Nervous Conditions, by Tsisti Dangarembga
Originally published 1998
Historical Fiction, Literary
[CWs: death, misogyny, colonialism, racism, eating disorder]
Nervous Conditions won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1989 and was listed by the BBC as one of the top 100 most influential books of all time, however I am ashamed to say I had never heard of it before starting this challenge. It is the first book from a black Zimbabwean woman to be published in English. This was one of my first opportunistic charity shop finds, and one of the first books I read for Africa, and I was very glad to have stumbled across it!
Nervous Conditions is a beautiful but sad read. The novel is perfectly embodied by its title, and it is prefaced by the quote from The Wretched of the Earth*' - 'the condition of native is a nervous condition'. The story revolves around a family in colonial Zimbabwe and this 'condition', a perpetual state of anxiety, is evident in several different forms and characters throughout.
* I mistakenly credited the quote on my journal page to Frantz Fanon, but it was actually from Jean-Paul Sartre's introduction to the book.
The narrator, teenage Tamba, is given an opportunity to be educated at a prestigious and expensive mission school. Though happy to be getting her education as this is all she has dreamed of, she must first fight to prove to her family that they will benefit from educating her; she has always been valued lower than her brother Nhamo, and it is only in the wake of his sudden and unexpected death do they relent on allowing her the chance to study. The book begins with the striking first line 'I was not sorry when my brother died', and while it may be assumed that the narrator is callous, cold, to speak of a child's death in such a way, the tumultuous relationship they had is gradually revealed; through the family hierarchy and entrenched gender disparity, she is relegated to a servant's role, required to support her brother in his more intellectual endeavours while he takes every opportunity to reinforce his status over her. Tamba's mother has long borne the burdens of womanhood in a patriarchal society, and encourages her daughter to accept her fate and prepare for a life of servitude towards a future husband, but Tamba is desperate for more.
The promise of education comes at a price, however - having been bestowed on her by the benevolent and wealthy family patriarch, her uncle, she is indebted to him and must live life by his rules. She moves into his house, alongside his wife and children who have returned from time living in England and are having difficulty readjusting to the norms of Zimbabwean society, their Westernised behaviour often criticised by other family members. Tamba gradually bonds with her female cousin Nyasha, but watches on as a passive spectator as Nyasha slowly comes apart at the seams, attempting to rebel and push back against her father's rule but ultimately torn between two very different worlds and two sets of conflicting expectations, neither of which she fully belongs to.
You can't go on all the time being whatever's necessary. You've got to have some conviction, and I'm convinced I don't want to be anyone's underdog. It's not right for anyone to be that. But once you get used to it, well, it just seems natural and you just carry on. And that's the end of you. You're trapped. They control everything you do.
Tamba, who has previously played the role of grateful and dutiful niece and model student, begins to question the costs of acquiescence. Through her inner unease and experiences in an environment that appears to only tolerate, never accept her, and through her observations of her family struggling to straddle two ways of life, the damaging effects of colonialism are reflected on a micro level, as well as the burden of womanhood and gender imbalance.
I really loved this book and my only criticism was that the end felt quite abrupt, leaving me wanting more. However, Dangarembga has since written two sequels - The Book of Not and This Mournable Body and I am ready to devour these once I can get my hands on them.