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Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

It is so often the case that if you are female your childhood will be tougher than your brother’s, especially if you are also Black and born into a rural setting in a colonial country. Nervous Conditions is set in Zimbabwe when it was still Southern Rhodesia and under British rule. Rural poverty is a real impediment to Tambudzai; as a girl she has responsibility for collecting water, cleaning latrines, laying the dung floor, child care. Her cousin Nyasha has spent some of her childhood in London. She has forgotten her first language, Shona, and many of the ways of her family. Both girls live with nervous conditions, despite their differences. 

Tsitsi Dangarembga quotes Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) as the novel’s epithet and source of her title:

The condition of native is nervous condition.

Nervous Conditions

Tambu is born and lives her early childhood in the rural homestead of her family. She has two younger sisters and a brother. Her mother finds life hard and her father is feckless. Her brother is privileged, receiving education at the local school. Her UK-educated Uncle provides fees for her brother and when he is older takes him to the mission school where he is headteacher.

Meanwhile Tambu had to give up schooling because the family don’t have the money for her fees. She is so keen to go to school that she begs mealie seeds from her father raises her own small crop to sell. Her brother steals the mealies. Later he dies while away at the mission school. Tambu now becomes the privileged sibling.

I was not sorry when my brother died. (11)

This is the rather shocking but realistic opening sentence of the novel. It pitches us immediately into the different trajectories of girls and boys.

Tambu takes her brother’s place at the mission school, leaving the homestead behind. Tambu and her cousin Nyasha become friends and allies in their Uncle’s very fine house, even though their attitudes are so different. Nyasha questions everything, but Tambu is grateful to her uncle for the opportunities he provides. 

We see how her education takes Tambu away from her rural roots when she returns to the homestead for holidays and family gatherings. These provide the setting for some great drama and humour. A dare takes place, a kind of council of men, to discuss the difficult problem of Lucia. Lucia is a splendid character, full of self-worth, and undaunted by the menfolk. She undermines the dare and achieves her aims of employment and education.

Tambu, Nyasha and Lucia are all beholden to Bamabukuru, the headmaster uncle, for the advantages they gain. Tambu is especially torn when he opposes her ambitions to enter the White Catholic Convent in Salisbury. She depends upon him for her advantages, but chafes at his rule. This is the fate of peoples who are colonised and patronised everywhere. 

Nyasha, with her UK experiences, finds his most pompous pronouncements and rules unbearable and defies her father, while also seeking to improve her future through education. After Tambu leaves for the convent, Nyasha declines into bulimia. 

Tambu’s mother finds it hard that daughter’s aspirations and Bamabukuru’s patronage will remove Tambu from her family roots. 

‘Tell me, Tambudzai, does that man want to kill me, to kill me with his kindness, fattening my children only to take them away, like cattle fattened for the slaughter? Tell me, daughter, what will I, your mother say to you when you come home a stranger full of white ways and ideas? It will be English, English all the time. He-e, Mummy this, he-e, Mummy that. Like that cousin of yours. I have seen it happen – we saw it happen in our own home. Truly that man is calling down a curse of bad luck on my head. You have survived the mission so now he must send you even further away. I’ve had enough, I tell you, I’ve had enough of that man dividing me from my children. Dividing me from my children and ruling my life. He says this and we jump […] If I were a witch I would enfeeble his mind, truly I would do it, and then we would see how his education and his money helped him.’ (269)

This is the cry of the colonised to the colonial power, caught in a dependent relationship that mostly benefits the colonizer. This novel was set only a few years before Zimbabwe fought a bitter battle to end colonial rule and written after Independence was gained in 1980.

Tsitsi Dangarembga

I read this book for three reasons: it is the first of a trilogy whose third volume This Mournable Body has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. My second reason is that I spent a month in Zimbabwe when it was still young, in 1986. It was a country of such hope and possibilities at that time. I heard Tsitsi Dangarembga interviewed recently and that too inspired me to read the trilogy: Nervous Conditions (1988) The Book of Not(2006), This Mournable Body (2020).

She was born in Matoku in Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1959, and spent some of her childhood in England, her childhood resembling Nyasha’s more than Tambu’s. She had planned to read medicine at Cambridge but returned to Zimbabwe University to read psychology and become involved in theatre and film as well as writing fiction. Last year she made international news when she was arrested for taking part in a peaceful anti-corruption demonstration in Zimbabwe. 

She says of Nervous Conditions

I wrote it as a fugitive. A fugitive from my first memories and of what my life had become. [from Guardian 27th March 2021.]

