Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

"Of Mimicry and Woman": Hysteria and AntiColonial Feminism in Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions

Michelle Vizzard

In discussions about women and their relation to colonization there has been a tendency to articulate the various critical questions as a meeting, or intersection, of two disparate modes of political thought and literary criticism, largely because this is a reflection of the ways in which these questions have been addressed. One major problem with this formulation however, is that it also has the tendency to suggest a lack of interest by non-Western women in their own political lives. Cynthia Enloe demonstrates the falsity of such conceptions when she states that "(a)rguments about the proper role of women in the nationalist struggle and the future nation-state have occurred in virtually every nationalist movement since the eighteenth century . . . ."1 These arguments have not usually been framed in the same ways as those of Western feminisms, and indeed some claims would appear to be anathematic to those of the West. Nevertheless specific demands, based on local conditions, have been and will continue to be made by women who participate in anticolonial struggles. Enloe gives examples of a number of nationalist movements (including those in the Philippines, Nicaragua and South Africa) which have successfully incorporated (some) women's perspectives into the nationalist struggle.2 However, she characterizes the vast majority as unable to do so, with the rhetoric of these movements portraying any feminist demands as part of a continued Western imperialism or by otherwise deferring the question until after nationalist aspirations are fulfilled; what she calls the "not now, later" approach.3

The danger, therefore, in advocating an intersectional model, is that feminism becomes an addition, an optional extra, to an already "complete" body of knowledge and that at times of extreme (and sometimes not so extreme) political pressure, speaking and writing about women may be seen by masculinist currents (which dominate in the majority of liberation movements) as divisive of, or superfluous to, nationalist and/or anticolonialist political discourses and strategies. Instead, I wish to propose that feminist analysis is not an additional extra to projects of anti- or postcolonization, but rather is absolutely integral to them. This assertion is drawn from an extrapolation of feminist theories of International Relations, which themselves draw on feminist theories of the state. Jan Pettman summarizes some of these critiques of the State which argue that women are not merely overlooked in the construction of the "citizen" but that "the social contract liberalizing citizenship in modern Western states was predicated upon women's exclusion and upon men's sex right to women's bodies and labour."4 Such assertions are relevant to theorizing the colonized world, precisely because colonization itself occurs within an ideology which represents women in similar ways. Therefore colonization, in addition to its obvious economic and racial imperatives, is always and already a gendered process.

Representations of colonized and colonizing women have always played an integral part in colonizing discourse, mobilized in such a way as to simultaneously justify both Western expansion and the subjugation of women. Pettman sees, for example, "the ideological constructions of racialized sexualities in relation to each other, constructing white women's sexuality as cool, maternal and virtuous; colonized women's sexuality as hot, erotic and promiscuous; and colonized men's sexuality as depraved and dangerous, such that women of both camps were in need of white men's protection."5 Further, Jane Miller argues that "many anti-imperialist arguments show how peoples and places which have been conquered and marginalized are frequently seen and spoken in terms of their otherness, their difference, as both lesser and female."6 A feminization of colonized men leaves little space for the voices or representations of colonized women within anticolonial discourse, as they are Other to that which is itself Other and thus, barely within dominant modes of comprehension. If colonialism is a system that relies (in part) on gendered roles and, more specifically, on male dominance for its proper functioning, then the intersectional model characterized above cannot fully explain its complexities. If colonization is gendered, only an approach which can account for gender can have any real success and therefore, feminist theorizing becomes crucial to resisting colonization.

Anne Sisson Runyan and V. Spike Peterson characterize the dominant discourse of International Relations, and particularly with regard to the "state," as that of "realism." While this term is one that has specific currency in the language of International Relations, they describe its meaning as similar to that of literary realism, drawing in particular on the work of Shoshana Felman.7 This is their reading of "woman":

. . . a domesticated figure whose "feminine" sensibilities are both at odds with and inconsequential to the harsh "realities" of the public world of men and states. On the other hand, the patriarchal construction of "woman" as madness, the other, the outsider, which is coterminus with the way realism defines international relations, gives rise to the need to "tame" and "domesticate" her - to bring her under control because she can never aspire to having "reason" herself.8

Drawing on this relationship of women and gender to colonization, and of this specific use of "madness," I wish to argue that Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel, Nervous Conditions, demonstrates these ideas of an engendered colony, through the textual enactment of madness as outside or other to that space.9 However, it is not just the formulation of Runyan and Peterson that leads me to such a theoretical manoeuvre, and therefore I will place the novel within an intertextual framework which more clearly situates it within discourses of psychoanalysis.

