Zimbabweans ‘mournable bodies exhumed’


23 August 2020

Dangarembga’s book resonates with people at a personal level

Rosemary Chikafa-Chipiro

Tsitsi Dangarembga has made a name for herself as a writer, filmmaker and activist in Zimbabwe. She gained international acclaim with her debut novel Nervous Conditions (1988), which became the first published English novel by a black woman from Zimbabwe. The BBC named it one of the top 100 books that have shaped the world.

Now, over three decades later, Dangarembga’s latest novel, This Mournable Body, the third in a trilogy that began with Nervous Conditions and the subject of this review, has been placed on the long list for the 2020 Booker Prize.

The news broke a few days before Dangarembga’s arrest for demonstrating against the government amid a clampdown on critical voices in the country.

There have been other Zimbabwean women writers of note after Dangarembga, such as the late Yvonne Vera, and more recently NoViolet Bulawayo, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma and Petina Gappah.

Most of their works have won international awards, with Bulawayo being the first black African woman and the first Zimbabwean to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for the novel We Need New Names (2013).

What distinguishes Dangarembga is her centralisation of burning issues concerning the freedom of women in Zimbabwe’s patriarchal socio-economic and political milieu. Besides her three novels, she has written plays, the best known of which is She No Longer Weeps (1987) and has played various roles in Zimbabwean filmmaking, including writing and directing such films as the popular Neria and Everyone’s Child.

As a trilogy, Nervous Conditions was followed by The Book of Not (2006) and This Mournable Body (2018). Nervous Conditions, with its girl child protagonist, Tambudzai, is an introductory representation of British colonisation of Zimbabwe and how people, particularly women, coped with the intersectional oppressions of the racial, classist and gendered structure of relations.

It ends with hope that Tambudzai, in her resilience, will triumph, only for The Book of Not to present her as a “non-person” who goes through some form of psychic self-annihilation that reduces her to an “I was not” as she struggles to cope with the racial exclusions at her white boarding school.

The Book of Not thus annihilated Tambudzai for me and I hoped that another sequel would resuscitate her.

That is why I was excited to hear that Dangarembga had written another sequel and promised myself I would buy a copy.

However, a few friends had thrown in spoilers and I also felt very apprehensive. I was torn between wanting to read the book and not wanting to.

I love happy endings. If I read a book and it does not end as I expected, it weighs down on me and I take a long time to unwind myself from the story while trying to write my own suitable ending.

As fate would have it, a student asked me to supervise their dissertation on Dangarembga’s trilogy.

The book was literally haunting me, mourning for me to read it, but I held out until I was asked to contribute to a published roundtable on the trilogy.

I felt angry at Dangarembga for writing This Mournable Body. It was a very difficult book for me to read.

I was even horrified by the aloofness in the narration and the spectatorship of rape and its trauma, to the indifference to violence and abuse.

This Mournable Body blurs the boundaries of time. As I read it, I was aware of the conflation of the immediate post-independent period and the contemporary moment.

This Mournable Body resonates with individual Zimbabweans at a personal level.

Both the Southern African nation and its people become mournable bodies whose “grievability” is exhumed through the text and especially now when #ZimbabweanLivesMatter is taking shape after the arrest of activists.

  • Chikafa-Chipiro is a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.



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