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.
Gail 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.
One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes—one I love so much that I gave all my friends an illustrated copy of it—is: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
So when the keynote speaker at the first Cleveland Single Moms Conference dropped this gem mid-way through her talk, I felt an instant connection. Robyn Hill, a licensed counselor with a practice on the east side of Cleveland, made Angelou the focus of her keynote, sharing with more than 75 attendees 11 insights from the author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
“Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances” seemed particularly apt.
Professor Michelle Rankins led a lunchtime session punctuated by two Angelou poems, “Phenomenal Woman” and “I Love the Look of Words.” The discussion was so rich around the first that the group hardly had time for the second.
The group read “Phenomenal Woman” in unison, forceful and strong voices booming through the open air of the Cleveland Galleria. “When I read it, it made me think that beauty is internal,” one participant said. “When you find your inner strength,” another noted, “no one can touch you.”
Conference organizer Frechic Dickson, founder of the nonprofit From Lemons 2 Lemonade, reached out to Books@Work to create the session.
“We believed being able to have a table full of women expressing themselves through the pages of poetic literature could become a life-changing experience,” said Dickson, who oversees Books@Work for women in East Cleveland Municipal Court. “The Books@Work session allowed single moms to share their experiences, their interpretations, and most of all, their commonalities with each other through those poetic pieces.”
For her part, Ann Kowal Smith, Books@Work founder and executive director said, “Not everyone works in a traditional company large enough to support Books@Work. Community programs help us meet people where they are–in their schools and libraries and, in this instance, their conference.”
The Single Moms Conference offered Books@Work the chance to reach readers who might feel isolated. “Moms spend so much time reading to their children, but they rarely have time to read for themselves – much less discuss what they read with others,” Smith said. “We wanted to change this, at least for one hour. And by selecting poetry we hoped to show that a reading session doesn’t have to be long to be nourishing for the soul and productive for the mind.”
One participant observed, “The world says [black women] are less than but this poem says what people should look at us and see.”
by Ann Kowal Smith + Rachel Burstein
This post was originally published on the Books@Work blog.
Reading, writing and discussing poetry has the power to open windows in life-changing ways, giving readers the freedom to tell their own stories and view themselves as capable learners and contributors. Our current partnership with the East Cleveland Municipal Court and From Lemons to Lemonade (FL2L) bring Books@Work to a group of single mothers and other women whose lives rarely afford them the opportunity to read, let alone reflect.
The majority of the women in the group have suffered extraordinary personal hardships; they often struggle to provide for their children. But these women’s stories don’t have to end there; with the right support, single mothers and other women finding themselves in difficult circumstances can build community and face life’s challenges together. This is the governing philosophy behind FL2L, and avowed cycle-breaker Judge William Dawson’s approach to sentencing at the East Cleveland Municipal Court.
In the fall of 2014 Books@Work launched a partnership with FL2L and the Court with generous funding from the Eva L. and Joseph M. Bruening Foundation, the Bronfman Youth Fellowships Alumni Venture Fund and an individual donor. Since January, Professor Michelle Rankins of Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland State University and other area colleges has facilitated a conversation with the women in the group around Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.
Part poem, part play, part choreographed dance, For Colored Girls is a deep and powerful examination of the experience of being a woman of color. The book weaves the stories of seven different women — named for the colors they wear — across 20 different poems. The text examines such topics as rape, abuse, abortion, sexually transmitted disease, and other themes and experiences that are typically taboo.
For Colored Girls resonated deeply with participants, as they were able to see their own stories in the characters in Shange’s work, allowing the text to suggest a path forward, with a degree of healing.
One woman reports, “We read something in the book about one of the women who was just giving herself to men and just she felt dirty inside. She was just giving herself away just because she wanted to feel loved. It was my ‘aha’ moment, like okay, well maybe that is the reason why I stuck with a person that I didn’t have to stick with.”
Another participant comments, “There’s a story where the girl is basically speaking about how she’s learning herself, don’t really need a man to define her and that stuck with me. I’m like, ‘Yeah I don’t need a man to define me.’”
Professor Rankins’ poetry writing prompts, and the experience of reading the work aloud with one another, also empowered the women in the group to tell their own stories, and to see themselves as part of a longer and larger narrative tradition. The practice of writing has had a profound influence on many who continue to write on their own, beyond the sessions at the Court.
