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This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

This Mournable Body is a powerful, gut-wrenching novel, a novel that leaves you with a feeling of uneasiness, a feeling of nausea, a queasiness deep inside. It is a novel about a lost woman, a woman torn between her family legacy and history, her own past, the past of her country, her own expectations and hopes, the hopes and expectations of others. Between Zimbabwe and the West, between the black and the white, men and women, the successful and the unsuccessful, the poor and the rich, between war and peace.

This novel introduces us to the most important question of all: a person’s place in the world. In a different world, a world that keeps changing expecting people to follow its change. But people do not change as easily, people do not heal as easily. It is a story about trauma and mental illness. About living with mental illness. Another significant question is: what causes mental illness? The answer here is obvious: society. The exact tearing between concepts, notions, definitions, new ideas, old ideas, tradition and reality is what causes the chasm, the rift, the discord between everything we had known so far. How can someone be expected to be old and new at the same time, traditional and modern, male and female, and even more so, how can anyone be expected to choose what to be when. When to throw stones at women, when to beat pupils and when not to, when to dance bare breasted and when to be ashamed of it. When to be racist towards white people and when to suffer from racism from white people, when to ignore rape and when to react. When to be harsh and when to be delicate, when to be proud of one’s own heritage and when to discard it completely and adopt new values and new morality unknown to us before. It is all indistinguishably interconnected and mixed up together. It is all just a point of view, when is black opposed to white or white opposed to black, only when they are put together, fused in a new world that we all have yet to discover and understand.

“A Ghanaian writer called Ama Ata Aidos declared at first she had not known she was the colour she eventually learned she was, that the term black held no meaning to her until she found herself amongst white people.”

The problem is in mixing of completely different and incomparable cultures that together create a new schizoid mix of cultures: illogical, filled with oppositions and contraries. The same as we don’t have a black without a white, we don’t have a primitive and refined. It is all in perspectives. Mixing the unmixable leads to – mental illness of the individual and the society as a whole.

Tambudzai is, unfortunately, a true product of her own current, modern culture.

The country had been destroyed and was being constantly destroyed by injustice, corruption, war, inequality, the lack of a legal system. Not only did society inflict psychological damage and mental disease on its people, it inflicted physical damage as well – in the form of lost legs in the war. A complete meltdown: factually and symbolically.

The narration is, very originally, in the 2nd person of singular, showing us directly that the novel is a message for every reader. When speaking to – you – the narrator not only speaks to our main character Tambudzai, but to each and every one of us reading the novel. We are all – “you”, we should all start thinking about the same things, internalising the same problems we have not thought of and thought about before. We should all be aware of the problems that not only torment us, but the problems that are brought on us, forced on us from the outside. All of us could end up as Tambudzai did: confused, lost, destroyed, no matter how much she tried she couldn’t supress the trauma, the cause of her trauma nor heal from her problems because her problems were constantly being brought on and up from the outside, constantly evoked. Again and again.  

“Your education is not only in your head anymore: like hers, now your knowledge is now also in your body, every bit of it, including your heart.”

What is the solution? Humility. We try to be too much of everything and in the end we turn out as too little of anything. Her penance is humility, keeping her wishes, wants, ambitions and desires at bay. Only through honest, hard work we can hope to become good people. We can hope to achieve mental stability. We can hope to reach a mind and body integrity, hope that our body will no longer be mournable and disintegrated, but strong and one with both our heart and mind.

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