In 2004, I met a woman whose impact on my life has proven immeasurable beyond belief. Not long after I met Gay, she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and I watched as she began to lose control over her muscles. One of the first things to go was her voice; she walked the halls with a dry erase board around her neck. I’d sit cross-legged at her feet, stacks of books surrounding us, and we’d talk in our disjointed way. In class, she’d use my voice. I can still feel her hand squeezing mine and see her nod in my direction – “You tell it.” In early 2006, she went to her Belizean home to die.
I miss her – never more so than when I read a book like Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body (2018). Gay put Nervous Conditions (1988) in my hands, and the continued story of Tambudzai was bound to bring her to mind. I wish I could talk to her about it. To sit cross-legged at her feet. To listen. To learn. To love. I guess I will have to “tell it” on my own.
Tsitsi Dangarembga is well-deserving of being on the 2020 Booker Prize shortlist. This Mournable Body continues many of the themes found in Nervous Conditions, and it showcases how little has changed in Zimbabwe. In my reaction to Nervous Conditions, I wrote:
“Dangarembga’s women deserve a little respect for the fight they are waging against a patriarchal society that denies them education, freedom, and happiness. Hybridity creates for a nervous condition, but so does being a woman in a world of men.”
Decades later, the sentiment is the same as this novel continues to explore the interplay of gender, race, and class, with a prominent focus on the women.
Tambu is highly educated, but she has to fight tooth and nail for each rung she climbs toward her success. Her ideas are discredited and later stolen by white and/or male coworkers. She knows it’s a dog eat dog world, and she will do anything to untether her past and succeed. An early scene in the novel has her preparing to join a mob stoning a young woman whom she knows. The attack is prompted by the young woman’s age and attire. She ends up not only humiliated, but seriously injured. Tambu is only the slightest bit remorseful.
Tambu ends up renting a room at a widow’s home. She thinks she will have to marry one of the widow’s sons if she is to succeed, but she manages to get her feet back under her and secures a position teaching biology. But the unruly teenagers, so flagrant with their transgressions, are enough to drive her mad. Tambu has a nervous breakdown while teaching, and nearly kills a student. Having proven herself a threat to others, she is committed to a psychiatric ward.
Upon her release, Tambu moves in with her cousin Nyasha, my favorite character in Nervous Conditions. Nyasha still straddles the worlds that caused that nervous condition of her youth, having even married a white man, but she knows who she is and what she is fighting for. Unlike Tambu, she’d rather lift up her sisters than step on their necks to advance herself.
The tides turn for Tambu and she finds herself in another well-paying position in ecotourism. When she leaves Nyasha to begin her new life, a horrific scene is unfolding. But Tambu has no time to be bothered with the dead baby and bloodied help; Avondale awaits. Success awaits.
Tambu is good at her job, but there is a constant pressure to bring new ideas to the table. She suggests bringing tourists to the villages. To her village. It is only on the heels of this idea that she returns to the village she had once called home; she has to get her mother on board to help sell the idea. It’s a new low, even for Tambu; she’s willing to sell her family, heritage, and traditions for the right price.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s title for this novel was inspired by Teju Cole’s 2015 essay in the New Yorker, titled “Unmournable Bodies.” That essay deals with the disparities in how the world mourns the loss of different lives based on race, gender, national origin, and social class. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s title sends its own social and political message: the women of Zimbabwe are important, valued, worthy. They are mournable.
It’s a brilliant, raw novel full of bitterness and resentment. It’s beautiful.