Writers Reading Group: Summary of Our discussion of This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
We were hugely excited when we learnt that we were going to shadow This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga, as she is not only a writer of such stature that her first book Nervous Conditions attracted plaudits by such giants of African literature as Chinua Achebe and Doris Lessing, but who is also a controversial figure in Zimbabwe today as a result of the brave position she takes towards the corruption of the current regime. In fact she was arrested for participating in a peaceful demonstration in Harare on the same day that she heard that she was shortlisted for the Booker prize.
Unfortunately we received our copies of the books very late which meant that we weren’t able to get together to discuss it until a few days ago. However, one positive effect of the delay meant that a few of us were able to get hold of the first two books in the trilogy and felt that this meant that such background knowledge made a substantial difference to our understanding of This Mournable Body. The additional understanding added by reading Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not led us to reflect on whether it was fair to both the writer and the reading audience to short list a book which is, in many ways, a three hander. Those of us who had read The Book of Not also told us that there was a significant incident in the plot which affected Tambu’s poor relationship with her mother in This Mournable Body, which could have offered some explanation for some of Tambu’s behaviour in the later book.
There were many elements of This Mournable Body which we all agreed were fabulous. We reflected on the use of the adjective “mercurial” by the Booker judges to sum up her style, which we felt was very apt. We discussed the movement from a surreal imagistic opening style, reminiscent of Toni Morrison, and Virginia Woolf, to sharply observed filmic descriptions of the bus station and the psychiatric hospital, to culminate in darkly comic satire in Dangarembga’s depiction of the highly lucrative eco tours for Europeans which Tambudzai becomes part of at the end of the novel.
We all thought that Dangarembga has produced a trilogy which encapsulates the troubled history of Zimbabwe, so it is authentic that This Mournable Body depicts a very bleak picture of a chaotic and corrupt country in the 1990s, where the whole country is in a state of post traumatic stress disorder following decades of conflict. We all felt that Tambu herself was brutalised by the experience of racism from the white education she received at the Young Ladies College of the Sacred Heart, in addition to terrible experiences in the war of independence - which meant that she eventually joins the general 90s trend in only looking out for herself in her determination to achieve the success which her European style education trained her to expect. Some people in the group felt that meeting her in the 3rdbook meant that you could gain the impression that she is simply very unsympathetic, when you haven’t had the advantage of knowing the circumstances behind the development of her character.
This Mournable Body is written in the second person, and the group was split as to the effect of such a bold stylistic approach. Some people felt that the second person increased the intensity of the book and drew you in to identification with Tambu, whilst other people felt that it had an oddly distancing effect which was, at times, confusing. Some people commented on how it created a strange sense of disassociation and detachment which can occur in states of mental ill health and distress. The disconnect between actions and understanding, is at its most powerful in the description of a violent central incident, the meaning of which dawns on both Tambu and the reader well after the event. However, some group members thought that the second person technique also had the effect of alienating the reader from the narrative, which meant that they felt ambivalent and slightly frustrated by the novel.
Most of all we loved the power and punch of Dangarembga’s poetic language and relished the image of the hyena as an expression of the deep anger experienced by black women in a ruthlessly misogynistic society. We also loved the comic image of a bag of mealie meal ( maize flour), a gift from her mother which follows Tambu about, despite her best efforts to get rid of it and which represents the umbilical cord left in your village from which you can never escape.