Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

I came across this promising book on a Goodreads group called 500 Great Books by Women  a reference to a book published in 1994 that lists works by women considered notable and influential under different themes such as Art, Heritage, Identity, Ethics, Conflicting Cultures, Choices, Growing Old, Growing Up, Power and more.

The group also includes a list developed from a similar compilation called Daughters of Africa by Margaret Busby an anthology of words and writings by women of African descent, with titles from the 1830’s to 1990.

In an effort to read more widely, writers from different countries and cultures, and in particular the lesser known great books from women, it’s a fabulous resource and members of Goodreads, if they’ve read and reviewed any of these books provide links to their comments/thoughts on them, helpful in discerning whether a book is of interest.

Nervous Conditions was written by the Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga in 1988, it was the first book published by a black woman from Zimbabwe in English. It was awarded the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1989 and has been translated into a number of languages. It is recognized as a major literary contribution to African feminism and postcolonial literature.

If that wasn’t enough of a promise of something rewarding, this quote in the excellent foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah confirmed it.

“Each novel is a message in a bottle cast into the great ocean of literature from somewhere else (even if it was written and published last week in your home town); and what makes the novel available to its readers is not shared values or beliefs or experiences but the human capacity to conjure new worlds in the imagination.”

I thought it was absolutely brilliant, one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across in my cross cultural journey, portrayed with such raw honesty, I’m in awe and immensely relieved there is another book to follow, because I’m not ready to leave it there.

It’s a coming of age story of Tambu, a teenage girl, who in the beginning lives in a small village with her parents and siblings and their days are hard, especially the women, who work in the fields all day, do the laundry at the river, transport water to and fro and cook in a kitchen that lacks modern conveniences and requires skill and tenacity to manage. Despite the hard work Tambu loves her village and even the work and chores equally provide moments of pleasure and companionship.

Her Aunt and Uncle return from five years in England furthering their education so he can become headmaster of the mission school. Tambu is disappointed that her cousin isn’t as friendly towards her as she once was, the “Englishness” has changed her cousins. Her brother is offered the opportunity of an education where her Uncle is headmaster.

It had been my uncle’s idea that Nhamo should go to school at the mission. Nhamo, if given the chance, my uncle said, would distinguish himself academically, at least sufficiently to enter a decent profession. With the money earned this way, my uncle said, Nhamo would lift our branch of the family out of the squalor in which we were living.

Tambu forced to quit her education for financial reasons, sets about implementing a plan to earn her own school fees, determined that she shall rise up too. She appears to have the best of both worlds, the grounding, practical, connected upbringing of village life, a work ethic, practical skills in the kitchen and a tenacity that purchased her an extended education, growing her own crop and finding someone to help her sell it, despite efforts by her brother to sabotage her intention and her parents complete lack of faith in her ability to succeed.

Thus she too sets off on the path of an education informed by “English influences” though she retains deep family and village values. However, being around and observing her cousin and how her behaviour has changed, and becoming aware of the frustrated ambitions of her aunt, her world view begins to shift , despite dedicating herself to being the most diligent pupil and the most respectful niece possible.

The subtle way her character transitions to greater awareness is adeptly portrayed, her feelings of ambition and regret as she realises it may be impossible to achieve all that she aspires to without losing something of what she had. She observes her cousin rebel and then accept that middle ground, fall victim to it, unable to go back to who she was, becoming alienated from her own, entering into self-destructive territory.

All her characters are multi dimensional, portrayed in a way that even though they inflict suffering on one another, we are made to understand their point of view and realise the dilemmas and complexities they face. There are no villains, or heroes, just humans trying to improve their lot or that of others, sometimes making significant achievements, and at other times grave mistakes.

In an interview the author was asked why she was so generous to her characters, giving them this chance to explain or be explained, she responded:

I employ this strategy so that many different categories of people can find something to identify within the book – also because the situation of the characters is very complex.  One can hold a person responsible for reacting to a situation in a certain way, but the situation that exerted the pressure to behave in that way must also be addressed.

I’m so glad I’ve read this early on, so I can get to the next two books in the trilogy The Book of Not and This Mournable Body.Have you read this modern classic or any other books by Zimbabwean authors?

Buy a Copy via BookDepository

19 thoughts on “Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

  1. After reading your review, Nervous Conditions, must go on my “reading list”. I just checked and my library doesn’t own a copy but it is available elsewhere in the state, so I will be able to get my hands on a copy. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I went to some trouble to get a hold of this book a couple of years and now that the third part of the trilogy is so visible I keep thinking that this *must* be the year I read it. I read little of anything from Africa outside of Egypt last year, so this year I’d like to correct that shortcoming. Thanks for the great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • How wonderful that you already have a copy on the shelf, I think you’re right, this would be a good year to read it, I don’t have the other two books yet, but I’d like to read the trilogy in the same year, so I’ll be looking out for them. I’d love to see what else you read if you do decide to seek out more literary gems from Africa. Exciting!

      Liked by 1 person

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