First published in 1988, Nervous Conditions has the distinction of being the first English language novel to be written by a Zimbabwean woman of African descent, Tsitsi Dangarembga. Nervous Conditions won the 1989 Commonwealth Writers Prize and remains a household name for many people. In May 2018, BBC Culture asked writers to pick stories that have shaped the world and stood the test of time. Nervous Conditions ranked 66th in this list.
BY TARIRO NDORO
When I think of Nervous Conditions, I think of it in Mrs. Mashanda’s voice. She was my O’Level Literature teacher and one of the set works was Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. It was Mrs. Mashanda who explained Maiguru’s vague comment about not being able to spend her own money as she would like and other colonial phenomena that “born frees” such as myself failed to understand. My classmates and I dutifully memorised quotes that illustrated the blatant sexism of 1970s Rhodesia. “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?” (a question the main protagonist’s father asked her when she expresses her desire to go to school against the odds of there not being enough money for both she and her brother to go) is one I’ll never forget.
Yet, I recently realised, when I re-read Nervous Conditions, that I had been so eager to read the book and get to the end that I didn’t appreciate Dangaremba’s narrative skill. For instance, Nervous Conditions now reminds me of “Four Women,” an iconic ballad by Nina Simone, that recounts the experiences of four black women living in America — there is Aunt Sarah, the stereotypical strong black woman; Saffronia, a light-skinned woman who is the result of rape; Sweet Thing, who is a sex worker; and Peaches, who describes herself as an embittered daughter of slaves. Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions also explores the plight of black women, not by showing one archetype, but by showcasing a plethora of characters and how they deal with the twin adversaries of Colonialism and Patriarchy. Tambu, the protagonist tries to conquer her hardships using hard work; Nyasha, who has lived in both the UK and Rhodesia sees injustice more clearly than others and tries to fight the entire system; Maiguru, Tambu’s aunt and Nyasha’s mother, tries to play the good wife although there are times when she has to admit her own discontent. There is also Tambu’s mother, who is embittered by the loss of her son to “Englishness” and sees herself as a victim, whilst her younger sister, Lucia is quite the opposite, using both her sexuality and brawn to defy the system.
Seeing as Nervous Conditions was such a widely read novel and it contained so much about Zimbabwean history, feminism and black identity, I decided to write an unorthodox interview, asking several people how they read Nervous Conditions and how it changed their views on identity and feminism.
These conversations took place via many media including Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp and word of mouth.
“Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions also explores the plight of black women, not by showing one archetype, but by showcasing a plethora of characters and how they deal with the twin adversaries of Colonialism and Patriarchy.“
Tariro: Do you remember reading Nervous Conditions for the first time?
Marike Beyer: What I remember about reading Nervous Conditions is a vividness in the experience, the directness of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences presented. The surprise at how a reality that was socially removed from my experience in its outward form was in fact so immediate, so recognisable that I could not say ‘this is another culture’, even though it was that—it gave me something about acknowledgment in another experience—but it also tilted things just that little bit inside me. The strangeness of living with other people; the immediacy of customs unravelling; the shifts in how women and girls direct themselves towards authority—Nervous Conditions spoke to me about that, in a new way and also into myself. I was in a much more fortunate position economically in that I didn’t have to battle just to go to school, but I was young enough to read it probably selfishly in many ways and remember the feelings of the world being both frightfully boundless and terrifyingly circumscribed.
In the mid-90s, however, I discussed the book with a group of adult students who read it as a set-work. I was not a wonderfully inspiring teacher, in most of the books we struggled to get a conversation going beyond expectations/fears of examinations. But Nervous Conditions struck a chord: it was the most marvellous thing to just be there and listen to the students talking about the book not even minding whether they were talking about the book or their lives.
Relebone Myambo: I think I was around 12? I don’t quite remember what age I was. I just remember being really young, and that I got my hard copy at the local library.
Sharlene Khan: I read the book somewhere in the 2000s. I can’t remember when exactly. A friend gave me a copy of The Book of Not and I saw it was a sequel to Nervous Conditions so I got that and read it first and was completely blown away. I found elements of identification with living life in an African society and township that I’d never found before in literature and that book started my love for African fiction, which I’ve voraciously been consuming ever since.
