Review – This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

The final instalment in Dangarembga's trilogy is a provocative exploration of identity and race in modern Zimbabwe, writes Johanna Russell.

November 16, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo Credit: Faber Books

This Mournable Body is the concluding novel in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s considered and politically searing trilogy: a character study spanning over 30 years and contained within three epochal novels that capture the everyday struggles of citizens in post-colonial Zimbabwe. In her final instalment of the series, Dangarembga examines the effects of the education system 20 years after liberation and turns her attention to the role of the eco-tourism industry in perpetuating political and economic inequality.

Beginning with her acclaimed debut Nervous Conditions in 1988 and followed by a long-awaited sequel The Book of Not in 2006, the series closely follows the story of Tambudzia, an academically gifted child born into a struggling family in rural Zimbabwe. Both novels are set during the precarious time of Rhodesian independence. Nervous Conditions opens with the unilateral declaration of independence by the white colonial government in 1965, and The Book of Not is centred on the violence of the liberation wars of the 1970s, with Tambu’s sister, Netsai, losing a leg in an explosion in the book’s first sentence.

Reading like two distinct parts of a coming-of-age story, these books follow Tambu from her village homestead to her uncle’s mission school and a prestigious scholarship to the predominately white Young Ladies College of Sacred Heart. In each stage of Tambu’s progression, her eyes are opened to the entrenched class, gender and racial prejudices in the system. However, holding firmly to the belief that she can be the master of her own destiny, she resolves each time to adapt and make improvements within, in the hopes of reaching her full potential in life.

Harrowing reflection

Set 20 years on, at the turn of the millennium, This Mournable Body concludes the series with a harrowing reflection on the false promises of the education system for black Zimbabwean women. The novel opens with Tambu in her forties, living in a young woman’s hostel in Harare, where her age exceeds the rules for permitted lodgers. Suffering from a severe bout of depression and struggling to find employment and accommodation, Tambu’s life has taken a downwards turn since her youthful educational achievements. We find out that she has quit a job at an advertising agency, frustrated that her white male co-workers were being credited for her work. Her experiences there threw up memories of the prejudice she experienced as a black student at Sacred Heart, including humiliation, poorer segregated living conditions and exclusion from the school’s awards system. The trauma of these events pulsate throughout the novel, clouding Tambu’s experiences and spiralling her into episodic depressions.

Dangarembga conveys the intensity of Tambu’s singular drive to succeed and her deteriorating mental health through a second-person narration that submerges the reader in her insular perspective and an oblique writing style that shifts from unreliable to abstract – heightened during Tambu’s violent outbursts or when she witnesses violence towards other women, a repeated theme of the novel. We see this early on when she describes the aftermath of an attack on the widow Mai Manyanga, whose neglected boarding house she for a time resides in:‘Swathes of scarlet thicken and congeal on the floor. The clots in the family room extend all the way back to the dining room. Drops crust and flake on the grandfather clock, the cabinet, carpet and occasional table.’

The narration expresses the grotesqueness of the spectacle while conveying a sense of confusion to what has actually occurred. This style of writing draws a stark comparison with the realistic and hopeful first-person narrative of the previous novels and at times makes This Mournable Body a denser, more oppressive read. The reason behind the abstract style and the second-person narration is alluded to in the second half of the novel as Tambu is staying with her cousin Nyasha, who runs a free school for women from her house.

Nyasha becomes frustrated when her students all fail in the assignment she has set them to write about a great African woman and each choose, instead, to write about themselves. Tambu expresses her annoyance at Nyasha’s project: ‘You grow increasingly galled by your cousin and her assumption that everyone has the luxury she has of surviving without being obsessed with one’s own person.’

While this draws attention to the class privilege Nyasha benefits from, owing to her more wealthy upbringing and education abroad, it also reveals that what we witness throughout the novel is an ‘obsession with one’s own personhood’. The persistent ‘you’ of the second-person acts to reverse this by putting the reader in the shoes of another woman, forcing them to experience another personhood. In this sense the narrative also acts as a modest solution to the problem it is drawing attention to.

Shift of direction

Following Tambu’s time at Nyasha’s house, Dangarembga shifts the direction of the story towards a more standard narrative arc and a positive resolution. The second half of the story exclusively focuses on Tambu’s employment at a young eco-tourism start-up called Green Jacaranda, founded by her classmate and former boss, Tracey Stevenson.

The job comes with liberating advantages – a better wage, a rent-free apartment, driving lessons, travel and the opportunity for creative control over projects. The level of freedom and financial comfort that Tambu begins to experience through these benefits conflicts with her reservations about the company’s ethos and practice – the history of discrimination she has experienced in her career as a black woman and her tenuous relationship with her family. The latter becomes the focal point of the novel’s climax, after Green Jacaranda launches a village programme that will bring tourists to Tambu’s family homestead.

Through this storyline, Dangarembga examines the tension eco-tourism creates in areas that are still visibly suffering the effects of the liberation wars and land reforms, and critiques the extent to which the industry can really be considered beneficial for rural communities. Green Jacaranda, which is initially introduced as ‘a start-up dealing in environmentally-friendly entrepreneurship solutions’, is at its heart a capitalist endeavour that reinforces the colonial structure of the economy.

Dangarembga’s critique draws parallels with Tambu’s earlier experiences of the education system, with eco-tourism presented through institutions run by white Zimbabweans, highly influenced by Europe and, similar to her scholarship, hanging on the hopes of delivering economic redistribution. However, not only do we see Green Jacaranda falling short on its promises to Tambu’s village, it also becomes clear that its virtuous ethos is primarily used to appeal to European tourists at the expense of exploiting the local community.

The climactic scene of the novel follows the tourists’ arrival at the village, bringing the Europeans, Tracey (the white Zimbabwe-born business owner), Tambu and her family’s village all together in the homestead where the series first began. It draws attention to the vast political change over the landscape and people since the beginning of Nervous Conditions and the tired structures of racism and exploitation that still persist. Each book in the series provides a close examination of everyday life during these decades of liberation, and through Tambu we witness how years of upheaval and European influence have shaped and fractured her identity. Throughout her work, Dangarembga always pushes towards a hopeful idea that through reflection and positive involvement with the community, the damage caused may one day begin to heal.

This article originally appeared in issue #228 ‘Climate Revolutions’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media.

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