The Nervous Condition of Mimicry

Nervous conditions

 “The condition of native is a nervous condition” – from an introduction to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth

So reads the quote from which Tsitsi Dangerembga derives the name for her novel, Nervous Conditions. Indeed, this bildungsroman is underscored by a disquieting current of anxiety and tension even as we follow the protagonist, Tambu’s journey of emancipation from the clutches of tradition in her rural village in Zimbabwe to the beginnings of her transformation at the mission in the first half of the novel.

The tension between the opposing colonial and local culture is apparent already in the opening pages of the novel. Colonial Zimbabwe illustrates the “phenomenon of the contact zone…where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other” (264). Contact with the culture of the British colonizers engenders the process of mimicry, which is a driving force that shapes many characters in the novel as they imbibe the culture of their colonizers in different degrees.

Tambu displays the ambivalence that is both a product and producer of mimicry. Tenacious and bright, her desire to procure an education is birthed as a result of the contrast she is provided between the squalor of her family and the relative prosperity that education has offered her uncle and his family. However, being female adds an added layer of complexity to the clashes between the disparate worlds of Zimbabwean and British culture. Education is perceived as the province of men in her native cultural climate, but deemed incompatible with its staunchly patriarchal designation of the space of women at home.

Nonetheless, Tambu is not discouraged when her father tells her that she does not need to be educated and must instead learn to be a good wife: “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?” (15). On the contrary, her fervent desire to go to school only grows stronger. The divergent pathways of the educated versus the uneducated women in her family spurs Tambu’s determination to not be consigned to the same fate as her mother, forever dependent and subservient to her husband. Instead, she aspires to be her aunt, Maiguru, “who was not poor and had not been crushed by the weight of womanhood” (16).

However, the odds are stacked against her from the start, and the fact that her brother is offered the opportunity by Babamukuru to study at the mission further underscores the injustice of her situation. As Tambu quickly learns, being female greatly compounds the nervous condition that is the fate of the native.

In the first half of the novel that I read this week, Tambu has yet to be fully transformed by this process of mimicry, unlike her cousin, Nyasha who is classified as a “been-to”, having spent her childhood in England. Her reactions to the culture of the colonizer are thus characterized by ambivalence. On the one hand, she desperately wishes to acquire the Western education that would allow her to emulate her aunt and uncle in manners and lifestyle but, at the same time, is equally suspicious of this same culture as seen in her reactions to Nyasha.

Although she does not recognize it at the time, this suspicion underlies her immediate disapproval of her cousins upon meeting them for the first time after their return from England (39). In fact, she is bewildered, disappointed, and even offended that they have forgotten how to speak Shona (42). Later on at the mission, she is aghast at Nyasha’s attitude  (perceived as disrespectful according to local customs) towards her parents even as she submerges herself in reading the books of British authors such as Enid Blyton and the Bronte sisters (94). Nyasha is at once stranger and compatriot to Tambu in the reincarnation that she so greatly desires.

While Tambu’s hostility towards Nyasha gradually thaws as they begin to forge a friendship, the same cannot be said of her friends parents and friends. Nyasha’s assertiveness and keen intelligence (cultivated by her formative years in Britain) is misperceived as defiance by her parents and arrogance by her peers, as these characteristics are the antithesis of those traditionally prescribed for females by local custom. Consequently, she is constantly at loggerheads with her parents and is vilified by her peers because of her adoption of Western manners and dress.

Nyasha thus serves as a prime embodiment of the end result of mimicry according to Homi Bhabha: “almost the same but not white” (269), presenting an image of what Tambu might become. Decidedly “English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” as Lord Macaulay would say, she is nonetheless “Anglicized”, which “is emphatically not to be English” (267). While Bhabha posits that this mimicry disrupts colonial authority in revealing the ambivalence of colonial discourse, I would argue that this partial presence comes at a cost especially for the women in this story. This Anglicization is already precluding Nyasha’s reintegration into her native society, and will continue to plague her later on as indicated in the introduction to the novel. Tambu’s fate, however, remains to be seen.

Female oppression.jpg

Native vs. Colonizer: Speaking the “Authentic” Language of National Culture


Language is Culture

Unlike many international students for whom English is a second language, issues of communicating in a foreign language were the least of my concerns when I boarded the plane from Malaysia to the U.S. for the first time in August 2012 to begin my undergraduate studies. All the materials I had consumed in my life for leisure or entertainment – books, movies, music etc. – had been in English. Sure, I spoke Malay and Mandarin, but I considered myself most fluent in English. What could possibly be the problem?

Or so I thought until I tried explaining certain aspects of my culture that required my use of Malay and Mandarin because I didn’t know of an equivalent word in English. For instance, I was stumped the first time I had to explain nasi lemak (a common Malay dish back home) to friends of other nationalities. I found it difficult to explain the rice dish to people outside my culture without using words like sambal and ikan bilis, words that needed no explanation for people in my culture who were familiar with its taste. The English words I used did not do justice in conveying the richness and flavor of the dish that my fellow Malaysians and I had grown up consuming for either breakfast, lunch or dinner.

For the first time, I was struck by the extent to which language is inextricably linked to culture, and thus, national identity, so much so that I had taken it for granted on a day to day basis until I interacted with people outside my culture.

