Nervous Conditions explores the coming of age of Tambu, a girl growing up in 1960s Rhodesia in the midst of British colonialism. Tambu is determined to break free of the oppressive and impoverished world she lives in and knows that education is her means to an end. After some set backs, she's offered a grand opportunity from an uncle who has become ell educated and the headmaster of a school that could take Tambu farther than the little school in her village. Tambu also tries to reckon with the cousin, Nyasha, she was once close to when very young girls but has been highly affected by her British education and overtly challenges her status as a young woman in a rigid patriarchal society.
Dangarembga opens the novel diving immediately into a feminist agenda by having the main character, Tambudzai (Tambu) proclaim that while her journey stems from the death of her older brother, her “story is not after all about death, but about [her] escape...; about [her] mother's and Maiguru's entrapment; and about Nyasha's rebellion.” Nervous Conditions is a story of women succumbing to and struggling against a society that devalues women. While women worked in the fields seeding and harvesting crops for consumption alongside male family members in the domestic sphere, many of them achieved some public autonomy by tending their own small plots, often passed on from their mothers, from which they would go to bus terminals to sell to white tourists their harvests. Tambu attempts to do this on a small portion of her mother's garden in order to raise money for school fees or else she will have to discontinue her studies. Studies that her older brother and her father believes are a waste of time on her. They have a traditional, marginalized view of women that dictates that their goal is to secure a husband as her father suggests questioning and heeding: “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables.”
Tambu's successful uncle returns to Rhodesia after several years in England attaining a Master's degree in hopes of helping the rest of his family rise from poverty through education. After the mysterious death of her brother who was chosen to be his family's academic savior, Tambu's uncle still wanted to make good on his mission. However, his deciding to take Tambu back to his school and to live with his family was treated more like a consolation prize than a gift. Tambu never let the negative attitudes of the men in her family deter her sober attitude towards getting an education.
Tambu's cousin and her uncle's daughter, Nyasha, represents the female challenging gender roles as well the traditional dynamics of parent child relationships that typically demand a high degree of respect from children for their parents. Tambu tries to reconcile her feelings for the now “Anglicised cousin” whose behavior she classifies as “embarrassing” and “disrespectful.” Yet, she sees the weight which Nyasha is rumbling under as she unsuccessfully teeters between the British manners and language she had become attached to and her traditional Rhodesian family life. As one of a number of times, the issue of menstruation and sexuality comes up when Nyasha offers Tambu a tampon because she becomes wary of the use of the more cumbersome menses rags. While this also ushers in the shift towards a more western mindset regarding odors and cleanliness for Tambu, the repeated idea of menstruation as “nastiness” and Nyasha's mother, Maiguru's belief that “tampons are offensive” and that “nice girls didn't use them” is a testament to the trivialization of female sexuality and reproduction.
Maiguru, Tambu's aunt, is the ultimate representation of the trapped woman as she keeps quiet that she has attained the same level of education as her husband. What she does do is dote on him and their daughter as expected of a wife. Much of Nyasha's angst and rebellion comes from the from the fact that her mother has been socialized to a stereotypical gender role even after she achieved a high level of education in spite of her family's chagrin.
Tambu's journey into young womanhood and towards freedom are very much shaped by the women in her family who are at various places and stages with their statuses as women in a patriarchal society.
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Riverhead Books set my mailbox ablaze a few days ago with three ARCs set to be released over the next three months. It didn't occur to me until I got my package that Riverhead boasts a mean number of literary fiction by authors of color on including two of my new faves Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok and The Book of Night Women by Marlon James.
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
Hardcover, 240 pages
September 23, 2010
This electric debut story collection focuses on African-American and mixed-race teens, women, and men struggling to find their place. Striking in their emotional immediacy, the tales are based in a world where insecurities of adolescence and young adulthood, and the tensions within family are the biggest complicating forces in one's sense of identity and the choices one makes.
How to Read the Air
Hardcover, 320 pages
October 14, 2010
From the prizewinning international literary star: the searing and powerful story of one man's search for redemption. Dinaw Mengestu's first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, earned the young writer comparisons to Bellow, Fitzgerald, and Naipaul, and garnered ecstatic critical praise and awards around the world for its haunting depiction of the immigrant experience. Now Mengestu enriches the themes that defined his debut with a heartbreaking literary masterwork about love, family, and the power of imagination, which confirms his reputation as one of the brightest talents of his generation. One early September afternoon, Yosef and Mariam, young Ethiopian immigrants who have spent all but their first year of marriage apart, set off on a road trip from their new home in Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee, in search of a new identity as an American couple. Soon, their son, Jonas, will be born in Illinois. Thirty years later, Yosef has died, and Jonas needs to make sense of the volatile generational and cultural ties that have forged him. How can he envision his future without knowing what has come before? Leaving behind his marriage and job in New York, Jonas sets out to retrace his mother and father's trip and weave together a family history that will take him from the war-torn Ethiopia of his parents' youth to his life in the America of today, a story-real or invented- that holds the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
Hardcover, 288 pages
November 11, 2010
A masterful, moving novel about age, memory, and family from one of the true literary icons of our time. Ptolemy Grey is ninety-one years old and has been all but forgotten-by his family, his friends, even himself-as he sinks into a lonely dementia. His grand-nephew, Ptolemy's only connection to the outside world, was recently killed in a drive-by shooting, and Ptolemy is too suspicious of anyone else to allow them into his life. until he meets Robyn, his niece's seventeen-year-old lodger and the only one willing to take care of an old man at his grandnephew's funeral. But Robyn will not tolerate Ptolemy's hermitlike existence. She challenges him to interact more with the world around him, and he grasps more firmly onto his disappearing consciousness. However, this new activity pushes Ptolemy into the fold of a doctor touting an experimental drug that guarantees Ptolemy won't live to see age ninety- two but that he'll spend his last days in feverish vigor and clarity. With his mind clear, what Ptolemy finds-in his own past, in his own apartment, and in the circumstances surrounding his grand-nephew's death-is shocking enough to spur an old man to action, and to ensure a legacy that no one will forget. In The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, Mosley captures the compromised state of his protagonist's mind with profound sensitivity and insight, and creates an unforgettable pair of characters at the center of a novel that is sure to become a true contemporary classic.
