In the closing passage of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s new novel her character Tambu observes: “There is more war in your country’s way of peace than any of you had expected.”
The line is eerily prescient, given that as I write this, the author has just been arrested during protests in Harare. It had been a triumphant week for the 61-year-old writer and filmmaker, after she had been longlisted for the esteemed Booker Prize, but the weekend found her slammed up in a cell after she was picked up by the feared security agencies.
This Mournable Body (Jacana) is the third book in a trilogy. The first, Nervous Conditions, was published in 1988. It is the first book published in English by a black Zimbabwean woman, and was instantly acclaimed. It won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989 and recently the BBC voted it as one of the top 100 books that changed the world.
Set in the last days of Rhodesia as it was heading for independence, the story centres on two girl cousins, Tambu and Nyasha, as they kick against the crushing inequality and sexual discrimination of their society. It begins with the famous line, “I was not sorry when my brother died.” With him out of the way, Tambu can step up as heir apparent in the family, including having access to a decent education. But traditional ways run deep, as she discovers.
The book is also an acidic portrait of colonialism, which Dangarembga further explores in the sequel, The Book of Not. The curtain rises, hideously, on a severed leg flying through the air and getting hooked in a tree. It serves throughout the story as a metaphor for the ongoing war of independence. Here we find Tambu attending a prestigious, predominantly white convent school and suffering both the overt and the subtle violences of racism meted out by the nuns and her schoolmates. But she is determined to escape from her rural upbringing and absorbs the warping cruelties as she focuses on her goal and the ideal of assimilation. Not surprisingly, these will be unfulfilled, and she can never satisfy the demands of her impossible family.
We turn to This Mournable Body eagerly, then, to find out how Tambu has fared.
She is living in a run-down hostel, having thrown in her job at an advertising agency, where the white colleagues had taken her best copy and put their names to it. Still remorselessly upwardly-mobile, she hunts for jobs in her precious Lady-Di shoes. There is something worrying going on here, though, that Dangarembga enhances by writing in the second person. Tambu is numb — numb to the attack on a provocatively dressed woman at a taxi rank; numb to the striving and setbacks of her fellow women. She sees them only as adversaries.
She asks herself, “When you were young and in fighting spirit, growing mealie cobs in the family field and selling them to raise money for your school fees, you were not this person you have become. When and how did it happen?”
And then she is offered a job in an eco-tourism company. It is a dream come true, complete with a bungalow. No more dodgy accommodation; pride again for the family that she has a smart job, a proper salary. But the company is owned by her old foe, Tracey Stevenson. Tracey, who unfairly beat her to the honours roll at school. Tracey, who worked at the ad agency and turned a blind eye to the racism there. Once again, Tambu absorbs the arrows, and Dangarembga is slyly funny sending up the tourism business. But when the company takes a group of European visitors for an “experiential” visit to her rural village, the clash between tradition and capitalism, the old ways and modernity, erupts humiliatingly.
In one interview Dangarembga expanded on the title, which was inspired by Teju Cole’s essay titled “Unmournable Bodies”. “Women often find it difficult to mourn themselves and their circumstances. In Zimbabwe today a lot of women think they are born to put up with all sorts of abuse. It is the idea that society foists on women that suffering is a woman’s lot.”
The word “seminal” has come to be slapped on any outstanding work, but its true meaning is of something that strongly influences later developments. Nervous Conditions is a truly seminal book that led the way for a blaze of Zimbabwean women writers. Petina Gappah, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, Sue Nyathi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Panashe Chigumadzi, and Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu are just some of the writers following Dangarembga’s trail.
After her arrest, she tweeted: “Friends, here is a principle. If you want your suffering to end, you have to act. Action comes from hope. This [is] the principle of faith and action.”
This month the shortlist of the Booker Prize will be announced, and Dangarembga returns to court to face charges of incitement to commit violence and breaching anti-coronavirus health regulations.
There will be many watching the outcome of both.
• From the September issue of Wanted 2020.