Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Nervous Conditions:A 5 Decade Long Culmination of African Literary Identity


Tsitsi Dangerembga knows her subject matter, the crisis of African identity, very well and is able to explain this issue and the issue of women's rights in Africa in such a way that she can connect with a non-African audience while not compromising her personal African identity.  Achebe ends Things Fall Apart by having the District Commissioner appropriating Okonkwo's story and undermining it to a reasonable paragraph, but Tsitsi retakes her story in her first paragraph of the story while addressing the fact that her story is in dialogue with the West and globe as a whole, without being defined by anyone but herself.  
“I was not sorry when my brother died.  Nor am I apologizing for my callousness, as you may define it, my lack of feeling.  For it is not that at all.”  As aforementioned, the narrator specifically makes it apparent that there is an audience and that that audience has presuppositions about her due to what she says.  However, she is not aggressively responding to this "you", the global audience, instead she seems to understand where the reader is coming from and responding to the presupposition of callousness by opening a dialogue with the reader through her story.  This is not to say that, though understanding the presupposition and not aggressively reacting to it, the narrator accepts the accusation of callousness, but stays adamant in showing her side of the story.  In this way, the narrator not only opens a dialogue, but also refuses to allow the "you" to be the driving force of the dialogue, thus she establishes an equal footing between the reader and narrator.  Finally, by putting both the idea of the "you" and the refusal to be subordinate to said "you", this indicates that the Tsitsi wants to tell this story and it is this wanting that legitimizes this piece literature, not an approval by the "you".  
“I feel many things these days, much more than I was able to feel in the days when I was young and my brother died, and there are reasons for this more than the mere consequence of age.”  With the idea of self-identification and dialogue firmly presented in the first sentence, the narrator then proceeds to elaborated why the presumption of callousness is offensive.  Primarily, the narrator seems to indicate that such a presumption could be derived from the fact that she was young, which is a simplification of her as a person.  She was in fact young when her brother died, but that is not to say that the only reason she was not sorry for his death.  By saying that her supposed lack of sympathy was due to naivety is to say that a) she was na├»ve, which is an assumption based solely on her age and not on her experience, and b) this simplifies her down to a reasonable paragraph, a fraction of who she is.  This is ultimately a way for the narrator to explain why the you should control the instinct of presupposition and listen to her story, a story that she will tell no matter what.  Lastly, the narrator makes it clear that she feels many things these day, which is important for two reasons.  The first is that she has had many experiences since her younger days that have shed a new light on her past, not a necessarily a more informed feeling, but simply a different feeling defined by a life time of experience.  The second is that she feels many things, thus she is not without feeling or soulless, she feels just as the “you” feels, but her feeling is based on her experiences as her, an African girl. 
“Therefore I shall not apologize but begin by recalling the facts as I remember them that led up to my brother’s death, the events that put me in a position to write this account.”  The thing that is striking about this sentence is that the narrator does not set herself up as an perfect narrator, as she quite blatantly admits that the “facts” that she remembers them are how she recalls them, not necessarily how they are.  This is important as she is not looking at her past through the, as Rushdie stated it, “shattered mirror”, thus we get a picture of her homeland that is uniquely hers and cannot be replicated by anyone else, even another African.  This pointedly addresses the issue of a single story, or single identity, for the African people, as the narrator is not presenting a story for all Africans, simply one that she experienced. 
“For though the event of my brother’s passing and the events of my story cannot be separated, my story is not after all about death, but about my escape and Lucia’s; about my mother’s and Maiguru’s entrapment; and about Nyasha’s rebellion – Nyasha, far-minded and isolated, my uncle’s daughter, whose rebellion may not in the end have been successful.”  As will be later evident, the narrator’s brother is a representation of colonialism, specifically the effects of unconditionally accepting colonial identity and giving up being an African, while at the same time never truly being Western.  By saying that her brother’s story, his death, cannot be separated from her own story, yet separating the two by saying that her story is not about death, the narrator accepts that the West and Africa are now joined and it is impossible to go back to how it was before colonialism, but that is not to say that the West now defines who African are.  The narrator proceeds to list each of the major female characters in the novel and each of these represent how people reacted to colonial in the post-independence and post-colonial eras. 
The narrator’s mother and Maiguru are both described as being entrapped.  Both of these women are trapped by their husbands and, as an extension, the mildly, and in some areas harsh, subjugation of women in Africa’s history, thus is could be said that they are entrapped in their old ways.  However, even though they are both similarly trapped, these women are very different people in very different situations.  The mother is the traditional African women in the best ways, as she is an expert wife, mother, and agricultural laborer.  She is willing trapped in the old ways because she finds comfort in them, but she is not afraid of modernity.  This is seen in the following scene where the narrator is vexed that she is no longer able to go to school because of funds and her father tell her she should not care because a woman has no need of academic knowledge.  “I complained to my mother. ‘Baba says I do not need to be educated,’ I told her scornfully. ‘He says I must learn to be a good wife.  Look at Maiguru,’ I continued, unaware how viscously. ‘She is a better wife than you!’  My mother was too old to be disturbed by my childhood nonsense.  She tried to diffuse some of it by telling me many things, by explaining that my father was right because even Maiguru knew how to cook and clean and grow vegetables”(16).  This very clearly sets up a division between the mother and Maiguru, who is a well-educated mother who lives a wealthy life style, and it specifically says that she is “too old” to be disturbed by the narrator’s nonsense.  This nonsense being both the nonsense of her child complaining about not being educated, but also the nonsense that her child implies that western education makes Maiguru a better wife.  However, she does rebuke her child for wanting to make her own funds to get educated, as seen in the following quote when her husband shuts down her daughters request for seeds to plant in order to make money with the reasoning that he had no money to give.  “My mother, of course, knew me better.  ‘And did she ask for money?’ she inquired. ‘Listen to your child. She is asking for seed. That we can give. Let her try. Let her see for herself that some things cannot be done” (17).  Even though she indicates her belief that her daughter will fail to gain the necessary funds to go to school, the fact is that she does not fear that her daughter might become educated because she is giving her the opportunity to try, one that her overly traditional is not apt to give her. 
The last character that the narrator mentions is Nyasha, her cousin, who grew up with her wealthy, educated parents and fully embraced the western indoctrination through schooling in order to become “successful”.  The result of this indoctrination becomes very apparent in the end of the novel when Nyasha has a mental breakdown due to the stress of educational competition, bulimia, and her otherness. 

