Caught Between Two Worlds: Examining the Subaltern in Nervous Conditions
By April Joyner
At the end of her article “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak concludes that the subaltern has no voice. But what defines the subaltern? Traditionally, race, gender, and economics have delineated class distinctions within a particular society. The postcolonial society, however, complicates this stratification. Tsitsi Dangarembga explores the indistinct notion of class and privilege in her novel Nervous Conditions. Tambu, the narrator, faces the racial distinctions of colonialism as well as the patriarchy ingrained in her society as obstacles to her quest for an education and a better life. Yet, once she receives the opportunity for an education, she seemingly transcends both these obstacles and her subaltern status—or does she? Dangarembga argues the contrary by comparing Tambu to her cousin, Nyasha, who despite her financial privilege still is oppressed by patriarchy and disparate social standards. By highlighting the effect of gender distinctions on her perceived social status, Tambu’s narrative demonstrates the complexity of subaltern status, which cannot be effaced solely through economic gain.
At the beginning of the novel, Tambu’s gender encompasses the crux of her subaltern status. Tambu’s relationship to her brother, Nhamo, demonstrates this aspect of her gender. When Tambu complains about not being able to go to school, her mother, Mainini, advises her to accept her lack of opportunity and to bear “the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other” (Dangarembga 16). Tambu does not accept her condition and cites her aunt, Maiguru, as an example of overcoming both the “burdens” of race and gender. She bases this observation, however, upon Maiguru’s apparent wealth, not yet realizing Maiguru’s unequal status within her marriage. On the other hand, Nhamo demonstrates the ability to overcome the burden of race; that is, without the additional burden of gender. While Tambu’s father, Jeremiah, discourages Tambu from pursuing school, he strongly supports Nhamo’s endeavors and allows Tambu’s uncle, Babamukuru, to take him to the mission, which has better schools than the ones in his village. The context of Jeremiah’s praise of Nhamo reveals the gender bias driving this discrepancy in regard: “‘I was blessed when I was given that son’” (46, emphasis added). Babamukuru selects Nhamo for the mission not only as a “promising scholar” (46) but also, and more importantly, as the family member who can lead Jeremiah’s family to economic stability. Nhamo, as opposed to Tambu, has the ability to do so because as a male, he will maintain control of his resources as an adult; as a result, his family can take advantage of any wealth he gains. Tambu, on the other hand, lacks such control. In fact, Jeremiah laments this fact in his meeting with Mr. Matimba, who helps Tambu return to school: “‘Have you ever heard of a woman who remains in her father’s house?’ . . . ‘She will meet a young man and I will have lost everything’” (30). Not only will Jeremiah lose the resources Tambu gains if she marries, but Tambu will never have autonomous control of those resources, for such power would simply shift from her father to her husband. Gender thus defines the perceived difference in value between Nhamo and Tambu’s educations and futures.
Tambu’s family’s regard of Tambu’s future exemplifies the observation made by Rahul Gairola in her analysis of Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gairola argues, “Whereas gendered identities for the subaltern women have, as I have argued, great use-value but little exchange value, they have little use-value but great exchange value for the patriarchs within whose gaze the subaltern woman’s subjectivity is reflected” (312). Although Tambu believes in her “use-value,” or intrinsic worth, and hence desires education on the basis of equality with Nhamo, her father and uncle regard the advantages of Nhamo’s education versus Tambu’s education in terms of exchange, or extrinsic, value: Nhamo’s wealth stays within the family while Tambu’s wealth disappears upon her marriage. Only after Nhamo dies do Babamukuru and Jeremiah consider the possibility of her education. Unlike Nhamo, Tambu is not offered a better education because she is a “promising scholar” but because she has no brother to take Nhamo’s place, so she “must be given the opportunity to do what she can for the family before she goes into her husband’s home” (Dangarembga 56). Nhamo’s death thus allows Jeremiah and Babamukuru to redeem Tambu’s “exchange value” without them ever acknowledging the intrinsic value of her education; in fact, without acknowledging her intrinsic worth. Far from vindicating Tambu, as she exclaims, Jeremiah and Babamukuru exploit her in dire circumstances.
