Thursday, 23 June 2011

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (London: The Women's Press, 1988; reprinted 1997)

a review by Raj Patel, Voice of the Turtle

Word has spread about Tsitsi Dangarembga's first novel. Its popularity in, and pertinence to, discussions of poscolonial fiction have led to its recent fourth printing. Dangarembga (which, curiously, means 'doghouse' in Shona) in her semi-autobiographical debut novel has fused an adolescent coming-of-age tale with an awakening to the full consequences of colonialism. Nervous conditions follows the first fifteen years in the life of Tambudzai, a young girl who grows up in a village near Umtali (now Mutare), near Zimababwe's Eastern Mozambique border. In its sensitive treatment of sexism, of the pain of hybridity, of the dark comedy of childhood and the bitter violence of colonialism, Nervous Conditions is an exemplary novel.

Tambu, our narrator, first experiences colonialism through the effects of its front-line institution, the school. Her older brother, Nhamo, is identified as a bright and "promising" child and whisked away to the mission school of which his uncle, Babamukuru, is the headmaster. Tambu tells of the changes she notices in her brother upon his return from school: his increasing disdain for manual labour, his nurtured penchant for the civilised, his laziness, his new contempt for the women in his family, and "he had forgotten how to speak Shona". Moreover, her own education is interrupted as a consequence of her brother's success -- she is withdrawn from school *because her brother is doing so well, the logic being that there is little point in educating a girl as it "will only benefit strangers".

Tambu doesn't take this lying down, and resorts to growing vegetables, in a bid to fund her own education. In Umtali, a passing white woman is furious at the sight of such a young girl selling maize, when she clearly should be in school. When it is pointed out to her that the girl would really rather be in school, the white woman gives Tambu ten pounds. Tambu's father's initial hostility towards letting her go to school is overcome, and Tambu returns to school to complete her pre-primary lessons.

Her brother dies from mumps two years later. Even though his death is foreshadowed at the very beginning of the book, the banality of the illness, and the swiftness of its effects, are powerfully shocking. At the mourning, Babamukuru persuades Tambu's father that Tambu ought really to be allowed to continue her education. She is offered a full scholarship, staying at Babamukuru's school, with his family.

Babamukuru is a fascinating character. He was spotted by missionary educators ("white people who come to give, not to take"), as being "a good boy, cultivatable, in the way land is, to yield harvests that sustain the cultivator." He was educated, with his wife, in missionary schools, and universities in South Africa and England. He is revered in communities in Umtali, a metonym for black success under white stewardship. His exchanges with Tambu's father demonstrate the pliability of the father, the doubt which occasionally disturbs Babamukuru, his stubborn resolve once a decision is made, and the awe in which he is held, a veneration that allows his obstinacy to go unchallenged.

Some critics have dismissed Babamukuru as nothing more than a toadie. This is unkind. As Tambu helpfully notes, "I simply was not ready to accept that Babamukuru was a historical artefact; or that advantage and disadvantage were predetermined...". One of the pleasures of Nervous Conditions is to see how Babamukuru rails, often violently and unconstructively, and sometimes bravely, against all he has become. And the author herself reports that many men have felt liberated through the character of Babamukuru.

When Tambu moves to the school, and novel is taken over by her changing and complex relationship with her cousin, Nyasha, with whom she shares a room. Nyasha spent her formative years away from Rhodesia, being educated with her parents in England. She too cannot speak Shona, or at least, can only manage a pigeon version of it, reverting to English to communicate complex thoughts and emotions. The ability to speak freely in Shona is an important metaphor. Nhamo's inability to speak it is an affectation, an aspirational monolingualism, a part of what it means to be an elevated colonial subject; Nyasha's aphasia is genuine, the real thing, and far more serious. She has no recourse, as Nhamo does, to Shona when English fails her.

Caught between two worlds, and not having been rooted in either long enough to cement her sense of self, Nyasha begins to disintegrate, physically and emotionally, throughout her adolescence. She develops an eating disorder which becomes more acute as she prepares for her O-Levels. The connection between the refusal to consume, and the refusals to behave as her father would wish, as her social position would suggest, and as her colonial masters would demand, suffuse the text. In a finely-chosen moment, our first encounter with Nyasha's anorexia/bulimia happens after her mother takes away her copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Her protest is complex, and it resists the interpretation of victimisation; Nyasha is not victimised in the moment of her anorexia. Instead, she chooses to use her own body as a text, inscribing her protest by simultaneously rejecting, and exaggeratedly embracing, the commodification, and objectification of her body. She is aided and abetted in this by Babamukuru.

