I couldn’t stop thinking about this trilogy and all that it depicted after reading, and wasn’t sure how to even write about it, with all it’s implications, meaning and symbolism, implicit within the story and its complicated, unlikable but understandable protagonist.
A month since I finished it, I waited so I could listen live to Sara Collins (author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton) interview Tsitsi Dangarembga for the London Review Bookshop, following on from her Booker Prize shortlisting.
This exceptional interview should be available soon, one I highly recommend listening to. Dangarembga is such an asset to Zimbabwe and to world literature, for all that she pours into her work and the example she sets in her life, a form of “celebration in resistance”.
Her first book Nervous Conditions, published 30 years ago, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1988 and was hailed as a masterpiece by the grandfather of African literature Chinua Achebe. It was a 5 star read for me, brilliant.
Preview of Nervous Conditions & The Book of Not
On the surface, as we discover in the first two books of this trilogy (each book can be read stand alone) Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not (links to my reviews below), this is the story of Tambudzai, a girl from a Zimbabwean village.
We are witness to her coming of age and entry into adulthood and how that is influenced by her encounters with the outside world, beginning with her cousin Nyasha and family, who return from living in England changed, possessed of an air Tambudzai aspires to, knowing she will only acquire it via a certain type of education.
Though she succeeds, it marks the beginning of her losing something of herself, in the way that every country that was ever colonised, began a simultaneous descent when their vision of themselves too, was slanted in another direction.
Tambudzai is diligent and focused on becoming something that “others” approve of and pursues it relentlessly, in the belief that this will enable her to succeed and create a more self-gratifying life than she would have been destined for in the destitute village she came from.
This Mournable Body
In This Mournable Body, Tambudzai is at a low point, she has left a job at an ad agency on a principle, having had her work used and feted without acknowledgement. It is a resentment she has never uttered, nor been supported in, and knows it is futile to pursue. Wrongs happen in silence, rights are not up for discussion. But now she is without a job and approaching the limit of the acceptable age to be dwelling in a girl’s hostel.
As the novel opens, she views herself in the mirror and sees reflected a hideous image, something Collins asked Dangarembga to explain the symbolism of.
“She is consumed with self loathing, and this goes back to, how being black is, if you have not really made that psychological and internal journey, one can still take on all the negativity around blackness from society and internalise it, so in her bid to become educated and shake off everything that she sees as negative and simply disastrous from her life in the village, she has internalised all that, and this is what she sees when she looks into the mirror. She sees a hideous monster that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with. And the whole book really is trying to bring her perception of herself and her actual self together in a healthier manner.”
She moves to a widow’s home and ponders another route out of her self-imposed stuckness. While helping herself to the contents of the vegetable garden, she imagines seducing one of the widow’s sons, though never acts on it. Homemaking has never been one of her aspirations.
Returning to teaching, we recall her experience as a pupil, however what she encounters are wholly different children, the “born-frees”, born after the independence of 1980, who she has difficulty relating to, having been conditioned by a colonial style education.
She considers writing to her cousin Nyasha, who is now living in Berlin, for advice on leaving Zimbabwe, as she begins to feel more and more out of place.
You do not post the letter. Instead, you tear it up and laugh bitterly at yourself: If you cannot build a life in your own country, how will you do so in another? Were you not offered an escape from penury and its accompanying dereliction of dreams through many years of education provided by your babamukuru, your uncle, first at his mission, then at a highly respected convent?
Writing in the Second Person Narrative Style
We see Dangarembga’s evolution as a writer, in her decision to use the second person (you) narrative perspective, something I noticed straight away as it gives the reader a jolt and then it reels you in, making you step inside the mind of the protagonist and experience her thoughts and actions first-hand.
“It created a kind of intimacy that forces the reader to listen and engage with and it enables someone to unburden themselves.”
Tambu has always adapted to fit in and tried to excel to overcome obstacles, in the classroom signs of mental unease appear, she reaches breaking point. And tips over.
Returning to her cousins home, she is further disillusioned, unwilling to accept her reality, her aspirations still carry foreign expectations.
It’s a life of pursuit and escape as each new venture brushes up against values and principles that force her to act when she realises she is compromising who she is. Denial battles with mental stability. When ants appear it’s a sign that a course-correction is required.
Collins describes that use of the second person as a form of “shaking the reader awake” and asks if the novel intended to take a nation and shake it awake. Although it wasn’t Dangarembga’s intention to write specifically about the nation, that is perhaps something that unfolds as she explains:
“You can not be who you are outside of the context that you are living in, and so of course your context is going to determine you. The question for a writer is how far do I want to follow that kind of interconnection between an individual and society and for me that has been my subject matter in these three novels.”
