by Gail Arnoff

“I was not sorry when my brother died.”

So begins Tsi Tsi Dangarembga’s semi-autobiographical novel Nervous Conditions, the story of Tambudzai, a teenage girl in (the former Rhodesia now Zimbabwe) who lives in two worlds: that of her parents, poor farmers who earn a meager living, and that of her aunt and uncle, whom the British colonists have chosen to receive an education in England and eventually to run the missionary school.

I fell in love with Tambu in the first few pages, and as I introduce her to more readers, I have discovered that they take her to their hearts as well. This includes participants in a Books@Work group, women who are thirty to sixty-five, and college students in a “Questions of Identity” seminar. Until I requested it, the Cleveland libraries did not even own a copy of Nervous Conditions, but I consider Nervous Conditions a classic deserving of a wider readership.

When I mention the title, people often think that I am referring to a book on psychology. However, the title comes from a quote by Franz Fanon, a psychiatrist, writer, and revolutionary who declared in his seminal work The Wretched of the Earth (1961) that “the condition of the native is a nervous condition.” Dangrembga’s semi-autobiographical novel suggests that like the natives living in what was called Rhodesia until 1980,Tambu also struggles against her condition, not only as a native, but as a girl living in a patriarchal society.

The plot is complex, but fairly easy to follow as Tambu sets out to explain, in the opening chapters of the book, why she is not sorry her brother has died.  (No spoiler alert here, as it is best to let Tambu explain herself.)  We meet other members of her family, including Jeremiah, her lazy, demanding father; Mainini, her mostly submissive mother; her Uncle Babamukuru, who heads the family and the mission school; Maiguru, Babamukuru’s college-educated wife who continues to kowtow to her husband’s many needs; and Nyasha, Tambu’s troubled female cousin, who plays a major role in introducing Tambu to a new world.

The Books@Work group related easily to Tambu’s brave response as she comes to understand the patriarchy of her family, members of the Shona group. Many readers recognized themselves in Tambu’s spirited rebellion and determination to become an educated, independent woman.  Several readers recounted their own teenage adventures, as well as those of their teenage daughters. We laughed often when sharing stories of sneaking out to see a boy or taking that first sip of beer. In more serious discussions, we listened to a participant who grew up in Nigeria and another married to a man from Zimbabwe. Both provided insights into customs and issues that frame Tambu and her family. These women’s experiences added richness to discussions fueled by Tambu’s resourcefulness and tenacity.

My college students, much closer to Tambu’s age, were often outraged — particularly at the patriarchy and the colonialism. When Babamukuru and his family return from England to Rhodesia, their acquaintances treat them differently. They have become, as Nyasha says, “hybrids.” At her uncle’s house Tambu is shocked when Anna, a woman working for the Babamukurus, kneels down in front of the two girls to tell them that dinner is ready.  Nyasha tells Anna to get up, but “Anna continue[s] her message on her knees.” These scenes shocked some students, most of whom have never seen the stark discrimination and race separations confronting Tambu and her cousin.

Nevertheless, students who come from places quite different than 20th century Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, are drawn again and again to the characters in Nervous Conditions. “I found myself relating to [Tambu’s] thought processes and parts of her personality, in particular the way she takes on the role of observer in many situations,” wrote one first-generation American whose parents are Chinese. Another student said that reading the novel was “like walking into a swimming pool: I felt pretty cold when I first started reading, but I got warmer and more engaged as I got to know the characters and began to puzzle out the themes.” Yet another young man was surprised by his connection to Tambu and wrote that “though I did not know what to think at first, Nervous Conditions and Tambu have garnered a special place in my heart and I thoroughly enjoyed watching both of them exceed my preconceptions and expectations.”

For both groups of readers, Dangarembga’s writing seemed more straightforward than lyrical; it is the responses of her characters that kindled interest. Tambu “does not look back on her life with kind or insensitive eyes,” one student wrote. “Instead, she is pragmatic and honest.  She acknowledges the nostalgia that may or may not have seeped into her narrative, but otherwise, Tambu is a shrewd and reliable narrator.  I appreciated Tambu’s fairness.”

