‘Englishness’ in Nervous Conditions

Englishness, which, in different contexts could be termed Frenchness of Spanishness or other, is a more or less permanently acquired feature by voluntary or coerced exposure of the native to the culture, ideas and language of the colonizer, generally with school as a medium. The hybridity resulting of it ranges from basic Anglicization to total assimilation and the consequences not only vary from individual to individual but are further complicated by gender. The symptoms include a cultural and psychological dilemma as a significant portion of the newly acquired ideas and values inevitably conflict with original ones resulting in increased difficulty to engage with one’s community and one’s family.
One of the least expected to diagnose the root of at least part of the problems Tambudzai’s family faces is her rather submissive, uneducated mother, Ma’Shingayi. Beyond problems inherent to their still traditional and ultra-patriarchal society, Englishness or rather Anglicization constitutes the problem as illustrated by the various trajectories of Tambudzai, her brother Nhamo, her uncle Babamukuru and his wife and kids.
We get a glimpse of its implications rather early in the narrative as we follow Nhamo, the protagonist’s brother. After a few sojourns at the missionaries’ school where he is a student, Nhamo opts for total assimilation and becomes therefor alienated from his own people. He internalizes colonial discourse so well that he develops a deep disdain for his mother tongue Shona – which he comically tries to erase from his memory – and manual labor of any sort, preferring to find refuge in his books.
Besides, what seems to be the most ridiculous display of characters trouble reconciling their Englishness and Africanness seems to be the wedding Babamukuru organizes for his brother Jeremiah, Tambu’s father. Rather than turning to a traditional ‘cleansing’ ceremony, which even as a placebo would have likely had some positive psychological effects, Baba decides that the problems in his brother’s family are due to his living in ‘sin.’ He consequently turns to a Western practice to solve a western problem: a christian ceremony with which he only succeeds in creating more mental pressure for his sister in law who, like any normal person senses the extreme awkwardness of that situation.
As for Tambu, that ceremony is the drop that breaks the camel’s back. She, for once, disobeys the patriarch and refuses to attend the ceremony. Before and after that, however, she had and would do a great job locking away the uneasy feelings she has always had about social incongruities and injustices around her. Unfortunately, her much more anglicized cousin Nyasha has immense trouble silencing herself.
It must be noted that both Nyasha and her brother Chido have imbied a lot of England’s culture due to growing up there. Yet, on account of gender, Chido’s Englishness does not generate much trouble for him. After all he is a young man, so he is not under as much social pressure as his sister. On the other hand, Nyasha’s hybridity, her not being able to silence the English girl in her and the different psyche inherent to it would turn her into a misfit and having a naturally inquisitive and critical mind and the courage to stand up to for her rights did not help either.
So beyond being a definitely feminist novel, Nervous Conditions also raises issues like: should the colonized reject foreign culture altogether? Should they handpick which of their values to adopt? or -and it might be tempting if in your own culture you keep, like many African women then and now, receiving the short end of the stick- shed your own tradition altogether and try to embrace the new one?

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