The mental derangement of colonialism was Doris Lessing’s first subject. In her early stories, set in Southern Rhodesia, where she grew up nearly a century ago, racism is learned behavior. The white child is taught to take black people for granted. They are as remote as rocks. Except that they aren’t. As white children become socially conscious, white mothers rush to keep them from playing with black children. For a white youth to accept the brutal hypocrisies of the way things are is a rite of passage. White people let their dogs chase a black man down the road or up a tree. The black man is to be laughed at, his English, his wives, his labor. But, Lessing notes, it is the laughter of fear. The arrogance of white people says that black people are dangerous.
The question of who owns Rhodesia is present in the dignity of an old black chief, the stubborn resistance of a house servant, or the sheer sullenness of a work crew, people turned into migrants in their own country. If angered, they could set fire to your house. Lessing’s Rhodesia is bush farmland, acres rewarded to discharged soldiers, promises made to the urban overflow back in British cities. The word veld, one white girl observes, is not in the books she reads; the oaks she’s never seen are more familiar to her than the trees of her surroundings. In Lessing’s stories, colonial wives are baking scones in a rage at eleven o’clock at night or confined to a sickbed filthy with disappointment. Lessing’s women have dreams of thatched homesteads and are unprepared for the reality of a mud hut. White failure is contagious, a threat to the colonial order. It’s one thing for black people to live too well, but another for them to see a white man living worse off than they are.
Lessing’s first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), is a relentless chronicle of human disaster. Every character, black or white, is someone that it’s too bad another character has met. A mismatched white couple inept at farming sinks into humiliating poverty. They are from South Africa, just over the border. They know little about Cecil Rhodes, but they consider themselves English, which is essential to their settler psychology. Race is the equivalent of class. The miserable wife has no experience of black people or country life. She cannot speak to a “native” without irritation. That is her terror of black people. White farming requires the cheap black labor that she drives away; her determination to assert her authority over the workers when her husband is suffering from malaria brings her to violence.
They engage as their “houseboy” a muscular black man she had struck with a sjambok two years before. One morning she happens upon him naked. “A white person may look at a native, who is no better than a dog.” The evidence of what grows between them is accidentally revealed by her tone when she addresses the houseboy in front of other white people, and by the malevolent look he returns to white men:
“White civilization”…will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly, a white woman, can have a relationship, whether for good or for evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and nothing can save it.
In The Grass Is Singing, Lessing moves away from what she called her social stories into psychological realism. She respectfully avoids getting inside her black character’s head, but the sexually liberating power of the black body for trapped white people was already a well-established motif of literary modernism. What is original about Lessing’s portrait of colonial Rhodesia is that every white in it is a loser. Even rich settlers are losers. Lessing’s work was banned in South Africa and Rhodesia in 1956, by which time she, a former Communist, was a feminist living in London. Prominent black characters do not figure in her semiautobiographical novels set in Salisbury, Rhodesia, and published in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The white people drawn to the colonial enterprise were the dispossessed and embittered of Europe, Octave Mannoni speculates in Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization (1950). A French psychoanalyst and former colonial official in Madagascar, he offered the theory that colonized countries were similar to the archetypical desert island, and the “native” was both Friday and the cannibals. Mannoni viewed the European colonial in psychoanalytic terms, as someone manifesting infantile complexes not resolved in adolescence and lacking awareness of a world in which there were others who must be respected. Caliban wasn’t resented for his appearance but for claiming to be a person in his own right. The damaged, neurotic European knew that the psychological situation of being elsewhere favored him. He could act out, compensate, be what he had not been back home. The psychological satisfactions of domination were a more dangerous motive than profit.
