Almost the Same, But Not Quite: Partial Presence, Sticky Messes, and Effacement

Note:  I’ve been sick for the last few days, so I’m currently flying high on a variety of cough and cold medications.  If my blog reflects this, then I suppose I’m at an advantage of sort of existing on a different planet at the moment.

As I read through the first five chapters of Nervous Conditions, I realized that I love Tambu.  Truly.  I love this girl because I recognize my own relationship with my father.  Don’t make waves, Tambu!  You’re just a girl, so you must concern yourself with the chores and obligations that this position entails rather than dreaming about school and books!  While Tambu’s father is strict and controlling, a victim of his own culture really, it feels refreshing to encounter Tambu’s own dismissiveness toward the man’s blind rules and gendered expectations of his own children.  It’s, of course, empowering to follow a strong female protagonist, especially one in Tambu’s position where she is made to feel inferior by many around her (including herself), who resists much of the societal expectations to fulfill the roles of wife, mother, and adolescent girl at home while the boys go to school to learn.

I noticed that many scenes in Dangarembga’s novel are deeply symbolic, metaphorical portraits of strife, ambivalence, conflict, and transition, rather than the simplistic, mundane pictures readers may only see initially.  One of these takes place in chapter five, when Tambu’s aunt and uncle ask that she sit and speak with them in the living room.  She tells us, “I could not take those seats since it would not do to sit so disrespectfully close to my uncle” (86).  Instead, she chooses “an armchair across from both Baba and Maiguru which placed the three of us as far away from each other as was possible in that room” (86).  This frozen picture of disconnect places a glaring magnifying glass over the class and lifestyle conflict between Tambu and her aunt, uncle, and Nyasha.  A young girl reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover!  I laughed when I saw this detail–of course her parents take the book and hide it!  I read this book as an undergrad for a lit. course, and I remember giggling over the word choice within sex scenes and applied to the human anatomy.  I wasn’t surprised that Nyasha’s parents, seemingly mimicking the colonizers here, have forbidden that type of literature in their household.


I was reminded of Rushdie’s “The Courter” when Tambu declares, “East, west, north, south – it was all the same to me as long as the sun did rise at one point and set in the opposite” (79), however, I think she intends quite the opposite of what Rushdie’s narrator tells us.  Tambu appears oblivious of the lasting effects of colonization, and she plainly expresses that it is all the same to her provided that her sense of peace and happiness is sound.  This sort of marks her transition into hybridity and mimicry.  Her sadza also seems to stand in for this national identity she seems ignorant of, which she depends upon to help her sleep:  “At that rate I would be hungry by the time I went to bed, and I had nightmares when I slept without a comforting mound of sadza warming my stomach” (79).  This dish is not used only to warm and nourish her body, but (at the risk of sounding cliche) her soul.


The interactions between Tambu and her brother Nhamo range between unfortunate and desultory to tragic and violent–her feelings toward him alone seem violent, to transcend the typical, mundane realms of sibling rivalry and jealousy.  I think she knows that much more than this is taking place within their relationship.  Tambu is a smart girl, and she knows it–her brother is taking advantage of his gender role and wasting the very thing Tambu wishes to embrace.  The first sentence of this book is jarring:  “I was not sorry when my brother died” (1); as a narrator, Tambu does not hesitate to explain her feelings and perceptions although she frequently appears apologetic and hesitant within the story itself.


We understand that Tambu is in a state of transition as she moves in with her aunt and uncle, thus replacing her brother as the educated child.  Tambu is also an adolescent girl on the verge of womanhood.  She mentions stripping and swimming “when I was feeling brave, which was before my breasts grew too large” (4), thus equating shame and discomfort with puberty and maturity.  On page 3, she also describes the rain as plentiful enough “to engulf me to my nipples”, a telling explanation from a young girl who is obviously beginning to notice her growing, changing body.  And, inevitably, I caught the menstrual remark, which “was a shamefully unclean secret that should not be allowed to contaminate immaculate ears by indiscreet reference to this type of dirt in their presence (70-71).  While a reflection of social norms and a resistance of taboos, this sentiment seems ironic since the gender roles and expectations projected onto Tambu are what I would describe as shit or “dirt.”  The girl beats up her brother for standing in the way of her education, so you have to hand it to her for that.  The details of her menarche are also an example of her transition into the culture of the colonized as she begins to use tampons (take note that these lovely things are bleached WHITE) rather than the rags she receives from her mother.  As she makes a mess with her menstrual blood in the bathroom, notice that she’s concerned about tainting Maiguru’s white bathroom with the blood (menstruation:  always a hygiene issue rather than a feminine experience), just as she is subconsciously frightened of allowing her own culture to seep into this newer, better, anglicized way of life.  I almost think that the redness of her menstrual blood represents her as a colored woman who simply wishes to sanitize her identity here.