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, first published by the Women’s Press in 1988. I read the Faber edition published in 2021. 298pp 

The BBC poll of 100 books that shaped the world placed Nervous Conditions at #66.

You can find Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 10 reading recommendations here.

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Four Good Reads

Here are some recommended reads from the last six months. There are so many books around at the moment that deserve to be read I’ve put together four for today’s post (and will recommend another four very soon).

  1. All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

193 ALl my puny cover This is a novel that holds you tight, makes sure you don’t escape. Look, it says, look! What do you do when someone you love really, really wants to end her life? Someone like your sister? Do you help her?

Elfreda is a famous pianist and the sister of Yolande, the narrator. She tells us how Elfreda wants to commit suicide, and the novel begins as she is hospitalised after her most recent attempt. We find out that their father also found death in front of a train. The novel concerns the attempts by Yolande and other close to Elf, to keep her alive. But then Yolande has to consider the request ‘to take me to Switzerland’, to Dignitas, because she sees her sister’s unhappiness.

Miriam Toews is a Canadian novelist, who draws from her Menonite background. She knows how to create sparky characters, with lives full of the stuff of living. And she knows how to portray sisters and adult relationships. Yolande is sparky and flawed. The emotional content of the novel is crafted so that the reader cares what happens to both sisters, and yet the material never becomes mawkish. It’s very moving and very challenging.

The novel explores a person’s right to die; whether another person should help them; the pain of knowing your loved one wants to die; the pain when loved ones do die; and how families support each other. I couldn’t help comparing this book to Me Before You by Jojo Moyes in which Will’s disability made the questions less tricky than for Efl, the successful concert pianist and in which the theme of assisted suicide notched up the tension rather than encouraging reflection on the dilemmas of assisted suicide.

Miriam Toews (2014) All my Puny Sorrows, published by faber 321 pp

  1. The Bees by Laline Paull

193 Bees coverThis novel was short-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015. It is certainly a sustained tour de force. The main character, Flora 717, is a bee and the action of this novel takes place in a hive.

Laline Paull has done her research, and the mysterious and rather alien functions of the hive, in particular its hierarchies and the brutal way in which these hierarchies are enforced, is reimagined in a story of the triumph of the humble bee. It is the author’s challenge to present a great deal of close observation of bee behaviour in a convincing way: how bees communicate, the function of smell in their lives, group communication through humming, dancing and chemical means. The world of bees is sustained to the end.

Flora attracts attention by being a little different at birth. She is taken to the nursery, and later to the Queen. Fiercely loyal to the Queen – as are all bees – she learns the geography and culture of the hive as she takes on the roles of nurse, sanitation worker, forager and finally a definitive role in the hives future after it disintegrates through internal conflict.

The Bees by Laline Paull (2014), published by 4th Estate 344 pp

  1. The Dig by Cynan Jones

193 Dig coverThis novel featured as a book of the year for several people in Guardian Review of 2014. I mentioned it in brief post because one character, an older woman, seemed to me to be so beautifully portrayed, albeit very briefly. You can find my comments about her here. There is more to this novel than that one character, of course.

The dig refers to digging badgers out of their setts, and so the novel is about cruelty and loss. The big man is a loner, who hunts badgers for sport, but must evade the law to do so. The practice seems rooted in the traditions of the countryside, in this case in Wales. It may be traditional but the badger dig is gruesome, and the baiting that follows worse. Dennis is also a loner, a sheep farmer grieving for his wife, recently killed by the kick of a horse. The paths of the two men cross with tragic consequences.

The story unfolds in the Welsh countryside, and Cynan Jones has a great feel for place, evoked especially through sound, but also through the taciturn communications of the people in the rural communities, and of the skill and knowledge that both men develop of their crafts. The two main characters, and the others, such as the boy who goes on a dig, and Dennis’s mother, all are evoked through a sparse but powerful style. It’s short, brutal and difficult to read.

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014), published by Granta 156 pp

  1. This Boy by Alan Johnson

193 This Boy coverOur book group decided to read this autobiography. We enjoyed it, partly because Johnson has such respect for women, and especially for his mother and sister. He was brought up by them in post-war London slums, where poverty was shockingly present. Deserted by his father, much of his story details the family’s struggle with money, ill-health and the expectations of their neighbours. Told with humour as well as shocking detail, we read because we know our boy came good.

It’s as much a social history, including a reminder of the role of popular music in a boy’s life in the late 50s and early 60s. (This Boy is the title of a Beatles song). It is written with passion, humour and generosity.

This Boy by Alan Johnson (2013), published by Corgi Books 284pp

 

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