In my humble opinion all three novels, and now Black and Female, should be essential reading in schools, universities and households throughout the world. For art’s sake they are important for those who love a finely created human tale. But in an era where Dangarembga correctly believes that decolonising our minds has an existential urgency, they are vital thought-guides to undoing the damage of two centuries of Enlightenment racism and patriarchy.
In August 2022, acclaimed Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga published her first book of non-fiction, simply titled Black and Female. As if confirming her lament about the challenges of “writing while black and female” (the title of an astoundingly powerful second essay in the book), the book’s quality seems to have been largely overlooked by reviewers in southern Africa.
Yet, for this reader at least, Black and Female offers one of the most searing analyses of colonialism, racism, and their intersectionality that I have ever read. It felt to me like a companion to I Write What I Like, developing themes that Steve Biko had aired in his writings on black consciousness, but representing them 50 years later through the personal experiences and observations of a black woman, Dangarembga.
Reading Black and Female also caused me to pull Dangarembga’s trilogy of books about the life of tragic heroine Tambudzai Sigauke back off my bookshelf and to want to touch, feel and peer into that remarkable collection of novels once more.
I had last read Dangarembga in 2020. The year before, Jacana had published This Mournable Body, the final in a trilogy of novels set in former Rhodesia and then post-independence Zimbabwe. The three novels unfold the life and thoughts of its central character: the child, girl and later woman Tambudzai Sigauke.
In 2020, This Mournable Body had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but came runner-up to Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain. In a review I wrote early in 2021 I was effusive about Shuggie Bain and despite fair criticism that great African writers are overlooked for the Booker, or made to share the prize in the case of Bernardine Evaristo (because of what Dangarembga calls a “queasiness about black women’s imagination”?), I felt Shuggie Bain to be a worthy winner.
(A history of African writers and the Booker is here).
But after reading This Mournable Body I was no longer so sure. Having acquired a taste for the world and worldview of Tambudzai, I went on to read Dangarembga’s two earlier novels: Nervous Conditions, published in 1988, and The Book of Not, published in 2006. The trilogy was thus completed reading backwards.
My view at the end of this journey: This Mournable Body is a great novel on its own, but its literary brilliance and evocative power can only be fully appreciated when it is read as the last (?) part of the trilogy.
The books work as a whole, as well as being three distinct and independent parts. But read together they constitute stupendous literature, beautifully crafted as art, offering deep insight into the modern history of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe and the way it has contorted the souls of black (and white) folk.
They bring to life a masterful tragic heroine who, like Agnes Bain, must be one of the greats of (modern) literature. If we need literary reference points I would say Tambudzai is as much a tortured product of her time as Cathy Earnshaw in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; strange though it may seem, Dangarembga’s alienation is not a million miles from that felt by the three Bronte sisters (reconstructed so marvellously in Juliet Barker’s great literary biography The Brontes).
As a result I wondered whether the judges of the 2020 Booker Prize had read all three novels, and whether they perhaps should have. This is because Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not provide an indispensable social and psychological context to the reader, interiorised in the life of Tambudzai and her extended family, as much as the context of deindustrialising Glasgow in the 1980s, and the malign spirit of Margaret Thatcher, has a presence and resonance that helps the reader connect with the Bain family. Reading all three books also helps to appreciate the author’s artistry.
And if they had, would/should Dangarembga have won?
As a journalist and literary critic I would still like to know the answer to that question. But that’s a quirk of literary history; not winning doesn’t detract from the three novels that were attractively reprinted by Faber and Faber in the shadow of Dangarembga’s shortlisting.
Words and power
Black and Female has universal significance. Its theme is the urge to write and the circumstances that bring words into being. It adds new layers to our understanding of Dangarembga’s fiction while its wellspring is deeply personal and autobiographical.
Dangarembga records how, as a very young girl, fostered to strange working-class white parents in Dover in the UK while her own parents studied in London (apparently a fairly common practice for mature students coming from Africa), “I developed an intuitive idea that words were power”.
As a defence mechanism, she learnt to write in her head before learning to write formally and from the beginning her imagination intersected with a child’s uncomprehending experience of Empire, race and gender.
For example, describing an early encounter with racism, she recalls a “sweet boy” at school called Matthew who “said to me in all loving earnestness, ‘Perhaps if I hold your hand, maybe your skin will turn white, too’”. “Looking askance at my arms and legs”, she would cut herself in despair. However, having “the colour of skin that white people didn’t recognise lesions on. I developed a relationship with words instead.”
From such beginnings it is a remarkable feat that Dangarembga has been able to sustain a process fictionalising her central character across three novels and over 30 years, while in parallel her real life and the tragedy of post-colonial Zimbabwe unfolded.
Despite the years between each novel they remain taut, with a unity and consistency of character and place – even though both are changing.
Nervous Conditions starts in 1968 as 13-year-old Tambudzai’s life journey begins in a village not far from the town of Umtali (Mutare) in then Eastern Rhodesia. The village’s unspoilt natural landscape is hemmed in by a faint awareness of the world beyond the village, one that reaches her through the mission (where her brother was sent to school), her uncle Babamukuru; and, occasionally, there is an unsettling sense that this is a country at war.
