‘Nervous Conditions’ is about the lot of women…and more

by Rashmee

Posted on August 2, 2022

The first line of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel ‘Nervous Conditions’ is not easy to forget:

“I was not sorry when my brother died”.

The unregretful person is Tambu, the poor, bright and striving daughter of a family in rural post-colonial Rhodesia of the 1960s. The death of Tambu’s brother – a lad who poked fun at the little girl and strutted, chest puffed out with male pride – gives her a boost. It allows Tambu to take her brother’s place at his all-fees-paid school and to live in comfort with relatives in the city. The rest of the plot follows on from there. There are some surprises but mostly, it is a familiar story of male privilege. And the disproportionate load heaved on to women. As Tambu’s mother tells her early on in the book, “The business of womanhood is a heavy burden”.

And as Tambu reflects some years later, as she goes from a peasant’s knowledge of the world to assured cosmopolitanism: “The victimization, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it. And that was the problem. . . . all the conflicts came back to this question of femaleness. Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness.”

‘Nervous Conditions’ was the first English book published by a black Zimbabwean woman. At the time, 34 years ago, it was a clarion call – not just to women but to all who wanted to rebalance the structures of inequity.

A female, aspirational Zimbabwean writer of white ethnicity would later recall the way the novel hit her: “‘Nervous Conditions’ made clear that the systematic racism and sexism — the violent facts of my own white settler childhood in pre-independence Rhodesia — weren’t accidents but arrangements, structures that we’d all built together: the whites flogging the blacks, the near slave-labor wages.”

No, ‘Nervous Conditions’ is not just “women’s fiction” but it has a lot about the lot of women.

Also read:

‘The Joys of Motherhood’ and the women’s fiction shelf

Two great examples of ‘women’s fiction’ show the need to level up literature as well as society

Rashmee has lived and worked in several countries in the past decade, including Afghanistan, India, Haiti, Tunisia, the UAE, US and UK

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