The allusion in the title of the novel, Nervous Conditions, is explained in the epigraph:

"The condition of native is a nervous condition."

From an introduction to Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth.

What is interesting about Fanon's text, particularly in relation to questions of madness, is that one section of The Wretched of the Earth is entitled "Colonial War and Mental Disorders." In this section, Fanon examines a number of cases in which the process of colonization is held to be responsible for various psychological complaints, which he then divides into various subsections according to type. However, in each of these studies Fanon is almost entirely silent on the question of women, and their position as colonial subjects. For example, the rape of a woman is discussed in terms of the ensuing impotence of her husband, and the torture of another and her children through the voice of her husband/torturer. The one woman whose case is examined in detail is seen to exhibit "minor symptoms of anxiety complex" which are linked to her relationship with her dead colonialist father. That is, in each of these cases the experience of the woman is mediated through the lives of men. Fanon cannot conceive of women as political actors, even when theirs are stories of direct involvement with the violence of war.10 Thus, despite the inclusion of some women within his cases, his theories of colonial oppression remain gender-blind.

In spite of the way that Dangarembga draws attention in the epigraph to Fanon, the lines themselves come from what she has deliberately called "an introduction" (my emphasis), written by Jean Paul Sartre. The sentence from which the epigraph comes reads thus: "The status of 'native' is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonized people with their consent."11 Here the notion of consent alerts the reader to a number of concepts, especially hegemony and/or "internal colonization," which prevail in contemporary "post-colonial" theorizing, and particularly to the works of Homi Bhabha who draws in turn on the work of Fanon. Before the works of Bhabha can be discussed in more detail, however, it is necessary to introduce the text.

Nervous Conditions is the first novel by the Zimbabwean writer, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and is the first published novel in English by a black Zimbabwean woman. This partly autobiographical novel12 is the story of a girl named Tambu, who lives on an impoverished farm in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in the late 1960s. Despite, and yet because of, the political consequence of her race, sex and class, Tambu has high aspirations for her own education. She therefore readily accepts the role of familial provider when her brother's death gives her the opportunity both of mission schooling and of living with her Western-educated uncle Babamukuru and his family. In fact, her uncle's entire family is at least partially Western educated, having spent a number of years in England: Tambu's cousins have spent their early years immersed within, and influenced by, the colonizers' culture. The final lines of the novel describe the tale as "the story of four women whom I loved, and our men" (204), but it is the story of Tambu's anorexic cousin, Nyasha, which emerges as powerfully as that of the narrator herself, and which is most useful in drawing attention to the critical points explored in this paper. However, before moving to address the issues which are largely examined through the character of Nyasha, I will now turn to examine the representation of her father, Babamukuru, and thus return to the work of Homi Bhabha.

Babamukuru inhabits a space in the novel which may be encapsulated by the rather hazy term "cross-culturalism." He occupies the position of head of his extended African family and simultaneously mobilizes his Western education, and its subsequent "rewards" of (relative) wealth and class position, to impose colonial order on them. At the juncture of these two cultures, Babamukuru is afforded considerable respect by the local (African) population. Tambu relates her arrival at his home in the following terms: "Although I was vague at the time and could not have described my circumstances so aptly, the real situation was this: Babamukuru was God, therefore I had arrived in heaven" (70). Babamukuru, however, is not God. In fact he is probably better characterized as that which Homi Bhabha names as mimic, someone who attempts to re-enact the colonialist discourse: "The authorities thought that Babamukuru was a good African" (107). In Bhabha's terms the "good African," almost - "but not quite" - English, creates a rupture in the colonial discourse and further "becomes transformed into an uncertainty which fixes the colonial subject as a 'partial presence.' "13 While Babamukuru is able to play out a repetition or mimicry of colonial discourse within his family, he is able to do so only because of the status accorded him by that family, which in some senses operates in the novel as a pre- or extra-colonial space. The "partiality" of his presence then, is best recognized by his daughter, Nyasha who, with her largely Western up-bringing, is conversant with the "unmediated" discourse of the West and therefore is better able to see mimicry at work.

