We Were All Preparing for Battle: Whitewashing in Darkest Africa

I was beginning to think Poor Baba as Nyasha dressed herself provocatively for the dance and then returned home late, unable to explain herself to her father’s satisfaction.  I can pinpoint the exact Oh, shit moment where I suspected that the two may come to blows, although I figured this wouldn’t manifest itself physically:  “They looked at each other” (112).  The two wrestle within this gender (role) power struggle just as Tambu and her brother do over the tragic situation with her mealies.  Some sick part of me finds it comical when women wrestle with men because the power struggle becomes so literal; and although a woman typically can never overpower a man, it seems enough of an ego blow that he has been challenged in the first place.  When a man’s “masculinity” (whatever the fuck that is) is questioned, all bets are off–the man struggles desperately to find his place again, not only superior to women, but smiling at his advantageous place.  Tambu so eloquently tells us that our Nyasha “was grieving for whatever she had lost when she struck her father” (119).  The concepts of loss, resilience, and forgiveness are sort of at the forefront as this chapter concludes.

I’m also loving all these muted scenes of female bonding between the pair, despite their differences and quarreling.  Naturally, I enjoyed the detail about Nyasha’s early period, and the girls’ dialogue regarding sex:  “‘Honestly, even on my wedding day they’ll be satisfied only if I promise not to enjoy it.‘  I agreed with her” (119).  I think “they” may mean the people of her culture.  Tambu has caught onto some very devastating stigmas:  Women who like sex are sluts, women who don’t like it are barren, women who don’t want husbands are witches and lesbians (almost the same thing, right?  you’re fucking with the natural, a.k.a. phallocentric, world), and women who want husbands are savage huntresses.  Yay!  And “because her body had appetites of which she was not ashamed, she [Lucia] moved back in with Takesure” (153).  Lucia appears as either a “wild woman” or a man, as the enjoyment of sex is considered a very masculinized trait, even by today’s standards.

I’ve been struggling to put into words why exactly it is that I love Nyasha so much, and Tambu does it for me here:  “her capacity to forgive herself” (119).  It’s an admirable, and often overlooked trait, especially in women who suffer so much from the guilt inflicted by a judgmental and unforgiving society, and most of all, themselves.  I’m missing page 118!  Is anyone else?  How very queer–I hope I didn’t miss anything important.  Early on in chapter seven, Tambu very straightforwardly tells us, “We were all preparing for battle” (121), which gives us a clear indication of the further turbulence ahead.

Baba becomes a Christ figure within the plot.  He is the provider, seeks to guide those around him, and seems to have all the answers; he is domineering but kind, defensive yet protective, he gives but expects respect and obedience in return.  He is compared to Father Christmas and God:  “My father was much more afraid of Babamukuru’s wrath . . . than of the wrath of God” (127).  Wallace explains that it is a great obstacle “how to be rich and still good, how to be great and exercise compassion” (258).  I think, despite his obvious character flaws, Baba does this successfully.  He provides for his daughter, wife, and niece, and even goes against his own judgment by sending Tambu to Sacred Heart, where the “problem of Englishness” will surely snare her.  Lucia also declares that the man can “perform miracles!” (159).

Lucia, whose name literally means “Light,” is just that.  She stands out because she pays no mind to the traditional etiquette of her people.  Tambu tells us that “she interrupted, beginning the formal greetings” (131), behavior which was not at all proper.  I also lit up at this part about the gang carrying all of their supplies into Tambu’s parents’ home.  Dangarembga writes, “All of us except Babamukuru . . . staggered to the house weighed down with provisions” (129).  Did anyone else laugh at the symbolism here?  Everyone carries this great weight, this burden, all but Baba!  I think we can agree that each character in this novel carries a weight…otherwise, we wouldn’t have much of a story, right?  But this scene just seemed so intense and telling.  Tambu’s father “was excited by the thought of possessing a woman like Lucia, like possessing a thunderstorm to make it crackle and thunder and lightning at your command” (127).  This sentence is so lovely for a number of reasons.  Lucia is like a thunderstorm because she seems like a “force of nature” (so cliche!) which cannot and will not be tamed.  Also, she is a woman to be possessed by her husband, meaning that even the wildest of women within this group of people can still be possessed; she is, after all, just a woman.  Eek!  Tambu tells us, “She was dark like my mother, but unlike my mother her complexion always had a light shining from underneath the skin” (125).  So…yes, Lucia herself embodies light, which contrasts the dark behavior surrounding her.  However, she is still a dark woman, parallel to this resistance to becoming anglicized.  She rejects the creams which lighten dark skin, which only serve as a false mask shown to others to avoid being labeled “other.”  Tambu tells us that her skin is healthy because of this, another sign that her choosing to remain natural is synonymous with remaining faithful to her people and way of life.