Richard Wright approved of white people struggling to understand themselves in relation to the larger world, and in Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954) he glossed over what Mannoni had to say about the psychological predisposition of the native to accept his dependence. Descriptions of a desperately hoped-for paternal relationship between the white man and the black man were a familiar feature of white writings about Africa. Wright was looking for explanations of what happened to the personalities of both conquerors and indigenous people in their confrontations. He was gripped by Mannoni’s “Prospero complex”: the proposition that the history of European colonialism since the fifteenth century was a saga of unconscious, impatient, repressed, often sexual desires that revealed more about where such people came from than about the places they invaded. However, Frantz Fanon, while using Mannoni’s research, was nevertheless scathing about him in Black Skin, White Masks (1952): “It is utopian to try to ascertain in what ways one kind of inhuman behavior differs from another kind of inhuman behavior.”
The first examinations in fiction in English of Rhodesian colonial society from a black point of view were historical novels such as Stanlake Samkange’s On Trial for My Country, which was published in 1966, the year the black nationalist guerrilla war against the white supremacist regime began. Thirteen years of fighting ended in a negotiated peace in 1979 that established a black-majority democracy. A few Zimbabwean writers who published abroad had become known to an English-speaking audience.
For example, Dambudzo Marechera, who died in 1987 at the age of thirty-five, wanted release from the imperatives of protest. His collection of experimental stories, The House of Hunger (1978), and his stream-of-consciousness novel, Black Sunlight (1980), attack African identity when used as an element of coercion by authoritarian regimes. Black Sunlight was banned by Robert Mugabe’s new Zimbabwean government because of its “Euromodernism.” Chenjerai Hove, born in 1956, drew on his Shona heritage for his allegorical novels, such as Bones (1988), about the sufferings of the black peasantry during the war for liberation. He was critical of the black state as well as the colonial legacy and died in Norway in 2015, having been driven into exile by Mugabe in 2001.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988) was the first novel in English published by a Zimbabwean woman. Born in Southern Rhodesia in 1959, Dangarembga, a playwright, filmmaker, and former Cambridge University medical student, seems to have reached around any black male predecessors in Zimbabwean fiction in order to let Doris Lessing know why she kept her waiting.
“The first wound for all of us who are classified as ‘black’ is empire,” Dangarembga declares in Black and Female, her collection of three essays about the challenges she faced to become a writer. The slave trade is original sin. Trade is desire, a desire without love, and this lust, this impersonal desire, is personally, socially, and globally dangerous. The losers came and found us wanting; how to stop making it about them, she asks. Not much is known about the damage to communities from which black bodies had been stolen, she goes on to say, and she testifies for them, the “melanated people,” those who stayed behind and were offered the modesty of clothing because their own cultures were deemed inadequate. Mannoni reasoned that a man as naked as the African would accept a garment with joy, but Dangarembga, characterizing herself as an existential refugee, rejects it as a vicious condition imposed on her.
Black and Female contains an angry history of the late-nineteenth-century theft of the territories that became Zimbabwe, land divided into European and non-European areas when it was Rhodesia and black people had no freedom of movement. Her rage calls to mind Jamaica Kincaid’s fury at her colonial education in A Small Place (1988). Colonialism as trauma is Dangarembga’s subject in her fiction, too, but there is another layer of oppression that has to be scraped off before Nervous Conditions arrives at its moral about how Africans, in order to achieve provisional membership in “Englishness,” had to become unrecognizable to themselves. It is a coming-of-age story about having to contend with the authority of black men compromised by their subservience to the racialized authority white men have over them. It is a black story that cannot escape its white frame, but the immediate conflict in the novel between the social being and the inner personality is a woman’s.
Dangarembga’s narrator, Tambudzai Sigauke, claws her way to an education in rural Southern Rhodesia the 1960s. Her family in a village near the town of Umtali is so poor that her father has no cattle for bride prices. Tambudzai’s father is agitated by the sight of his daughter reading, because ideas will make her unsuitable for the tasks of “feminine living.” Her mother tells her that when there are sacrifices to be made, women are the ones to make them, and she must prepare for disappointment. The father is proud of her brother’s English as the first step toward a position and the material emancipation of the family. Tambudzai is thirteen in 1968 when her brother dies suddenly. Her uncle, the head of her father’s family, lets her take his place at the mission school.
