The JRB presents an exclusive excerpt from This Mournable Body, the highly anticipated new novel from Tsitsi Dangarembga.
Scroll to the end for more about the book.
This Mournable Body
Jacana Media, 2018
There is a fish in the mirror. The mirror is above the washbasin in the corner of your hostel room. The tap, cold only in the rooms, is dripping. Still in bed, you roll onto your back and stare at the ceiling. Realising your arm has gone to sleep, you move it back and forth with your working hand until pain bursts through in a blitz of pins and needles. It is the day of the interview. You should be up. You lift your head and fall back onto the pillow. Finally, though, you are at the sink.
There, the fish stares back at you out of purplish eye sockets, its mouth gaping, cheeks drooping as though under the weight of monstrous scales. You cannot look at yourself. The dripping tap annoys you, so you tighten it before you turn it on again. A perverse action. Your gut heaves with a dull satisfaction.
It is a woman knocking at your door.
‘Tambudzai,’ she says. ‘Are you coming?’
It is one of your hostelmates, Gertrude.
‘Tambudzai,’ she calls again. ‘Breakfast?’
Footsteps tap away. You imagine her sighing, feeling at least a little low, because you did not answer.
‘Isabel,’ the woman calls now, turning her attention to another hostel dweller.
‘Yes, Gertrude,’ Isabel answers.
A crash tells you you have not paid sufficient attention. Your elbow nudged the mirror as you brushed your teeth. Or did it? You are not sure.
You did not feel it. More precisely, you cannot afford definite conclusions, for certainty convicts you. You strive to obey the hostel’s rules, yet they just laugh at you. Mrs May, the hostel matron, has reminded you frequently how you have broken the rule of age. Now the mirror has again slipped off the crooked nail in the wall and fallen into the basin below, resulting in a new crack. The next fall will shake all the pieces from the frame. You lift it out gently to keep the broken fragments in place, thinking up an excuse to tell the matron.
‘Now then, what were you doing with it?’ Mrs May will demand. ‘You know you’re not meant to meddle with the appointments.’
The matron is fighting for you, she says. She tells you often how the board of trustees is complaining. Not about you as such, but about your age, she says. The city council will revoke the hostel’s licence if they found out women of such antiquity reside there, women who are well beyond the years allowed in the Twiss Hostel’s statutes.
You hate that board of bitches.
A triangle falls out of the looking glass, onto your foot, then slides to the floor, leaving a spot of dark red. The concrete floor is the grey-green of a dirty lake. You expect to see the rest of the fragments fall onto it, but they hold.
Outside in the hall, Gertrude and Isabel reassure each other that each has slept long and well. Several other hostel women join them and they begin their never-ending chatter.
The floor out in the hall is shiny, though it is made of cement and not of cow dung. You wrote tourist brochures at the advertising agency you walked out of many months ago. The tourist brochures you composed said your country’s village women rub their cow pat floors until they shine like the cement floor. The brochures lied. There is no shine in your memory. Your mother’s floors never shone with anything. Nothing ever glittered or sparkled.
You pad away from the washbasin to pull your wardrobe door open. The sh bloats to the size of a hippopotamus in the oily white paint that covers the wardrobe’s wooden panelling. You turn away, not wanting to see the lumbering shadow that is your reflection.
At the back of the cupboard, you find your interview skirt, the one you bought when you had cash to purchase an approximation of the fashion spreads you mulled over in magazines. You loved the pencil skirt with its matching top. Now squeezing into it is a major assault on the pachyderm. The zip bites at your skin with treacherous teeth. Matron May has organised this interview that you are dressing up for. It is with a white woman who lives up in Borrowdale. You are concerned there will be blood on your skirt. But it clots quickly, like the line of red on the top of your foot.
Gertrude and company clatter down the corridor. You wait until the babble of young women going to breakfast dies away before you step into the hall.
‘You people! Yes, you,’ the cleaning woman mutters, just loud enough for you to hear. ‘Always coming down to make more mud before this floor’s dry.’ She curves out of your way and her bucket clangs against the wall. Filthy froth slops out.
