Literary Style in Nervous Conditions

By Brandon Rosas '20

ENGL-212: African and Caribbean Literature

I was impressed by the boldness of Brandon’s analysis of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s “baroque style” in Nervous Conditions. He demonstrates how her distinctive literary style is an essential aspect of her remarkable Bildungsroman. In doing so, Brandon helped me understand why I’ve always enjoyed this novel so much.

– Michael Harris

“One of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words.”

– Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Tsitsi Dangarembga writes her debut novel, Nervous Conditions, with a liberatingly dense style. Unlike that of many other African writers, Dangarembga’s periphrastic, prolix prose harkens back more to that of Charles Dickens than to that of Chinua Achebe. In Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga’s writing style paces her narrative and characterizes her narrator, Tambu. Dangarembga’s writing style separates Nervous Conditions from the majority of its fellow entries into the Postcolonial African novel genre.

Dangarembga’s writing style in Nervous Conditions might be termed baroque. Accordingly, the author’s prose strikes the reader as circumlocutory, cerebral and clever. For example, Dangarembga writes, in the voice of her narrator, Tambudzai:

And although the stretch of road between the fields and the terminus was exposed to the sun and was, from September to April, except when it rained, harsh and scorching so that the glare from the sand scratched at your eyes, there was always shade by the fields where clumps of trees were deliberately left standing to shelter us when we ate our meals or rested between cultivating strips of the land. (2)

Dangarembga’s sentence above spans seven lines of text (in the book), two miles of road, and eight months, while taking the reader from a leisurely walk to exhausting work in the fields. Punctuation interrupts thoughts, such as the nature of the expanse of road that Tambu describes, with not only supplementary but also restrictive statements. As such, the descriptive focus of Dangarembga’s text wanders, just as her narrator recounts doing across the hills of her homeland. However, the author uses this sentence structure not only for detailed description of scenery, but also for rapid analysis of anything which Tambu deems worthy of reporting to her reader. For this reason, Nervous Conditions is markedly distinct from other Postcolonial African novels, such as Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Dinaw Mengestu’s All our Names, and Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel.

Dangarembga’s superabundant style stands in stark contrast to that used by her African forebear, Chinua Achebe, in his novel Things Fall Apart, but is perhaps similar to that of her contemporary, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Whereas Dangarembga writes sentences like the one in the above paragraph, Achebe lets shorter sentences suffice: “The night was very quiet. It was always very quiet, except on moonlit nights. Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them” (9). Dangarembga’s style is closer to that used by the African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates in his essay, “The Case for Reparations”: “If we conclude that the conditions in North Lawndale and black America are not inexplicable but are instead precisely what you’d expect of a community that for centuries has lived in America’s crosshairs, then what are we to make of the world’s oldest democracy?” Writers are often encouraged to “show, not tell,” but Achebe has already done a stellar job of “showing” what Frantz Fanon calls the “nervous condition” of Africans (v), so modern African writers, like Dangarembga, and writers of African-American descent, like Coates, are able to engage more actively in “telling” modes of writing.

First, Dangarembga’s baroque writing style paces her novel. The slower rate at which Dangarembga presents her story allows the reader to slow down and digest each image or idea at her or his leisure. The punctuation of the baroque style allows Dangarembga to almost “freeze time” and present the pictures that she creates like a series of tableaux:

The bus terminus – which is also the market, with pale dirty tuckshops, dark and dingy inside, which we call magrosa, and women under msasa trees selling hard-boiled eggs, vegetables, seasonal fruit, boiled chicken which is sometimes curried and sometimes not, and anything else that the villagers or travelers might like to buy – is at least two miles’ distance from our homestead. (2)

With each appositive, it is as if the narrator leads us to step into an Umtali tuckshop, sniff a merchant’s fruit, or sample her chicken, without sacrificing any time in the narrative.

Second, Dangarembga’s long, descriptive sentences with frequent pockets for commentary allow her novel to focus on the psychology of her characters. The author allows readers to get a sense of the idiosyncratic personality of Tambu through the narrator’s lengthy commentaries on what she observes and feels: “I was not sorry when my brother died. Nor am I apologizing for my callousness, as you may define it, my lack of feeling” (1). From Tambu, the reader also receives insight into the working of the minds of the novel’s other characters: “Thus my uncle’s gesture was oceanic, and my father, who liked hyperbole, did not need much persuading to see the sense of this plan” (4). Not all of Dangarembga’s sentences are long, however; she purposefully varies their length.

Dangarembga’s variation of the length of her sentences creates a rhythm in the novel. We see this rhythm even in the span of a single sentence, with dependent clauses adding the additional measures that shape that sentence into music: “There was swaying of hips, stamping of feet to the pulse of these social facts” (4). Because rhythm is highly valued in African society, it is likely that rhythmic writing comes naturally to Dangarembga, and it evokes a feeling of “African-ness” that distinguishes Nervous Conditions from many Western novels that are also written in English and some of which are also set in Africa. Besides imparting an authentic African flavor to her novel, Dangarembga’s rhythm also lays the foundation for Tambu’s witty barbs to snag the reader’s attention.

