Author – Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwean)
Publisher and Year Published – First published 1988 (The Women’s Press UK), later 2004 by (Ayebia Clarke Publishing)
Genre – Fiction
Price – Price; £8.99
Number of Pages – 211
Nervous Conditions is the coming of age story of Tambu, told many years later by her as she remembers a string of life changing events from when she was 9 years old. This includes her brother’s death which is sad but she’s not sorry about because of how painfully patriarchy has severed their sibling relationship.
Patriarchy is a major high point of the book where Tambudzai, the narrator and protagonist of the novel and pretty much every other female in the story finds ways to navigate a male conscious, male dominated life. They hold their own as best as they can, giving the circumstances. There are quite a few points of frustration that see’s the women fight back the system like when Tambu’s aunty leaves her husband’s house or when another aunty damns all consequences and grabs her husband by the neck at a family meeting because she can’t take any more of his bullshit.
The title gives not much away and one is tempted to over look it at first glance but few pages into it, the reader is made to feel a part of the characters and actually grow with them even including Tambu’s Uncle who plays the role of a “saviour” throughout the book because he happens to have had an English education.
It is set in Zimbabwe, still under colonial rule. And though the topic of colonialism and racism is not forefront, Dangarembga still weaves her theme around taboo subjects that nobody talked about much in the 1960’s – Patriarchy and feminism are a huge subject matter and she does a good job of still humanising the characters even as charged and dense as her topics are. This is seen for instance in how Tambu gives even her brother who she hates, a pass on his misbehaviour because as she narrated, “…in the years that have passed since then I have met so many men who consider themselves responsible adults and therefore ought to know better, who still subscribe to the fundamental principles of my brother’s budding elitism, that to be fair I must conclude that he was sincere in his bigotry.”
A very poignant part of the book for me was Tambu discussing the burden of balancing being black and poor on one hand and being a woman at the time on another with her mother.
“This business of womanhood is a heavy burden. How could it not be?Aren’t we the ones who bear children? When it is like that you can’t just decide today I want to do this, tomorrow I want to do that, the next day I want to be educated! When there are sacrifices to be made, you are the one who has to make them.”
The reality of the fact that whatever class or culture difference between women never really matters drives home the point. There is that one common constraint of being a woman that doesn’t apply to men, as seen in the relationship between Tambu and Nyashe.
Considering that this book has been in publication for almost 30 years and I never heard about it until this year is saddening and unfortunate because I consider the story important, necessary to be read, especially as a school text. Dangarembga is unapologetically African in this her debut novel and that’s refreshing. Also proof that true African stories don’t have to be altered or sensationalised for an audience that’s far reaching. If Dangarembga could pull this off and very well too then, it can be done even now.
The language of the story telling is familiar, sometimes desperate to be musically as with many African languages, but it is quite easy to follow, hilarious in the right places and serious at the right time too.
Already, I think I can say that Nervous Conditions is a contender for my best fiction book of 2017.