The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2006) (Zimbabwe)

A Zimbabwean Trilogy

A year ago I read and loved Nervous Conditions the first book written by a Black woman from Zimbabwe to be published in English. The author won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize with it in 1989, which led to translations in many languages.

Her most recent book, the third in this trilogy This Mournable Body was nominated for the Booker Prize and recently shortlisted. I’m eager to get to it, so this is my first read after WIT month, and I eagerly await what will happen to Tambu,  despite the sense of disillusionment.

Most of this second novel takes place in the ‘Sacred Heart’ catholic girls boarding school she is sent to by her uncle, though the tone is uncomfortably set in the opening pages while she is at home with her family. There is a war going on, ever present in the background, setting them all one edge.

They must attend a compulsory village meeting, where a landmine causes her gun-carrying older sister to lose a leg and her Uncle, her educational sponsor and her hoped for ticket out of the village is charged with being:

not exactly a collaborator, but one whose soul hankered to be at one with the occupying Rhodesian forces. Mutengesi. The people in the village said Babamukuru was one who’d sell every ounce of his own blood for a drop of someone else’s.

Mother Daughter Relationships

Tambu’s relationship with her mother is complicated, she finds little solace there, knowing she can never undo her mother’s resentment, unless she fails.

How does a daughter know that she feels appropriately towards the woman who is her mother? Yes, it was difficult to know what to do with Mai, how to conceive her. I thought I hated her fawning, but what I see I hated is the degree of it. If she was fawning, she was not fawning enough. She diluted it with her spitefulness, the hopeless clawing of a small cornered spirit towards what was beyond it. And if she had spirit, it was not great enough, being shrunk by the bitterness of her temper.

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Tambu sets even higher expectations on herself to achieve in her education than her Uncle or anyone else and is frequently self-critical. We know from book one that her sponsorship in education came at the price of her brother’s demise, she wasn’t supposed to be the one to achieve, he was.

Due to her family’s low expectations, she wants to succeed. Due to her Uncle’s sponsorship and high expectations, she needs to succeed. Due to her perceived privilege as one of the few black girls at the mostly white catholic girl’s school, she has to work doubly hard to gain her achievements, with no guarantee of recognition.

As I liked to be good at what I did, I was not afraid of hard work. I would put in what was required to reach the peak I aspired to. It was especially important to be at the top, as it was quite clear to me and to everyone I had to be one of the best. Average simply did not apply; I had to be absolutely outstanding or nothing.

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All of these expectations to be and do and know according to a multiplicity of expectations affect her behaviour and attitude, to the point where there is little of her authentic character able to shine forth.

On one level it is the story of a girl from a modest village family trying to become something else and on another level it demonstrates the mutation of an individual, trying to conform to a system that was designed elsewhere, within which she is perceived as being inferior, even though she is the one who is at home, living in her own country and culture. She tries hard to suppress her emotions, fearing they will contribute to her failure.

‘What is the matter?’ Sister was very anxious.
‘I’m fine,’ I told her. My favourite teacher was anxious. But my sister lay first in the sand and then in a hospital bed without a leg. What would Sister do if I told her? What would the other girls do if they heard? They all had their little boxes tight in their chests for their memories of war. There was too much grief here for a room full of girls. Thinking this, I did let go. I forgot about not letting anything out. I kept on wiping so that my tears fell on the cloth sleeve. It was like that when people were kind to you. Sometimes you forgot.

A Colonial Impossibility

It’s a thought-provoking, multi-layered novel and look at an aspect of the effect of colonialism through one girl’s education, her striving to succeed and the systemic prejudice that prevents her from being able to do so in a way that is easier for the Europeans. It’s also about the development of her undu (personhood), something she strives for, that is undermined by the system within which she attempts to develop it.

It is set during the tense and frightening period of fighting against colonial oppression, and the emergence of a new Zimbabwe – news of which occasionally filters in to the school, causing the disappearance of some of the students, and a fear for those like Tambu, who harbour confused, dual loyalties.

Scattered throughout the text are words and phrases in her maternal language, translated at the back, that add to the sense of a cultural insight and a reminder that this isn’t just a coming-of-age story of a young woman in a boarding school, it highlights the increasing dysfunction of one’s ”personhood’ while trying to fit into an alien system that is riddled with a sense of superiority she can never attain, because she is ‘not’.

