Family, Power, and Laughter in Nervous Conditions

Anne McClintock’s reading of the paternalistic structure inherent in colonialism has clear resonance for Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. In “No Longer in a Future Heaven: Nationalism, Gender, and Race,” McClintock argues that the dominant metaphor for colonialism tends to be family oriented. She says, “The colony as a ‘family of black children ruled over by a white father’—depended in this way on the prior naturalizing of the social subordination of women and children within the domestic sphere” (358). The colony and the colonized subject tended to be feminized and subordinated in this system.

In Nervous Conditions, we have obvious evidence of the subjugation of women by domineering husbands or fathers, as well as moments of evident resistance. There are several violent clashes between sexes in this narrative, such as Nhamo beating his baby sister, Tambu pummeling Nhamo for stealing her mealies, Nyasha retaliating physically against her father, and so forth. As I mentioned in class, I also see Nyasha’s bulimia as a form of resisting her father’s power: resisting his attempts to control her body and rejection of the commodities that he provides (however troubling her resistance becomes as a form of illness). I also see female solidarities as resistance in this narrative, as when Babamakuru punishes Tambu for refusing to attend her parents’ wedding and Lucia stands up for her, reprimanding Babamakuru for over punishing the girl without understanding her motivations for refusing. As Tambu, Nyasha, and Lucia discuss the absurdity of Tambu’s punishment, I think it is pointed that Dangarembga mentions that they “grew quite weak with laughter” (173). Not only is this a moment of solidarity, but it recalls Helene Cixous’ Laugh of the Medusa, in which she argues that women must write their bodies into existence as a means of resisting patriarchy. She says, “We the repressed of culture…our wind knocked out of us…we are black and we are beautiful. We’re stormy, and that which is ours breaks loose from us without our fearing any debilitation. Our glances, our smiles, are spent; laughs exude from all our mouths” (878). Laughter, for Cixous, is an expression of joy with the female body. It is a metaphor for the ways in which the woman’s body can’t be repressed. A serious, respectful girl, Tambu does little laughing in this book; but in this moment of female solidarity, she can laugh without inhibition.

These instances of resistance are complicated in my mind because women in this novel are not resisting white hegemony, but also African patriarchal culture—a culture Tambu loves and respects. Babamakuru has certainly adopted many of the logics and customs of England, but at the same time he uses his knowledge and wealth for his family. We know, of course, that his generosity is bound up within his own egotistical desire for power, but he still provides much for the family. So, it is not just outwardly imposed colonial patriarchy that reign in this novel, but the very bonds of family and community are conflated with the subjugation of women, and this conflation is what young Tambu has such difficulty parsing. She longs to revere Babamakuru as her father and the god of her family, but we can see that the elder Tambu (as narrator) recognizes the problematics inherent in the fusion of love and the will to power within the family structure.

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