Text and Community Program Celebrates the African Novel

Posted: January 14, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Art Taylor

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The English Department has selected Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga’s debut novel, “Nervous Conditions,” for the 2009 Text and Community Program.

Each spring, Text and Community fosters collaboration between the English Department and other departments and organizations at Mason. The program encourages professors to adopt the chosen title in their course work and students to read the book on their own, all with the goal of approaching a single text from diverse viewpoints and across a variety of disciplines.

The choice of Dangarembga’s book for this year’s Text and Community is part of the English Department’s Year of the African Novel.

“Most people don’t even know there are other African novels apart from Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart,’” says assistant professor Helon Habila, an African novelist himself.

“Here’s a chance for readers to discover more of Africa, a more contemporary Africa, not the Africa of more than 100 years ago that you have in Achebe’s novel.

“Since it was published, ‘Nervous Conditions’ has come to assume the status of an African classic and is perhaps the most-read African novel after ‘Things Fall Apart.’ Its success depends on its accessibility and its ability to combine politics and history with art, creating in the process a unique picture of a unique place.”

“Since its publication in 1988, ‘Nervous Conditions’ has attained the status of a classic woman’s coming-of-age novel,” adds professor Rosemary Jann, who chairs the committee planning this spring’s program.

“It seemed to our colleagues to offer a good counterpoint to Achebe’s work.”

Set in colonial Rhodesia in the 1960s, “Nervous Conditions” follows a teenage girl, Tambu, as she moves away from rural village life to study at a missionary school, befriending a cousin whose own childhood in England has been radically different from her own.

This relationship and Tambu’s growing awareness of the world around her sets the stage for exploring a number of themes: the difficulties inherent in retaining or revising traditional cultures in the midst of Western influences, the various impacts of colonization on African life, and the changing roles of women in Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The first English-language novel published by a black Zimbabwean woman, “Nervous Conditions” won the African section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. The book is part of a proposed trilogy; a second novel, “The Book of Not,” was published in 2006, and Dangarembga is at work on the third book.

Numerous events are planned as part of the 2009 Text and Community, including a visit by Dangarembga on Wednesday, April 29, for a reading and discussion of her work.

The department will host an essay contest for students, and potential plans include a screening of films written by Dangarembga (perhaps the 1996 feature “Everyone’s Child” and/or the 2004 short film “Kare Kare Zvako”) and a staged reading of her play “She No Longer Weeps.”

For updated information on these events and other programs still to be added, visit the Text and Community web site.

This article appeared in a slightly different form in the English Department newsletter Not Just Letters.

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