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It’s a Tough Book

Reconciliation, a stone sculpture by Amos Spuni is an example of shona sculpture that has survived through the ages
Ellywa, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Reconciliation, a stone sculpture by Amos Spuni is an example of shona sculpture that has survived through the ages

This is Leslie VonHolten with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

What to make of this tough book by Tsitsi Dangarembga. In This Mournable Body, the world that Tambudzai navigates is mean and cruel. But also, Tambudzai herself is pretty rough. I had to force myself to stay with the book. As I was reading, I kept up with the actions of the narrative, but I also realized, there is something else here. Something deeper.

A clue, for me, which was confusing but ultimately made sense: the author’s use of the second-person “you.” The book begins with “you,” the main character, lying in bed and looking at a mirror over the washbasin. This “you”—and I say that in quotes—is consistent. It’s rare to read a novel told in second-person. Was this unusual technique supposed to help me, the reader, embody Tambudzai’s story? I couldn’t do it. As a white person reading this a world away, I could not possibly understand this character’s life in Zimbabwe, no matter how sympathetic I tried to be.

There was something else happening here, something the author wanted me to work for.

And then, I came upon it: It was not that I, the reader, was meant to embody the main character. That use of “you”—you walk around Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, in those high heels, you forgetting to thank your cousin for the hospitality, you ganging up on the friend as the crowd chastises her for her skirt. No, this you is not you, High Plains reader. To me, this “you” is still Tambudzai, and it is her story, which can only be told through her. But she is in so much pain. She has disassociated from herself. She sees her actions from outside. She tells this story removed from it, as a way to manage the trauma of her experience.

This was my theory, at least, as I worked to read This Mournable Body. But was I correct? Maybe. Some critics and bloggers have acknowledged that the use of “you” throughout the novel is indeed a mental scar, the narrator unable to accept that the life she has—and her activities within it—are this cruel, this tough and unfair. Other readers, however, go with my first impression: that Dangarembga wants us, the English-speaking world, to feel directly the inherent damage that colonialism has wreaked upon generations of Africans.

It's as if she is telling us: You think liberation and self-rule in Zimbabwe are so easy? Think again. Live in the shoes of this one woman and see how hard her life is, day by day. You don’t just build a country and a culture from the dust that’s left over. Everything—everything—has been disrupted.

As we know, there are different ways to read a book. Exploring the ways to interpret this second-person narration did not make This Mournable Body easier for me to read or to understand. But it certainly has challenged me, and the story has stayed with me since I finished it. It’s made me think more about how our actions today will impact the bodies and lives of people two generations from now. What are we doing to make this a better world for them? This is why books are so important to me, even if they are books I must force myself to finish. This Mournable Body, in its tough way, has deepened my empathy and broadened my assumptions about the future of our world.

This is Radio Reader Leslie VonHolten hoping you will join us in reading books from around the world this season. Find more at HPPR.org, or Like us on Facebook.

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