I’ve always been fascinated by this idea of darkness being undesirable or negative.  When black women spend the money, time, and effort to lighten their skin, this obviously stems from some sort of self-hatred of their race and the idea that they’re not beautiful if they’re dark.  Look at these side-by-side photos I found of the Precious actress Gabourey Sidibe.  Elle magazine has lightened her skin for its cover in order to match white beauty ideals.  I wonder if she looks smaller because of the magazine as well, or if it’s because of lighting or weight loss.  I’ve read about what beauty magazine editors like to say when their publications get called out on this shit:  usually something about how they help actresses, models, and other celebrities to look their best, even if that image fails to reflect reality.  This is sick on so many levels, and it’s one of the reasons I stopped buying these disgusting magazines a few years ago.  This is almost comical in a way because talented black women like Sidibe could be purple polka-dotted for all I care.  But she’s not, she’s black, and the magazine cover should tell us that.  Elle probably fancied themselves so progressive for featuring a plus-sized woman on their cover!







On page 130, Nyasha is, unsurprisingly, objectified to a mere womb/body:  “The breasts are already quite large” Tambu’s mother remarks.  The argument over whether or not Nyasha will attract a husband (and a reliable son-in-law for her parents) becomes an issue because she has clearly indicated to her parents that she has little to no regard for custom, tradition, or familial and gender expectations.  If she wants to wear her skirts short and stay out mingling and flirting with boys, then that is precisely what she will do.  I think we’re supposed to feel bad for this girl as she seems a bit out of place within her family and culture as she becomes increasingly anglicized; however, our sympathies also order us to feel for Baba who is oblivious of the origin of conflict between him and his child.  If I can shift back to this issue of objectification, I may even argue that this is also a source of tension–the way in which Baba (despite his deity-like status within the community) approaches the issue of marriage.  Her breasts are most likely only noticed or mentioned because they will inevitably become the source of nourishment for Nyasha’s unborn children–her growing breasts are not only a sign that she is maturing into a young woman, but that she is equipped to become a mother.  Even today, it seems like the decision to have children is almost like an acknowledgment of one’s femaleness, or even a surrender to it, depending on who you’re talking to.  It was either Socrates or Plato who claimed that the womb wanders restlessly throughout the body if it is not used to make babies, and eventually chokes a woman to death–a wonderful and effective metaphor if I ever heard one.  If Nyasha chooses to forego this role and responsibility, she will be considered worthless by many in her family, especially Baba.  I wasn’t at all surprised to learn of her eating disorder, as well as her overall instability.

Tambu’s family claims that Lucia is “nothing of a woman . . . She sleeps with anybody and everybody, but she hasn’t borne a single child yet.  She’s been bewitched.  More likely she’s a witch herself” (126).  Whatta mouthful!  We’re given a nod to the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 and 1693–that’s how dated this type of thinking is.  During that time, single, childless women were also attacked, as they continue to be today.  So, Lucia is simply not a woman because she allegedly sleeps with lots of different men and has yet to bear a child.  Would she still be a whore if one of her suitors impregnated her?  Stereotypes aside (ladies, we can choose from SLUT or WITCH; Carrie from Sex and the City confirms this!), womanhood is defined by motherhood and monogamy or abstinence.  I would also assume that if a woman is infertile, she is no longer a woman.  I’m not surprised to hear that when Lucia does become pregnant, it is assumed that she simply wanted “to snare a husband” (126).  Notice the verb snare, as if women hunger for men’s blood, men’s freedom, become ravenous hunters who long to capture men and injure them with…wait for it…their femaleness!  I’m not claiming that women never do such things, but it’s ghastly to expect such behavior from all women.

