Narrated by a restless teenager, Dangarembga (CRF 1999)’s “Nervous Conditions” takes place in civil war-ravaged Rhodesia during the 1960s and ’70s, on an impoverished homestead and at a mission school near the border town of Umtali (now Mutare). It recounts the narrator’s determination to get an education and to escape the poverty she was born into.
Fast-forward 30 tumultuous years from that startling debut. Dangarembga, who still resides in Zimbabwe — she is also a successful playwright, filmmaker and screenwriter — has produced another masterpiece, well worth the long wait. In “This Mournable Body,” she returns to the story of Tambu, who is now middle-aged, without children or a husband. Having recently quit her job as an advertising copywriter, she is living in a woman’s hostel in Harare. The details of her suffocating existence are deftly drawn. “That evening it is as though the hostel has folded its arms more tightly against you,” Dangarembga writes of Tambu’s growing sense of constriction.
Both novels are about women trying to imagine and work their way out of a narrative that has already been decided for them. Both novels are inspiring, not in spite of Tambu’s hopeless situation but because through it all she never loses sight of herself while, at the same time, never underestimating the brutal reality of her predicament. In this regard, “This Mournable Body” is a story of triumph, not despair.