Maybe it is especially that “fairness” that wins over readers.  Tambu tells her story without pronouncing judgements or offering solutions. She reports that she has gone through a “process whose events stretched over many years and would fill another volume, but the story I have told here, is my own story, the story of four women whom I loved, and our men, this story is how it all began.”  Dangarembga wrote another novel, a sequel to Nervous Conditions called The Book of Not.

Next up: my book club will discuss Nervous Conditions.  We have just read two novels by African authors, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, and Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won an Annisfield Wolf award for Half the Yellow Sun in 2007. These novels are as different from one another as one can imagine. I am keen to hear yet another group’s response to Nervous Conditions, and I hope that my friends, like me, will open their hearts to Tambu, just as the other groups have.  But that is a tale for another time.

IMG_8206_adj_4x6Gail Arnoff received her B.A. from Western Reserve University and her M.A. from John Carroll University, where she currently teaches in the English Department. She also facilitates a seminar, “Questions of Identity,” in the SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University.

In one compelling segment from the 2014 documentary, “I’m Not Racist…Am I?” high school students huddle around a board game modeled loosely after the game “Life.”

This one is called “American Dream.”

To play, each student takes on an identity different from their own. So a young black student is now a middle-class white male; a white peer is now a lower-class Asian woman. As they move the pieces around the board, players hear instructions that begin to heavily favor a certain demographic: “All females lose one turn” follows “LGBT players move back one space,” which follows “All welfare recipients move back five spaces.”

At the end, the young black student — playing the game as a white male — threw up his hands in victory. “I just kept moving forward,” he says, “while everyone else got pushed back.”

This quick lesson in privilege is the cornerstone of the prickly 90-minute film. For one full school year, filmmakers followed 12 New York teens as they dove into an intensive anti-racism curriculum developed by The Calhoun School, a prestigious college preparatory institution in Manhattan. The film is part of a larger initiative called Deconstructing Race. It aims to begin educating its students, teachers and families about structural systemic racism.

The Cleveland chapter of Facing History and Ourselves organized a May screening at John Carroll University.  Organizers broke the film into three chunks with ample time for the audience — high school students, teachers and community members — to share their reactions in between.

While 12 students participated, filmmakers focused primarily on five students:

  • Kahleek, a black 17-year-old from Brooklyn, who is teased by his family and peers for skateboarding and other markers of “white” behavior
  • Martha, a 15-year-old whose white family is the only one in her subsidized Harlem apartment building
  • Abby, a 16-year-old biracial girl struggling with identity in Manhattan
  • Sacha, a self-described liberal 16-year-old from the Upper West Side, who says it’s just coincidence that his friends are all white
  • Anna, an adopted 17-year-old Korean American student who says if not for the mirror, she’d think she was white

Viewers see the students wrestle with identity, stereotypes and prejudice. To launch the program, the participants attended a weekend retreat to root their conversations in shared language. First on the menu: What does racism mean?

The facilitators of the “Undoing Racism” workshop defined racism as race prejudice plus power, which exists in two forms: individual bigotry and institutional control. Racism exists, the facilitator told the students, primarily to uphold white supremacy.

“So are all white people racist?” one student asked. The facilitator didn’t hesitate: “Yes.” The students look dazed, a mixture of confusion and shock as they let the answer land.

In another workshop on the “N-Word,” facilitator Dr. Eddie Moore Jr., an African-American man in a pinstriped shirt and vest, asked the group to close their eyes and imagine that “a nigger has just walked into the room.”

“What did you see when I said that?” he asked. A handful of students’ erupted in response: “Sagging pants…gold teeth…Kunta Kinte.” But one student, Sacha, made the Cleveland audience gasp with his answer: “I saw you.”

Moore latched onto the moment.

“It doesn’t matter how you articulate, it doesn’t matter what degree you get, it doesn’t matter how hard you study, doesn’t matter how many books you read,” he said. “The only thing they see when they see you is that…and then that kid doesn’t make it home from the store.”

During one of the breaks, director Catherine Wigginton Greene conceded that the film doesn’t offer solutions, but rather exists to expand the conversation. “We want white people to watch this film and know that [this discussion on racism] is very much about them,” she said.

And after more workshops, Sacha, at least, appeared to hear the message. On camera, he admitted he saw the wrongness of his response to facilitator Moore’s prompt.

Five winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book award in fiction are standing up to publicly, “as a matter of conscience, oppose, unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States.”