Even after Tambu receives the opportunity for a better education at Babamukuru’s mission, she maintains subaltern status through both her poverty and her femininity. In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak defines the “true” subaltern as one “whose identity is its difference”; as a result of this identity, she states, “there is no unrepresentable subaltern that can know and speak itself” (80). Gairola interprets Spivak’s definition as the condition that “a subaltern subject must be able to access a representation of what she/he is supposed to be like in order to know herself/himself” (320). Tambu’s arrival at the mission illustrates this process of self-definition. Although Tambu is aware of her poverty long before she sees Babamukuru’s house, her arrival at the mission causes her to reflect upon herself much more negatively:
Had I really thought, I continued callously, that these other-worldly relations of mine could live with anyone as ignorant and dirty as myself? I, who was so ignorant that I had not been able to read the signs in their clothes which dared not deteriorate or grow too tight in spite of their well-fleshed bodies, or in the accents of their speech, which were poised and smooth and dropped like foreign gemstones from their tongues. All these signs stated very matter-of-factly that we were not of a kind. (Dangarembga 65)
Comparing her economic and social status to that of Babamukuru’s family, Tambu characterizes herself as the inferior “other”: a relative so “ignorant and dirty” that Babamukuru extends kindness to her only out of charity. Tambu’s analysis of this class divide, in fact, echoes colonial rhetoric regarding race and the supremacy of colonial powers. She likens Babamukuru and his family’s accents to “foreign gemstones,” suggesting the allure and supposed superiority of another culture, the British society in which they received their educations. In fact, Tambu expresses the same notions when she speaks directly of the white missionaries in Zimbabwe, who, according to her, “had given up the comforts and security of their own homes to come and lighten our darkness” (103). Tambu’s arrival at the mission thus confirms her subaltern status by altering her self-view. In turn, she no longer desires education on the basis of equality with her dead brother but as a means of upward mobility.
Tambu’s new notion of her education’s purpose concurs with the caveat Spivak offers in her revision of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Upon her interaction with Anna, the housemaid, Tambu reflects upon her changing identity: “The self I expected to find on the mission would take some time to appear. Besides, it was not to be such a radical transformation that people would have to behave differently towards me. It was to be an extension and improvement of what I really was” (85, emphasis added). Tambu never defines what she believes to be her true, or former, identity but implies that her education will allow her to find a new identity that complements the first, ambiguous identity. That her second identity will enhance the first renders Tambu’s former identity the subaltern, which her education will allow her to circumvent. Similarly, Spivak acknowledges, “When a line of communication is established between a member of subaltern groups and the circuits of citizenship or institutionality, the subaltern has been inserted into the long road to hegemony” (qtd. in Gairola 321). For Tambu, Babamukuru, as the headmaster of the mission school and the benefactor of her education, provides these “circuits of…institutionality.” Ultimately, however, Tambu faces the challenge of circumventing her dual subaltern status as poor and female. As Spivak states, this challenge indeed represents a “long road,” not the seeming shortcut provided by Babamukuru’s generosity or the promise of education.
