finds herself and that we found ourselves in this project. 

SK:  I was first treated to hearing you speak about personal archives in my first year of my Masters degree at Trent. I was about to begin archiving the Vera papers and knew very little about archives theory or professional practices. But it struck me even then that merging literary scholarship with archival scholarship had the possibility to open up a potential for the self-reflexive approach that postcolonial theorists, especially Gayatri Spivak, have been arguing for from Western academics writing about the “Third World.”  Because academic environments often cause students to theorize global issues largely through texts, our engagement with theory happens on computer screens and in libraries. Working with the Vera archives eliminated considerable distance between myself and the writing I was studying, but putting these theories into practice was both exciting and terrifying – as my supervisor, Hugh Hodges, said to me at one of the more anxious moments during this archival project: “People don’t stand still like books do.”

Acting as an archivist and researcher during this time in my life has underscored the importance of forging a relationship to my work that simultaneously interrogates my own position. Discovering your work on personal archives and the notion of “doing right” by writers really spoke to this rich and fruitful tension. Your thoughts about the ethics of being an archivist of writers has pushed me to scrutinize my own work of interpreting the Yvonne Vera archives, and to think critically about the relationship scholars have to their subjects, particularly as a scholar of African literature.

CH:  Layered over this, of course, is archival practice. The archivist follows a series of processes to: assess the fonds’ archival value and its internal interrelations (archival appraisal); transfer it to the repository legally (acquisition); and determine the interrelations and identify the parts of the archives to make their contents knowable by researchers (arrangement and description). Each of these steps has a body of theory and practices of archival repositories that are somewhat standardized but vary between institution. My general qualms about these steps or the tools for these steps are in their efforts to standardize and perhaps efface the personal rough edges while bringing the archives “under intellectual and physical control” (as we say in the biz).[4]

SK: You have written, Catherine, about shedding the “authorial fallacy” of the archivist by leaving a trail of the thought process that went into the description and arrangement of archives. Embracing this human presence seems like an easy first step toward realizing a poststructuralist account of archives that is much like the move from history to historiography, where studies have shifted from a direct focus on the events of history, to a more interpretive account of the construction of those events as narratives with individual historians as their authors.

So, my own relationship to the archives, I decided, would be traceable, self-conscious, and open; but, the pervasive idea in some archival theory, that “all archives come into being in and as history as a result of specific political, cultural, and socioeconomic pressures – pressures which leave traces and which render archives themselves artifacts of history,” is a notion that positions the archivist somewhat anxiously (Burton, 6). At what point, I wondered, did I begin to separate History with a capital H from personal histories, pluralistic and unstable? What are the implications of this shift, and was it necessarily negative to imagine myself as a site where “specific political, cultural, and socioeconomic pressures leave trace”?

From the outset, I was struck by the difficulty of putting to use some of the rich body of archival scholarship in the context of a writer’s records. While I found the deconstructive notion of all archives as “monuments to particular configurations of power” to be a useful way of troubling the historical position of the archivist as a kind of “gatekeeper,” I wasn’t entirely comfortable reducing the condition and context of the acts of creation and of custodianship in the Vera archives to the underpinnings of power relations present in the lives of individuals. And while I love the “deconstructive possibilities” (and not to mention the exciting imagery) of riding “on the back of a tiger,” that (white) South African archivist Verne Harris has thrillingly articulated in his writing on deconstructive notions of archives, I am also struck by Spivak’s description of the dizzying affect of deconstruction: “The fall into the abyss of deconstruction inspires us with as much pleasure as fear. We are intoxicated with the prospect of never hitting bottom” (Of Grammatology).

CH: I think we are both aiming at personal, situation-specific feminisms as a reaction to broad stroke analyses, while at the same time heading for tactics that made use of these dizzying or intoxicating prospects. In the archival work, the personal situation and the personal aesthetic are productive destabilizing factors. 

SK: Yes, the personal can be read quite productively as reflective of larger power structures (à la Foucault and others), but I began to see that there is another aspect of the inclusions and exclusions that are involved in record keeping that cannot be framed in entirely the same terms – a human presence that cannot be stabilized easily.  The “psychology of archives,” as you have written about so elegantly, is about reading what is included, excluded, excised, and restricted, as a reflection of the individual’s relationship to acts of documentation, and also as acts that are affected by personal relationships that often inform and give shape to the event of a record’s creation.

CH: In the case of writers, this also invites a reading of the record as an extension of literary creations.  An additional layer to the puzzle when dealing with literary archives is what does it mean to do right by this writer’s archives in terms of the writer’s literary approach and aesthetic?[5] In the case of Yvonne Vera, she had a consciously postmodern feminist aesthetic, mobilizing silences and women’s bodies in her fiction.   

SK: Vera’s preoccupation with speech, silence, absence, naming, and not naming drew me to a critical approach that tries to reflect the complex authorship in the archives without closing off its interpretation. Determining distinct fonds and making title choices and series arrangements all try to stabilize authorial intentions, and in the case of Vera, these stabilizations are difficult to reconcile with her notion of memory, as expressed both directly and indirectly, in her writing: “Memory for me is the act of writing itself” (Cooking Chameleons, 6). In the personal archives of authors, as you have written, all acts of documentation have links to the creative process, since writers have a special relationship to language and writing that invites, in turn, creative reading. As literary critics and scholars, our role is to interpret these fictional realms without pointing directly at authorial intentions for some stabilizing notion of “real” meanings. We learn to give thought to pauses, blank spaces, punctuation, and the inherent tension that words and language offer experience.