Tambudzai exchanges the squalor of her family homestead for the baked-brick house of her uncle’s mission, where people eat with knives and forks and drink tea. That the new food is interesting makes her suspicious. “The self I expected to find on the mission would take some time to appear.” She recalls—the story is told looking backward—her struggles to adjust and her “masochistic…wallowing” in her imagined inadequacies. Thinking of her mother, “who suffered from being female and poor and uneducated and black so stoically,” makes her ashamed of her weakness.
Dangarembga’s style is meticulous, an immersive realism full of a fluency of detail. “These were complex, dangerous thoughts that I was stirring up, not the kind you can ponder safely but the kind that become autonomous and malignant if you let them.” As a narrator, Tambudzai is steely in her observations, never more so than when analyzing herself.
She learns English quickly. “Most of me sought order. Most of me was concrete and categorical.” Sin was definitely black, she is taught in the mission’s Sunday school.
Her uncle and patron, Babamukuru, likes to expound, make speeches, impress, as “an early educated African, as headmaster, as husband and father, as provider to many—in positions that enabled him to organise his immediate world and its contents as he wished.” He has plenty of power and money, in her view, because of his education. He defied the wizard of poverty, but his nerves are bad because he is so busy. In 1960 he and his wife, Maiguru, were sent to university in England and returned in 1965. “I was astonished the day I found out how highly educated my aunt was.”
Their daughter, Tambudzai’s cousin Nyasha, has come back from England “Anglicised.” She smokes, wears short skirts, teaches Tambudzai about tampons, meets white boys. She is glamorous, but her classmates at the mission school do not like the way she speaks, because she sounds like she thinks she is white. When she suffers a breakdown, a white psychiatrist in Salisbury tells her parents that a black girl cannot have psychological troubles.
White people in the novel are peripheral until, irresistibly, Tambudzai is recruited by white nuns, the kind of white people who come to give, not to take. She performs brilliantly on her examinations. You are allowed to assimilate if you behave, her cousin jeers. But to go to the convent school is a step toward freedom and away from flies, disease, rags, and her parents. Tambudzai didn’t then believe that her uncle was a “historical artefact; or that advantage and disadvantage were predetermined.” Yet what he wanted for her stunted her critical faculties and sapped her energies.
Tambudzai’s story about feeling unnatural and guilty forms a trilogy of novels. Nervous Conditions was followed by The Book of Not (2006) and This Mournable Body (2018). Nervous Conditions is set during the emergency that resulted from the white minority declaring Rhodesia independent of Britain in 1965 and the beginning of the guerrilla war a year later. Given how quickly independence had been achieved in other colonies in the early Sixties, Zimbabwean black nationalist movements thought that once the people had acclaimed them as their liberators, the minority-white regime would crumble. The optimistic phase of the independence struggle coincides with Tambudzai’s awakening. There had been ominous signs; the atrocities carried out by both sides turned out not to be isolated events.
When the civil war ended and Zimbabwe became an independent nation under black rule in 1979, “people thronged the streets rejoicing so thoroughly that there was no place for remembering the acts their hands and their feet, and their teeth, and the fingers, boots, and mouths of their children committed,” Tambudzai recalls in The Book of Not. Dangarembga resumes Tambudzai’s story in her second novel at the point where the first novel left it, some years before independence, as she is about to become one of the few black scholarship students at an exclusive convent school, at a time when most Europeans liked being smiled at.
