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Thursday, February 23, 2012


First sentences: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

I was not sorry when my brother died.

One of the most famous first sentences of African literature.

In the introduction to my copy, Professor Abena Busia tells the story of how a storm of controversy erupted when she mentioned this novel at the African Studies Center: a 'distinguished professor and poet from Southern Africa' (male, as Busia remarks without surprise) declared that 'No self-respecting African girl would make a comment like this, and expect to get sympathy.' Busia comments that 'He, and other African men in the room, were outraged and could not, or did not know how to, focus on a story centred on a woman's self-identity. That the book was fictional, and strategic, did not seem to be important.' Busia describes the situation:

It is pertinent that what made the men pause was an unexpected intervention from my mother, the 'elder' present, who could not let their refusal to recognise the bitter experiences of many women across the continent go unchallenged. Her testimony of women who could bear witness to Tambudzai's frustrations - denied access to schooling, their dreams dying unnoticed and unfulfilled - provoked her into a fierce defence of the opening of the work. Only then did the men concede that the strategy might have basis in reality. Fortunately, both on that day and in the decades following, those oppositional voices have been subordinate and increasingly rare. Nevertheless, their very resistance shows what a superb interrogation of the interconnections of patriarchal structures, whether colonial, or native and familial, Nervous Conditions really is.

Well, quite.

Nervous Conditions is the story of Tambudzai, a bright and conscientious girl growing up in a Shona village who struggles to advance despite the disadvantages facing both her people as a whole and girls dealing with sexism both European and African. Tambudzai is an observer both sharp and sensitive, respectful to her village traditions but hopeful of an educated future, trying hard to be a good African girl in a world where both whites and Africans can make it very difficult for such a life to be bearable.

This first sentence, then, speaks with both conscience and honesty: to us, if not to those around her, Tambudzai will tell the truth, however difficult it may be. Simple and open: she was not sorry. Already we see the subtlety of her observation: 'not sorry' is an altogether more complicated emotion than 'glad'. Nhamo's death is an opportunity for Tambudzai because there are only the resources to educate one child from her family, and Nhamo himself has not been a good brother. His education has gone to his head and he has become arrogant and exploitative towards his sisters while, significantly, pretending to have forgotten how to speak Shona - a situation which Tambudzai describes with characteristic fairness, seeing him at least in part as a victim who was 'doing no more than behave, perhaps extremely, in the expected manner.'

Tambudzai, then, has double reasons, both a positive and a negative, not to regret Nhamo's passing: his death opens doors for her, and he has made himself all but impossible to love. The combination of pressures on them has, in fact, severed family bonds: by pitting the interests of brother and sister so completely against each other, Tambudzai is left with nothing but cool assessment of his death. She can speak only in mild terms: not pleased, not happy, just not sorry.

For all her passionate aspiration, in other words, Tambudzai is put in a position of such deep ambivalence that the best way to introduce herself is with a negative. She begins by telling us that she did not feel what she was supposed to feel: that is the key to her experience. For all that she has a definite personality, the fundamental expression of herself - which spoke so resonantly to Busia's mother - is simply that she is not able to occupy her 'expected' role, however she might try. This is an honest girl speaking out of a context so oppressive that her very first words to us must refer to that context if we are to understand anything else about her. She does not have the luxury of defining herself as separate from her circumstances.

From a white English perspective at least, the language is also interesting. Language itself, English versus Shona, is an important element of the story, seen in the first chapter in Nhamo's foolish pretence that he has shed his native tongue; Tambudzai speaks to us in English. Her first sentence has a delicate formality to it: not 'I wasn't sorry' but 'I was not sorry.' English is the language of education and status in Tambudzai's Zimbabwe, and she handles it with a mixture of respect and caution. Her speech is clear, even eloquent, but it is never casual: her experiences are not a casual matter, and the language in which she speaks of them is fraught with contradictions: the language imposed by conquerors who offer opportunities - especially for a girl trying to get out of a patriarchal village - while demeaning one's original identity, confusingly mixing salvation and destruction. Tambudzai takes things seriously, and the English language - the 'Englishness' Tambudzai's mother declares will 'kill them all if they aren't careful' - is too serious a matter to reduce to slang.

Nervous Conditions is a book at once simple and subtle, angry and careful, witnessing psychological devastation while warning that 'blame does not come in neatly packaged parcels.' Here in its first sentence, frank in its rebellion yet nuanced, careful, even moderate in its fine choice of words, we meet its uncertainty regarding blame. Tambudzai cannot say whether Nhamo's death was in itself a good or bad event: she can only say what she herself felt about it - and even then, she can only express herself by saying what she did not feel.

Neither the grief appropriate to a good African sister nor the vindication appropriate to a stereotypical Western feminist can reflect Tambudzai's true experience. She isn't sure what she agrees with or who she trust; all she knows for sure what is she cannot pretend.

Oh wow. This sounds like a book I must read.

The only comment I can make on your description/analysis is that it makes me feel a poorer person for never having read this.
It's a terrific book - a combination of readable and subtle, which is a precious find indeed.

It includes, as a side benefit, one of the best descriptions of privilege I've ever read. The privilege isn't absolute, because it's describing an African patriarch who has had to advance himself by accepting what support and scholarships he could get out of the Rhodesian white establishment, but the advantage of being male and successful are described thus:

Babamukuru was always impressive when he made these speeches of his. He was a rigid, imposing perfectionist, steely enough in character to function in the puritanical way that he expected, or rather insisted, that the rest of the world should function. Luckily, or maybe unluckily for him, throughout his life Babamukuru had found himself - as eldest child and son, as an early educated African, as headmaster, as husband and father, as provider to many - in positions that enabled him to organise his immediate world and its contents as he wished. Even when this was not the case, as when he went to the mission as a young boy, the end result of such periods of submission was greater power than before. Thus he had been insulated from the necessity of considering alternatives unless they were his own. Stoically he accepted his divinity. Filled with awe, we accepted it too. We used to marvel at how benevolent that divinity was. Babamukuru was good. We all agreed on this. More significantly still, Babamukuru was right.
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