Sally McWilliam considers the idea of mimicry in the novel largely as a narrative device, recognized by the emerging "consciousness" of Tambu.14 But the character of Babamukuru stands in contrast to this and a further point arises in relation to the notion of a gendered (mainly masculine) colonization. While maintaining the meaning with which Bhabha invested it, "mimicry" has an extra, important, function in Nervous Conditions: for the female characters, and for Nyasha in particular, mimesis is played out as hysteria, thereby allowing for a woman-centred reading of "colonization." Nyasha's anorexia can be understood as an hysterical response to the constraints of the (masculine) colony as partially represented by her father. The representation of anorexia, a condition usually associated with the middle class West, in an African text is one that raises a number of problems, despite the way the text itself invites a selective use of psychoanalysis. Jennifer Ash, although writing about anorexia in the very different context of religious women in the later middle ages, finds herself faced with similar concerns and defends her comparable situation thus:

. . . there will be those who will be troubled here at what might seem to be the inappropriate application of contemporary terminology, the imposing of contemporary medical - or at least psychiatric discourse - onto this historical other, wilfully disregarding, and deliberately annihilating, cultural specificity, cultural alterity. But this is to wilfully misrecognise the meaning and function of hysteria, and in particular of anorexia. For neither hysteria nor anorexia should by reduced to the discourse of late-twentieth-century medical science; hysteria/anorexia is not a disease so much as the expression of profound social and psychic dis-ease.15

Further to this - for in some ways Ash's remarks operate within the circular insularity of psychoanalytic discourse - it may be argued that hysteria in the novel, and specifically Nyasha's anorexia, is always played out in response to manifestations of colonization, and particularly as they are focussed through the character, Babamukuru.

Throughout the novel, Nyasha is characterized as inquisitive and intelligent, with a particular tendency to explore issues of politics. That is, she is seen as actively engaging with the reason of the phallogocentric West, as well as that of her own culture. She is said to "prefer . . . reality . . . she said you had to know the facts if you were ever going to find the solutions. She was certain the solutions were there" (98). Nyasha presents her own position as one of agency, but when she later tries to question Christianity, and significantly through the spoken word, her father tries to silence her: "Don't you know it's no good for a child to be talking all the time? . . . Nyasha did not say another word, nor did she eat much, excusing herself soon afterwards" (100). Periods or incidents of violence or repression by her father are generally followed by periods of starvation by Nyasha. After a brutal physical fight over the characterization of Nyasha as a whore (a typical colonial - and female - trope) she retreats to "some private world we could not reach" (118). As her outward and verbal rebellions are thwarted, a silent and corporeal rebellion takes their place, for, as Elizabeth Grosz notes, anorexia is the typical "modern expression of hysteria."16 Grosz says of the hysteric:

Hers is a mode of defiance of patriarchy, not the site of its frustration. In this sense, the hysteric is a proto-feminist, or at least an isolated individual who, if she had access to the experiences of other women, may locate the problem in cultural explanations of femininity rather than in femininity itself. The hysteric's defiance through excess, through overcompliance, is a parody of the expected.17

Nyasha is a culturally isolated young woman, caught between the expectations of two cultures. Her further containment within hysteric modes relates directly to an understanding that in isolation she has little or no political agency: "It's everything, it's everywhere: so where do you break out to? You're just one person and it's everywhere" (174). At this stage Tambu, who does not yet understand the nature or extent of Nyasha's problem, leaves the home of her uncle to take up a scholarship in a Catholic Convent school. While she is there she receives a letter from the increasingly ill Nyasha in which Grosz's "overcompliance" as anorexic expression and rebellion can be seen to operate. Nyasha reiterates her isolation from her peers and her attempts to maintain academic equality with the boys; she hints at the maintainance of an excessively rigorous study program (which Tambu has witnessed) and continues: ". . . your uncle is pleased with the quieter environment and I have discovered how restful it is to have him pleased, and so these days I am doing my best not to antagonize him. . . . I cannot help thinking that what antagonizes is the fact that I am me - hardly, I admit, the ideal daughter for a hallowed headmaster, a revered patriarch" (196-97). By the time Tambu returns for the holidays, Nyasha is described as "skeletal" (198). One night after passing out at dinner she breaks down and speaks a disjointed and uncontained narrative of her rebellion:

"Daddy grovels to them. We grovel to him." She began to rock, her body quivering tensely. "I won't grovel. Oh no, I won't. I'm not a good girl. I'm evil. I'm a good girl." I touched her to comfort her and that was the trigger. "I won't grovel, I won't die," she raged and crouched like a cat ready to spring.