I seem to be stuck on words this week, which is appropriate, I guess.  Look at this verb choice “slaving” on page 122.  Maiguru is upset that her husband had packed so much food for their trip because it meant that she had to do just this for the whole gang–it just feels like a scandalous word to describe one’s activities when one is black.  And, of course, Baba comforts her by pointing out “all these girls [my emphasis] to help you!” (122).  It’s not that I want to fix Baba…the sexism is ingrained within the culture, and he’s an adult; however, I enjoy throwing a magnifying glass over his exaggeratedly chauvinistic, pompous views and behavior.  I also tend to see the decay of Tambu’s home to symbolize the deterioration or neglect of her own culture.  We read that “[g]reat holes in the crumbling mud-brick walls of the tsapi” (123), and “faeces and urine contaminated every surface” (123).  Obviously, these ideas can be applied to the people itself; everything has broken and is now shit on by all those who used to relish in it.  I wonder, though, if these descriptions are simply biased as we consider the narrator’s past and present.  Po-Co Studies tells us that the observer “does not simply take in what is there as purely visual data, but is located with that place in a cultural horizon” (159), meaning that Tambu’s homestead is an example of a palimpsest.  Has it truly devolved or are Tambu’s words the result of the layering of inscriptions as her character experiences the beauty and luxury of the mission?  Tambu tells us that “[t]he old latrines were blocked up and hygienically white-washed ones put up in their place” (161).  Again, I go back to this idea of sanitization–before, I mentioned Tambu’s menarche as parallel to her blackness (as both are messy business and must be cleaned), but this wonderful term “whitewashed” is now used to describe the “white-ifying” of all:  skin, culture, clothing, language, environment.

This “burden of femaleness” really affected my entire reading of the last half of Nervous Conditions.  Wise beyond her years, Tambu tells us, “The Victimisation, I saw, was universal” (115).  Thank goodness–I used to think I was alone, and I’m glad that Tambu understands she’s not either.  While we tend to find Nyasha above the need for this comfort because she seems to wholeheartedly reject the ideals of her father, Tambu needs this revelation…both tragic and comforting at once.  “Men took it everywhere with them” (116), we’re told.  Another wonderful sentence.  This victimization is part of the male identity, incapable of separating itself from the victimizer.  On this same page, Tambu points out that she is “preserving my energy” while Nyasha “was burning herself out” (116), which points to this binary of self-preservation versus self-sacrifice, to accept and to challenge.  I draw this conclusion because Nyasha’s behavior tends to consistently point to much larger issues than simply a skirt which is too short or a cigarette in the middle of the night; rather, she seems to utilize her body as a text and to calmly brace herself for the masculine tornado of patriarchal ignorance which inevitably heads her way as a result.  So, I’ve discovered another reason to adore this girl.

Nyasha’s character serves as the prime example of hybridity and binarism.  She inhabits the space between dualities, which our Po-Co Studies points out is “a region of taboo in social experience” (18).  Sadly, Nyasha tells her family, “I’m not one of them but I’m not one of you” (201).  She also matches much of the table shown in Po-Co Studies on page 19:  Nyasha considers herself evil rather than a good, obedient daughter; she must think herself ugly and unsatisfactory because she suffers from bulimia (a disorder from which confident, healthy people do not suffer); she is bestial as she rips apart her schoolbook with her bare teeth before her family (she shifts from consuming information to destroying and rejecting it in the most primitive of ways); and she is the pupil rather than the teacher (this is debatable, as she is Tambu’s teacher in many ways) as she descends into a lonely existence and immerses herself in reading and studying obsessively.  On the same note, page 109 states that “[i]t is the ‘in-between’ space that carries the burden and meaning of culture.”  Who is Nyasha?  which culture owns her?  why?  These questions are difficult for us to answer because they are for her as well; she’s more than conflicted, she’s traumatized and tortured.  Despite her seemingly confident demeanor, Nyasha is lost.  Wallace reminds us that “we cannot return to what we have never been” (259), which causes me to question if little Nyasha truly abandoned her culture or if she simply never knew it.

I know I touched on dancing in my last blog post.  I want to go back to it as Tambu’s description of the dance is great.  She tells us, “To my surprise I discovered I could dance quite well” (111).  Obviously, (again, her body becomes a text, so we must read it) dance is a metaphor for Tambu’s anglicization, an activity she refused to participate in or even believe she was capable of because it was too westernized.  However, her eager excitement to dance and “show off” (111) very clearly communicates that the girl is not only acclimating to the idea of her anglicization, but she desires to celebrate it.