Omoseye Bolaji: To be honest, it was a young, intelligent if rather callow female undergraduate in South Africa who actually made me realise how awesome the novel Nervous Conditions is. This was about 20 years ago when I lived in South Africa. I had published some books of mine too by then, and this particular young student was enamored with a work of mine, which she had borrowed from the local library. When she met me, she kept on praising my book then she added, “Your book is interesting, but of course the greatest book ever published is Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga. It is more than a masterpiece. The author is a woman and her novel is a prescribed read in our university. You’ve read it?”
I shook my head, saying: “I know the author, but strangely enough, it’s her earlier play, She No Longer Weeps that I have read in full.”
Shocked, the young woman made me promise to read Nervous Conditions. And somewhat enveloped in shame(!), I did so that very weekend. Of course, I knew about the work beforehand, but now actually read the whole work. I realised that the author was a rare literary talent, certainly world class. I began to get engrossed in the story…but looking back now, I can say that it was the protagonist, Tambu’s, quick percipience and awareness to grab her opportunity, and the exciting possibilities of the future; the acknowledgment of the grim reality of her life thus far, that struck me early. From Chapter 4:
“When Tambu left with Babamukuru in his car she felt excitement, relief, and anticipation. This was the culmination of all her dreams, a short-cut to the life she had longed for. She was not fully aware of how much of a peasant she was, but she knew that she would need to change a great deal. Despite leaving her family behind she did not feel despondent, but felt instead that she had achieved a great deal, stepped over a great gulf, which she had not considered possible such a short time ago. She was aware that her dress was too tight and faded; that her feet too broad and hard through constant walking without shoes. She knew that the dirt was ingrained in her skin and could not be scrubbed out; her skin covered in scales from lack of oil in her diet; her hair malnourished. However, she had a vision that as soon as she arrived at Babamukuru’s house all these things would change in some miraculous way. She would no longer have to work in smoky kitchens, struggle with fires that either sulked or burnt up too quickly; carry heavy drums of water. . . she would no longer have to coax water into narrow tributaries to water her vegetables. “
And much later on in the work (Chapter 10), the following passage remains memorable for me:
“However, her [Tambu’s] attitude had altered. She no longer accepted everything that she was told and thought of it as being the ‘best’ that one could be given. Now she began to question, to ask if what she was being offered was really better than that which she had already. This was the beginning of her ‘growing up’, of her ‘expansion’ into a thinking, questioning person…”
This excitingly reminded me of the remarkable metamorphosis of protagonist, Xuma, in Peter Abrahams’ great early novel, Mine Boy when he began to think for himself, becoming something of an intellectual, someone to galvanise his pertinent society ahead. (Mine Boy has been one of my favourite African novels for decades.)
Earnest Mashamba1: I first read Nervous Conditions in High school, I think in form 4 as part of the mandatory literature.
Tariro: As a GCSE student, I felt more in touch with Tambu, who overcame all of her challenges through hard work and ingenuity—when she was told she couldn’t go to school, she planted maize in her grandmother’s old vegetable garden to raise her own school fees. When she was afforded the opportunity to live with her privileged uncle, she continues to work hard, securing a scholarship at a better school but still being humble enough to clean the long drop toilet at her parent’s rural home.
Yet, I identify more with Nyasha, who is universally understood and whose rage against the world’s injustice often works against her. Having been exposed to many different cultures growing up, I too sometimes shrink back in social environments and I understand Nyasha’s lament too clearly, “they think I do it on purpose” whenever she commits a faux pas and her strict father, Babamukuru, assumes she is being willfully disobedient. When I first read Nervous Conditions, I never understood Nyasha’s breakdown either but after reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening I understand that she is like Edna Pontellier, aware enough to see that the way the world works needs changing but too weak to change it. This quote describes her breakdown perfectly, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” Which character did you identify with the most? Why?