The noise brought Babamukuru and Maiguru running. They could do nothing, could only watch. Nyasha was beside herself with fury. She rampaged, shredding her history book between her teeth ("Their history. Fucking liars. Their bloody lies.") (200-01)

By spitting out the pages of the text she mimics her hysteric refusal of food and transposes it, symbolically, to the realm of politics. But unlike the theories of a number of feminists who see the hysteric as a fundamentally powerful figure,18 this text presents hysteria as erupting when there is a lack of political options. The political power of the hysteric functions as a specifically female form of Bhabha's mimic, exhibiting an overcompliance with the power of the masculinized West, and thereby creating a rupture which may be read by others.

While the opening paragraph indicates that Nyasha's "rebellion may not in the end have been successful" (1), her fate is largely ambiguous at the novel's end. Rather than finishing the novel on this note of despair, it ends with Tambu beginning to gain the insight needed both to come to terms with the events of her life and to write them down. Tambu the narrator of the novel is vastly different from Tambu the girl whose tale is told: the narrator has gained a political awareness which was lacking in the girl and therefore it is possible to see that Nyasha's condition has created the rupture whereby Tambu was enabled to (politically) read the masculinized colony. In addition to this, the novel also intervenes in the rhetoric of Fanon's analysis to demonstrate that women too, are implicated, act, and are acted upon, in the mental disorders of colonial war. On both these counts Nervous Conditions seeks to make those who cannot imagine an anticolonial feminism a little nervous.

University of Queensland


1 Cynthia Enloe. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (London: Pandora, 1989) 54.

2 Enloe, 54. It should be noted, however, that not all demands by women are met even in these cases. In Nicaragua, for example, abortion was never legalized by the Sandinistas because of a perceived lack of support from the Catholic population.

3 Enloe, 62.

4 Jan Jindy Pettman. "Women, Nationalism and the State: Towards an International Feminist Perspective," forthcoming paper, given at the Australian Women's Studies Association Conference, University of Sydney, 1992, 1.

5 Pettman, 6.

6 Jane Miller, Seductions: Studies in Reading and Culture (London: Macmillan, 1982) 111.

7 Anne Sisson Runyon and V. Spike Peterson. "The Radical Future of Realism: Feminist Subversions of IR Theory," Alternatives 16.1 (1991) 647-106. See also: Shoshana Felman, "Women and Madness: the Critical Phallacy," The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism, ed. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (London: Macmillan, 1989) 133-153.

8 Runyon and Peterson (1991) 68-9.

9 Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (London: Women's Press, 1988). All subsequent page references will be cited paranthetically in the text.

10 Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1965) 203-51. This translation is slightly different to the one used by Dangarembga.

11 Jean Paul Sartre, "Preface" to Fanon (1965) 17.

12 Flora Veit-Wild, "Women Write About the Things that Move Them: Interview with Tsitsi Dangarembga," Matutu 3.6 (1988): 181-88.

13 Homi Bhabha, "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse," October 28 (1984) 127.

14 Sally McWilliam, "Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions: At the Crossroads of Feminism and Post-Colonialism," World Literature Written in English 31.1 (1991) 109. The title of this article again alludes to the problem I raised at the beginning of the paper.

15 Jennifer Ash, "The Discursive Construction of Christ's Body in the Later Middle Ages: Resistance and Autonomy," Feminine/Masculine and Representation, ed. Terry Threadgold and Anne Cranny-Francis (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1990) 94.

16 Elizabeth Grosz, Sexual Subersions: Three French Feminists, (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989) 136.

17 Grosz (1989) 135.

18 In particular, Helene Cixous. For an overview of various feminist responses to hysteria see Toril Moi, "Representations of Patriarchy: Sexuality and Epistemology in Freud's Dora," In Dora's Case: Freud, Hysteria, Feminism, ed. Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane (London: Virago, 1985) 181-199.

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