Great novels are sometimes marked out by their first lines, and this has among the finest:
“I was not sorry when my brother died.”
From that point on, Nervous Conditions is a slow burn. The narrative of all three books is straightforward; Tambu’s quest for education, to escape the village, to escape ignorance and indignity, to escape her mother; the passage to imagined independence, through education, through books, through the mission school, through Sacred Heart, through Salisbury/Harare.
But in the intensity and inferiority of this voyage we see and feel the damage racism and colonialism wrought on the subconscious and the psyche in the way that Tambu’s personality adapts to the world she was born into as a black female; how her maturing mind interprets its environment and forms coping strategies; and the often unlikeable person who emerges.
As with Shuggie Bain, there is no authorial intrusion or mediation. And she left it that way for many years. But in Black and Female she throws a lifeline, commenting that “All too seldom, in the history of the institution of Western colonisation, has discourse engaged with what may be called the metaphysical, that is the cognitive and affective – the subjective – forms of colonial violence”.
That is precisely what these novels do: “This world constantly declared ‘not being as I am, you are a not-I’,” she writes. Finish. Full stop.
Books of Not
For me The Book of Not is the most poignant and painful of the trilogy. Its first line is equally arresting. This time it’s about her sister, Netsai:
“Up, up, up, the leg spun. A piece of person, up there in the sky. Earth and acrid vapours coated my tongue. Silence surged out to die away at the ragged shriek of a cricket in the bushes at the edge of the village clearing.”
The second novel is about Tambudzai’s years as one of only six African girls at Sacred Heart, where she is a high achiever but, according to one school report from Sister Catherine (her class teacher) a girl with “a complex”, one who “constantly wears a supercilious expression”.
Her experience will be recognisable to many black children who attended formerly whites-only schools in South Africa in the first years after apartheid.
For the most part Tambudzai is in mute rebellion, repeatedly trying to succeed on racism’s own terms but always being rebuffed. Ultimately, overreaching and harming “that little nascent Zimbabwean soul of mine” so that by the end of it, Tambudzai, ironically, now a free agent in a post-independence free society, finds herself manacled as never before.
She has suffered multiple acts of theft and violation: her land by the colonisers; her personhood as a girl/woman by her family; her intellect by Tracey Stevenson, the white girl who gets the award for the best O-level results (even though she comes second to Tambu), and thus the recognition Tambudzai craves; later, the theft of her ideas and copy at the Steers advertising agency.
The book, and its predecessor, has been a struggle against “not” being. But she has not won. She has been beaten by an invasive, silent conspiracy of “nots”. Across two powerful pages (232 and 233), Babamkuru, her benevolent but malicious and patriarchal uncle, rams home to her the consequences of her poor A level results. A series of “nots” flow quietly but violently across the pages.
She reflects: “I did not want anyone to see I had lost my fighting spirit.”
This may explain why, in This Mournable Body, Dangarembga switches her narrative to the third person; it’s as if Tambudzai can no longer live with I any longer. She is, as it were, the detached but entangled observer of an alienated self, reminding me of the detached mouth that is the sole character in Samuel Beckett’s play Not I.
But the show must go on and so the tale of Tambudzai must unfold even in the context of the negation of self. We observe her nervous breakdown as her dreams implode. By now she has detached herself from her dreams and ambitions. She is still alive, a sensitive and traduced soul within “this mournable body”, but she looks upon Tambudzai as if she is in mourning.
As a composite (and I believe the three novels have to be seen as a composite) the novels offer a unique longitudinal real-time study of one woman’s evolving consciousness through half a century of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe.
Their pages document the slow poison of patriarchy and the now familiar metastasising of colonial into postcolonial racism as it adapted to a changing political environment and as the liberators became the oppressors.
This too is something she reflects on in Black and Female, noting:
“In spite of the nationalists’ victory at the political level, however, the decolonisation project did not remain on the ZANU PF political agenda for long…
“There has been little psychological rehabilitation from this long history of trauma. ZANU PF post-independence brutality and evil misgovernment has simply worsened the trauma.”
The books are political but not polemical, rich in beauty and observation. They capture the banality of racism and all its inglory.
In my humble opinion all three novels, joined now by Black and Female, should be essential reading in schools, universities and households throughout the world. For literature’s sake they are important for those who love a finely created human tale. But in an era where Dangarembga correctly believes that decolonising our minds has acquired an existential urgency, they are vital thought-guides for those who seek to understand the intersection of patriarchy and colonialism; the torture and toll post-colonialism exacted by simultaneously raising and stifling the ambition of millions of young women, trapped beneath the superficial “life goes on” (ab)normality of the post-colonial societies we have created, and which we seem to be doing so little to unknit.
In 2018 Nervous Conditions came in at number 66 in a list the BBC compiled of the views of 108 authors, academics, journalists, critics and translators in 35 countries of the 100 Stories that Shaped the World. The Sigauke trilogy, or the Three Books of Not as they might be called, should have added a Booker Prize to that. DM/ML/MC