Displaced, Disenfranchised and Angry
Hello, Radio Readers! I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas, for HPPR Radio Readers “In Touch with the World”. This week, we’re in Zimbabwe, a country sharing borders with South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique. Our Zimbabwean novel is written by Tsitsi Dangaremba, a professor, writer, and political activist.
Dangaremba’s life spans her country’s transition from colony to independent nation-state. A trilogy of her novels depicts this time in Zimbabwe through the experiences of the character Tambu. As a young adult, Tambu earns an education from an elite institution keen to record her status as a black woman. Later, as a well-educated adult working in advertising, her race and gender are no longer assets. Instead, her work is appropriated by less literate supervisors. Yet they fly first class, if you will, symbolic of their control of economy. Underpaid, unrecognized, and weary of transport by bus, Tambu quits.
And this is where This Mournable Body, the third in Dangaremba’s Zimbabwean trilogy begins: in the 1990s as Tambu, unemployed, separated from family and friendless, is about to be evicted from subsidized housing because her age exceeds a residency age requirement. And you know what? She’s unsettled. She’s angry. Here, in her middle-age, and with her education, she is expected to dress in heels and a dress suit, a parody of the British blonde Princess Diana, to apply for housekeeping jobs. Later, when she applies to teach, she is angry that she is hired to teach a subject important for her students’ education but for which she has no actual qualifications. And she is angered by the youth and silliness of her students, young girls caught up in fashion, boys, and indifferent to the losses Tambu and other elders suffered through civil war. It is, after all, ancient history to her students. Tambu says,
“Your pupils are all born free…the oldest among them were toddlers at Independence….these young women see their futures stretch into glittering horizons. Their forthright manner of meeting your gaze…indicates they expect more than you ever dreamed the planet contained….[This] …ignites a smouldering resentment, a kind of grudge, which has you imagining it would be therapeutic for the young ladies to endure, before their characters are fully formed, the same rigours as you did.”
Does it feel odd that in talking about herself, Tambu uses the second person pronoun, chooses “you” rather than “I”? Dangarembga has explained, in an interview with the London Review Bookshop, that to communicate Tambu’s anger in a way that readers could hear, she chose a speech pattern adopted, oftentimes, when we share painful and shaming experiences. Dangarembga also sources Tambu’s anger to a deep self-loathing, a loathing force-fed to her through a lifetime in a homeland where the key markers of her identity—her blackness, femaleness, and now youthlessness-- are shamed, systemically and culturally. Does it seem to you, as Dangarembga hopes, that Tambu’s narrative voice in the second person generates a sense of intimacy between narrator and audience? Does it somehow shield us should Tambu’s “smouldering resentment” flame into “incinerating rage”? And what about those dour bits of self-deprecating humor? For example, after admitting she wishes her students hardships, Tambu says, such feelings do interfere “with your attempt to reinvent yourself as a model teacher.”
A novel about a displaced and disenfranchised middle-aged woman – did I mention her anger?—might seem distasteful. Maybe her resilience and determination redeem her. If so, then what to make of the novel’s end? In marketing her rural village as an eco-tourist destination, has Tambu become, like a shady stockbroker in a pump-and-dump scheme, more colonizer than free? What other choices could have been made?
But, hey, Radio Readers, what’s in your wallet?
From Dodge City, Kansas, I’m Jane Holwerda.