They join Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove and more than 400 writers who list eight reasons to decry Trump’s candidacy, published as an open letter on LitHub.

The novelists include this year’s winner Mary Morris (The Jazz Palace), as well as Junot Diaz (The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior), Nicole Krauss (Great House) and Anthony Marra (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena).

“Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another,” states the open letter as grounds for resisting Trump’s candidacy.

Those signing include the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn, the “Dear Sugar” advice columnist Cheryl Strayed and Cleveland poet Philip Metres.

The letter’s final justification states “Because the rise of a political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society, who encourages aggression among his followers, shouts down opponents, intimidates dissenters, and denigrates women and minorities, demands, from each of us, an immediate and forceful response.”

Lyz Lenz, an Iowa blogger about parenting and pregnancy, contributed an essay, posted on Lithub alongside the open letter, suggesting that William Faulkner was prescient in creating the corrupt character Flem Snopes. Her essay is subtitled “On William Faulkner, White Trash, and 400 Years of Class War.”

“America is burning,” she writes. “You might not see the flames, but you can smell the smoke. And we’ve been set on fire by one man – Donald Trump, a Flem Snopes of our modern-era.”

Thinking about gaps in our communal memory has long occupied Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. In a 1989 interview, she said:

“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to.”

The book is her novel Beloved, now firmly in the American canon and winner of a 1988 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Morrison’s remarks galvanized a clutch of scholars, who organized the “Bench by the Road Project” in 2006 on the novelist’s 75th birthday. The Toni Morrison Society installed the first bench two years later on South Carolina’s Sullivan’s Island, gateway of 40 percent of the Africans who came to North America.

Professor Marilyn S. Mobley witnessed that quiet, first monument set upright on the island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. She attended the second bench placement near Oberlin College, saw another installed in Paris, France and yet another on the campus of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Each spot is a link to the African-American resistance history that Morrison evokes.

The 19th bench, dedicated this April in Cleveland, sits on a green swell of lawn in University Circle, identical in its simple design to the benches installed before it: black ribbed steel, a length of four or six feet, with a descriptive plaque mounted in a cement foundation next to it. On a recent spring morning, sparrows and squirrels hopped and scurried around it.

Mobley, vice president of inclusion, diversity and equal opportunity at Case Western Reserve University, said she spent two years working toward putting a bench in the neighborhood adjacent to campus, a community once active on the Underground Railroad.

“It was worth my time and trouble because I believe in the concept of the need to remember — remember and celebrate,” she said. “I want to remember this history, which is part of our identity as Americans: there was a group of people who made this difficult journey to freedom. We were more than our suffering, our indignity.”

Mobley collaborated with Joan Southgate, the legendary retired social worker, who, at the age of 73 in 2002, began walking from Ripley, OH to St. Catharines, Ontario, the terminus of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad.  She completed the 519 miles and walked 250 more back to Cleveland.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know much about the Bench by the Road until Marilyn brought the idea to me,” Southgate said. “It couldn’t have been more perfect. It’s what my walk was all about.”

Southgate expressed her deep pleasure with the placement of the bench on the lawn of the Cozad-Bates House, 11508 Mayfield Rd.  It is the only pre-Civil War building left standing in this Cleveland neighborhood.  Southgate is working to see that the structure, owned by University Circle Inc., will eventually reopen as a small abolitionist museum combined with a guesthouse for transplant patients.

“This bench is placed in recognition of the heroic freedom seekers who made the arduous journey to freedom along the Underground Railroad, aided in part by Cleveland’s African-American and White anti-slavery community,” reads the permanent proclamation. “Horatio Cyrus Ford and Samuel Cozad III, successful businessmen and property owners in the area now known as University Circle and African-American businessman and civil rights activist, John Malvin, were exemplars of Cleveland’s participation in the resistance to slavery and in the struggle for social justice. This bench is a memorial to the freedom seekers who passed through Cleveland and to those Cleveland residents who assisted them on their journey.”

The Toni Morrison Society states that “the goal of the Bench by the Road Project is to create an outdoor museum that will mark important locations in African American history both in the United States and abroad.” Its president, Carolyn Denard, flew from Atlanta to Cleveland to see the 19th bench unveiled.