One of the themes here is that of education and the progress and success it entails.  Tambu’s father lectures his son, “Do you think we would be living the way we are?  No!  In a brick house with running water, hot and cold, and lights, just like Mukoma.  It would have been good, if only I had the brains [my emphasis]”(5).  All of this book’s characters seem to be in agreement that intelligence is the gateway to education, success, and inevitably money (which seems most vital in addition to status), however, Tambu is obviously dismissed as an eligible candidate for schooling because she is a girl.  Both her parents discourage her from raising the money to send herself to school, and even tell her that it’s just a dream she should forget.  There is also a readily felt pressure to become anglicized; Tambu becomes a hybrid as she begins to speak English alongside her native Shona:  “‘How has the day been?’ Maiguru asked in English.  ‘Have you spent the day well?’ Nyasha asked in Shona.  ‘Have you spent the day well, Babamukuru?’ I repeated” (80).  I feel for Tambu as she tries desperately to incorporate English into her lexicon.

I think it’s also important to point out the ways in which the two girls use their English.  Tambu shares with us, “[W]hen Nyasha spoke seriously her thoughts came in English, whereas with me, the little English I had disappeared when I dropped my vigilance to speak of things that mattered” (77).  Obviously, Tambu initially resists the pull of the colonizing language as she naturally reserves her native Shona for matters of great importance while English remains a shallow and arbitrary tongue for her.  Before this, Tambu asks us in chapter three, “Shona was our language.  What did people mean when they forgot it?” (42).  I would suggest (and maybe Ngugi would too?) that it means a conscious or unconscious abandonment or rejection of one’s own culture and people.  It’s easier for me to draw a connection between this concept and that of Latinos since I’ve known so many.  The idea of meeting a Latino/a whose native language is Spanish, which has now been forgotten, is so alien to me.  Maintaining one’s mother tongue is interconnected to pride, nationalism, and an overwhelming love for your people and the land from where you came.

Like any adolescent girl, Tambu wrestles with her feelings of conflict, and struggles to rationalize her feelings of hate, blame, and guilt:  “I began to feel inferior again.  I was a bit masochistic at that age, wallowing in my imagined inadequacy until I was in real danger of feeling sorry for myself” (89).  Here, it becomes quite apparent that Tambu questions her worth due to not only her living circumstances but possibly to her family’s lack of support.  This idea is further emphasized by a short paragraph on page 82 when she eats with her surrogate family:  “I was very pleased to see the sadza when it came . . . This was embarrassing . . . my place looked as though a small and angry child had been fed there . . . now Maiguru was dishing sadza on to my plate.”  This scene contrasts with the budding emotional and physical development Tambu is currently undergoing as it instead infantilizes Tambu, as she eats with the wrong utensil and (again) makes a mess as her aunt dishes her native food onto the plate for her–it almost seems that this scene highlights the colonized as brainless, primitive babies who need to be spoon fed and convinced and manipulated with familiarity (here, sadza) to cross the border into the anglicized world, the world of cigarettes, interesting food, and raunchy paperbacks!  This scene also exemplifies what our Po-Co Studies describes as “mimicry [which] is also potentially mockery” (126).

The girl even straightens her hair!  It truly breaks my heart when black women do this in an attempt to mimic white culture because the ideal of paramount beauty is:  long, straight hair (the blonder, the better), skinny (not thin), small waist and behind).  Embrace your big ass, and style your hair in a huge afro!  Why anglicize these awesomely beautiful features?  Tambu barely even notices when Nyasha tells her she’s fat, though, because she’s too worried about getting to school on time.  Nyasha needs to eat some sadza and shut up.









I found this video of a woman making sadza (I was curious!), which is like a thickened porridge made with cornmeal.  I like this video because it’s more authentic than some lady from a cooking show talking us through how to make sadza ourselves at home–this lady is African and we can hear all sorts of domestic sounds and spot small children playing while she happily makes this dish.

