By Timothy Piper and Nick Bestor
As our first (and only) novel this semester, we thought it would be helpful to use this space to provide some context for Dangarembga’s narrative by exploring her personal background, and in doing so, touch on a brief historical overview of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
In 1959, Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in Rhodesia, a nation that was colonized in the mid-nineteenth Century by British groups migrating North from South Africa; the country’s name was itself adopted in deference to Cecil Rhodes of the British South Africa Company. (Rhodes is also the namesake for the Rhodes Scholarship, apt given the novel’s attitude toward education.) Dangarembga moved with her parents to England from 1961-1965, a period during which Rhodesia's white-minority government declared independence from the UK in order to stave growing political and civil demands from the majority black population. Returning in 1965 to finish her primary school education in Rhodesia, Dangarembga enrolled at Hartzell High School, a Methodist missionary school at which her father was headmaster and her mother was a teacher.
In the video below, Dangarembga interviews her mother, Susan, in 2012 about their family history and the education at Hartzell High. Note especially the attention to Hartzell as a torchbearing institution, and how that comes through in Dangarembga’s novel. The school is named after Joseph Crane Hartzell, an American missionary who received support from Rhodes’ British South Africa Company in establishing a mission in Umtali.
In 1977, Dangarembga went back to England to study medicine at Cambridge, but returned to Rhodesia in 1980, shortly after the white supremacist government consented to hold multiracial elections. Robert Mugabe won the presidency in a landslide election that year, and Rhodesia formally declared its independence under the name Zimbabwe on 17 April, 1980. While women’s groups were integral to the broader success of the Zimbabwean revolution, their struggles yet persisted as the patriarchal postcolonial order continued to dictate and legislate the role of women. We recommend perusing this collection of oral testimonies from Zimbabwean women speaking about life during the revolution. In particular, check out the sections on “The Children of War”, “The Resilience of Women During the War”, and “The Women Look Forward (and Back)”.
In the early 1980s, Dangarembga was studying psychology at the University of Zimbabwe, but upon enrolling in a drama group, found her calling in the humanities and creative arts. With a concern for the lack of stories and plays about black African women, Dangarembga sought to focus her writing on expanding these roles. Nervous Conditions was her first book, which, despite being written in 1985, was not published until 1988 when Dangarembga solicited a women's publishing house in the UK.
Here, Dangarembga offers her thoughts on postcolonial Zimbabwe, which we found to be a succinct articulation of her views on the dynamic intersections of gender, race, and (post)colonialism. For our discussion of Nervous Conditions, her remarks on existential neuroses and the insatiable desire for “the not-I” (beginning at 6:34) are particularly salient.
The book’s title comes from Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. The 2004 translation renders the phrase “neurosis,” but the original 1961 version of the preface can be found at the following link. We highly recommend everyone take a look before class on Thursday.
For our seminar discussion, we want to consider Dangarembga’s novel in relation to several of the texts/theories/concepts from earlier this semester. As such, we encourage everyone to re-familiarize yourselves with the following authors and themes:
Stuart Hall, “The Spectacle of the Other”; Willis, Venus 2010
Considering the novel in relation to representation; e.g., contesting regimes of representation, making legible invisible hegemonic power structures, and agency of the oppressed in constructing their own representation
Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies
Thinking through the ways that Tambu struggles to understand and confront “the everyday horrors that aren’t acknowledged to be horrors” (Sharpe 3). In what ways do the characters (Tambu, Nyasha, Maiguru, Ma’Shingayi, Babamukuru) struggle against Sharpe’s monstrous intimacies, and are forced “to be witness to, participant in, and be silent about scenes of subjection that we rewrite as freedom” (Sharpe 23).
Fanon, Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Mask; Mbembe, On the Postcolony
Considering the question of the psychology and its inadequacy to reckon with the colonial/postcolonial subject. Fanon makes a point of complicating and problematizing the terms and assumptions of psychoanalysis, writing “Whenever I have read a psychoanalytic work … I have been struck by the disparity between the corresponding schemas and the reality that the Negro presents.” (BSWM 150). Also think about Mbembe’s time of entanglement, which he describes “not [as] a series but an interlocking of presents, pasts, and futures that retain their depths of other pasts, presents, and future, each age bearing, altering, and maintaining the previous ones” (Mbembe 16).
Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar; de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
Thinking about how Dangarembga’s characters each participate in the circulation of tactics: in what ways do the characters use everyday practices to de-concretize the borders and boundaries constructed around them; how do they change the space and how does it change them; are the characters engaging in resistive action, or demonstrating their capacity to suffer and endure, and whether this is presented in the novel as a rigid dichotomy?