“Her eyes dilated. ‘They’ve done it to me,’ she accused, whispering still. ‘Really, they have.’ And then she became stern. ‘It’s not their fault. They did it to them too.  You know they did,’ she whispered. ‘To both of them, but especially to him. They put him through it all. But it’s not his fault, he’s good.’ Her voice took on a Rhodesian accent. ‘He’s a good boy, a good munt. A bloody good kaffir,’ she informed in sneering sarcastic tones. Then she was whispering again. ‘Why do they do it, Tambu,’ she hissed bitterly, her face contorting with rage, ‘to me and to you and to him? Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away, Lucia. Takesure. All of us. They’ve deprived you of you, him of him, ourselves of each other. We’re groveling. Lucia for a job, Jeremiah for money. Daddy grovels to them. We grovel to him.’ She began to rock, her body quivering tensely. ‘I won’t grovel. Oh no, I won’t.  I’m not a good girl. I’m evil. I’m not a good girl.’ I touched her to comfort her and that was the trigger. ‘I won’t grovel, I won’t die,’ she raged and crouched like a cat ready to spring…Nyasha was beside herself with fury. She rampaged, shredding her history book between her teeth (‘Their history. Fucking liars. Their bloody lies.’)… ‘They’ve trapped us. They’ve trapped. But I won’t be trapped. I’m not a good girl. I won’t be trapped.’ Then as suddenly as it came, the rage passed. ‘I don’t hate you, Daddy,’ she said softly. ‘They want me to, but I won’t.’ She lay down on her bed. ‘I’m very tired,’ she said in a voice recognizably hers. ‘But I can’t sleep. Mummy will you hold me?’ She curled up in Maiguru’s lap looking no more than five years old. ‘Look what they’ve done to us,’ she said softly. ‘I’m not one of them but I’m not one of you.’ She fell asleep” (204-205).