6 Comments Add yours

  1. clutzclemens says:

    Your close reading skills are stellar. I can see that you have so many things to say about these characters. I am happy to see you touching on the eating disorder–that so often feels like a “Western” (whatever that means to me) problem. Her body is the site of this tangle that Jordan wrote about as well, that is the bread and butter of every Rushdie piece, and perhaps of most po-co writing. The body as the site for the battle. That makes me sad.

  2. clutzclemens says:

    Oh, and those pictures are F’in infuriating.

  3. lotusgurl says:

    Yes! A magazine did the same thing with a cover photo of Beyonce! What’s even crazier to me is that women like her are already insanely, out of this world beautiful (wasn’t she just voted hottest woman in the world…along with J.lo?), and yet we photoshop/whitewash their dark skin. As someone who cares a lot about beauty in all its forms (my ideas of it, anyway), I really and truly don’t see how lighter skin is more attractive or beautiful. I’d love for one of the genius people or their proxies behind such imagery to explain this idea to me–convince me, please!

    I thought the bottom photos were funny in a way because they actually represent some pretty easy stereotypes: black people dance in a primitive way which traces back to their roots, and white people simply can’t dance. I was trying to imagine Tambu at the dance since she was enjoying herself. Seeing as I’m stuck on the idea of the body, dance is fascinating…it’s sexual, it’s cultural, and it’s a form of rhetoric. I think if maybe Tambu could see such images side by side, it would act as a sobering reflection…although it wouldn’t cure her progressive anglicization.

    You’re right. The body is a battleground in so many ways, and I wish I could show all young girls that it doesn’t have to be.

  4. cturn215 says:

    “The body is a battleground in so many ways, and I wish I could show all young girls that it doesn’t have to be.”

    Foreign bodies, colonial bodies, savage bodies, predative bodies, victimized bodies, politicized bodies…the list goes on and on.

    This is a tangential reply (I’m beefing up my writing skills which lapsed over a week by replying before I finish my own belated post) but I am currently dealing with particular issues regarding my own politicized, female body.

    As women, we are so often pressured to hate our bodies, to loathe them, to augment and diminish and contort and confuse our own natural shapes into some sort of socially acceptable form that it is a wonder most of us can still walk on two legs, eat, drink, or talk.

    I’ve put my body through considerable damage over the years; particularly in jr high/ high school, in order to force it/shape it/change it into such a thing that it wouldn’t preclude others from thinking that I might be halfway intelligent. I remember thinking: If I just lose weight, the teacher will see I’m not stupid and lazy and he’ll actually help me instead of laughing when I ask a question. Oh, the male gaze! Even today (and I wish I was making this up) as I was studying in a study room in the library, a pack of fratboys banged on the door and made barking noises, snarling before walking away. Although at twenty-seven, and as a university employee, I had the right to stalk after them and demand what they believed they were doing (which I did, believe me, and the one little misogynist turned crimson and hid in the little boy’s room, I hope to cry) there was still this part of me that looked back at the text that had enraptured me seconds before the barking and the snarling; (‘coz I’m a “dog”, geddit?) and thought: “well, this means nothing now. This is all ruined now, spoiled.” It’s how I used to feel walking down the street and a guy would yell something nasty out of his car, or someone would through something or just yell that reductive slur I’ve come to hate:: CUNT!!:: I’d think, whatever I was thinking or dreaming about or wondering or listening to means nothing, meant nothing, because when it comes down to it I am just a fucking cunt.

    My body is a battleground; about this there is no doubt. I’ve got the scars to prove it–I punched a man in the face once, and I’d gladly do it again. The saddest thing is, like poor Nyasha’s body, we turn our anger inward on it, we abuse it as our abusers would; we mimic their hate and shove our fingers down our throats or refuse to nourish ourselves or stay in dangerous relationships or refuse to speak up in class and so many, many men, if asked what they knew about this would just bat their eyes and say “well, you’ve got to have agency, you’ve got to respect yourself, it isn’t that bad, you can’t take it personally.” and to this we ought to say, Mr. Man, doncha see, the personal is political! Now kindly answer my question!

    1. Sean says:

      Cait I love your response!!! And both you and Jenny really got me thinking. I mean right now isn’t the homosexual body a battleground right now? How many suicides of young gay males and females must we read about or hear on the news? This idea of a body as a politicized battleground is really quite interesting, and can be mapped on anyone who is considered subpar or a threat to the “Norm”

      1. lotusgurl says:

        Oh my goodness, Sean! You said a mouthful! Yes, you could fill several books about the homosexual body as a site for battle!

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