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Author: David William Cohen
Title: 'With Their Consent': Tsitsi Dangaremba's Nervous Conditions: A Novel
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: 'With Their Consent': Tsitsi Dangaremba's Nervous Conditions: A Novel
David William Cohen

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 4, pp. 12, 1992
Author Biography: David William Cohen is in Anthropology and History at Northwestern and is Director of the Program of African Studies, as well as the 1992-93 preceptor of the Institute.

'With Their Consent': Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions: A Novel [1]


In 1991-92, the English and History Departments of Evanston Township High School, Evanston, Illinois, organized a "Masterworks" program for teachers at the school. Jonathan Weil, Chair of History, and Malcolm Stern, Chair of English, conceived and organized the program. Supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and led by Professor Albert Wertheim of the Department of English, Indiana University, fifteen teachers at the high school read and discussed works of literature by African and Caribbean authors throughout the academic year. The readings included works by Peter Abrahams, Chinua Achebe, Michael Anthony, Buchi Emecheta, Nuruddin Farah, Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, Jamaica Kincaid, Earl Lovelace, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Lewis Nkosi, Okot p'Bitek, Olive Senior, and Wole Soyinka. While Al Wertheim led most of the discussions, a few of the sessions were led by outside discussants, including Abiola Irele, Geta LeSeur, Sheila Roberts, and Abu Solomons. I was asked to open a discussion of Dangarembga's 1988 novel. The following remarks were prepared in advance of the January 13, 1992 discussion. The remarks were intended to raise a challenge to what was anticipated would be the location of Nervous Conditions in the genre of the "coming of age" novel that had, I had learned, framed the discussion of a number of the novels previously discussed. In the actual discussion that followed the presentation of these remarks, the present writer was startled by the teachers' extraordinarily sensitive and original readings of the novel, which in no way reflected the "coming of age" reading that had been anticipated.

Nervous Conditions is an autobiographical novel of growing up within a colonial and African context. In a superficial sense, it shares its subject—though not so much its method—with Ake, Wole Soyinka's reflections on his own early years. But while Ake is about childhood, Nervous Conditions is really not about childhood at all ... it is rather about the extraordinary power of patriarchy and the extraordinary force of gender within a specific set of relations, those surrounding Tambudzai as she navigated—or was transported—through a series of domestic and institutional settings in eastern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Written after the formation of a new, independent government following decades of civil war, and after nine decades of white domination, the book is set largely in the 1960s, in a period before Chimurenga, the Zimbabwean war of independence, began to affect the everyday lives of people across the region. One may ask how far traces of the war find space in the book or how the author finds her way back to this era largely free of the effects of Chimurenga? And what might we, and readers in Zimbabwe, make of a work of such power that neither calls up directly, nor brings one to an understanding of, the changes that led to the wider and more affecting conflict?

At one level, the story of an African life may be read as analogy to, or metaphor of, wider social, cultural, and political experience. As readers, we search for the broader resonance and meaning of a work of literature. In this regard, how do we choose to read Nervous Conditions? Is this work a further chapter in the tradition of the "coming of age" novel in Africa, in which the experiences of the individual unfold a portrait of a broader history of the formation of a nation? I would suggest another possibility, that this novel is one that can be read as a significant break with the works of Achebe, the early Ngugi, Ekwensi, Armah, and some of Soyinka that mark out the anglophone tradition of "coming of age" novel. An intentional break or not. . .Nervous Conditions forces a more critical reading of the "coming of age" novel that has become the trademark of modern African literature.

A few points come to mind.

First, Nervous Conditions explores the intimate arena of emotions, feelings, psyche. It is a text rich in psychological and psychoanalytic insight. Though material circumstances are richly drawn, the arena of conflict is not that of a search for sustenance, equity, or material improvement. Rather, conflicts develop over the emotional fortitude of individuals to deal with their own experience of power and their own awareness of the complex contours of resistance and opposition. While education in schools is centered as an opportunity structure to gain a better future, various characters reflect on such formative programs as conceit, as destruction, from the very first, extraordinary and notorious sentence of the novel: "I was not sorry when my brother died." ... A death that opened a new and contradictory filled passageway for Tambudzai.

