This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

This Mournable Body: A Novel BY Tsitsi Dangarembga. Graywolf Press. Paperback, 304 pages. $16.
The cover of This Mournable Body: A Novel

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body follows a single, unemployed young black woman (Tambudzai), as she attempts to escape the entangled forces of neocolonialism, patriarchy, poverty, and history’s ever-present effect on daily life in modern-day Zimbabwe. Tambu, who also appeared in Dangarembga’s previous books, Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not, is determined to create a better life for herself though she is discouraged at every turn. At the start of the book, we find Tambu in a run-down hostel in Harare, having recently left her job as a copywriter at an advertising agency. She applies for jobs, but is continually rejected.

While Tambu is well educated and ferociously self-determined, Dangarembga shows that these qualities alone are not enough for her to be successful. From the beginning, the narrator is distanced from herself. “There is a fish in the mirror,” she observes, then continues in the second person: “The mirror is above the washbasin in the corner of your hostel room. The tap, cold only in the rooms, is dripping. Still in bed, you roll onto your back and stare at the ceiling. . . . You should be up.” The book’s simultaneously alienating and intimate point-of-view also shows how Tambu has adopted a double-consciousness. After near-constant reminders that she “should be up” from her family, friends, and strangers, Tambu struggles to reconcile her own self-image with the unmarried, broke, unemployed failure that others see.

From the onset, Dangarembga floods the novel with descriptions that foreshadow the terror to come. Tambu’s observations are full of unnerving tension; everything, even the most benign objects and scenes, are full of predatory menace. Observing a market square, Tambu notes: “The ground between the stalls is covered in banana peels and oily potato chip packets. Plastic sachets swell like drunkards’ bellies. Orange peels curl on broken paving. An urchin sucks at a sachet as at a mother’s nipple.”

After leaving the ad agency, Tambu finds work as a teacher. Although the job initially brings her a surge of hope, she soon finds that she’s deeply uncomfortable with the way her students experience the world: they are fundamentally at ease and confident, with a “forthright manner of meeting [her] gaze.” Reading Tambu’s disdain for their ease, they initially label her “Tambudzai the Grief,” and later when her punishments escalates, “Mega-Grief.” Their seeming entitlement inspires a “smouldering resentment” in Tambu, and her inability to contain this feeling leads to an inexcusably violent act toward one of her students. Her rage becomes uncontainable, her misery and grief inexplicable to herself and those around her.

The interplay of poverty and blackness is a theme that Dangarembga has been examining for many years. “In an interview, a Ghanaian writer called Ama Ata Aidoo declared at first she had not known she was the colour she eventually learned she was,” Tambu says, echoing an interview Dangarembga gave in 2013 with Brick Magazine. “The term black held no meaning for her until she found herself amongst white people.” There aren’t many white characters in This Mournable Body, but when they do appear they tend to remind Tambu of her place in a world still haunted by colonialism. Tracey Stevenson, Tambu’s boss both at the ad agency and also later at an ecotourism company aimed at Europeans seeking to “safely” experience villages like Tambu’s, represents this history. When Tracey tells Tambu “There’s so much we could do for this country. In this country,” her condescension makes it clear that she sees herself as a savior.

Dangarembga is unflinching in describing what happens to someone like Tambu—educated, determined, and proud—when society does its best to break them. Hope is contingent on specks of possibility, and, in Tambu’s case, such possibilities are rare, to the point that she says to herself, “you wonder how you can suppress your growing feelings of doom.” History continues to impose its limits on the idea that she can “make anything” of herself. “How, with all your education, do you come to be more needy than your mother?” Tambu wonders. It’s a provocative question, one that Dangarembga simply leaves her readers to puzzle over.

Leah Mirakhor is a writer based in New Haven. She teaches at Yale University.