Raymond Bobgan, executive director of Cleveland Public Theatre, said he would not have joined in the bench project without the blessing of Southgate. “We need to continue to acknowledge what we aren’t proud of in our history,” he said. “People sometimes say, ‘My family didn’t own slaves’ but the same people are happy to claim, say, the founding fathers.  Well, both are our history, and both have repercussions in our lives.”

The 20th bench will be installed July 26 in Harlem, New York at the Schomburg Library in recognition of the institution’s century-long commitment to preserving, archiving and telling African-Americans stories. Papers from many winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards can be found on its premises, and embedded in the terrazzo tile of the lobby is a design honoring Langston Hughes’ seminal poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

National Poetry Month, celebrated every April for the past 20 years, became a little less abstract for Cleveland students this spring. This year the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards embedded local graduate students in two Cleveland-area elementary schools and a community center for an eight-week poetry residency.

Ryan Lind, Ali McClain, Karly Milvet, and Amanda Stovicek — all students in the NEOMFA creative writing consortium — drew inspiration from the Anisfield-Wolf canon in crafting their lessons, sampling Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton and Langston Hughes, as well as recent winners Adrian Matejka and Jericho Brown.

Stovicek taught fourth and fifth-graders at Urban Community School, her second experience in the classroom with younger students. “One student wrote, ‘Sometimes it feels like the last bee in the hive and the last one to get honey.’ What a startling wonderful poetic connection. The voices of these children are just waiting to be heard.”

McClain, an MFA student and director of the Sisterhood program at West Side Community House, used the residency to help her students discuss race, gender, violence and trauma through a poet’s lens. “The Sisterhood girls responded to poetry the same way most students respond to something new — with hesitancy and curiosity,” McClain recalled. “But by the time our second session took place the girls were approaching me with poems they wrote on their own time. I wasn’t shocked because I know that this is what poetry does — it pulls people in.”

A Greenview Upper Elementary school student recites his poem at the April poetry slam.
A Greenview Upper Elementary school student recites his poem at the April poetry slam as his student-teacher Karly Milvet looks on.

Lind and Milvet used Lucille Clifton’s “Won’t You Celebrate With Me” and George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” to engage their Greenview Upper Elementary students in a lesson on identity and origin. “One of my favorite lessons,” Milvet said, “and the students’ too, was Langston Hughes ‘Hey!’ and ‘Hey! Hey!’ because they got to explore repetition and rhythm and colloquialism. Overall, I think we succeeded in making poetry accessible and fun.”

Lind agreed: “I love the calm moment that follows our group activities when individuals start grinding out their own work, raising their hands with pride with each interesting word or phrase.”

To cap the enriching experience, students at all three locations were invited to perform in a poetry slam at Urban Community School on Cleveland’s west side.

One by one students filed onto the stage to recite their poetry. Students from Greenview Upper Elementary wore sunglasses as they shared their work, and fourth-graders from Urban Community donned their “Word Nerd” shirts from Kent State’s Wick Poetry Center.

Several students recited their remixed version of “Won’t You Celebrate With Me” into their own odes of lip balm, basketball championships, and school awards. In his version, Brandon Johnson, of Greenview, mused about winning a character award: “When I get it/It will be because of my hard work/So let me get started/today.”

“Sometimes my heart feels like a baseball thrown into the air/Sometimes my heart is hoping for a scarf against the cold,” Lily Tidrick of Urban Community School wrote in “My Heart.”

“It snows ten times a day/And you make it feel like 100 degrees,” Shantrel Anthony, a student from the West Side Community House, wrote in her poem, “Miracle.

Awards manager Karen R. Long envisioned the partnership as a potent artistic brew. “What better way to pass 80 years of the Anisfield-Wolf tradition to two generations simultaneously?” Long said. “Our marvelous MFA graduate students amplified their commitment to literature all spring by introducing grade school children to poetry via their own voices.”

The parents in the audience were moved by the hard work of their children. “Wick Poetry Center assistant director Nicole Robinson overheard one parent exclaim about their child: ‘I had no idea he could write!'” Long said. “That is a magical discovery.”

Listen to three of the students as they recite their poetry. 

Brandon Johnson, “Won’t You Celebrate With Me”

Lily Tidrick, “My Heart”

Beyonce Smith, “Characterize”