In July 2020, Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga was arrested at Harare during an anti-government protest. She carried placards depicting her strong criticism against the alarmingly thriving political corruption which has led to an unprecedented economic crisis and an inflation rate of more than 500%! Her arrest came just four days after the inclusion of her novel This Mournable Body in the Booker Prize shortlist. In one of her interviews with The Guardian she voices her concern regarding opposing ideologies imposed by the State, as well as the implications of such a resistance. She states: “…yes I am afraid…There were increased abductions leading up to the demonstration, but these were mainly opposition politicians and activists and I’m neither: I’m a writer and a film-maker but I’m also a responsible citizen of Zimbabwe, and I thought, even if there was a crackdown, the citizen still has space in law.” It is, thus, through her writing that she expects a change, a kind of subtle yet unavoidable subversion.
In This Mournable Body Dangarembga introduces us to the extraordinary female protagonist Tambudzai who bears the multifarious burdens of inescapable middle age, an enviable but problematic education, unquenchable ambition and irrepressible surges of mental illness. With sensitive details, Dangarembga writes about the potentialities of growth in an environment of increasing political corruption. Tambudzai becomes the metaphor for a Nation expected to perform impeccably, yet falling short repeatedly due to racism, patriarchy and propensities of violence, and finally accepting the almost predetermined fate.
Very interestingly, Dangarembga uses the second person pronoun “you” to narrate Tambudzai’s story – as if initiating a dialogue with the reader, including the reader into the discourse of novel writing. Divided into three specific parts – Ebbing, Suspended, and Arriving, the novel is a brilliant tour de force of creativity, imagination and compassion. The first part situates the text in the newly independent chaotic political framework of Zimbabwe and inaugurates the story of Tambudzai, a village girl who has been fortunate to receive an English education, which immediately puts her on a pedestal and transforms her into an object of envy and aspiration for numerous women. However, her valuable education is rendered ineffective because she struggles to find suitable employment in a severely patriarchal and racist environment. She feels, “…you have no one but yourself to blame for leaving your copywriting position. You should have endured the white men who put their names on your taglines and rhyming couplets. You spend much time regretting digging your own grave over a matter of mere principle. Your age prevents you from obtaining another job in the field, for the creative departments are now occupied by young people…” (46) “Ebbing” ends with the sudden and fatal assault by Tambudzai on a girl student – an explosion of the repressed anguish, rage and frustration about her condition. The second part, suitably titled “Suspended” depicts her mental breakdown, severe depression, borderline schizophrenia and slow convalescence into a dubious normalcy. The introduction of her foreign educated cousin and her German husband become noteworthy in this portion.
Nyasha’s workshop, where she tries fervently to impart necessary education to young Zimbabwean women ushers in a semblance of hope in an otherwise dismal milieu. This, however, is not without criticism and that too from her own husband, “She says she wants to build a place where women can study women’s issues with modern technology. I ask her who she thinks is interested in women’s issues. And I try to tell her nobody here is interested in any of these things that she thinks are important, not even the women” (167). Nyasha’s passion, discipline and desire to share her knowledge are especially significant because they mirror Dangarembga’s own arts NGO and the challenges she faces because of an absolute lack of literary and technological resources. This is followed by the enlightening final section where she is offered a job in an ecotourism venture by her old rival and boss, the white Zimbabwean Tracy Stevenson. The visit to her village, the homecoming of the prodigal daughter in a flashy company car attempts to renegotiate the indelible binary of colonial/postcolonial and traces the numerous configurations of privilege – “Often you dreamt of this moment. You are prepared. A megapack of mixed sweets lies on the passenger seat beside you…Now you grab a handful. Toffees. Chocolate éclairs, and fruit drops fly through the window, and the fight breaks out again behind your vehicle” (296). Capitalism intertwines with remnants of bourgeois colonialism to evoke this bewitching last section of betrayal and eventual atonement. Tambudzai scattering sweets to malnourished village kids from her posh car has come a long way from envisioning a toxic future with the revolting sons of her landlady. However, this western individuality and financial independence momentarily blind her to the denigration of her land, people and identity by the same reductionist metaphors incessantly eulogized by colonialism.
In her acknowledgement, Dangarembga refers to Teju Cole’s brilliant essay “Unmournable Bodies” where he asks why “mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.” From uncelebrated sacrifices of women during war, to slut shaming and brutal molestation of a young woman by people cocooned in intransigent ideas of propriety, to relegation of African womanhood to naked tribal dances for the entertainment of European tourists, women’s bodies become collateral for the realization of a post colonial identity. Tambudzai’s overwhelming anxiety and jealousy with younger, more efficient women informs us how a severely patriarchal society manipulates the insecurities to pit women against each other. Dangarembga in an interview with Claire Armitstead states, “There’s a whole question of what is self…We had a self that was, and still is to some extent, part of a tribal structure. But this nation self was born in violence, and we haven’t confronted that.” The novel is almost a challenge to the Western world to acknowledge and understand the nation, rather than Otherize it with the exotic gaze. However, the narration gets tedious and repetitive at times; the novel could’ve been briefer for a more nuanced and passionate rendition. The language, though sensitive and raw, seems oddly off putting at times, making it difficult to concentrate. It, nevertheless, becomes inevitable to trace the journey of a conflicted female from self negation to unfiltered ambition and finally to a staggering realization.