Why do(n't) we read the books that we (don't) read?
Should I read Tsitsi Dangarembga? I've just found the name mentioned in the CV of a distinguished colleague, Elleke Boehmer, the director of the TORCH at the University of Oxford. Is this a reason to treat the Zimbabwean writer as "the right thing" to read and study? Or is this only the naive and reductive imagination of a profesorka from Eastern Europe? That following in the footsteps of those leading scholars I can see in the West I might become a great scholar myself? Or perhaps the secret recipe for success in literary criticism is a bit more complicated: it implies discovering the forthcoming Dangarembga emerging from a heart of darkness?
Apparently, I've had very few instruments to do so. Only one book in my Multilingual Library, a History of Zimbabwe in Polish, by Henryk Zins, curiously, a professor of my old university in Lublin. For the rest, I've never read the Zimbabwean literature, because no one told me I should. And of course, possibly because I could never have access to any Zimbabwean book. As David Damrosch once suggested, in the matters of World Literature, we can only go as far as the bookshop keeper at the corner let us go; an observation that I've never hold for true, adding proudly that I travel in search for my books. But arguably not to Zimbabwe.
Be that as it may, now I am in Leiden. Why not to give Dangarembga a try, just to see how far this might take me?
I search for Nervous conditions, that seems to be the most famous novel published by this writer. Requested. I will read it. But the book was first published in 1988. Well, it might have played a role in the academic career of my Oxonian colleague, but it will not open the same doors for me any longer. But after all, are books from Zimbabwe just single-day events, meteors shining on our skies, soon burned to the core and forgotten?
Here it is. A sort of educational story, about a wish to go to school and the price of it. The price paid by other children, if one of them, the oldest brother, is to go to school. The lifelong expectations of younger brothers, if one of them went to school. Aspirations of downtrodden women.
Oh, I can say something about them myself. And this is where the African writers come close to me; I mentioned such a coincidence on the page dedicated to Somalia, in reference to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I could say something similar about Dangarembga. Our anger brings us together. In spite of obvious difference between our origins, the cultural messages exhorting to female humility and sacrifice are quite similar. And I appreciate how incisive, how straightforward she is, resuming them: Aren't we the ones who bear children? When it is like that you can't just decided today I want to do this, tomorrow I want to do that, the next day I want to be educated! When there are sacrifices to be made, you are the one who has to make them (p. 16). This is what my own mother taught me, perhaps not with these exact words; perhaps with the very way how she lived; be that as it may, the message was there. And also for me, somewhere there were the different women, the ones who were clean all the time, the ones who had not been crushed by the weight of womanhood (still p. 16). I've made the same, deeply immoral choice of being like them. Betraying the women from my family who had been dirty and dishevelled most of the time, also in communist Poland. Oh, and I had also this: Let her see for herself that some things cannot be done (p. 17).
This is how they speak of us, the writers of Africa. Adding their simplicity, their straightforwardness. This is what makes their instant success, their importance, their power of establishing a visible, incontestable literary fact, hauling up themselves and their Oxonian critics.
Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions, London, The Women's Press, 1988.