Babamukuru is clearly vexed by his daughter's sexuality. As she matures, and begins to be interested in boys, Babamukuru's complex emotions towards her manifest themselves in a tyrannical control over her body - its whereabouts, its clothing, its eating habits. In a key exchange, after a party from which Nyasha returns slightly later than her older brother, Babamukuru is livid, angry at both Chido, Nyasha's brother, and Nyasha herself.
"You know me," she told him, but of course she was mistaken. "You've taught me how I should behave. I don't worry about what people think so there's no need for you to." She did not know her father either, because anyone who did you have retreated at that stage.

"Don't push me too far", Babamukuru pleaded. Mustering up his courage, Chido tried to help. "They were only talking for a few minutes, Dad", he said, and was ordered to be silent.

"You, Chido, keep quiet," Babamukuru snapped. "You let your sister behave like a whore without saying anything. Keep quiet."

Nyasha grew uncharacteristically calm at times like this. "Now why," she enquired of no particular person, "should I worry about what people say when my own father calls me a whore?"

Nyasha's sexualisation by her father is a symptom of a deeper sexism, as we see in Babamukuru's relationship with his wife. Nyasha's mother, Maiguru, is another well-drawn character. We are introduced to her as someone with an almost pathological disposition to saccharine cheer, who flutters about the house, calling everyone love-y. We learn, however, that she is just as educated as her husband, (she is secretive about the fact that she has an M. Phil.) perhaps even a better scholar, and one who has chosen/been forced into the role of headmaster's housewife, and who survives only because she "denatures" herself to fit Babamukuru. And Maiguru has her limits. When Babamukuru decides that the misfortune which has befallen Tambu's family can be cured by a Christian wedding, with all the hostess work which this entails, Maiguru snaps. She leaves home for a few days, stunning her husband, finally shattering the illusion which no one as close to him could interrupt.

Every character in Nervous Conditions is a well-rounded, and psychologically compelling investigation. Dangarembga's training in medical psychology can't have hurt her creation of these believable characters, but this book is in the tradition of Fanon, or Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative, as much as it is in that of Henry James. As Tambu concludes, "[q]uietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to question things and refuse to be brainwashed, bringing me to this time when I can set down this story." It is an act of postcolonial resistance precisely because it is a rebellion of the memory.

The connection with Fanon is intentional. The title itself is a quote from the introduction to Fanon's Wretched of the Earth: "The condition of native is a nervous condition." [1]. In its descriptions of the psychologies of colonialism, the narrative is exacting, indeed, unforgiving. Each of the characters, every character, in fact, is negotiating neurosis -- more often than not, denial. Tambu's apparent disenagagement from this is, in fact, only superficial. At a number of moments, particularly when she criticises Nyasha, we see that she too is complicit, trying to suture together a psychic life, excluding unpleasant truths in order to carry on.

Yet Tambu's character also has something of the existentialist about her. The book begins with the line, "I was not sorry when my brother died." It is self-consciously redolent of Camus's "Hier, maman est morte", but only superficially. It is not Tambu who is the stranger or a foreigner, though the narrative must ultimately be seen as a triumph of her will over her circumstance.
Dangarembga's is an urgent new voice, though one which for a long time has been stifled. The political economy of book production does not favour African women writers. Nervous Conditions went unpublished for several years, and only made it to print as a result of a chance encounter with The Women's Press. As Dangarembga observes, the book industry is run by men. When she first approached major publishing houses in Southern African, she was told that her novel did not accurately reflect the ways which African women think and talk, and that therefore (notice the non sequitur) it wouldn't sell to African women. But, as we've seen, Nervous Conditions is a study in psychological realism. At least some African women talk and think this way, and judging from its commercial success, many people want to read Dabgarembga's view. Why, then, this response from the publishers? One can only suspect that the psychologies and complexities, sexisms and power relations described in her book are relevant far beyond the interactions of Tambu, Babamukuru, Nyasha and Maiguru. It isn't much of a stretch to read the actions of the publishers, as much as of the characters, and of Dangarembga herself, (and of every writer? every reader?) as a struggle against their own Nervous Conditions.


[1] Interestingly, Dangarembga doesn't attribute the quote to Sartre, instead choosing to say that it comes "from the introduction to The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon. The entire sentence reads "The condition of 'native' is a nervous condition, introduced and maintained by the settler among colonised people with their consent."(Italics in original.) Very Gramsci. I'm not sure why she chose to do this.