Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga​​​​ review – a study in the power of words

The Zimbabwean writer and film-maker’s nonfiction debut weaves the personal and the political to arresting effect

I read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s debut novel Nervous Conditions in 2016, nearly 30 years after it was first published. I was 23 and hungry for literature that reflected my reality as a black woman. I found it a compelling but deeply uncomfortable read, and was shocked by the almost violent emotions it inspired. I put it on my bookshelf and tried to forget about it, but, like great literature always does, it stayed with me.

The story, set in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the turbulent 1960s and 70s, follows teenager Tambu’s desperate attempts to escape her family’s poverty and get an education. Motivated by the belief that if she works hard she will be able to realise her potential, she ends up both isolated from her family and rejected by the western millieu she is desperate to join. This state of affairs leads to her complete unravelling. As I prepared to enter the workforce, knowing that I would also have to navigate the expectations of two cultures, Tambu’s fate struck me as a cautionary tale.

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