Dangarembga’s style helps Tambu divulge her feelings in a rhetorically-impactful manner. She comments continuously on a character or situation, attempting to evaluate her subject fairly, and then bites with an unexpectedly bitter observation:

Perhaps I am being unfair to [my brother], laying all this blame on him posthumously, when he cannot defend himself and when I have seen enough to know that blame does not come in neatly packaged parcels….Thinking about it, feeling the injustice of it, this is how I came to dislike my brother, and not only my brother, my father, my mother – in fact everybody. (12)

The careful crafting of the right expository buildup creates a “kairotic moment,” or “the right time” (rhetorically) in which to say “the right thing,” for each of Tambu’s scathing declamations. It is this viperous voicing of her thoughts that reveals not only Tambu’s intelligence and acculturation, but especially the acrimony that she feels about the injustice embedded in her experiences. While the facilitation of these statements’ rhetorical power completes the effects of the pacing of Nervous Conditions by Dangerembga’s style, the resulting characterization of Tambu is this style’s second major effect.

Beyond pacing her novel, Dangarembga’s baroque writing style reveals the character of her narrator and protagonist, Tambu. Tambu tells the story of Nervous Conditions as an adult looking back on her youth with a more informed perspective. The baroque voice that the elder Tambu inherits from Dangarembga first sets her apart from almost all the other characters in her novel and secondly reveals the sort of person that she has become as a result of the transformation that she undergoes between the events of this novel and her telling of them.

Principally, Dangarembga’s style becomes Tambu’s narratorial voice and separates the protagonist from her supporting characters. Though this sophisticated voice belongs to the elder Tambu, her ability to recount so much detail and to make such keen observations about other characters shows the curiosity that carried her to the top of her class and set the stage for her transformation. Unlike other observant narrators, however, Tambu not only describes her subjects at length, but also analyzes them from multiple angles: “I could not cold-bloodedly inform my sisters that I had been thinking of how much I disliked our brother. I felt guilty about it. As he was our brother, he ought to be liked, which made disliking him all the more difficult. That I still managed to do so meant I must dislike him very much indeed!” (65). Tambu is highly self-aware, and her constant analysis of herself and others sets her apart from all of the other characters—with the possible exception of her anglicized cousin, Nyasha. In fact, Tambu’s erudite discourses make the precocious Nyasha seem less out of place in her family. Dangarembga’s style gives Tambu the opportunity to tell her audience a great many more things than are appropriate to say aloud. This feature makes Tambu herself appear perhaps precocious toward her elders, and judgmental towards her peers. The sheer volume of Tambu’s insights also foregrounds her as one of the primary actors in her story, despite her relatively limited scope of action as a young girl in Rhodesia. Tambu’s commentary also makes her sound decidedly more “English” than most of her compatriots.

Dangarembga’s baroque style gives the elder Tambu what the protagonist’s mother calls “Englishness.” Tambu frequently uses formal register and dry humor: “[The story of my family] was truly a romantic story to my ears, a fairy-tale of reward and punishment, of cause and effect. It had a moral too, a tantalising moral that increased your aspirations, but not beyond a manageable level” (19). Tambu’s discursive narration harkens back to the writing of the English authors Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, and therefore not only makes Tambu sound English herself, but also implies that she has studied these (or similar) authors at length. The pragmatism that underlies the aforementioned quote is also characteristically English.

The formality that Dangarembga’s style imparts to Tambu imbues her with reliability as a narrator. The adult Tambu’s observations bely a sharp mind that appears to distinguish her as a superior candidate for schooling to her brother Nhamo, and also shows that she has achieved her mission of becoming a “wom[a]n of the world” (134). The reader is inclined to consider and trust Tambu’s many words because she or he can sense that Tambu has given considerable thought to them. The fact that Tambu has so much to say about her experiences shows us that she does, indeed, “feel many things these days, much more than [she] was able to feel when [she] was young and [her] brother died” (1). However, Tambu’s critical perspective also suggests a maturation process that has involved more than just intellectual development; for example: “That first impression of [the house’s] grandeur was too exotic ever to fade, but I have learnt, in the years that have passed since then, to curb excesses and flights of fancy. The point has been made: I can now refer to my uncle’s house as no more than that—a house” (62). This makes the reader curious about what Tambu calls the “reasons for [her feelings] more than the mere consequence of age” (1), for though Tambu strikes the reader as a reliable narrator, she is not a conventional one.

An unconventional dynamic facilitated in Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga’s literary style is the duality of its narrator. Tambu exists in the novel as two temporally-distinct iterations of herself: the older, psychologically-contorted self that directly narrates the story, and the younger, unexamined self that takes part in the events that are narrated. Normally, Tambu comments on the experiences of her younger self with the wisdom of her older self, saying things like:

Whereas before I had believed with childlike confidence that burdens were only burdens in so far as you chose to bear them, now I began to see that the disappointing events surrounding Babamukuru’s return were the serious consequences of the same general laws that had almost brought my education to an abrupt, predictable end (38).

