This Mournable Body: Of bodies and mourning
WHEN professor Gibson Ncube brought me a copy of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body (2018) after one of his academic sojourns, I struggled to find a better way of thanking him. I only managed a lunchtime expression of my gratefulness and a Facebook shout out.
At that time, copies of the book were really hard to find in Zimbabwe. I promised myself that I would read the book quickly and write a review as quickly as possible while the book was still fresh from the Press.
But This Mournable Body is not the kind of book you can read and rattle together a review like that. It forces you to reflect deeply after reading it. Tambu’s out-of-body experience, which also manifests in the second person voice that Dangarembga chose, is something new in the Tambu trilogy.
The previous two novels had a conventional narrative style that was easier to grasp. The last time I had interacted with that style was in God’s Children are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu and I really loved it. But interacting with the style in a novel was really different. It meant an out-of-body experience spanning many pages. This Mournable Body is not a small book.
But it is not the style that one must contend with; it is also the title of the novel. What is a mournable body? Does the title imply that there are other bodies that are not mournable? As I read this novel, I kept looking for those sections that would give me the “Eureka!” moment, you know, that moment when you think you have solved the puzzle, in this case the puzzle of what “this mournable body” is all about.
But that moment really never came for me. It came when I began to reflect on the whole story, to look at each piece of the story in the context of the complete story. But I needed to do more. I needed to stop looking for Tambu elsewhere. I had to start looking for her in the spaces that I live. I had to see where Tambu’s story interlaced with mine. That made things a bit clearer for me.
This is the Tambu whose journey to Sacred Heart in Nervous Conditions is full of promise. As readers, we are left with the notion that Sacred Heart will be some kind of breakthrough into a brighter future for Tambu. And we have had a fair share of such stories in our lives. Yes? Four units at Grade 7. Eight As at Form 4. And 15 points at A Level. A good university degree. The world is like an open book for you. All you need is to read the pages.
Then life comes to a screeching halt. The book is shut and you are squashed somewhere between the page where you get your university degree and the one where you are supposed to get a good job, company car or your own, company house or your own, a husband or wife and lots of happiness.
Stagnation. That’s where we find Tambu after an advertising stint in The Book of Not in which she is supposed to get all the credit but does not. The problem of not being given the credit she deserves begins right there at Sacred Heart, a sanctuary that we thought would launch Tambu into the world.
Thus, This Mournable Body is the story of Tambu struggling in a life that is as stagnant as that of her country, full of promise at independence, but stripped to wretchedness by those who used the independence too well.
And that’s where you have your mournable bodies — Tambu and her country. And why are they mournable? Does it mean there are other bodies that are not mournable? In a country where some bodies are mourned publicly and nationally, where grievability is allocated to some and withheld from others, bodies like Tambu’s are really not mourned in the national story.
I have always had a beef with the story of Nehanda, which Dambudzo Marechera summed up very well when he said the only time the black woman matters is when she is hanged because she rebels against colonial structures or when she is being used to inflate political rhetoric.
The life of Nehanda, outside the political uses to which her body is put, is insignificant. She is only mournable as a mythologised body. What we see, therefore, is an allocation of grievability that bypasses Tambu and others like her, others whose bodies cannot be mythologised in the meta-narrative of the State.
What Dangarembga did with This Mournable Body is that she exhumed the grievability of unmourned bodies and made them mournable. Tambu’s story deserves as much narration as the national story. Your story too. And mine.
So as you can see, This Mournable Body is not about dead bodies, but about bodies whose stories Dangarembga decides to make as important as those stories that are told in the State’s palace histories.
But Dangarembga does more than that. She makes the reader a participant of sorts, a Tambu, through the use of the second-person pronoun. And so she makes you survey, not just Tambu’s life, but yours too.
Tambu’s descent into poverty and mental suffering is a betrayal of all the hope we had entertained in Nervous Conditions. And that is where the story becomes particularly yours, especially if you are listening to Winky D’s 25 while reading the novel.
It calls to mind a WhatsApp conversation in which the participants were wondering how an MA graduate like myself was struggling to make ends meet in post-2010 Zimbabwe.
One of them even suggested that I was probably bewitched and needed very serious exorcism. That conversation made me look at myself, Tambu-like, and ask myself, what the hell went wrong? That’s why I identified with Tambu’s story.
This Mournable Body is a stunningly crafted novel. Dangarembga managed to use melancholy in a very beautiful and poetic way. It is as if she wanted to avail the reader to the anatomy of melancholy but without making the reading experience melancholic.
Coincidentally, I read the novel at a time when I was working on the poems that eventually made it into my first collection of poems, Because Sadness is Beautiful? (2020).
Indeed, what Dangarembga has given her readers is beautiful sadness.