By Alexandra Fuller
In 1988, when Tsitsi Dangarembga’s acclaimed novel, “Nervous Conditions,” came out, I was 19 and living in a woman’s youth hostel in Harare, Zimbabwe, while attending secretarial college. I’d never be a writer, my father said, but I may as well learn to type. The misery of that hostel, the crushing sexism implicit in that secretarial course — I was feeling it all.
Into that depressed season came this brilliant gem: A school friend lent me a copy of “Nervous Conditions”; it’d been published in London and, although Dangarembga is a Zimbabwean writer, it wasn’t yet available in Harare. I lay on my thin bed in that hostel, which reeked of boiled cabbage, and read and reread that novel as if my life depended on it, which in a way it did, if life is who you are and what you do with the possibilities available to you.
“Nervous Conditions” made clear that the systematic racism and sexism — the violent facts of my own white settler childhood in pre-independence Rhodesia — weren’t accidents but arrangements, structures that we’d all built together: the whites flogging the blacks, the near slave-labor wages.
Dangarembga’s novel wasn’t just an urgent story beautifully told; it was also a work of demolition. Narrated by a restless teenager, Tambudzai (“Tambu”), “Nervous Conditions” takes place in civil war-ravaged Rhodesia during the 1960s and ’70s, on an impoverished homestead and at a mission school near the border town of Umtali (now Mutare), close to the farm on which I’d been raised. It recounts Tambu’s determination to get an education and to escape the poverty she was born into.
Rhodesia’s Education Act of 1930, making education compulsory for European children, meant that I, a minority white child, was guaranteed free schooling from the age of 6 through 15. There was no such provision for Rhodesia’s majority black families. Those who put a premium on education were forced to pay for it, and typically boys, not girls, were the beneficiaries.
Toward the end of the novel, Nyasha, Tambu’s cousin, also desperate for the liberation that education promised, has something of a breakdown. Nevertheless, she declares, “I won’t grovel. I won’t die.” These are modest ambitions, and it says a lot about the lives of young black women in Rhodesia circa 1970 that they were objectives maddeningly hard to achieve.
Fast-forward 30 tumultuous years from that startling debut. Dangarembga, who still resides in Zimbabwe — she is also a successful playwright, filmmaker and screenwriter — has produced another masterpiece, well worth the long wait. In “This Mournable Body,” she returns to the story of Tambu, who is now middle-aged, without children or a husband. Having recently quit her job as an advertising copywriter, she is living in a woman’s hostel in Harare. The details of her suffocating existence are deftly drawn. “That evening it is as though the hostel has folded its arms more tightly against you,” Dangarembga writes of Tambu’s growing sense of constriction.
Still the plucky protagonist familiar from “Nervous Conditions,” she applies for job after job in Harare, all the while attempting to disguise her increasingly desperate poverty and conserve the soles of her Lady Di pumps, along with her dignity and optimism. It’s a soul-crushing assignment, but this isn’t a dreary story, though it’s a tough one. Dangarembga writes with intimacy and compassion; there’s a sharp poetic crack to the work that keeps the story from muddying in melancholy, as it might in the hands of a less cinematic writer.
In one scene, a maid accompanied by a ferocious guard dog tries to dissuade Tambu from applying for a job with the maid’s white employer. “If only you would just walk on,” the maid implores her. “Because this dog is mad. Every dog Madam Mbuya has had has been like that, ever since the war. And Mbuya Riley up there is just like the dog here, if not even madder. So now, be walking!”
It’s not a plot-spoiler to say that Tambu does not resign herself to what comes to seem her inevitable fate, but she comes close. At every turn, the humiliations pile on: the exhausting efforts to find employment, the terrible loneliness of a person who has defied her family’s African traditions only to find Western ones no less limiting. Worn down, she worries about suicide: “You are concerned you will start thinking of ending it all, having nothing to carry on for: no home, no job, no sustaining family bonds. Thinking this induces a morass of guilt.”
Tambu doesn’t kill herself — her soul is too generous. She can’t quench her hope, can’t stop herself from trying to push back against the injustices that have her in their grip. In a final twist with shocking consequences, she manages to land an ecotourism job that returns her to her village. Her boss is a white Zimbabwean woman named Tracey who is chillingly removed from Tambu’s reality. When Tambu tries to suggest names for an ecotourism project she’s involved with, she’s reprimanded.
“Green and eco are tautological,” Tracey scolds her. “Anyway, we’ve got that already, everywhere. Everything’s Green Jacaranda eco! And you can’t say village. … That kind of promise doesn’t work these days either. It’s got to sound like fun, not under development, soil erosion and microfinance.”
Both novels are about women trying to imagine and work their way out of a narrative that has already been decided for them. Both novels are inspiring, not in spite of Tambu’s hopeless situation but because through it all she never loses sight of herself while, at the same time, never underestimating the brutal reality of her predicament. In this regard, “This Mournable Body” is a story of triumph, not despair.
- Alexandra Fuller is the author of the memoir “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” and, most recently, the novel “Quiet Until the Thaw.”