Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga remains a great novel!

I have read Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga three times now, and on each reading the novel seems to get better!  The writing is really very good, and every few pages the narrator, Tambudzai, offers some clear and sharp insight about her own psyche or the interpersonal relationships around her.

Here is a good review from Kit Whitfield:

For all her passionate aspiration, in other words, Tambudzai is put in a position of such deep ambivalence that the best way to introduce herself is with a negative. She begins by telling us that she did not feel what she was supposed to feel: that is the key to her experience. For all that she has a definite personality, the fundamental expression of herself – which spoke so resonantly to Busia’s mother – is simply that she is not able to occupy her ‘expected’ role, however she might try. This is an honest girl speaking out of a context so oppressive that her very first words to us must refer to that context if we are to understand anything else about her. She does not have the luxury of defining herself as separate from her circumstances.

The many reviews on goodreads.com are also generally excellent.  Search for a nice review by Zanna:

Nyasha, though materially privileged and extremely intelligent, is in the most literal nervous condition of all. Her early life experience of living in England has made her into a ‘hybrid’, and she no longer fits in with her family or school friends. She calls her experiences in England ‘exposure’, which suggests something traumatic and damaging. Her problem is clearly not merely an excess of knowledge and it goes beyond a shift in beliefs – she is in a state of dis-ease with her own self, holding contractory desires that threaten to tear her apart. But Dangarembga does not present the nervous conditions that affect Nyasha and Nhamo as inevitable. Nyasha fights towards a subjecthood she can survive, and while Tambu is grateful for some aspects of Nyasha’s guidance, she is able to remain critical of some of her cousin’s actions and ideas, and she resists the influences that Nhamo succumbed to. Nyasha’s brother Chido also seems to have retained a degree of balance. His explanation of how he got into a pretigious mixed (black and white) school is every bit as acute in its analysis of coloniser-colonised relations as anything in Fanon.

A lengthy review from a feminist perspective is here, from Rosemary Moyana, published in 1994 in the journal Zambezia.

A set of resources and discussion points is available from Western Michigan University.

Finally, an extraordinary and thought-provoking mediation by David William Cohen of Northwestern University is well worth reading (after reading the novel, of course):

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.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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