Like some of the writings of Bessie Head, especially A Question of Power, and Dambudzo Marechera's 1977 novel House of Hunger, Nervous Conditions finds its architecture in the exposition of emotional and mental illness, the mother Mainini's depression, Nyasha's anorexia and bulemia, and Tambudzai's own melancholia. We may ask if Dangarembga invites us to find a specific etiology of these ailments?

Second, Nervous Conditions is about the force of gender in the context of patriarchy. What she attempts here, and I think she substantially accomplishes this, is the intense and detailed dissection of the force of gender on the condition, experience, actions, reactions, opposition, and resistance of women, and she does so by creating a pantheon of female characters, each of whom occupies a different observational position. While there are moments of coherence, mutual understanding, sociability, and common action among the novel's cast of women, there is an equally strong exposition of difference, of incoherence, of absence of common ground ... and if the representation of male behavior and female response in this novel would challenge any simple view of a Zimbabwean nation in formation, Dangarembga's rendering of multiple positions and positionalities of women is an implicit challenge to international feminism and global feminist agendas. And it is equally a powerful challenge to African women's and feminist agendas that posit a unified or uniform experience of African women.

Here, we may ask how well this works, for the author on the one hand hardly mentions these broader issues that surround—and also make apt and powerful her work—and on the other hand never quite secures a position of observation and writing that is free of these global discourses. Today, international agencies and foundations are focusing on women, women's fertility, and issues of women's power as central to population planning and development in Africa, and also increasingly, it seems, they have directed their lens toward the circumstances of adolescent females as the critical cohort in the program of producing some imagined African future. The population control = development equation has placed more burdens upon adolescent and adult women, beyond those burdens which Dangarembga's central male character Babamukuru lays thickly upon them, even as these international agencies speak of liberating women of the continent. One might ask how this book might inform those discussions and programs concerning population control and development? And one might well argue that this book stirs a different set of international development issues than those which rise up in the writings of Achebe and Ngugi.

Third, Dangarembga never allows us to resolve on one image of Babamukuru, his behavior, his situation, his world ... each character produces a different ethnography of observation and response to Babamukuru. The narrator, Tambudzai herself, not only displays different viewpoints and feelings but also reflects on the very different views which she herself can draw of this enormous character. There is only one character in the novel who can and would draw this world with a singular stroke of the brush ... and this is Babamukuru himself. Here one might ask, in respect to the "coming of age" novels—specifically the works of Achebe and the early works of Ngugi—whether Babamukuru is not in fact the Achebe from Man of the People to Anthills of the Savanna and the early Ngugi through Petals of Blood, reducing the complexity of the world, and the complexities of its representation, to a single and coherent portrait of culture and history.

I would like to move along to two other questions. The first has to do with the reception of the book and the second with the reading of the epigraph found at the front of the book, which also offers up, it seems, the novel's title. First, reviews in the European and American press raved about the novel's quality and about the clearly articulated feminist position of the author. One remarked on the volume's brilliance in describing patriarchy as a disease. Another remarked on her setting out the conditions of oppression specific to a colonial and racist setting. Another sees the brewing of an inventory of grievance. Well attended in the women's press internationally, the book found a ready and sympathetic audience outside Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, the book had a somewhat complex reception, I have learned. Some bookstores failed to order sufficient copies to meet demand, and were said to have done little to promote the sale of the book as compared with efforts made on behalf of other award-winning Zimbabwean writers. Some state officials and prominent citizens were rumored to be much disturbed by the book. Having achieved the Commonwealth Prize in Literature, Nervous Conditions was difficult to hide or disregard, but questions were raised about how far it was an "authentic Zimbabwean text"; it was said to have found its material in Zimbabwe but its ideas in the United States and Europe.

