Tsitsi Dangarembga: A Blend of Two Characters
The novel Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga was written as an attempt to recount the tales of an African girl’s coming of age in colonial Rhodesia in the 1960’s. While one can see that Dangarembga’s story is autobiographical one can also see that her life is represented by parts of more than one character. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s life story can be found by fusing the characters of Tambu and Nayasha into one. Through her portrayals of Tambu and Nayasha she examines the internal conflict of her desire to cling to her African identity and balance it with her English upbringing.
The development of the characters Tambu and Nayasha is a result of Tsi tsi’s “double conscience.” Tsi tsi feels that when one is placed in a situation which he does not feel he is at home he begins to develop this “double conscience.” Tambu feels she is not at home when she returns home for Christmas vacation. She notes, “I could not imagine anyone actually wanting to go there….” Nayasha does not feel at home either. She knows that she is not in England anymore, and she knows she must conform to some degree, but she finds it hard to adjust. “I am not one of them, but I am not one of you.” She says, “When you’ve seen different things you want to be sure you’re adjusting to the right thing……I don’t want to be anyone’s underdog.” Dangaremba admits that clearly none of the female characters in the novel appear to be at home; including Tambu and Nayasha. It can be inferred from Tsi tsi’s idea of a double conscience that each of these characters is displaying a part of Tsi-tsi’s struggle for cultural identity.
Throughout the novel many of the characteristics of Tsi tsi’s life are exhibited in the development of Nayasha’s character. First, it is useful to find out that Tsitsi was born in Zimbabwe but it was her and not her cousin Nayasha that went to live in Europe. She lived there from ages 2-6 and began her schooling there. Upon returning to Zimbabwe she attended a mission school in mutare and then an American convent school. She never acquired a true sense of rich shona tradition that the book suggests through the character of Tambu. In the novel it is shown that Tambu had a really deep Shona tradition however Tsitsi herself admits, she didn’t learn, “much about anything indigenous at all.” It is this in-between space that Nyasha occupies, she is not fully Shona and not fully English either. She is, “… accepted neither by her peers nor her family because she cannot and will not submit to the established patterns and traditions of subjugation, seeking affirmation in her attention to her studies and to her figure.” This is our first insight into the fact that at least part of Tsitsi life story exists in the character of Nyasha.
The novel Nervous conditions is a compilation of reality that encompasses the history of interaction in Zimbabwe culture rather than just the story of a person’s life. Tsitsi notes that she wrote of “things that [she] observed and had direct experience with, but “larger than any one person’s own tragedies…..[with] wider implication and origin and therefore were things that needed to be told.” While she uses the characters in the story to tell us about her life she also uses them as a means to show us the struggles of tradition and westernization in Zimbabwe culture. She was very concerned with leaving “a very real taste of life during the times that [she] grew up.”
In the novel Nayasha is the character that is said to have lived with her family in England. Now that one can see that Tsitsi lived in England for a period of time it is logical to conclude that Tsitsi real life exists in the character of Nayasha. While examining the novel one sees that Nayasha faces a struggle in which she tries to find a balance between her English upbringing and her Shona heritage. Tambu is her answer to finding that balance. Throughout the novel Nayasha has no heritage to forget because it was a heritage she never knew. On the other hand, Tambu has a heritage which she can not forget because she has experienced it in a very real way. Tsitsi acknowledges that she is neither one of these extremes but rather a balance of the two. She states in her interview, “I personally do not have a fund of our cultural tradition or oral history to draw from, but I really did feel that if I’m able to put down the little I know then it’s a start.” Nayasha is the one who most resembles this lack of Shona tradition while Tambu represents the tradition that Tsitsi began to acquire in her later years and wanted to develop.
When Nayasha returns from England she’s aware that there is “something lost.” She had lost her Shona heritage as well as her ability to speak the Shona language. She is only able to speak English at the beginning of the novel. Tsi tsi went through the same experience. She too considered her first language to be English. She realizes that, “assimilation encourages one to forget who you were, what you were, and why you were there.”
