Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Tsitsi Dangarembga's This mournable body


Our second book of the year was Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga's third novel, This mournable body, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020. It proved to be a challenging but ultimately worthwhile choice. 

When we say This mournable body was Dangarembga's third novel, we should also say that it's the third in her trilogy, the first two being Nervous conditions (1988) and The book of not (2006).  None of us have read these, but we understand that they were more positive than This mournable body, by which time protagonist Tambudzai is out of work and struggling to survive. She's desperate to be the success she has alway wanted - and believed herself able - to be.

As always, we started with our ...

First impressions 

One of us loved the novel from the start. She engaged with the second person voice and enjoyed the novel's exploration of "the personal is the political" through its protagonist. She liked how the voice conveyed the character's remoteness or dissociation from her "self", versus a third person voice which tends to provide a more objective commentary or first person voices which tend to be more intimately confessional. 

Most of the rest of the group did not immediately engage with the novel, though they came to like or, even, appreciate and enjoy, it somewhere along the way:

  • initially thrown by the voice, largely due to the narrator's fluctuating state of mind, the scenario-style, and the story's focus on cruelty, but started to get into it by part two, and ended up loving it. 
  • found the beginning hard and confronting, but then began to appreciate it.
  • struggled early on, but found reading some background about the book was helpful in giving her the boost she needed to find stimulation in the story.
  • found its disjointed nature off-putting, but liked aspects such as the little kindnesses Tambu meets along the way and how Dangarembga conveyed Tambu's paranoia. Suggested that it's refreshing to read a book by a black female author.
  • found it difficult get into, but was interested in its discussion of ecotourism and poverty interesting. Came to enjoy the writing style, and appreciated the wide variety of issues the book explores. 
  • also found it hard at the start, but suggested that it's a good example of why we read books, which is to experience the lives of others that we would otherwise know nothing about. Was interested to see what happened to this once rich African country, and particularly the impact of the West, of Mugabe, the sexism, violence, racism. 
  • was surprised to find it hard to get into because is sympathetic to Zimbabwe. Put it aside and picked it up again too late to finish, but found that it started to make sense in part 2 when Tambu is in the mental institution. 

Discussion

We confirmed that the book is primarily set around the turn of the millennium, and that Tambudzai at this time is around 40 years old.

Our discussion roamed over the place a bit, but we talked about how Tambudzai embodies the nation's post-Independence trauma and sense of false hope. We liked that the novel is not black and white, and that most characters are complex.

One member initially saw the book as being about metal illness and paranoia, but decided that it is more political, exploring issues like the impact on the individual of national trauma. 

We discussed various issues to do with Zimbabwe and Africa, including how white Tracey would try to exoticise "Africa" for the tourism trade, and how the West is portrayed as generalising Africa, lumping all countries into one. We talked about the compromises and bribes Tracey had to make to get her ecotourism business going. 

We also talked about gender, about women being expected to dress modestly, about women being beaten (of which there are several examples in the book, by strangers, sons, husbands, etc.) We also noted the competition between people - such as Tambu and Pedzi - in their desperation to succeed in a tough world.

We talked about the language, with several members sharing favourite quotes. Several of us commented on the ant and hyena imagery used to convey Tambu's emotions, the ants seeming to convey her anxiety in various situations and the hyena her lack of control:

The hyena laughs as you enter the gate. It has slunk once more as close to you as your skin, ready to drag away the last scraps of certainty you have preserved the moment you falter ...
A member liked this description of a woman who'd been beaten:

Evening light drips shadows onto her skin, thickening the knots of swelling, deepening lacerations.
Tambu's sister, Netsai, had lost one of her legs in the war, something we are reminded of regularly in the novel, suggesting that it symbolises the country's trauma, and the fact that many of its people do not, as a result of their experiences, feel whole. One member liked Tambu's description of watching Christine, who had also been to war, working in the garden:

You have seen this manner before, this being where the body is and not being there, in your sister Netsai, who went to war, who lost a leg, and who said to you when they said there was peace, “Yes, I went and I am here but I never came back. Most of the time I’m still out there wandering through the grass and sand, looking for my leg.”

Blood and womb are recurring images in the novel, referring, we felt, to the vulnerable position of women in Zimbabwean society as well as, more broadly, to the war and violence the country had experienced. There is quite a bit of description in the book about the impact of war on those who fought in it:

The women from war are like that, a new kind of being that no one knew before, not exactly male but no longer female.
One member mentioned the many references to Tambu's determination to smile in various uncomfortable or vulnerable circumstances, such as:

Your smile attaches itself to your face more tenaciously as your anxiety increases.
One member thought the denouement came too quickly, while another felt that once we'd got to that point the book would become boring if it were drawn out.

Throughout the discussion we needed to clarify various events in the novel, because at times the language is intense resulting in the actual action being described not always being clear. An example is what had led to Tambu ending up a mental patient in hospital, in part 2.

One member had circulated, prior to the meeting, a link to writer Teju Cole's article "Unmournable bodies", which Dangarembga acknowledges at the end of her novel as "putting many matters into perspective" and inspiring the novel's title. The essay talks about how the West tends to be selective about which bodies it is prepared to mourn (such as the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre) and which it tends to ignore (such as many Muslim victims of violence.) We discussed what we thought the title meant, and decided it could be an assertion that "I am worthy, I am worth mourning", something that is hard for people to feel in a place where everyone is struggling.

The question was asked whether we would recommend this book to others. Most said yes, but would accompany it with a warning or some preparation.  

We also considered Dangarembga's intention. We understand that the first two books in the trilogy are more positive, so wondered whether this book reflects increasing concerns about the country's political challenges and also, perhaps, about how life becomes harder for older women. But, we also felt that the epigraph, that "There is always something left to love" suggests an ultimately positive, or, at least, hopeful reading for the novel? 

Present: 8 members

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