The theme of silence and disclosure in Vera’s texts is particularly important, where her dense poetic prose works through the tension of articulating new subjectivities in an environment characterized by possession. In Vera’s unpublished manuscript, Obedience, the two central characters struggle to find a way of loving that does not possess the other, but they fail to disentangle their desires from their fears.  Vera’s writing enacts a politicized and poetic aesthetic of dispossession, as she writes against possession and reclamations of all kinds; whether of a people by their nation, women by men, children by their parents, or people by their past, Vera valorizes newness over old loyalties and frames of reference.  The capacity for “departures,” for newness, and the courage to leave behind possessions of all kinds is a central issue in Vera’s oeuvre.  The poetic tension here is palpable; how do you write into being that which is “without a name”?[6]  The implications for archival practice are charged with a similar sense of poetic (in)justice, since each item in the archives is a possession left behind by Vera that must, to some degree, be stabilized in the act of arrangement and description.

In this way, Vera’s treatment of her subject guided the treatment of mine.  The “creative archival turn” that you have identified, Catherine, was a wonderful articulation of my own interpretive impulses in this regard.

CH:  For me, this “creative archival turn” elicits what we might call the “joy of leaving it hanging,” of the archivist making the gesture that throws up the details of a life and the aesthetic direction of the author together in a way that doesn’t overwrite the myriad possibilities and spaces of archives. It presents these facets in their infinite reflection back to one another. Your archival acts try to retain Vera’s freedom to be “in motion” (i.e. to be associated with silences and action and hopefully not pinned down by discourse). So, in the end, Sarah, it’s been a really productive critical and mentoring moment for me. I hope very much that our common threads will lead us on to new discussions in the future.

SK: Thank you, Catherine. I’m looking forward to more weaving and threading, too.

For more information about the Yvonne Vera archives, please see: The Public Texts Program at Trent University.

Sarah Kastner’s thesis is entitled “Writing Against Possession: Archiving Yvonne Vera, and the Obedience Manuscript.”

End Notes:

[1] The Vera archives is arranged as two separate fonds: “The Yvonne Vera and John José fonds,” and “The Mary Polito fonds.”

[2] Maryanne Dever. “Reading Other People’s Mail.” Archives and Manuscripts 24.1. May 1996, p.120-123.

[3] Ai Wei Wei. Ai Wei Wei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews and Digital Rants 2006-2009. MIT Press: Cambridge Mass., 2011, p.6.

[4] For a discussion of how archival arrangement and description may be seen to efface the personal see: Hobbs, “Personal Ethics: Being and Archivist of Writers” in Linda M. Morra and Jessica Schagerl eds. Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace, WLU Press, 2012.

[5] Catherine Hobbs.

[6] Vera, Yvonne. Without a Name, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Works Cited:

Gwetai, Ericah. Petal Thoughts. Zimbabwe: Mambo Press, 2008.

Kastner, Sarah. “Writing Against Possession: Archiving Yvonne Vera, and the Obedience Manuscript.” Trent University, 2011.

Vera, Yvonne. “The Writer and Human Rights: Cooking Chameleons,” Zimbabwean International Book Fair, Keynote Address, 1995. Yvonne Vera Archive, Trent University, Box 9, f.5, pp. 1-18.

Photo by Ireen Dubel, Yvonne Vera Archives, 2012.

Catherine Hobbs has been the Literary Archivist (English-language) at Library and Archives Canada for fourteen years.  She has dealt with LAC’s tremendously rich collection of literary archives: including those from writers, small literary presses, editors and other figures and organizations involved in Canadian literature.  She has worked with many contemporary women writers like Dionne Brand, Gail Scott, Phyllis Webb, Jan Zwicky and Daphne Marlatt. Catherine is Chair of the Special Interest Section on Personal Archives (SISPA) within the Association of Canadian Archivists.  In 2011, Catherine was elected to the steering committee of the Section on Literary and Art Archives within the International Council of Archives and she recently proposed a project on dissident writers’ archives to the section. Catherine is interested in artistic producers of archives as well as individuals’ understandings of their own documentation.  She has taught seminars and written groundbreaking articles on literary archives and personal archives, and she is associated with the Public Texts Program at Trent University.


Sarah Kastner is a PhD student in the English department at Queen’s University. Her dissertation focuses on three authors, Yvonne Vera, Bessie Head, and Dambudzo Marechera, who blur the boundary between autobiography and fiction through a postmodern African aesthetic. Sarah’s work explores the interrelatedness of biography, narratives of self, and the construction of identity in postcolonial and post-apartheid environments. During her Masters degree in the Public Texts program at Trent University, Sarah worked as an archivist to the personal papers of Zimbabwean author, Yvonne Vera. Her thesis, entitled “Writing Against Possession: Archiving Yvonne Vera, and the Obedience Manuscript,” read Vera’s archives through her subaltern approach to writing, and argued for a reading of her final unfinished novel that does not attempt to apprehend its complete state.