Dangarembga depicts what it is like to be crammed into inferior, segregated living spaces on a campus of luxury, barred from sports, insulted in classroom, dining hall, and corridor, humiliated, judged, patronized, forgiven daily by teachers and staff; to cope with the destructive rivalries among the black girls, the deforming rivalries with the white girls, the white fear of coming into direct contact with black skin, the anxiety of the black girls that they might accidentally touch a white student—it is every bit as awful as Jane Eyre’s Lowood Institution. “I resorted to the usual way out of not feeling anything,” reflects Tambudzai. It is difficult to convey the emotional atmosphere of The Book of Not, the demoralizing strife and terror and loneliness of even the white girls. Tambudzai should have won the top honor at her graduation, but the nuns gave it to a cheerful white girl. “I emerged from my studies to a new dispensation.”
An undistinguished sociology degree from the University of Zimbabwe leads Tambudzai to a job as a copywriter at an advertising agency in Harare and a room in a women’s hostel clinging to the old standards. “Words—you could do so much with words. You could maul them and twist them and tear them, but if you did they would not dance.” A senior copywriter, a white man, takes credit for her work. A person comes “to a point where a person was against everything”: she resigns and leaves the hostel to become “a new Zimbabwean.” But the unasked question is what kind of future comes from a people’s “desire to desist from chopping away lips, ears, noses and genitals from the bodies of people’s relatives by the elder siblings.”
The guerrilla war had been distant at first, the sounds of mortar attacks on some tobacco farm or wattle plantation in the mountains beyond the school gardens. There are curfews and army patrols back at the mission, but “what I was most interested in was myself and what would I become.” The division in contemporary African societies between city and countryside, modernity and tradition, is revised in the novel as those places where Tambudzai hides out from the war—first in the convent school, then in the better section of Harare—and the homestead that she avoids visiting because the war has been there. The Book of Not has a grisly scene of Babamukuru being savagely, ritually beaten as revolutionary justice, an overflow of resentment against his good fortune all those years. The novel even opens with Tambudzai’s younger sister, a guerrilla fighter, losing a leg to a land mine. There are as many ways to be inhuman as there are people scarred by inhuman treatment, Dangarembga seems to say.
The large cast of characters in The Book of Not—classmates, teachers, work colleagues, fellow tenants, and especially family—returns in This Mournable Body, which finds Tambudzai more alienated from herself and others than ever. Thirty years separate the publications of This Mournable Body and Nervous Conditions, and in the third novel, Dangarembga switches from the first person to the second person. Tambudzai slides downhill, from the white hostel to a greasy bungalow in a part of Harare where the lawns are patchy and leftover women and widows have a dullness to their skin. She is trapped, on a proud person’s starvation diet among rats gnawing at soiled cotton wool.
Listless, dispirited, Tambudzai is getting too old to be at the start of a brilliant career. A dramatic point of Dangarembga’s trilogy stems from the lunacy of Tambudzai’s faith in lacerating self-improvement through education in a convulsed society where security is an illusion more cruel than love. Only at the end does Tambudzai see the cost for a black woman to become a part of a white-defined, male-dominated black elite, maybe because she never gets there. The instability of the times creates a bureaucratic need for her, but her position as a biology teacher at an indifferent high school ends in her having a spectacular breakdown. “Now you understand. You arrived on the back of a hyena.” She seriously injures a student in a violent assault and endures a bleak hospitalization.
Tambudzai craves escape, as does all of Zimbabwe. “Then it was in the bush, but now it is in the home. And still no one talks. They just say it happened, or they even say it didn’t happen, and then ignore it.” The masses need to be demobilized. Her visiting relatives bring the unresolved with them:
It takes them a moment or two of silence to leave plains ankle deep in men burnt crisp, black and small as babies, infants who throb red blood from every orifice, the faces of men who watch their daughters cut off their husbands’ genitals, and pieces of women, scarlet decorations, that bob on the branches of forests.
Guerrilla fighters are despised when they return home. It wasn’t only what was done to Zimbabweans, it was what they did to one another.
In spite of the general feeling that no one wants to talk about it, the recent past drugs the present. “The women from war are like that, a new kind of being that no one knew before, not exactly male but no longer female.” There was more war in her country’s way of peace than she had expected. Eventually Tambudzai finds refuge with Nyasha, who has come back home with a too-progressive German husband, two carefree daughters, and the dream of turning the decayed, abandoned mission into a social center.