One woman explains that the experience of reading, discussing and writing, “helped me to now I’m to the point where I can actually speak to someone without me being just so snappy. It really has. Made me write it.” Now, “Instead of [getting angry], I just write and I let it go.”
Another woman says that “the poems we actually wrote, it made me feel better about myself when I left here. I’m reading it in the car and [thinking], ‘You know what? I am strong.’… Sometimes you need that, to just tell yourself.”
The Books@Work program at the East Cleveland Municipal Court reminds us that guided discussion around serious literature can be much more than an intellectual exercise.
As Frechic Dickson, the founder and President of FL2L explains, “We are serving a group of people who have been through such emotional and traumatic experiences – it’s hard for them to say, ‘My name is so-and-so and this is what happened to me.’ If you give them an opportunity through poetry [to say,] ‘I feel this,’ or ‘I remember this,’ they identify those lines with events in their lives. It makes it artistic rather than transparent.”
The women who attend the FL2L life skills program at the East Cleveland Municipal Court aren’t typical Books@Work participants. They are united not by a common employer, but instead by their involvement in the criminal justice system. As the name suggests, FL2L seeks to turn the negative — sometimes violent — acts committed by the participants into an opportunity for real and substantive personal and community change. Books, and the critical discussion that emerges from reading and reflecting on those texts with peers and a professor, change the way that participants at the East Cleveland Municipal Court view themselves, their communities, and their potential for future success.
Ann Kowal Smith is Executive Director of That Can Be Me, Inc., facilitator of Books@Work. Rachel Burstein is the Academic Director of That Can Be Me, Inc., facilitator of Books@Work.
by Rachel Burstein
Our experience of a book can be changed—and enriched—when we read it alongside people who are different from us. That’s the verdict from participants at a recent Books@Work program in Cleveland. The group read The Warmth of Other Suns from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Her meticulously researched and beautifully told history of the Great Migration won a 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
Books@Work is a non-profit organization that brings professor-led literature seminars into the workplace and to a variety of community settings.
Few participants in a recent seminar were prepared for how profoundly reading and discussing Isabel Wilkerson’s book would hit them. Many recognized elements of their own family history in the book, causing them to reevaluate the role of individuals—especially people of color—in making history. Led by Michelle Rankins, an adjunct professor at Cleveland State University, readers explored thinking of themselves as part of a continuing narrative, and potential agents of change. As Professor Rankins put it, “There are so many universal themes in the text.”
One woman said that reading The Warmth of Other Suns encouraged her to investigate her own family history, tracing her grandmother’s journey from the Deep South to Cleveland during the Great Migration. She said she wished “that I had talked to her more about her upbringing and what made her come from the South up to the North. You know people left and came up, but you didn’t realize the reasons why and how they came up here with no idea what they were getting themselves into. That brought me to thinking I should maybe go find some more of my relatives we don’t really communicate with and just see if we can get more family history going.”
In many ways, Wilkerson’s book is a guide to Cleveland and other rust-belt cities whose history and culture were shaped by the Great Migration. And for many African-Americans in Cleveland—one or two generations removed from Southern roots—Wilkerson’s powerful narratives echo their own stories. One man said he was unaware of the profound historical and present-day discrimination that African-Americans encountered in the North, adding that reading the book with colleagues spurred him to inquire more about the racism that others in the group had faced. “I said [to my colleague], ‘I hate to admit it, but I had never heard of Jim Crow until I read this book,’ the participant said. “You know, and she looked at me and says, ‘Did you grow up under a rock?’ I said, ‘Yeah. I did.’ So we got into a discussion.”
These conversations are critical, in Cleveland and the larger world.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a powerful tool, asking readers to reflect on their own place among its narrative. These discussions can be difficult and complex: calling forth acknowledgment of complicity and privilege for some readers, and admission of failure to engage the past on the part of others. But there is also a chance—through literature—for the ordinary human being to shape and influence the story, and the world in which we find ourselves today.
That is why professors in the Books@Work seminar play such an important role in directing the conversation and fostering honest dialogue. It is the alchemy of the professor, the text and—crucially—the group members themselves, that allowed participants in the Books@Work seminar to take away so much from The Warmth of Other Suns.
Books@Work offers programs in a variety of sectors, states, and community settings. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Books@work through the website.
Rachel Burstein, PhD is a labor historian and Academic Director at Books@Work. Follow her on Twitter.