Tsitsi Dangarembga finished writing Nervous Conditions when she was in her mid-twenties and, upon its publication in 1988, won widespread critical acclaim for its complex and nuanced portrayal of the challenges that a young Shona girl faces in her efforts to break free of her impoverished background and acquire an education. “Shona” is the name given to various tribal groupings living mostly in the eastern half of Zimbabwe, north of the Lundi River. In addition to writing plays and screenplays, Dangarembga became the first Zimbabwean to direct a feature-length film, releasing Everyone’s Child in 1996. Despite her varied aesthetic interests and successes, it is her novel that has opened her voice and her unique vision to the widest audience.
Dangarembga was born in 1959 in a small town in Zimbabwe that was known as the colony of Rhodesia. She lived in England from the ages of two to six while her parents attended school there. Her initial education was conducted in the British school system, and the young Dangarembga became fluent in English at the expense of Shona, her native tongue. When she returned to her native land, she continued her education after relearning Shona at a mission school. Later, she attended a private American convent school in the city of Mutare.
In 1977, Dangarembga returned to England to study medicine. No longer a child living in a foreign culture, she witnessed and fully understood the often racist or racially stereotypical attitudes held by many members of English society. Returning to Zimbabwe in 1980, just before the nation became self-governing and independent, she began to develop in earnest as a writer. Despite years of rejection and lack of acknowledgment, Nervous Conditions was eventually published in England, four years after Dangarembga had completed it.
The events that shaped Dangarembga’s early years loosely inform the life of Tambu, the protagonist in Nervous Conditions. In one sense, the novel is Dangarembga’s attempt to analyze and better understand her emergence into adulthood through the lens of fictional creation. However, Dangarembga’s talents lie in her ability to take the autobiographical details of her own life and transform them into a multifaceted and highly realistic novel peopled with psychologically rich and varied characters. This realism is the hallmark of Dangarembga’s fiction. While other African novelists directly confront the effects of colonialism and gender discrimination, Dangarembga allows her characters to enact and dramatize the pressures these forces inflict on their lives. In Nervous Conditions, white characters make only the briefest of appearances. Repressive figures are not distant or symbolic presences but the individuals found within the same family unit. Rather than offering an epic sweep or grand historical scale with which to frame her contemporary investigation, Dangarembga looks instead to the effects and harm that foreign interference and sexism have on a single African family.
In Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga focuses in particular on a small group of women who struggle to be heard and to succeed in a world that often aggressively seeks to silence and control them. Though in a way these women are successful in their struggle, their victories are not grand. They do not openly challenge the status quo, topple repressive systems, or alter prevailing behaviors and ways of thinking. Instead, their victories lie in the strength they muster to navigate a world that is unsympathetic to their concerns, and their success is rooted in their unflinching desire to succeed where others have readily failed.
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