And here in this longer quote, she speaks about the necessity and importance of an individual and a nation to be able to have choices, to be able to reflect, something that is taken for granted by those who are not oppressed.
“The idea of shaking awake was on my mind, my feeling was that our society in Zimbabwe does not really reflect very much, it’s very much about getting the next meal, making sure that things are working and this goes back into our culture pre-colonial days, because it was never the utopia that people like to think it is sometimes, and especially the state likes us to think that everything was wonderful pre-colonial days.
There were our fair share of troubles, and the climate here has never been very abundant, so just the general things of food and surviving were very practical issues that people had to engage with and there wasn’t that much time to reflect.
I felt that we needed to find a way to reflect, but to reflect in a way that wasn’t about pointing fingers and reflecting externally, but to see how we are part of the whole process and then if we understand how the ways we think and behave and the culture that we have built up, is complicit in creating the conditions that we are living in now, I felt that we would perhaps be able to think our way out of the situation. It had to be done gently, it had to be done in a non-accusatory manner and so these were the things on my mind when I wrote This Mournable Body.”
When NPR’s Sacha Pfeiffer interviewed the author, she asked what message Tsitsi Dangarembga was giving to young Zimbabweans, given the despair of her anti-hero Tambudzai:
“What happens is up to us because Tambudzai – all she’s concerned with is getting ahead in her own life. I show that that kind of attitude may lead to a person getting what they want for some time. But in the end, the repercussions of that kind of behaviour are going to be felt by everybody…because since the economy is so difficult, people think, I just have to put my head down and do what’s best for me. But that doesn’t solve the community – and – national – level issues that we have to engage with.”
Highly Recommended and gets my vote to win the Booker Prize 2020.
My Reviews of Zimbabwean Literature
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga Book #1
The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga Book #2
House of Stone by Novuyo Rose Tshuma – Highly Recommended by Tsitsi Dangarembga (published 2018)
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (shortlisted for Booker Prize & the Guardian First Book Award, 2013)
Review: This Mournable Body by Mphuthumi Ntabeni
Born Free: 40 Years After Independence in Zimbabwe by Thandekile Moyo
Listen/Read: Sacha Pfeiffer NPR, interviews Tsitsi Dangarembga ‘This Mournable Body’: A Novel About Life In Independent Zimbabwe
Article, New Yorker by Teju Cole: Unmournable Bodies – inspiration for the title
I remember your earlier reviews, but didn’t get hold of the books then. Maybe this is the moment to try harder!
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It would be great if they released them all again as a set, I really hope that happens and that this work gets more highly recognised.
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I have TMB on reserve at the library, but I really think I should read the other two first.
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I was fortunate to have come across Nervous Conditions, because it is considered a modern classic of African women’s writing, I would recommend taking the time to indulge the first two to really get the most out of the third and see in it’s context, that 40 year history post independence.
Yes, I’ll take your advice.
An excellent reminder to pick up the other two books first, as always life and so many great books being reviewed, it’s easy to forget but I am up for something African again, now I have moved past the disappointment of reading Americanah. Looking forward to hunting all these books down.
This sounds a novel with so many important things to say. I’ve not read The Book of Not yet but I definitely plan to complete the trilogy. Dangarembga is a wonderful writer.
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Tsitsi Dangarembga is our national treasure 🥰 Was pleasantly surprised to read this review… Nervous Conditions was one of the first books by a local author I read, amidst my collection of goosebumps and hardy boys and famous five books I had a copy of Nervous conditions and it opened my eyes to something I hadn’t even realised I had been seeking in the books I read… In a way part of how I wanted to write my own stories
PS House of Stone is pretty awesome as well
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I can well believe that she is Beaton and I have to thank you for being part of my reading process and interest and I would encourage you to write those stories, because they are already being read by interested readers who have no other way to gain insight into the experience of growing up in your country, under the various different influences, which provide something unique and universal at the same time.
I read Nervous Conditions in Jan 2019 and then followed it up by reading House of Stone in Feb of the same year, and reading the two together tells an interesting story that spans many years and House in Stone is a tough read, as she determinedly digs into areas no one wishes to talk about.
And then in our contemporary day Harare I read your excellent ‘If We Were Having Coffee’ posts you’d tell us, and there we learn about the many facets sides of life there in the 21st century. So your stories are already part of the fabric of my glimpses into Zimbabwe. Merci.
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I am looking forward to reading literature from so many countries and after reading your reviews I count Zimbabwe as one of them! Bulawayo I have heard of, but I can’t remember if I ever stumbled upon Dangarembga. Can’t wait to get my hands on this trilogy!
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Thanks for this Claire. I hadn’t read anything about this book or interviews with the author. Interesting what she says about second person and also about Tambus goals. In the end Tambu does become less selfish and more patient in her goals doesn’t she?