Panashe Chigumadzi on Tsitsi Dangarembga, commissioned to celebrate Dangarembga winning the 2021 PEN Pinter Prize.
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‘I was not sorry when my brother died.’ Have you ever read a more compelling opening line? Immediately, we need to know what kind of existence – what kind of circumstance, what kind of history – would lead someone to feel this way.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions of course takes its title from Satre’s introduction to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. It’s an unflinching witness to settler colonialism’s psycho-somatic effects on black women like Nyasha, Maiguru, Mai and Tambudzai, who comes to believe the price of a life worth living is her brother’s death. If it’s one thing to live the double consciousness of a black minority in white dominated society, it’s quite another to live the double consciousness of a minoritised black majority. As I reread the Tambudzai trilogy, I was struck by how bodily, how fleshy, Dangarembga’s exploration of black women’s existence under settler rule is. It struck me: if Frantz Fanon ends his phenomenology of black-being-in-the-world in Black Skin, White Masks by calling out in prayer ‘O my body, make of me always a man who questions!’, Dangarembga’s trilogy provides us with the black feminist response: O my body, make of me always a woman who questions!
Listening to the Flesh
Labouring side by side with Tambu at Mainini Lucia’s security company, Christine, the war veteran, remarks:
your education is not only in your head anymore […] your knowledge is now also in your body, every bit of it.
Tambudzai Sigauke – who, since we first met her in Nervous Conditions as a precocious girl who is not sorry when her brother dies, has come full circle in This Mournable Body’sclosing lines. Having spent years running away from the hard labouring life of the body to which her mother is condemned, to kuma ruzevha, and towards the life of the mind Babamunini enjoys at the mission school, it is the body to which Tambu returns.
Re-reading Tambu’s return to her body, I recall my father’s weekend ritual.
“Ndichambo terera nyama,” he announces.
“I’m going to listen to the flesh.”
He’s going to lie down, be still, and listen to the rumblings of his flesh after the week’s labour at his surgery.
I’ve always found this listening to the flesh a curious statement. What is it that our flesh might have to tell us?
What Christine gestures Tambu and us towards is that there is a bodily archive of knowledge that we carry in the flesh.
Through our educations – as it was in Tambu’s miseducation at Babamunini’s mission school and the Young Ladies’ College of the Sacred Heart – we are taught to unlearn and distrust our embodied experiences, histories, knowledges, and imaginations of the world, to make disembodied pronouncements on it. This is to say: we are taught to stop listening to the flesh.
Labouring side by side with her, Christine sees that Tambu has stopped trying to eat books. Tambu is now listening to the flesh.
As Hortense Spillers teaches, there’s a historic distinction between the flesh and the body. Slavery and colonisation’s economies of violence transformed our African flesh into bodies of labour and property stripped of our personhood.
And yet, in our mother tongue chiShona (and many African languages as Kholeka Shange teaches), Tambu would never have referred to herself as a ‘black female body’. She might try to refer to herself as ‘muviri we mukadzi mutema’, but chiShona doesn’t conceive of muviri – the body – as separate from the spirit, soul and mind. To speak of muviri is to invoke the person who lives inside the body. To speak of a body outside the person whom it belongs to is to speak of chitunha – the body of dead person; in other words, a corpse.
To speak then of nyama, the flesh of a person’s body, is to invoke the most corporeal site of a living person – the site of living, breathing, feeling, through which the world is experienced, encountered and absorbed. The flesh, then, is a site of re-memory, and re-remembering what Toni Morrison called“a knowing so deep.”
To return to the flesh we must be alive to what has happened to our bodies. After all, our bodies are, to borrow from Bessie Head, a question of power.
If Fanon calls out ‘O my body, make of me always a man who questions!’, Dangarembga responds: “O my body, make of me always a woman who questions!”
Over the trilogy – Nervous Conditions, The Book of Not, This Mournable Body – Dangarembga explores black women’s bodies as questions of power.
Tambu, whose body marks her unfit for the same education as her brother.
Nyasha, who refused to eat and threw up when she did.
Netsai, whose leg is blown off at the Pungwe.
Sacred Heart’s black girls, punished for taking a shit in the white girls’ toilets and having no place to dispose their soiled pads.
Gertrude’s breasts and buttocks, exposed to the jeering crowd.
MaiTaka’s leg, broken by her husband.
Tambu, who faints, hallucinates and, like Nyasha, ends up in psychiatric care.
Through Dangarembga’s unflinching witness, the word is made flesh, the flesh is made word.
In this inseparability between body and language, Dangarembga has shown us that hers is more than a textual vision of enfleshing freedom. In 2020, alive to the cries, the sufferings and the yearnings of her people, Dangarembga took her physical person out onto Harare’s streets, and posed her own body as a question to power.
Placing her physical and textual bodies in the line of fire, Dangarembga returns to the flesh so that we, like Tambu, might re-member ourselves and our worlds.
Panashe Chigumadzi is an essayist and novelist, born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa. Her debut novel Sweet Medicine (Blackbird Books, 2015) won the 2016 K. Sello Duiker Literary Award. Her second book, These Bones Will Rise Again, a historical memoir reflecting on Robert Mugabe’s ouster, was shortlisted for the 2019 Alan Paton Award for Non-Fiction. Acolumnist for The New York Times, and contributing editor of the Johannesburg Review of Books, her work has featured in titles including The Guardian, Chimurenga, Boston Review, Africa is A Country, Transition, Washington Post and Die Ziet. Prior to this, Chigumadzi was the founding editor of Vanguard Magazine, a platform for young black women coming of age in post-apartheid South Africa. She gained media experience both as a journalist for CNBC Africa and columnist for Forbes Woman Africa, and as a project executive for the Africa Business News Group. In 2015, Chigumadzi was a Ruth First Fellow, delivering the annual memorial lecture in honour of the anti-apartheid activist. The following year, Chigumadzi, was the curator of Soweto’s inaugural Abantu Book Festival, South Africa’s most important gathering for black readers and writers. Having completed her masters degree in African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, she is now a doctoral candidate at Harvard University’s Department of African and African American Studies.