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

That Deadman Dance

Bobby Wabalanginy is a young Noongar Aborigine boy who loses his parents and thus spends more time than most among the ‘Horizon people’, those who came to his land on ships from somewhere beyond the horizon. A happy boy, his people believe that family includes the fish, birds and animal-life who communicate messages like the wind and the sky, all of whom they read with ease whilst the newcomers marvel at their abilities, as if it is by chance that they can predict the turning of the flames of a raging fire.

Bobby befriends Mr Cross who is trying to tame a piece of land in order to bring his wife and children to join him. Mr Cross teaches Bobby English and learns some of the protocols of respect between Aborigine people and begins to understand the logic of their ways. After his death, Bobby continues his lessons with Mrs Chaine and her twins, Christine and Christopher.

‘these men from the ocean horizon or wherever it is they come from, they do not leave even when the rains come and that wind blows across the water right into their camp.’

Kim Scott evokes the simplicity of Aboriginal life and their close affinity to nature and the environment, they are part of the natural habitat and leave little trace of their inhabitancy though they are adept trackers and can see things others can’t. The European’s bring a different way of being and a different relationship to the land, its climate and tendencies, they seek to tame it and turn it into something that resembles that which they are familiar with, thus they impose their will and their ways.

“we learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours…”

Killer Whales by Badlydrawnstickman at behance.net

As the settlement grows, more people visit, interactions with itinerant whalers herald the beginning of their semi-dependency on the horizon people, who use their labour and reward them by trading food and goods, this becomes a turning point, because the whaling era comes to an end and the indigenous people are then without resources, they begin to resent that these people take their land as if they own it, use their animal brothers and then punish them for wanting to take a sheep or something else in return.

Tolerance degenerates into mistrust, laws are imposed and the European colonials assert their perceived superiority, enforcing these new rules by making an example of Bobby and others, throwing them in jail. They ensure his silence for anything he may have seen which would imply law breaking by the colonialists.

The old man snorted his contempt for Bobby’s song: those foreign words, that horizon people’s bleached and salty tongue and prickles of strange melodies. There are too many whales ashore, he said and too many people from all around, and do not greet us when they arrive or say goodbye when they leave. We are pressed by strangers from the sea now, and from inland too.”

It is a book that meanders, on plot and when it attempts to delve into a character, which it never really succeeds in doing, though Bobby is the common thread throughout. Some characters are memorable while others churn in a sea of names making the briefest of appearances. The story slows down and drifts aimlessly midway, seeming almost to lose its way, a reflection of what was happening to the population, lost in confusion.

Image courtesy of Nambassa Trust & Peter Terry

While not everyone may have the patience for this literary walk-about, Scott’s book touches something deep within, it is a window into the Aborigine people’s incredible relationship with the natural environment, how song and dance communicate knowledge and wisdom down the generations, something that if we ever knew it, has long been lost in our own western cultures, which have become less rooted in our landscape and surroundings as we seek to infuse each location we inhabit with known familiarity.

“he came alive in the Dead Man Dance and gathered together all the different selves. …It was like Bobby was them, was showing their very selves, inside their heads and singing their very sound and voices:…”

In my own virtual meanderings, I came across Cultural Survival and learned that it was only in 2007 that the United National General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which includes:

the right to live on and use their traditional territories; the right to self-determination; the right to free, prior, and informed consent before any outside project is undertaken on their land; the right to keep their languages, cultural practices, and sacred places; the right to full government services, and, perhaps most significant, the right to be recognized and treated as peoples.

It is sad it has taken this long for the hard work of many for this to become a Human Right, and there is much to do to continue to maintain it. I hope this book, quite apart from being an entertaining read, will help to increase awareness of the rights and cultural heritage of the many indigenous populations worldwide.

I am reminded in closing of the wonderful music of Yothu Yindi, an appropriate complement to the unique voices channelled by Kim Scott in this book ‘That Deadman Dance’ and winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for the South East Asia and Pacific region. Do click through and listen to the powerful and beautiful ‘Tribal Voice’

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.