Further Reading

An Interview with Tsitsi Dangarembga by Caroline Rooney following publication of The Book of Not, June 2007

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

I came across this promising book on a Goodreads group called 500 Great Books by Women  a reference to a book published in 1994 that lists works by women considered notable and influential under different themes such as Art, Heritage, Identity, Ethics, Conflicting Cultures, Choices, Growing Old, Growing Up, Power and more.

The group also includes a list developed from a similar compilation called Daughters of Africa by Margaret Busby an anthology of words and writings by women of African descent, with titles from the 1830’s to 1990.

In an effort to read more widely, writers from different countries and cultures, and in particular the lesser known great books from women, it’s a fabulous resource and members of Goodreads, if they’ve read and reviewed any of these books provide links to their comments/thoughts on them, helpful in discerning whether a book is of interest.

Nervous Conditions was written by the Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga in 1988, it was the first book published by a black woman from Zimbabwe in English. It was awarded the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1989 and has been translated into a number of languages. It is recognized as a major literary contribution to African feminism and postcolonial literature.

If that wasn’t enough of a promise of something rewarding, this quote in the excellent foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah confirmed it.

“Each novel is a message in a bottle cast into the great ocean of literature from somewhere else (even if it was written and published last week in your home town); and what makes the novel available to its readers is not shared values or beliefs or experiences but the human capacity to conjure new worlds in the imagination.”

I thought it was absolutely brilliant, one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across in my cross cultural journey, portrayed with such raw honesty, I’m in awe and immensely relieved there is another book to follow, because I’m not ready to leave it there.

It’s a coming of age story of Tambu, a teenage girl, who in the beginning lives in a small village with her parents and siblings and their days are hard, especially the women, who work in the fields all day, do the laundry at the river, transport water to and fro and cook in a kitchen that lacks modern conveniences and requires skill and tenacity to manage. Despite the hard work Tambu loves her village and even the work and chores equally provide moments of pleasure and companionship.

Her Aunt and Uncle return from five years in England furthering their education so he can become headmaster of the mission school. Tambu is disappointed that her cousin isn’t as friendly towards her as she once was, the “Englishness” has changed her cousins. Her brother is offered the opportunity of an education where her Uncle is headmaster.

It had been my uncle’s idea that Nhamo should go to school at the mission. Nhamo, if given the chance, my uncle said, would distinguish himself academically, at least sufficiently to enter a decent profession. With the money earned this way, my uncle said, Nhamo would lift our branch of the family out of the squalor in which we were living.

Tambu forced to quit her education for financial reasons, sets about implementing a plan to earn her own school fees, determined that she shall rise up too. She appears to have the best of both worlds, the grounding, practical, connected upbringing of village life, a work ethic, practical skills in the kitchen and a tenacity that purchased her an extended education, growing her own crop and finding someone to help her sell it, despite efforts by her brother to sabotage her intention and her parents complete lack of faith in her ability to succeed.

Thus she too sets off on the path of an education informed by “English influences” though she retains deep family and village values. However, being around and observing her cousin and how her behaviour has changed, and becoming aware of the frustrated ambitions of her aunt, her world view begins to shift , despite dedicating herself to being the most diligent pupil and the most respectful niece possible.

The subtle way her character transitions to greater awareness is adeptly portrayed, her feelings of ambition and regret as she realises it may be impossible to achieve all that she aspires to without losing something of what she had. She observes her cousin rebel and then accept that middle ground, fall victim to it, unable to go back to who she was, becoming alienated from her own, entering into self-destructive territory.

All her characters are multi dimensional, portrayed in a way that even though they inflict suffering on one another, we are made to understand their point of view and realise the dilemmas and complexities they face. There are no villains, or heroes, just humans trying to improve their lot or that of others, sometimes making significant achievements, and at other times grave mistakes.

In an interview the author was asked why she was so generous to her characters, giving them this chance to explain or be explained, she responded:

I employ this strategy so that many different categories of people can find something to identify within the book – also because the situation of the characters is very complex.  One can hold a person responsible for reacting to a situation in a certain way, but the situation that exerted the pressure to behave in that way must also be addressed.

I’m so glad I’ve read this early on, so I can get to the next two books in the trilogy The Book of Not and This Mournable Body.Have you read this modern classic or any other books by Zimbabwean authors?

Buy a Copy via BookDepository