‘Has my bucket done anything to you?’ she hisses under her breath at your back.
‘Good morning, Mrs May,’ you call.
Your matron, at the reception desk in the hall, is pink and powdered; she looks like a large fluffy cocoon.
‘Good morning, Tahmboodzahee,’ she answers, looking up from the crossword in the Zimbabwe Clarion, which lies in front of her on the desk.
She smiles as you respond, ‘How are you this morning, Matron? I hope you slept well. And thank you for everything.’
‘Today’s the day, isn’t it?’ she says, good humour deepening at the thought of a life without battling the board on your account. ‘Well, good luck! Remember to mention me to Mabel Riley,’ she goes on. ‘I haven’t seen her properly since she left school and then we both went off and got married and got busy with our families. Do tell her I said hello. I spoke to her daughter and she was quite sure you’ll work something out about the cottage.’
You recoil from the matron’s enthusiasm. She leans in, mistaking the gleam in your eye for appreciation. You feel it, yet you are not sure yourself what this glow means, whether it is proper, or whether it is something that you are daring.
‘I’m sure everything will go very well,’ Matron May whispers. ‘Mabs Riley was a wonderful head girl. I was just a little junior but she was absolutely lovely.’
Specks of powder utter from her trembling cheeks.
‘Thank you, Mrs May,’ you mumble.
About the book
‘The novel explores how race, gender, class, and age are at play in Zimbabwe, and the overwhelming strength of these forces in the face of even the most optimistic and ambitious women.’ —Vanity Fair
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga is a searing novel about the obstacles facing women in Zimbabwe, by one of the country’s most notable authors.
With her 1988 novel Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga became the first black Zimbabwean woman to publish a novel in English. The Book of Not, published in 2006, continued with Tambudzai’s story. This Mournable Body completes the trilogy, 30 years later.
Anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job, Tambudzai finds herself living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. For reasons that include her grim financial prospects and her age, she moves to a widow’s boarding house and eventually finds work as a biology teacher. But at every turn in her attempt to make a life for herself, she is faced with a fresh humiliation, until the painful contrast between the future she imagined and her daily reality ultimately drives her to a breaking point.
In This Mournable Body, Dangarembga returns to the protagonist of her acclaimed first novel, Nervous Conditions, to examine how the hope and potential of a young girl and a fledgling nation can sour over time and become a bitter and floundering struggle for survival. As a last resort, Tambudzai takes an ecotourism job that forces her to return to her parents’ impoverished homestead.
This homecoming, in Dangarembga’s tense and psychologically charged novel, culminates in an act of betrayal, revealing just how toxic the combination of colonialism and capitalism can be.
About the author
Tsitsi Dangarembga is the author of two previous novels including Nervous Conditions, winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and The Book of Not. She is also a filmmaker, playwright, and the director and founder of the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa Trust. She lives in Harare, Zimbabwe.
In the media
‘Searing and enlightening. Tsitsi Dangarembga has delivered a highly anticipated, devastating portrayal of a woman who, like her country, endures a continuous path of destruction.’
—Sefi Atta, author of Everything Good Will Come
‘Finally, Dangarembga’s highly anticipated third novel is here. This Mournable Body is worth the wait, and Tsitsi Dangarembga has written it beautifully and compellingly. A must read for every lover of African fiction.’
‘A haunting evocation of the nature of small defeats. Only a writer steeped in Zimbabwean life – with her unflinching gaze fixed on the individual, and with a social vision that brooks no sentimentality – could have given us the fraught heroine of this starkly written novel. Tsitsi Dangarembga proves yet again that hers is a maverick voice.’
—A Igoni Barrett
‘Heartbreaking and piercing … Tambudzai is an outstanding and memorable character … This is a smartly told novel of hard-earned bitterness and disillusionment.’
‘Dangarembga gives us something rare: a sparkling anti-heroine we find ourselves rooting for.’
—The Washington Post
‘This Mournable Body is a story of triumph, not despair.’
—The New York Times