This tirade while under a sleep deprived and anxiety ridden stupor show how Nyasha has ingrained colonial rhetoric into her psyche to the point that it is, literally, killing her.  The first major evidence of colonial rhetoric is the formation of the Other, in this case us vs. them.  Nyasha constantly refers to the westerners, and her parents to some degree, as them, which is a way of separating herself through the third person in order to criticize what they have done to her and her fellow classmates.  She also, along these lines, creates a separation of good and evil, which end up with her being evil and the west being classified, sarcastically, as the good.  She specifically refers to her father as a good boy, but its followed by describing him as a boy, munt, and bloody kaffir.  By describing him as a boy is shows both a sense of subservience to his parents, the west; a munt, which is a specific term used by white Rhodesians as a slur for blacks; and kaffir, which is also a slur for black Africans.  Thus, good becomes a synonym for oppression and oppressors in this tirade or, in the case of her father and the grovelers, those who become willingly subservient to oppression.  Evil also takes on a new form, as it becomes a synonym for rebellion, which harkens back to the first paragraph of the story where the narrator speaks of Nyasha, failed, rebellion.  Another key point in this monologue is the feral rage that causes Nyasha to rebel. 
This section begins with the words “her eyes dilated”, which indicates that her lower level brain has taken over her actions, in other words, her animal instincts.  This is further supported late on when she “crouched like a cat ready to spring”, “shredded her history book between her teeth”, and the repetition of refusing to be trapped.  Interestingly, Nyasha seems to primarily enter these more feral states when referring to the “them”, as seen when she crouched after talking about how they try to force her to grovel and the fact that’s she used her teeth to destroy their history book, a book she says is full of lies.  It would seem to indicate that because colonial powers dictated to her, and all Africans, that they were, basically, animals, she becomes what they indoctrinated her into when she thinks of them.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, it is when she is directly talking to the narrator or her parents that the rages subsides and she falls into a whisper, as seen when she starts whispering “Why do they do it, Tambu”, later when her rage completely subsides and she tells her father “I don’t hate you, Daddy”, and finally when she asks to rest on her mother’s lap.  This shows that when people look at her as a human being, she become humane, thus she internalizes that which people expect of her.  This is very much seen in how she becomes bulimic in order to become skinny like the white women and hits home to the core of her current issues, that being her purgatorial existence. 
The last sentence before she falls to sleep is the result of her indoctrination, that she is not nor never will be a European as they will never truly treat her like an equal human being, but she is no longer African because she has allowed the “Englishness”, as the narrator’s mother puts it, to take over her being.  Unfortunately for Nyasha, her rebellion ends in sleep, which seems to be synonymous for hopelessness resulting in apathy.  Nyasha understands the situation she is in, but never addresses it unless she is in a feral state in which she cannot fully grasp and resolve said issue.  She does, when she is a more sober state, seem to understand her distress, but she always tries to help herself and when she does look for someone to help her from drowning in the hopelessness, she stops just short of taking their hand.  This is most evidently seen in the following scene, “At three o’clock she woke me up. ‘Can I get into bed with you, Tambu?’ she whispered, but when I rolled over to make room for her to climb in she shook her head and smiled. ‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘I just wanted to see if you would let me.’ Then she sat on her bed and looked at me out of her sullen eyes” (204).  This is right before she becomes feral and seems like it is a last ditch effort to save herself from the proceding despair, but she refuses Tambu’s companionship and that is what triggers her.  It is also of particular interest how she describes Nyasha’s looking at her, “looked out at me”.  This makes it seem like Nyasha is trapped inside her own body and is peering outside of her bodily cage through her “sullen eyes”.  It is this ultimate refusal to act, or acceptance of defeat, that separates Nyasha from the narrator. 

Dangarembga creates a uniquely flawed, yet ultimately perfect character in the form of Tambu to be the narrator, as she suffers and experiences just as much as the rest of the characters, but she ultimately survives because she seeks out experiences from every source, which allows her to evolve into her own unique person.  This is quite different from the rest of the cast as they are all bound by someone or something, Maiguru by her husband and Nyasha by her purgatorial existence, but the narrator takes the advice of her traditional mother on how to endure and the education of the West without letting either tradition or European values dictate who she is.  Whereas Nyasha became an abomination of a pseudo European soul trapped in a kaffir coil, the narrator may be a kaffir according to “them”, but she is not that at all, she becomes Tambu through her story.  

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