While Tambu’s relationship to Babamukuru allows her to overcome her family’s economic disadvantages through education, it reinforces gender as the determining factor of her subaltern status. Babamukuru immediately defines his relationship to Tambu in patriarchic terms upon her arrival at the mission: “‘I felt it necessary, as your father, to take some time off from my work to speak to you as a father should speak to his child’” (Dangarembga 87). Although Babamukuru might be expected to treat Tambu as a daughter because she is in his custody at the mission, with the words “as your father,” he supplants Jeremiah as Tambu’s father figure while maintaining the unequal notions of gender to which Jeremiah adheres. Tambu’s summary of his expectations illustrates his like-mindedness with Jeremiah in regard to the female’s role: “I was an intelligent girl but I had also to develop into a good woman, he said, stressing both qualities equally and not seeing any contradiction in this” (88). This conversation marks the first occasion on which Babamukuru has identified Tambu’s intelligence as a factor in his decision to take her to the mission; until now, she has only been considered a replacement for Nhamo. That Babamukuru considers becoming “a good woman” as a requisite to intellectual pursuits demonstrates the secondary importance, at least for him, of Tambu’s perceived intelligence. Although he supposedly does not view ideal womanhood and intellectual pursuit as opposites, he does not consider intellectualism a necessary condition for womanhood. On the other hand, he defines the success of his brothers in terms of their education and subsequent ability to provide for their families.
The difficulties faced by Maiguru and Nyasha illustrate the role of gender in Tambu’s dual subaltern status as well as Babamukuru’s reinforcement of the patriarchy that defines this status. Narrating from a retrospective outlook, Tambu acknowledges the oppressive nature of femininity in her society at the beginning of the novel: “…my story is not after all about death, but about my escape and Lucia’s; about my mother’s and Maiguru’s entrapment; and about Nyasha’s rebellion—Nyasha, far-minded and isolated, my uncle’s daughter, whose rebellion may not in the end have been successful” (1). Tambu includes Maiguru and Nyasha, despite their economic and educational advantages, within the categories of those who face “entrapment” and those who attempt “rebellion” against such entrapping forces. Their economic privilege thus has little bearing upon their opportunity for autonomous existence in their society.
Maiguru, in fact, has no control of her salary despite her high educational level. She defines her success not in terms of personal wealth or education but in terms of service to her husband and children. As Tambu observes, this self-sacrifice places Maiguru, although not in a “true” subaltern state, in a similar, self-effacing position, for even after she temporarily abandons her home, she can only assert her own opinions after Babamukuru’s have already been voiced. Babamukuru’s imposed patriarchy affects Nyasha to an even greater degree. Babamukuru defines Nyasha’s image in the same patriarchal paradigm as Tambu’s. Because Nyasha does not act as a traditional female of her society, he brands her a whore and reproaches her for talking too much. Nyasha’s peers follow suit: “‘She thinks she is white,’ they used to sneer, and that was as bad as a curse. ‘She is proud,’ pronounced others. ‘She is loose,’ the most vicious condemned her” (94). Although Nyasha tries to rebel against her father’s expectations of proper female roles, she ultimately faces self-destruction, battling bulimia and requiring psychological treatment at the end of the novel.
The subordinate status imposed upon Maiguru and Nyasha affects Tambu to an even larger degree because of her lower socioeconomic status, which renders her subaltern. Indeed, Spivak points out this condition in her essay: “Within the effaced itinerary of the subaltern subject, the track of sexual difference is doubly effaced....If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow” (82-83). Tambu, however, defines her action in the story as an “escape,” implying more success in overcoming her subaltern status than Nyasha’s “rebellion” or Maiguru’s “entrapment.” Two incidents in her narration initially seem to warrant this claim of a successful escape. Tambu’s first revolt against her uncle’s wishes comes late in the novel, when Babamukuru insists that Jeremiah and Mainini have a wedding, and preparations for the occasion begin. Tambu stubbornly assists in the wedding plans as a bridesmaid but finally refuses to go to the wedding, prompting anger and severe consequences from Babamukuru; however, unlike Nyasha, Tambu remains resilient after her punishment. Tambu’s second supposed victory consists not of a revolt but a persuasion, in which Babamukuru allows her to accept a scholarship to Sacred Heart. Through these two accomplishments, Tambu seemingly embarks upon Spivak’s “road to hegemony,” for she has challenged both the delineations of gender and economics.
