This week in another class of mine, Bajo’s Theory of Prose, we read an article by Rachel Blau DuPlessis called “Breaking the Sentence; Breaking the Sequence”, which (I believe) comes from her book Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers, though we read it in the anthology Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. Either way I was amazed by the coincidence of reading it during the same week we finished Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. The article informs Dangarembga’s novel well, I think, and perhaps helped me understand her project a little better.
To sum up briefly, “breaking the sentence” and “breaking the sequence” are two writerly moves of resistance to a dominant culture or way of thinking. DuPlessis speaks mostly of female resistance to patriarchy but does occasionally extend the thought to other oppressed groups. “Breaking the sentence” does not refer to any grammatical or structural rupture, but more to a break from the dominant perspective. To “break the sentence”, then, is to write from a wholly authentic, genuinely female perspective, not filtered through a dominant aesthetic or belief system. To “break the sequence” is even more straightforward and simply refers to the disruption of any dominant narrative sequence (for example, a hero appears but fails, or an expected romance never actually blossoms).
I found these ideas to be useful when thinking about Nervous Conditions, since I saw them at work throughout the text. In many ways Dangarembga “breaks the sequence” in her storytelling. While a coming-of-age novel (sort of), Tambu rather matter-of-factly goes through the physical and sexual transformations that occupy so many stories, and instead is clearly more concerned with her role in her family and the larger society. As Maya pointed out already, it’s similarly noteworthy that her most important personal relationships are with other women – certainly Nyasha, but also her mother, and even Maiguru. Her interactions with Babamukuru, on the other hand, are so one-sided they could hardly be called a relationship (though of course they’re significant in other ways), and she never encounters anyone who could remotely be considered a traditional romantic partner.
Many characters also seek to “break the sentence” by expressing themselves authentically, without censorship. Certainly this is Tambu’s struggle with Babamukuru, especially as it led up to her parents’ wedding. It’s also notable that Maiguru finds her moments of small resistance initially in speech, the offering of her own opinion, contradictory to Babamukuru’s. And there is perhaps no better example than Nyasha. Indeed, this leads me to the final noteworthy bit of overlap between the novel and DuPlessis’s article: DuPlessis writes about the internal tension for many women writers between their own rage that they cannot speak and their culture’s rage that they can. She claims that this contradiction was often expressed in the 19th century through the figure of the madwoman (in Jane Eyre, for example). I would suggest that a very similar sort of struggle is being expressed by Nyasha at the end of the novel, when she deals with her own bulimia and other mental issues. It’s born of a frustration, ultimately, of authentic speech, and Dangarembga includes it, like she includes many other details, as a means of resistance to dominant cultural understandings.