At some point, the fearsome realism of This Mournable Body slides into an uneasy satirical tone in relating Tambudzai’s fresh start working for the ecotourism company founded by the white classmate for whom the nuns robbed her of her prize. It isn’t clear how much time has gone by. Finally her mother destroys the camera Europeans have brought to her village in order to film the hoped-for naked breasts of African women dancing. Grief breaks through in Tambudzai; she is weeping with the understanding that her mother, collapsed at her feet, battered, superfluous, had, like her, once longed to be someone.
This Mournable Body ends too symbolically, but it is a work seeking relief from its extreme elements. Tambudzai seems at the end willing to surrender the individualized African psyche that is her defense to a larger identity, though she has always been clear about the forces that suppress the realities of women. She accepts some responsibility for the women in her family who could not raise themselves or who did so on their own. Everything else she tries is a failure. But hers has been a vigilant, alert, totally expressive dysfunctionality.
Black and Female reads like a concordance to the novels. For one thing, it emerges that Tambudzai’s cousin Nyasha has been given Dangarembga’s life of an education in Britain, film school and film work in Berlin, the German husband and two daughters, and the return to Zimbabwe to found a cultural center, while Tambudzai, the country cousin who never left, is, as a main character, a strategy. Dangarembga does not write in either Shona or Ndebele, and of the different styles of English that her ear catches in her novels—village, mission, city vernacular, politically twisted—the strongest by far is standard English, the language of her narrator’s literary voice. Tambudzai tells us that an important part of her education was her saturation in the novels she got from her cousin’s library, among them those of the Brontë sisters.
Dangarembga’s parents were high school teachers, the products of the Methodist missionary education system in the self-governing crown colony of Southern Rhodesia. Dangarembga denounces the missionary schools for their mixture of colonialism and religion, which “undermined the existing personhood of African populations.” Missions reinforced the colonial categories of black people, such as those who spoke Chirungu, “the language of the white ones,” and those who spoke ChiVanhu, “the language of the people.” But at the same time, Dangarembga wants to point out that her mother was the first black woman in Southern Rhodesia to obtain a bachelor’s degree, from King’s College, London, and then a master’s degree from University College London.
Dangarembga says that her mother was aware when she died that she should have done more, been encouraged to achieve more. Dangarembga’s family went to England in 1961. While her parents were in London, she and her brother were given working-class white foster parents paid for by the British government. She wasn’t black or female, she was a toddler, until a white person let her in on her identity: “Now I had a word for what I was: ‘piccaninny.’”
Feminist theory explained to Dangarembga why her possibilities were predetermined, but patriarchy, like racism, was not an abstraction. Nobody was interested in Nervous Conditions because of its young female person’s subjectivity, she says. Zimbabwean publishers tended to be young men educated abroad. Programmed by “empire” to “waste themselves” in “self-anaesthesia,” they had returned to Zimbabwe after independence. They “looked down their noses” at her work. The government promoted a literature that glorified the armed struggle. Individual experience had no value or was a problem in victory culture. The pressure on her not to be herself was intense, she recalls.
A family member burned her writing, including several plays, among them The Lost of the Soil, which Dangarembga has described as being about the effect of the independence movement on the Zimbabwean community in London. But the manuscript of Nervous Conditions happened to be at the Women’s Press in London. Three years after she finished the book at the University of Zimbabwe, where she had continued her education after having been for two years the only black woman at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, her novel’s publication showed her what it meant to write while being black and female: “Writing assures me that I am more than merely blackness and femaleness. Writing assures me I am.” Yet the opportunities for women were narrow when her first book came out, and she gave up on ever having a literary career. Attempts to make a film life in Berlin went no better. Nobody wanted to hear her story, she felt.
