By Kris van der Voorn
Imagine that you choose to read a story featured on the Booker Prize Shortlist. You decide to read Mengiste, or perhaps Cook. As you search for the right title however, you read about Tsitsi Dangarembga’s imprisonment due to a protest that calls on reform in Zimbabwe. You read that This Mournable Body calls out this regime. Imagine that you pick up that book instead, a book written in the second person calling out to ‘you’. Imagine that.
As you read, you cannot put it down anymore. You find yourself immersed in the story, a dubious identification with a beautifully reincarnated character in Dangarembga’s sequel on post-independent Zimbabwe. Here is a world so different to yours, and yet you find yourself strongly identifying with the character’s experiences in a post-colonial capitalistic and sexist world. You remind yourself that you scorned Atwood’s sequel being chosen two years ago, because it did not fit into a Booker prize based on one particular book. Then you remind yourself of the larger issues surrounding Atwood’s win alongside a black woman that year. Of the invisibility of black women in general. Of the problematic systematic racism in that book. You realise Dangarembga addresses all this through the main character Tambudzai. And so, you read on.
In This Mournable Body, Tambudzai reappears as the adult version of the Tambu you might have become acquainted with in Dangarembga’s earlier classic Nervous Conditions. This time, Tambudzai’s story begins with her eviction from the hostel she was living in due to her “old” age. Throughout the novel you learn that Tambudzai, an educated woman from a small village, ended up in this situation when she gave up a successful job in the city as a result of racist and sexist obstacles at the workplace. The author guides you into the world of a black woman who is invited into Western education, only to realise that in this process of becoming, Tambudzai loses all connection to her African roots. It is these same problems that Tambudzai faces in trying to make something of herself after her resignation. Her days are riddled with shame and insecurity. You read it in the guilt she feels towards her family as she is unable to provide for them in the ways she wants to after leaving them for the big city. It haunts her during her months spent in a psychiatric ward following a mental breakdown. She spends those months unable to talk to anyone but the hyena in her head, a symbol for the idea of balance and acceptance. It is only when Tambudzai recognizes her need to connect to her roots and family, that she overcomes these feelings. Throughout the novel Dangarembga breaks down the protagonist’s self, formed by an education that made her believe she was worth less than her white peers and at the same time made her feel culpable for it. She then builds it back up to a new firm belief in the self and her black sisterhood that establishes her past experiences and traumatic connection to the Zimbabwe war.
This Mournable Body gives you the feeling of sitting on the edge of a very uncomfortable seat after a long day of hiking. You do not want to get up and walk anymore, but you realise that neither option is going to make you feel better.
This feeling of discomfort arises mostly from how the book addresses its main character, Tambudzai, whose adolescence was shown in the earlier novel and whose coming of age now occupies your mind. Where this earlier story was told through her own first-person address, it is now the reader’s turn to be involved in the story. By addressing Tambudzai in de second person, Dangarembga creates an experience whereby every sentence feels like it starts with “imagine yourself.” Imagine yourself in Zimbabwe after the war in Tambudzai’s skin and life. Imagine yourself living through these experiences. In doing this, Dangarembga brings you into the story like never before. She makes you, the reader, feel complicit, bringing a new level of understanding and deepening of character development never seen before. Just like that, you have become one with the circumstances of the novel. And at the same time, of course, especially in light of your own identity and the history of the Booker Prize, you begin to question yourself. Am I allowed to read this story? Am I allowed to identify with a character whose struggles and deep insecurities result from neo-colonialist problems and racist segregation? There are moments when you want to denounce Tambudzai for her ideas and actions. The very beginning of the book is the shocking condemnation of a woman whose skirt slips up in public. She is attacked by the crowd for revealing her legs, with even Tambudzai herself picking up a stone to throw. But Dangarembga’s second person address draws you in. It is not Tambudzai, but you, who holds the stone. “It is in your hand. Your arm rises in slow motion” (24). This biblical reference makes you question who you are to criticize something that happens outside of your scope of reference; outside of your understanding. And bit by bit, you begin to understand the relevance of reading this story, your discomfort, and the arduous acceptance of your identification with the main character. Because you now realize: this has been your assignment all along.
Kris van der Voorn is head of design at RevUU. They are a non-binary writer and spoken word performer, currently pursuing the Literature Today Master’s at Utrecht University. They specialize in queer and politically engaged literature. Their goal is to make RevUU as diverse and inclusive as possible. Aside from their studies, Kris works at Savannah Bay, one of Utrecht’s finest bookshops. They are also a content creator for the online platform VOOS.
Photo by Kris van der Voorn
Dangarembga, Tsitsi. This Mournable Body: A Novel. Graywolf Press, 2018.