Tsitsi Dangarembga Narrates The Painful Reality Of Life In Contemporary Zimbabwe
Although This Mournable Body is the final installment of a trilogy, it can easily be treated as a stand-alone novel. But before we begin speaking about it, let me get something else out of the way: this book isn’t easy to read. It’s not to do with the language or structure as much as the content. The book lays forth the litany of the every-day struggles faced by its female characters and, of course, primarily by the protagonist, Tambudzai, or Tambu as she is fondly known.
Tambu is in her late 30’s and lives in Zimbabwe. She is one of the few from her village who managed to get a formal education; she yearns for upward mobility and, constantly feeling out of place, wants more for herself. The action takes place in Harare, the capital city, where we meet Tambu in a youth hostel.
The book, as I said, tells of women who face daily difficulties – at work, around aging, trying to earn a living while “making” a home. At its core is misogyny and the patriarchy, and yet the story is also about how women unwittingly participate in maintaining the status quo. Its exploration of the idea that hope is always there – until it isn’t – makes this book even more brutal. As a reader, you want so much more for these women – for Tambu, the other women she encounters, the girls she teaches and the many others along the way. And as a gay male reader, it wasn’t difficult for me to see and understand the women’s perspectives, but I did find it hard to place myself in their circumstances – day-in and day-out – because I am privileged as all humans who identify as male are. We live in our bubbles and think that it’s all good because we don’t face the same atrocities as women. And even if we do, the patriarchy ensures we don’t speak about them.
Tsitsi Dangarembga compels us to empathize with Tambu as she flees from one hardship to the next; you want for it to be over but realise that her problems have only just begun. And because the narrative is in second person, it is an even more interesting journey for the reader. We have become Tambu, in all her lies, plotting and scheming. We are her, and so the reading experience becomes both unpleasant and enriching.
This Mournable Body gets you to see a different culture and at the same time realise that things don’t change for women anywhere – there’s the same old patriarchy, alienation, discouragement, the crushing pain, and some redemption – if they’re lucky. It wrings your neck and demands your attention, forcing you to see the world for what it is. The writing is so nuanced, however, that it borders on becoming too meta.
Read the book, though. It is deeply evocative and grips you from the very first word.
In this column, Verve’s Culture Editor offers personal reflections and critical insights on a wide-ranging selection of literature. During the coming weeks, he will focus on this year’s Booker shortlist until November 17th, when the winning novel will be announced
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