We might ask here what are the different arenas of critique and the possibilities of critique? Where American reviewers and readers may see it as an exemplification of Third World women's oppression or as a brilliant, arresting exposition of a global feminist perspective, others may see it as another stage of expropriation of African contexts, values and issues into Western dialogues. How does the form, language, approach of the book define its audience? In her 1989 book Women, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism [2], Tinh T. Minh-ha talks about the "triple jeopardy" of the black woman author:

... that whenever a woman of color takes up the feminist fight, she immediately qualifies for three possible 'betrayals': she can be accused of betraying either man (the 'manhater') or her community ('people of color should stay together to fight racism') or woman herself ('you should fight on the woman's side.')"(104)

Can we ask how we might situate, beyond the author herself, the female characters in the novel among these three, or other possible, positions, "betrayals" or otherwise, as we receive the message or messages of the novel?

The last issue concerns the epigraph: "The Condition of Native is a nervous condition." ... identified as "from an introduction to Fanon's Wretched of the Earth." Curiously, the four reviews that I have read of the novel attribute the quote to Fanon, or at least one is drawn to that conclusion from the expressions used. I have gone back to my edition of Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth [3], translated from the 1961 and 1963 French editions, p. 17, to find that it was not Fanon who authored this statement but rather Jean-Paul Sartre, who did so in his Preface to Fanon's text. Sartre wrote, according to my edition,

"The status of 'native' is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonized people with their consent." [Note that 'native' is placed in quotes by Sartre and with their consent is emphasized in italic in my edition of the Sartre text.]

We might well ask what was lost and gained in the shifts and truncations of Sartre into the Dangarembga epigraph. I would offer two opening suggestions: first, that the "en-quotement" of "native" signifies that Sartre believes there was no such thing, or that it can only be understood as conditional, problematic, and contextual, even where Fanon very easily and constantly uses such generalizations. While Dangarembga deletes the conditioning markers, she dissolves notions of "native" or "African" into renderings of individual human beings in all their variability, complexity, and contradictions.

Second, by the act of deleting "with their consent," Dangarembga would seem to subvert the most essential element of Sartre's argument, but Nervous Conditions, the novel, is actually a marvelous text for the exploration of the complicated meanings of consent and complicity. Beyond offering a ground for the critique of epigraphic prose, the novel itself is clearly an important text on the culture of consent and the politics of complicity.

A corrective reading of the employment of the Sartre quote as a "Fanon" epigraph to Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel also suggests a possible genealogy of authorship. In 1947, Octave Mannoni, a psychiatrist based in Madagascar, published Prospero and Caliban, which contained a psychoanalytic argument concerning the nature of colonialism and the fate of Africans within a colonial structure. Drawing on psychoanalytic data from his own work, Mannoni argued that Africans share a mental structure, a "dependency complex," which explained for him the ways in which Africans in Madagascar both were dominated by and erupted against Europeans who commanded control over their lives. In the early 1960s, the British scholar Philip Mason worked through some of Mannoni's arguments in writing about racism, segregation, and oppression in former Southern Rhodesia.

Fanon, a psychiatrist from Martinique who traveled through Africa, but largely worked in Algeria, challenged Mannoni's modeling of a "dependency complex." For Fanon, the "dependency" of Africans was not a mental condition inherent to the culture but a condition developing directly from the material and cultural forms of domination imposed by Europeans ... but also extended and maintained by Africans who saw it in their interest to do so. For Fanon, the cure was a doubled liberation that could only come through violent liberation and a turn to socialism. The Fanon arguments, built upon a critique of Mannoni, are relevant to an examination of the positioning of Dangarembga, Achebe, Ngugi and others, for the most prominent critical index among African writers and critics since the 1960s is how far their works are drawn to press a transformation of the colonial and neo-colonial order and how far they are concerned with the reform of privilege and the extension of opportunity. Here, Fanonesque critiques were used against Achebe and his Man of the People—that he was only interested in an "extension of the house" not its whole reconstruction—and Ngugi himself moved along a continuum from reform and improvement to revolution. Does a reading of Nervous Conditions gain anything by the application of this critical index, or is one pressed to reconceptualize the question altogether? Dangarembga surely reminds us well that there is more going on in the lives of women and men than the building of nations.

1. (Seattle, Wa.: The Seal Press, 1989). First published, London: The Women's Press, 1988.

2. (Bloomington, Indiana: 1989).

3. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin, 1963).

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