Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga: Dynamics of Character Relationship
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions
Postcolonialism and the Politics of Representation
When considering what I want to explore with secondary research, the reading that comes to mind is Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. There is, with this reading, no singular question that intrigues me more than others. It is perhaps the basic reason of the novel’s history that intrigues me the most – set in Zimbabwe before its independence (when the country was still called Rhodesia), the novel was published in 1988, right after Mugabe took power and commenced an authoritarian regime. The history that the novel itself represents, too, also begs investigation, in that the novel depicts components of the female experience & interactions with European missionaries at this time and place. With this lens in mind, the guiding inquisitive angle I’ve taken when looking at sources more or less revolves around anything exploring the dynamics of character relationships.
The source I’ve elected to work with discusses the relationship between community and autonomy in the novel, posing the two as parts in a dialectical relationship. The arguments summarized below are advanced by a Lindsay Aegerter in essay form.
The essay begins by discussing the wider context of the work; it contextualizes the novel in the sphere of wider Southern African women’s literature & the inherent struggles this body of work inherets. This, the essay poses, means that the novel (as with all work in this canon) must resist social silencing and disenfranchisement, phenomena prominent in colonial and neocolonial communities. This is primarily achieved through the novels cast, as the novel (and this body of work) places women in a central textual role. The text thusly refuses to marginalize a group historically marginalized people. This can be summarized as characters in a text – female African characters – living in spite of oppression as opposed to living oppressed.
The essay continues by discussing the dialectics of the work. The characters in the novel are engaged in a dialectical relationship between autonomy & community in that they are aligned with both the traditions of African womanhood and women’s liberation; there is here interplay between the notions of “preservation and progress” that leads to a synthesis of African notions of community and women’s autonomy as filtered through an African lense. “They negotiate both individual biography and historical contextuality and community,” as Aegerter notes (231).
Additionally, on this strain of thought, the essay posits that Dangarembga develops a “dialogic” method of depicting the text. By this Aegerter means that Dangarembga gives voices to the narratives that have been excluded from official versions of history. These representations, of multiple women’s perspectives, subvert a singular historical narrative and serve to deconstruct oppressive hierarchies. Aegerter continues by arguing that, in the novel, African women find autonomy through their positions in their communities. Representing this and the dialogic method, there is a collaborative relationship between various concepts that are typically posed as dichotomous: “past and present, individual and group, men and women, children and parents, parents and ancestors, severance and continuity.” (233)
Again, the essay returns to context, and talks about Dangarembga’s having said that her role as an artist in southern Africa was to be responsive to the necessity of women’s liberation and self-definition. Even in other literature of the region, a space for specifically female voices in this literature needed establishing – this highlights the intricasies of oppression, in that various oppressive structures can exist simultaneously and overlap, as southern African literature has also been dominated by male voices which represent an inherently different experience. As Aegerter writes, “Not only does Nervous Conditions offer resistance to colonization through its postcolonial perspective, it also offers a womanist critique of traditional and Western gendered oppression.” (233)
According to Aegerter, Dangarembga is the first black Zimbabwean woman to have a novel published in English. Her autobiographical self is represented in the novel through dual protagonists (Nyasha representing an urban & relatively anglicized self, Tambudzai representing a rural African self) – through this dual representation, she is noting a sense of mixed consciousness and split cultural selves that come about as a result of colonialization. This also comes to represent the “communal ethic at the heart of her African characters’ individual and cultural identities” (234), itself a subversive act against the Western, patriarchical tradition of singular autobiography. It is through this relationship that some of the novel’s critical politics come into light:
“Tambudzai, determined to escape the sexism of her father and the poverty that is colonization’s lingering legacy to rural Africans, slowly but surely learns from Nyasha’s postcolonial and feminist perspectives to hold onto her African identity, even as she revises it. Tambudzai comes to realize, as Nyasha has warned her, that escape from her father’s sexism into colonial racism is no escape at all” (234)
Additionally, the essay discusses how the pair represent the titular “nervous conditions,” a phrase derived from Sartre and Frantz Fanon (particularly linked to The Wretched of the Earth, a particularly salient postcolonial text). Tambu and Nyasha, together, embody some of the schizophrenic, split consciousness psychologies that make up the nervous conditions.
Now, when reading the essay, my understanding of the text was, to a degree, enhanced, as it elucidated numerous components of my initial reading (especially regarding agency and context). However, a question that I frequently consider came to mind while reading the essay. What is the ultimate impact of subversive / radical representations in literature?
This is a question I find particularly salient at this political moment. While, yes, I do wholeheartedly agree with the notions that a. we should have literature that refuses to be defined by colonialist tendencies and b. that representations matter, I’m always slightly put off by the weight that radical academia seems to lend these assertions. Across the board, I and every radical academic with whom I engage (regardless of medium) likely agree that oppression is a bad thing. From this comes the conclusion that texts that challenge oppressive notions are ultimately challenging oppression. This is all good! I have no problems with this conclusion, or any of the other conclusions in the essay. It’s more the implicit understandings of oppression and change that I have something of an issue with.
I will firmly assert an understanding of oppression that is rooted in power. Challenging representations, subversive literature, etc., are certainly acts of resistance and do relate to the question of power. But the impact of challenging these representations – how these acts shape and push back against oppressive power structures – seems somewhat overstated with the implicit understandings of power that this essay (and most radical literary analysis) often posits. While oppression is rooted in power, power is, ultimately, materially based. Having literature that refuses to be defined by colonialism is a good thing, but what does this literature change about colonialism? Politically speaking, I see no empirical basis for change that isn’t based in ideas put into practice. The conclusions re: power that stem from the question of representations, subversive fiction, etc., must be placed in conversation with the material world and struggle.
I realize that this may be a relatively orthodox understanding of power and oppression, but I genuinely cannot think of, from any perspective (that of the leftist, the academic, the writer, etc.), a change in oppressive power structure that has not primarily resulted from action. Now, the impact of representations on such action is absolutely something that should be remembered, but without their being turned into something larger, I don’t see them as peak political action.
There is a tendency within contemporary scenes of resistance that often poses individual modes of challenging representations – basically, the interogation of identity & the depictions / language used in relation to identities – as the main method of fighting oppression. The essay seems to embody this tendency, and strikes me as being somewhat representative of the most active trends within identity politics.
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