Lady Q: The Making of a Latin Queen (paperback)
(Chicago Review Press)
By Reymundo Sanchez and Sonia Rodriguez
Offering a rarely seen female perspective on gang life, this raw and powerful memoir tells not only of one woman’s struggle to survive the streets but also of her ascent to the top ranks of the new mafia, where the only people more dangerous than rival gangs were members of her own. At age 5, Sonia Rodriguez’s stepfather began to abuse her; at 10, she was molested by her uncle and beaten by her mother when she told on him; and by 13, her home had become a hangout for the Latin Kings and Queens who were friends with her older sister. Threatened by rival gang members at school, Sonia turned away from her education and extracurricular activities in favor of a world of drugs and violence. The Latin Kings, one of the largest and most notorious street gangs in America, became her refuge, but its violence cost her friends, freedom, self-respect, and nearly her life. As a Latin Queen, she experienced the exhilarating highs and unbelievable lows of gang life. From being shot at by her own gang and kicked out at age 18 with an infant daughter to rejoining the gang and distinguishing herself as a leader, her legacy as Lady Q was cemented both for her willingness to commit violence and for her role as a drug mule.
"To this day I wonder what my life would be like if my mother told me she loved me, held me, took my side once or twice in an argument. She made me think the whole world was against me so I had to fight for everything. I've learned that's not the way things have to be."
While Lady Q presents a solid, engaging narrative, it is not a story to be read for literary value. Instead this is a tale of epic sociological proportions that should be used as a tool to save lives. There are implications of gender, class, and race/ethnicity. Sonia's story is one that is not told enough as girls are just as susceptible to the lure of a false family and false love that gangs pervade. This is the kind of story that should be required reading for every parent, educator, child care provider, social worker, etc. Anyone who cares for or works with children on a daily basis should take this tale to heart and use it to either remedy this generational family dysfunction or take proactive measures to prevent its inception. At the onset of the story, there is that all too familiar glimmer of the hope of education as Sonia's salvation but, in typical fashion, a lack of nurturing quickly diffuses that hope. Looking at the quote I shared above, the love and concern for her well being she sought did not have to come from her mother. Often anyone showing a genuine interest in a young person's success will suffice.
"On more than one occasion during my work with Sonia, I became upset with her over her refusal to understand the damage she was doing to her son. I tried to get through to her head that she needed to think about leaving the 'hood and try to give her son, who is an honor roll student, a better life. I reminded her that she herself had been an honor roll student whose mother's carelessness allowed her to get lost."
Reymundo's criticism is a bit harsh considering Sonia has not good parenting examples. However, I do understand the place from which he comes. He knows Sonia wants better for her children and he just wants her to fight harder. What I take from his criticism, though, is that he's saying "Give a damn!" It's hard when you not only don't know any other way but when the means are not available for you to even attempt a different lifestyle. On a personal note: I grew up in a working class, single parent home. I could have been subjected to the same world from which Sonia came but, my mother sacrificed for us to live in a decent neighborhood with a decent school and just to be surrounded by those with ambition. In essence, she gave a damn and this story gives me an infinite amount of gratitude that she did.
Thanks to Condor Book Tours and the publisher for providing this book.
Ama Ata Aidoo gives a glimpse into post-colonial life in Ghana. The eleven short stories are well written vignettes revealing a nation and its people in transition. Higher education abroad is highly sought after. Massive conspicuous wigs become an unfortunate symbol of a loss of confidence. The ubiquitous "big man" is a role once played by white men but now one of black Africans deemed to have status and wealth. Probably my favorite and the most telling story of the changes occurring at the time is "For Whom Things Did Not Change." Zirigu, a servant, and his wife, Setu discuss the social acceptance of young girls sleeping with "big men" because of the material possessions they can provide. Zirigu also struggles with his past as servant to white men for whom he prepared English dishes and the young black man he now serves begs for traditional Ghanaian cuisine. The character driven stories of No Sweetness Here are entertaining and informative on a country in the midst of change to a western-influenced society.