At other times, however, Tambu voices the comparatively simpler inner thoughts of her younger self directly, such as when Anna allays her fears of being attacked by Babamukuru’s dogs: “Tied…tied…ah, yes, they were tied!” (26). Though these inclusions provide color to her older self’s analytical narrative, they also constitute an attempt by the mature Tambu to validate her younger, more innocent self. Tambu’s older self has contorted to deal with the way of the world, but still believes that her younger self is worthy of the world’s interest and affection. Although the older Tambu’s scholarly self-analysis is intensely cerebral, perhaps laboriously so for some readers, what she does with all of these words and all this wit is play: “Excitement. Anticipation. Elation and exultation…[T]here should have been trumpets, truly there should have been.” The older Tambu plays with her words to engage her readers in the sort of play that was systematically denied to her, first by her cousins, then by her mission school classmates, and presumably later in life by the adult world. Dangarembga’s style not only makes Tambu sound more mature, but also allows her to stay young.

Dangarembga’s literary style also reveals a related aspect of Tambu’s character that has developed since her sober-minded youth: a sense of humor. The author’s style establishes the rhythm that allows the older Tambu to express a wry, ironic sense of humor that pokes fun at the inequities of her experiences. By going so slowly, Dangarembga builds a foundation for the “sudden perception of incongruity” on which the joke proper “turns,” in the words of C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (58). Tambu’s erudite elocution lures her reader into a gently undulating current of commentary, then dashes her or him against the rocks of unexpected frankness: “A marvellous chicken lunch had been prepared in my honour, with chocolate cake afterwards so deliciously rich and sticky that even Nyasha had forgotten her figure long enough to put away two slices of it” (195). The humor that Dangarembga imparts to Tambu becomes a tool for her protagonist to criticize prevailing hierarchies, as Pauline Ada Uwakweh suggests in her essay, “Debunking Patriarchy: the liberational quality of voicing in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions”: “[The missionaries’ coming to Africa] was a sacrifice that made us grateful to them, a sacrifice that made them not only superior to us but to those other whites as well who were here for adventure and to help themselves to our emeralds” (Dangarembga 105). Tambu’s sense of humor reveals that she is conscious of and perhaps complicit in the incongruity that she observes in the world: “The discussion [of my future] took place in the house. I was obliged to eavesdrop” (180). Tambu uses humor to show not only when something is cause for laughter, but also when something is cause for concern.

Significantly, Dangarembga’s baroque style shows the psychological contortion that she attributes to Tambu in Seal Press, USA’s interview with her: “[T]hough Tambu may not have been psychologically contorted when she was fourteen, she definitely is now” (209). The term “psychological contortion” is described by psychoanalyst R.D. Hinshelwood as “an extreme distortion and cleavage in the self” (151), such as is required of a psychiatrist to remain outwardly serene when dealing with psychotic patients. At the close of her novel, Tambu writes, “Quietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to question things and refuse to be brainwashed….It was a long and painful process for me” (208). Dangarembga’s use of the term “psychological contortion” implies that Tambu has made major and perhaps unhealthy changes to her understanding of herself in order to accommodate the difficult things that she has learned about the world. These changes, which include lowered expectation of her value in society, raised personal standards of approval, and a hardening of her heart, are the “reasons for [Tambu’s feelings] more than the mere consequence of age” (1). As an expression of her psychological contortion, Tambu frames the story of Nervous Conditions using some loaded, as well as circuitous, language: “My story is not after all about death, but about my escape and Lucia’s; about my mother’s and Maiguru’s entrapment; and about Nyasha’s rebellion – Nyasha, far-minded and isolated, my uncle’s daughter, whose rebellion may not in the end have been successful” (1). This sort of language suggests that Tambu has emerged from her experiences with a defensive mentality that causes her to encode her potentially unpopular ideas in cryptic circumlocutions. Thus, Tambu does not express herself in such a complex way by choice, but rather does so out of necessity.

In sum, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s baroque writing style in Nervous Conditions powerfully shapes her novel. The author’s winding, wordy, and witty prose paces the novel and, as Tambu’s inherited voice, characterizes its narrator. This style allows readers to appreciate each image and moment in the story, creates rhythm, sets up humor, distinguishes Tambu from other characters, simultaneously distinguishes and connects her younger and older selves, anglicizes her, sets up her socially-charged quips, evinces her psychological contortion. Dangarembga’s baroque style makes Nervous Conditions a unique and memorable addition to the Postcolonial African novel genre.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Penguin Books, 2017.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, June 2014, Accessed 10 Dec. 2018.

Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Banbury: Ayebia Clarke, 2004.

Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing: A Novel. Vintage Books, 2017.

Habila, Helon. Waiting for an Angel. W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.

Hinshelwood, R. D. Suffering Insanity: Psychoanalytic Essays on Psychosis. Brunner-Routledge, 2004.

Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. The MacMillan Company, 1945.

Mengestu, Dinaw. All Our Names. Vintage Books, 2015.

Uwakweh, Pauline Ada. “Debunking Patriarchy: The Liberational Quality of Voicing in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 26, no. 1, 1995, pp. 75+.