Tsi tsi’s strive for advanced education is also portrayed in the character of Nayasha. Tsi tsi went to pursue advanced education in the area of medicine at the University of Cambridge but later went to the University of Harare to get a degree in psychology. Nayasha also had high educational aspirations and was always striving to achieve. Tambu speaks of Nayasha and says, “Although we were on vacation she studied fourteen hours a day to make sure she passed her ‘O’ levels.” Tsi tsi also comments on Nyasha’s educational drive by saying she isolated herself in her quest. Tsi has much the same drive in her quest to write this story.
Tsitsi’s political beliefs are also represented in part through Nayasha’s character. Nyasha feels that the English colonization has harmed her. She feels she is neither here nor there. She is not allowed follow values she has acquired in England. She also can not fully embrace those her parents and family embody. “Nyasha is confused, tortured, always struggling to make her way.” She is a person who belongs to two cultures and the competing values and expectations both within and without her are too much for her to navigate. Tsi tsi infers that colonization is the reason for this struggle. The English have engendered this “nervous condition” in Nyasha. Tsi tsi recalls, “That was the system we were living under. Even the history was written in such a way that a child who didn’t want to accept it had to reject it and have nothing.”
While there are far less characteristics of Tsi tsi’s life that are unique to Tambu’s character there are a few that are worthy of mention.. Much like Tsi tsi, it is Tambu who goes to a mission school and then to a school at the convent. Throughout Nervous Conditions, we see Tambu struggling to search for and achieve an identity, but more importantly a value to place on her life and existence. “She struggles to rise above the shadow cast over her by Nhamo, Chido, and to a certain extent, Nyasha.” Tambu takes the initiative in an attempt to gain freedom by growing mealies in order to sell them. Eventually, she receives the benefits of her uncle Babamukur to live with him and study at the mission. Unlike Nayasha who merely states the problem Tambu takes steps to correct it. This sense of taking initiative in correcting a problem is also characteristic of Tsi tsi. Dangarembga wrote Nervous Conditions in an attempt to restore the process of retaining cultural roots. She wanted to correct the problems colonization caused. Dangarembga wanted a, “radical change in awareness although they are unable to transform their situations completely.
While it is clear that Tsi tsi’s novel is only partially autobiographical because of the nature of the development of her “double conscience” through Tambu and Nayasha, Tsi tsi herself also admits that the novel is only partially autobiographical. She tells us how the grandmother that tells the history stories in the novel is a completely fictions character that she made up. “When people want to find a little bit of the legend in their own lives it’s not there. And so you construct it. I constructed the grandmother is the novel because I felt the need for her.” Later she states that need was especially strong for her because she didn’t have a grandmother.
When asked about whether or not she thought the novel was autobiographical she simply stated, “Well, it’s a novel.” This suggests that by very definition the novel is intended to be ficticious. However, in defense of the partially autobiographical nature of the novel she is quick to point out that one has to, “write about things that one feels strongly about, otherwise it doesn’t work.” Any time someone writes about something they feel strongly about there is always a certain element of truth that exists in the writing.
Clearly Nervous Conditions is a partially autobiographical account of Tsi tsi Dangarembga’s life and struggles in Africa. Tsi tsi’s life is a compilation of both Nayasha’s and Tambu’s life. On a broader scale it is also a history of the cultural struggles that Africa went through after colonization. David Hare once said, “The act of writing is the act of discovering what you believe.” Tsi tsi wrote about what she believed. In writing about beliefs one is forced to draw parallels to his or her own life. That is the crux of the autobiographical nature of Nervous Conditions.
6) Nazemeka,Obioma, The Politics of Mothering (London: Routledge 1997) .
7) Wilkinson, Jane. “Tsitsi Dangaremba.” Interviews with African Poets, Playwrights and Novelists. London: James Currey, 1992. 188-198
8) Yang John; Braman Valerie, “Tsitsi Dangaremba” http://www.landow.stg.brown.edu/post/Zimbabwae/td/dangarembgaov.html