Traditional patriarchy changed after 1980, when Mugabe’s party, the ZANUPF, came to power. The guerrilla fighters preached the doctrine of class struggle to the people, but class struggle, Dangarembga notes, did not account for the abuse of women in guerrilla camps. The women’s wing of the ruling party had nothing to do with women’s emancipation, and the militarized patriarchy of the guerrilla leaders reproduced colonial hegemonies. Though Dangarembga has contempt for a concept of maleness based on validation through hurting others, she wants to shift the blame back to where she believes it belongs: the black men who see women as being merely useful had already been robbed of their personhood by the ongoing legacy of settler colonialism. “Colonial rule was practised through a brutal private property-based and racially exclusive patriarchy,” she writes. White men initially saw African women as the victims of African men, making black women minors in the eyes of the law, and justifying white control of black men’s bodies.
On September 29, 2022, a Zimbabwean woman magistrate found Dangarembga guilty of inciting violence. She was given a six-month suspended sentence and made to pay a £200 fine. The suspension is in place for five years. The charges arose from her participation in a peaceful protest in 2020 that called for reform. The government has been cracking down on opposition figures. In conversation with Margo Jefferson, Dangarembga explained to a Cooper Union audience in New York in January 2023 that she would go on living in Zimbabwe in order to address young people, to help them to understand things. It is a country that has yet to come to terms with eighty years of white colonial rule and four decades of black totalitarianism. Several young Zimbabwean writers have emerged in this time; NoViolet Bulawayo, an advocate of “Writivism,” is one of the most prominent. The question the new generation must ask, some of them have said, concerns the difference between writing about Zimbabwe and writing for Zimbabwe.
Dangarembga says that her kind of feminism has always pitted her against the mainstream, leaving her “othered at its fringes.” When she talks of what can make “writing back against empire a site of potential for healing,” she means holding on to where she came from in some way. After all, she has lived in Britain and Germany. But it is not just romantic convention that makes the pathos of distance important when writing about the troubles back in the place you got out of in order to think. Born in Iran, Doris Lessing could be said to have been able to carry her Englishness with her. But the deeper point might be that the English language was her home. For Tambudzai, the English language is a door, and Dangarembga remembers language, writing, as her obsessive activity, her closest companion when she was growing up. Classmates stole and read aloud from her journal, and it is her writing that she accuses of having betrayed her.
In Black and Female Dangarembga confides that she was taught to mistrust happiness, a disposition she struggles to overcome. One of her plays was about relationships at the University of Zimbabwe: the girl who dresses up for class ends up pregnant and abandoned. Broken hearts are for old-fashioned novels, a male character says in Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. That Tambudzai has no romantic relationships in three novels has to mean something to the integrity of the point of view, like Janie’s childlessness in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The unencumbered woman. Never does Tambudzai even kiss a man, though at one point she fantasizes about stealing a neighbor’s boyfriend because of the presents he could bring her.
Pleasure was as mysterious to her as Great Zimbabwe, Tambudzai says. But she has seen the punishments meted out to her women relatives back in her village who tried to exercise control over their romantic destinies and sexual choices; humiliations wait everywhere for women in the capital city. At first it seems that Tambudzai is putting off a personal life until she has made it. But after a while, her not being a wife and mother is subsumed in her overall failure to be an authentic person to herself: “My mouth was sour with too many angers.” The trilogy isn’t about the absence of romance or sexuality, but rather the prison of gender. Tambudzai is the Not-I; her body a terror to herself, in hiding. The anger is repressed so that she can keep quiet in her hiding place in her head. Nervous Conditions, The Book of Not, and This Mournable Body are steeped in shame, in Tambudzai’s dread of others, her tormented inability to communicate, trust, or connect with others. She can only watch herself lose more and more of herself as nothing, nothing, works out for her, ever, rather like Charlotte Brontë’s sacrificial Lucy Snowe in Villette, one of the most depressed women in English literature.