Tambu, however, does not completely circumvent the defining characteristics of her subaltern status. Although she does not face Nyasha’s self-destruction, she does not confront the patriarchy that limits her power as Nyasha does. In fact, she disapproves of Nyasha’s rebellions against Babamukuru’s authority, as illustrated in her musing, “I felt secure at the mission under Babamukuru’s shadow and I could not understand why Nyasha found it so threatening” (116), and her “Anglicized” habits, such as wearing provocative clothing. The phrase “under Babamukuru’s shadow” directly indicates Tambu’s acceptance of the patriarchy that creates her subaltern status. Tambu’s rejection of Nyasha’s “Anglicized” influence and rebellion recalls a similar method to which Gairola refers in which the subaltern, even in subordination, eschew certain influences. Gairola uses Srinivas Aravamudan’s term “tropicopolitans,” which she defines as “colonized subjects who also act as agents of resistance to urban, Western landscapes” (319). But, while the resistance to which Gairola refers involves rebellion against subordination by rejecting Western cultural influences, Tambu’s rejection of supposedly “Anglicized” influences does not encompass any form of resistance; it helps to affirm the subordination in place.
Tambu’s apparent victories thus do not encompass revolts against her subaltern status but a compromise between aspects of Western society. In her first “revolt,” she does not actually rebel against Babamukuru but the notion of the wedding itself. Tambu opposes the wedding not because she resents Babamukuru’s authority and influence but because she feels the wedding denigrates her family and her origins: “A wedding that made a mockery of the people I belonged to and placed doubt on my legitimate existence in this world” (Dangarembga 163). Babamukuru calls for her parents’ wedding in order to banish sin from her family, thus implying that all along, the family has been living in sin. The contrast of the Christian, Western-style wedding to her family’s traditional, supposedly sinful life also carries the implication that Tambu’s origins are inferior to Western tradition and values. Tambu’s revolt hence challenges her subordination by society at large but overlooks her immediate patriarchal subordination by Babamukuru.
The reverse effect occurs in Tambu’s second supposed victory, in which she enrolls at Sacred Heart. This time, she accepts the promise of higher education and “the privilege of being admitted on an honorary basis into their [Western] culture” (178), instead challenging Babamukuru, who threatens to restrict her access to such admission. While Tambu temporarily rebels against Babamukuru’s notion of her proper education, she ignores the potential consequences of immersion in Western culture, including the abandonment of her origins. Hence, she assures herself that she is “a much more sensible person than Nyasha” (203), although she has already begun to look upon her home with disdain, as when she criticizes Mainini for not cleaning the latrine in her first visit from the mission. Ultimately, through her variable reactions to Babamukuru’s authority and Western society, Tambu wages a selective rebellion against her subaltern status but does not completely rise above it.
In the course of her narrative, Tambu rises above the economic aspect of her subaltern status through educational opportunities. The end of the novel, however, leaves unsettled the gender dynamics that contribute to her subaltern status while introducing racial and cultural conflict. By accepting Babamukuru’s offer of education, Tambu acquiesces to his notions of femininity, only rebelling when such notions conflict with her desire for higher education. Thus, although she achieves the gender equality she desires in an educational sense, she does not secure such equality on all fronts. In turn, her decision to enter Sacred Heart reopens the question of her social status in terms of race and class, as she accepts the offer not of Babamukuru but of Western society. As a result, despite her insistence to the contrary, Tambu ultimately faces the same complications that plague her educated female relatives. Although by the end of the novel, she does not tacitly accept subaltern status, her selective ignorance of the factors contributing to her subordination preserves such status. Ultimately, true to Spivak’s original claim, Tambu fails to gain her full voice but awaits the completion of her path to hegemony.
Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. New edition. Emeryville, CA: Seal, 2004.
Gairola, Rahul. “Burning with Shame: Desire and South Asian Patriarchy, from Gayatri Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ to Deepa Mehta’s Fire.” Comparative Literature 54:4 (Fall 2002). 307-324. EBSCOhost.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994. 66-111.
© April Joyner