Relebone Myambo: Tambu, definitely! Just the opening line of the book rattled me—she was not afraid to think “forbidden thoughts.” She was fiercely independent, intellectually and emotionally is what I aspire to be even now.
Sharlene Khan: There were bits I identified with in many characters, but particularly Tambuzai’s family members and home set up—those kinds of intimate, messed-up dynamics that exist in family spaces that deal with everything from food and money to sex and education, where there is no singular ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person, but complex histories.
Earnest Mashamba: As a student who attended an Afrikaans school, thanks to bursaries and empowerment pressure by the government, I immediately identified with Tambu and her brother, Nhamo, and their ‘nervous conditions’. But strangely enough, now I identify most with Tambu’s mother. I’ve had my growth and abilities mostly used for the benefit of Western platforms. Conversations, debates, academic discussion, research, and even political analysis all at work in a distant land detached from where my home is. Like Mai Tambu, I feel like I’ve lost something of mine to resources and opportunities that I could not provide on my own in my home country. And like Babamukuru, the Universities and organizations that have been kind enough to give me a place and environment to grow and become more competent have also created a slight cold bitterness in me as if they are taking something from me that if the world was a better place would have belonged with my home.
Tariro: How did the Nervous Conditions change the way you saw yourself along with (other) women and people of colour?
Relebone Myambo: Before this, all the books I had access to were mostly peopled with whites. White people doing white people things. I’d never read a book that so looked like my own life—a black girl from a financially difficult situation trying to better herself. I identified with Tambu’s sense of alienation from her old world—she was changing and it was not, and yet it’s the only world she supposedly belonged to—and the alienation from the new world, her cousin’s world, because she was too unlike it in many ways. As a black woman, it validated me that these struggles and others too could be the subject of literature. I felt seen. Truly. It was the first time anyone had articulated the complex thoughts I didn’t have a language for, but which I battled through every day.
Sharlene Khan: Seeing the world through the eyes of Tambudzai and Nyasha was truly revolutionary—for us, as young African women to be at the center of great literature was not always the norm, nor something that we were often exposed to. Of course, there were stories by Ama Ata Aidoo or Nawal el Sadaawi who had written such stories, but this was my first encounter with such literature. And the sequel was remarkable in teaching me that colonial education would not give us the strategies we need to change our lives—almost two decades later, I’m still exploring the politics of ‘not’ as an artistic, life and killjoy strategy. In reading this book, I found a bit of myself.
Earnest Mashamba: The book made explicit what my culture and interactions with family had always been subtle about. Sexist dynamics when it came to the education of girls, double patriarchal standard, slut shaming, gender-based violence, domestic abuse; I could go on. A whole world of honest conversation about sexism sat quietly in that book and I still remember the feelings it stirred in me. The book was probably one of the most potent conversations I’ve had with myself about being a Person of Colour and having to fight to remain black in a world that rewarded me for acting white and often demanded me to balance my culture with my growing global identity in a white-structured world.
Cathryn Moodley: That book was one of the first things that helped me understand some of the complexities and paradoxes of the colonial encounter and its effect on identity, family, community…wow, I feel like I could say so much about Nervous Conditions. It literally changed my life. Also, Nyasha and Tambu are both so beautiful as characters!
Tariro: What is your favourite quote from the Nervous Conditions?
Sharlene Khan: That first line is an absolute classic: “I was not sorry when my brother died”. The usual male central axis of novels had to die in that first line for us to have this feminist voicing.
Relebone Myambo: I know it’s a Jean-Paul Sartre2 quote but, “the condition of a native is a nervous condition.”
Earnest Mashamba: “It’s bad enough . . . when a country gets colonized, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end.”
Not his real name.
Taken from Jean Paul Sartre’s introduction to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth.
Tariro Ndoro is a Zimbabwean writer. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in a wide range of literary magazines and journals including Afreada, The Kalahari Review, Kotaz, New Contrast, Oxford Poetry and Puerto del Sol. Links to all her published works are available on her blog. Tariro was longlisted for the 2017 Writivism Short Story Prize and took part in a Digital Art Exchange Programme in 2017. She was shortlisted for the 2018 BNPA.