Tambu tells us, “[T]his is how I came to dislike my brother, and not only my brother:  my father, my mother – in fact everybody” (12).  This is an alarming way to conclude a chapter, however, we know by now that her parents are not supportive to her, not even her mother “who suffered from being female and poor and uneducated and black so stoically” (89).  Although she admires her mother for enduring these natural setbacks within her life, Tambu is given the opportunity to overcome these obstacles by living with Babmukuru and his wife and acclimating to their lavish, Anglicized lifestyle.

I’m also intrigued by this dream she describes on page 90, probably because I sort of soak up anything coated in symbols or meaning which may remain concealed if we don’t dig them up and confront them.  What I found most interesting is that Nhamo scolds Tambu for “deserting my husband, my children, my garden and my chickens”, things which do not currently exist, but seem to always exist in the future tense in the lives of so many women, especially her women.  These ideas act as a reflection of Tambu’s own insecurities regarding her choices; has she abandoned domesticity for a life of academic learning?  It seems that women are still condemned today for making such a choice:  pursuing advanced degrees while remaining childless while other women get little sleep while they care for infants and toddlers.  And yet more women are chided as selfish when they choose to balance both worlds.  Nhamo’s ghost still haunts his sister because she fears that his sexist logic may contain a grain of truth.  Clearly, we understand at this point that Tambu is an ambivalent narrator and character as she struggles to grasp onto her own native culture as a source of familiarity, comfort, and reliability, but also slowly accepts the western ideals of Baba, Maiguru, and Nyasha, such as refusing to ever slow one’s pace, cooking food only to throw it out, and worrying about dieting and losing weight.  It seems that Tambu begins in a very zen-like, native state and moves to a more manic, ill-mannered one as the plot unfolds.  Tambu is very much the “blurred copy” (125) image mentioned in our Po-Co Studies, and can only continue on as such.  We begin to recognize Tambu as “the colonial subject[,] as a ‘partial’ presence” (Bhabha 265).

The last thing I want to discuss is this issue of dancing.  On page 42, Tambu describes dancing with her people as “music and movement pulsing through the night to make your skin crawl and tingle, your armpits prickle, your body impatient to be up and concerned with the beat . . . As I had grown older and the music had begun to speak to me more clearly, my movements had grown stronger, more rhythmical and luxuriant.”  Later, Tambu is unable to “jive” to the sounds and beats of western music, so she instead chooses to read and tells her cousin that she can’t dance.  Clearly, much like her sadza, dancing (which is, as we know, a staple of African culture) serves as a symbol for her national identity, one to which she has aligned her rhythms and sentiments so much so that westernized dancing must feel like running backward to Tambu.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Sean Weaver says:

    And tell me agan why you are not a poco scholar?!? Seriously I love your treatment of the text. I don’t have anything to say butcome join my side! Fucking awesome! Hope you feel better I’m sorry for spreading my germs.

  2. lotusgurl says:

    : ) Thanks, Sean! I’m really loving this book. The first time I heard “postcolonial” out of Dr. C’s mouth, I didn’t even know what the word meant. Tambu is so sweet and conflicted, I don’t know whether to hug or slap her. Don’t feel too bad–prob. one of the tutees from the writing center. Everyone’s sick right now!

  3. clutzclemens says:

    I knew that you would do an excellent reading of the menarche moment. This text is an important one in the field of girl studies for many of the reasons that you articulate above. I agree that Tambu is a fascinating character who shows how slippery and tenuous the ideas of race, gender, and nationality are. You pick out several moments that clearly show this tension in Tambu’s life. I love this novel because it spends time following a young girl, something we don’t see too often in any literature. In fact, I might say we see it more in poco than in other “literatures.” And I have to agree with your peers above who are cheering you to the po-co side. I had not heard the term “po-co” until the second semester of my Ph.D. program. Can you imagine? I remember feeling great relief that there was a word for what it is I always loved. There’s nothing I would rather be than a po-co scholar who focuses on gender. That a field like that exists offers me the chance to study exactly the thing that excites me. Keep up the good work. And by the way, your thesis could totally fit into a po-co framework.

  4. clutzclemens says:

    PS Excellent use of picture and video. This blog will be something to show at a grad school interview, or at least share the link. This work shows your depth of reading and analysis, which is already at a doctoral candidate’s level.

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