Read African Writers: Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga

nervous conditionszimbabwe“I was not sorry when my brother died.” Thus begins Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions, set in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in the 1960s and 70s. Dangarembga’s novel, first published in 1988, comes with distinction: It was “the first novel to be published in English by a black Zimbabwean woman” and is ranked 66 on the BBC’s poll of novels that “shaped mindsets or influenced history.” The novel traces how a preteen girl, Tambu, responds as she consistently faces deep currents of gender inequality, as well as her reactions to European education and culture. Early in the book, Tambu’s parents lack the funds to send both their older children to school, so they send only her brother. Her mother tells her, “When there are sacrifices to be made, you are the one who has to make them.” Tambu, dissatisfied with this state of affairs, decides to grow some maize on a small plot and sell it to finance her own education, to her father’s consternation. This is the beginning of her industrious rebellion. Step by step, Tambu works her way up, but she faces discrimination every step of the way.

We spend a lot of time in Tambu’s head; this book is not driven by action. But ultimately, Tambu’s subtle insurrections and insights she shares merited the read. I look forward to reading the two sequels, The Book of Not and This Mournable Body.

Here is what a few other reviewers had to say:

  • Ash, Speaking Across Centuries: “All in all, it was a good read with an interesting perspective I hadn’t before considered. I would not say it was a favorite.”
  • M.A. Orthofer, Complete Review: “Nervous Conditions is a powerful work and very fine piece of writing.”
  • Alexia Ternate, The Guardian: “This book introduces us to many numerous struggles that women experience… It surely is a must-read book.”
  • BookShyBooks: “I wouldn’t call it a page-turner, but it really makes you think about gender and society.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “This novel becomes Tambu’s keening–a resonant, eloquent tribute to the women in her life, and to their losses.”


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