This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
In the dark spaces between the puddles of weak yellow light, flying insects whirl and hurl themselves against the windscreen, following their instincts for brighter places.
(p.209, This Mournable Body)
Like such insects, Tambudzai strives to create, or have delivered to her, a brighter future. This Mournable Body follows Tambudzai’s journey through the struggles of seeing life as you wish it, and life as it truly is. After leaving her job in advertising, we first get acquainted with Tambudzai in a less than appealing youth hostel in Harare. Seeking more for herself, and having to ignore situations around her in order to gain a foothold, Tambudzai acquires alternative accommodation and secures a new job as a teacher, from which erupts a dark situation that Tambudzai tries to, yet cannot, blot out. A chance encounter supplies a fresh change of direction, taking Tambudzai back to her mother and township, where she must, once again, question her choices.
It is little wonder that Tsitsi Dangarembga’s The Mournable Body is considered one of the best novels to emerge from Zimbabwe, indeed I would add one of the best novels I have had the pleasure of reading, although the story hurdles over your expectations and propels you into a world where you yourself feel like you are walking in the main character, Tambudzai’s, much-discussed and emotionally challenging, Lady Di shoes. One of the reasons, as a reader, we are hoisted into Tambudsai’s mindset is that the novel is written in the second person; “Once a week you go shopping at a tiny supermarket as depressed in its appearance as you are”. From the very start of the novel, the reader is Tambudzai, and they must face her thoughts and actions without the usual safety of distance. This allows for a direct view of life and is a bold and successful writing strategy. Being so close to Tambudzai, when she herself acts in a way most people would despise, allows the reader to question such activities in a deeper way.
It becomes difficult to disentangle the vision of life and behaviours towards the successful future Tambudzai envisions, and the self-destructive thoughts and actions which hijack certain endeavours. Seeking a better future for herself, Tambudzai distances herself from her roots and her upbringing, choosing to work in advertising, teaching and marketing to build a secure future, yet at the same time, she is aware that she is trapped within a system where nothing is really as it seems. The story is told against a backdrop of fear and violence, particularly directed towards women and girls, and the need to hide certain aspects of social, cultural and political dis-ease, in order to protect the self.
A beautifully crafted, raw and honest piece of work, addressing the frustrations of living within a system that fails you, alongside the disconnection that can often accompany repeated stifled possibilities, and the fallibility of human nature.
About Tsitsi Dangarembga
This Mournable Body is Tsitsi Dangarembga’s third novel. Dangarembga’s first novel Nervous Conditions (1988), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was named by the BBC in 2018 as one of the top 100 books that have shaped the world. This was followed by a sequel entitled The Book of Not in 2006, and her aforementioned most recent work, This Mournable Body, published in 2020, which quickly reached the Booker Prize shortlist. Dangarembga is also an accomplished playwright and filmmaker.
Having spent a large portion of her childhood in England, she moved on to study medicine at The University of Cambridge (as an aside, Susan Dangarembga, Tsitsi’s mother was the first black woman in Southern Rhodesia to gain a bachelor’s degree), where she encountered racism and isolation, before returning to her birth country of Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, just months before the country’s independence.
Working with local theatre groups, Dangaremba was frustrated at the lack of roles for black women, thus set about writing them. Her play She No Longer Weeps, was published in Harare in 1987, just prior to her first novel. She became involved in various education movements and undertook a PhD on the reception of African film. Being on panels for literary prizes, Dangarembga herself was announced as a finalist for the St. Francis College Literary Prize, celebrating writers of outstanding fiction.
Dangarembgda is a purveyor of social change and social justice and was recently arrested and released on bail in 2020, during an anti-corruption protest.
“Friends, here is a principle. If you want your suffering to end, you have to act. Action comes from hope. This the principle of faith and action.”
- Tsitsi Dangarembga