Nervous Conditions was a pleasure to read. The irony and systematic dissection of the workings of the patriarchal machine is insightful, engaging, and humorously rendered. What’s more exciting is that Dangarembga has created a cast of female characters who have their own complex relationships with one another. So while there are lots of moments worth looking at closely (not the least of which is the moment where Nyasha punches her father in the face!), the part of the book that I’m most interested are the moments of dancing and the moments of intimate and homoerotically charged pillowtalk between Tambu and Nyasha. Not only is the construction of the female sexuality erected positively, but also explained as a mechanism/set of behaviors inherited from and nuanced by familial relationships, rather than by outside observers. Since this book is a Bildungsroman, the moment of full maturity arrives in the end, and here is foreshadowed by the introduction to Lucia, whose “body had its own appetites of which she was not ashamed,” (206)
I’m tempted to read Tambu’s comment at the Beit Hall that “dancing discreetly in a group, we laughed and pointed out the heterosexual couples,” as something more than just a group of girls giggling over the sexual tension between another girl and a boy. The indication that it is a heterosexual couple suggests that the storyteller acknowledges that that is not the only kind–it suggests that this storyteller does not see romance or sexuality as exclusively heteronormative. I wouldn’t make so much of what is also clearly a move to evoke in the reader the soror-type affection going on in the group of girls dancing, if it weren’t for the moment when Nyasha playfully slaps Tambu’s butt, and more significantly, the passage where Tambu says, “You could say that my relationship with Nyasha was my first love-affair, the first time that I grew to be fond of someone of whom I did not wholeheartedly approve (106).” This wouldn’t be a Bildungsroman without a first heartbreak.
Dangarembga also constructs a sort of revised damsel in the forest crying wolf (pardon the conflation) moment in chapter seven that is interesting. Dangarembga writes, “And when we felt dangerous we raised false alarms for the sensual fun of it, shouting that a lascivious male was leering at us from the ridge, and we would scuttle shrieking to our clothes to cover ourselves (182).”What are we to make of this moment which is a parallel to a passage in the beginning of the novel in which Tambu describes how bathing in Nyamarira prior to the introduction of the Counil Houses? Is this a schism in a coming-of-age queer narrative–a moment in which Tambu/Dangaremba declares disapproval? The passage suggests, rightly, that to these teenagers (and if we include the jeering between Lucia and Takesure to the adults too) there is an element of play to sexuality. The passage dramatizes that sense of danger young women feel from male pursuers, but in the end this moment is about women performing their fears for, in front of (and of?) one another. Isn’t all of this performance–the watching of others who hold position we will inherit–how we learn?