Consequently, the imposition of colonial language through decades of colonial rule raises issues as to its impact on the construction of language and culture in the postcolonial society. Underlying the readings this week is the fundamental question of whether a culture can exist in the language of its colonizer. Is the death of the culture of the postcolonial nation inevitable in the continued use of the language of the colonizer? Each of these authors provide divergent perspectives and answers to this crucial question.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o places language at the “heart of the two contending social forces in the Africa of the twentieth century” in “The Language of African Literature”, contending that colonial domination over the native’s language is synonymous with cultural domination. In his view, the continued use of the colonial language perpetuates the distortion of the African mentality to uphold the ‘fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature’ (146) to the detriment of African languages and culture. Thus, he asserts that African literature can only be written in an African language to truly embody and convey the African culture and experience. Any writer that attempts to do so in the language of the colonizer is bound to misrepresent the realities of the African people (i.e., the peasantry and working class), who do not have the same complexes about their languages and cultures as the bourgeoisie (159).

In his poem, “A Latin Primer”, Derek Walcott’s speaker propounds a similar idea of death to his native language in his immersion in the language of the colonizer. There is a profound desire to find his voice – “I had nothing against which to notch the growth of my work…no language but the shallows in my long walk” – as he engages with “distant literatures”.  As a Latin professor later, he professes a deep sense of guilt at inculcating the same conflict in his students of alienation from their native language and culture, and ultimately death. Like Ngugi, he rediscovers his voice in the language of his people – “and that native metaphor made by the strokes of oars…made one with my horizon.”

The discussion of the impact of colonial legacy on language is, in essence, an extension on the discussion last week on national identity, which brings us back again to issues of ascribing social constructs with the status of “natural” entities. If Anderson’s piece last week served as a reminder of the cultural roots of the construct of the nation, Ferdinand Saussure’s linguistic model (which I read in literary theory this week) reveals language itself as a construction, deriving its relational meaning arbitrarily from social interactions as opposed to being endowed with an inherent, substantive meaning. This image from the Business Insider beautifully illustrates how “authentic” native languages themselves have evolved over time:

language family tree_cropped

With this in mind, Ngugi’s thesis, while compelling, is problematic in its implicit assumptions regarding the nature of language.

I agree with what Ngugi and Walcott are saying to the extent that there is a certain death that occurs when the colonial language disrupts existing ties between a society’s language and its culture. Ngugi is also right about the disconnect between the language of the intellectual bourgeoisie and the language of the peasantry. However, to claim that one embodies a more authentic national culture over the other commits the same imperialist fallacy of drawing simplistic boxes of binary oppositions and fails to account for the vast range of experiences and influences that constitute a national culture. Invoking the very notion of an ideal “African” literature and imposing strict parameters around what that ideal means employs the same essentialist mode of thinking that characterized the colonial model of representing the colonial subject as an Other (97). If language is indeed a social construct, according to Saussure, then it follows that it should be amenable to adaptation and evolution. As such, while I understand the need for the postcolonial nation to reclaim ownership of its culture, retaining these binary oppositions by asserting an “authentic” national language forces a system that is characterized by dynamism and fluidity into a static mold.

In direct contrast to Ngugi, Salman Rushdie presents a viewpoint that is more reflective of language as a fluid and dynamic construct. In “Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist”, he illustrates the difficulties of trying to define ‘Commonwealth literature’, and the subsequent problems that arise from this simplistic categorization. For example, are Commonwealth citizens writing in languages besides English permitted in the club? What about writers like Ngugi who revert back to their native language? He likens this phantom category to an exclusive ghetto, created for persons writing in the English language “who are not themselves white Britons, or Irish, or citizens of the United States of America.” Therefore, he concludes that ‘Commonwealth literature’ does not, and should not exist, because “if it did not, we could appreciate writers for what they are…we could discuss literature in terms of its real groupings…” Rushdie’s closing comments further sheds light on the conflict between the two language spheres: “The English language ceased to be the sole possession of the English some time ago…in which case, it’s time to admit that the center cannot hold.” The crux of the conflict is this: that the British colonial enterprise inculcated whole generations of English speakers well-versed in Western values in their colonies yet insisted on retaining an exclusive British identity. The same can be said of the other European colonial powers.

Again, the inadequacies of current national identities as a construct come to the fore. Ngugi’s solution of asserting an “authentic” national identity inevitably commits the same errors of exclusion, for the pre-colonial society was not characterized by a single language and culture, a fact that Rushdie highlights in regards to India. Centuries of intermingling between the cultures of the colonialist and the native has created generations of hybrid peoples that are displaced by the drawing of boxes of binary oppositions on both sides. The tensions that arise from this displacement are illustrated by the narrator in “The Courter”, who is a product of his Indian heritage and his British education. He is both Indian and British, but not according to the rigid boxes of “authentic” national identity. Thus, he demonstrates familiarity with Western culture yet is characterized as an outsider at school because his language marks him as different; he frequently acknowledges his Indian heritage yet wishes to obtain British citizenship. Because he is both Indian and British, he belongs to neither culture, and thus acutely feels the ropes of East and West pulling him in different directions.

The fact is that the legacy of colonialism has forever altered the socio-cultural landscape of the postcolonial nation. In regards to language, it has created fissures between the colonial-educated elite and a peasantry still grounded in their native tongue, among many other issues. But these issues are a product of the colonial experience that have become part and parcel of postcolonial culture. I don’t see how the postcolonial nation can isolate and disentangle the threads of colonial influence without unraveling the whole. The very fact that the postcolonial nation stands on the European construct of a nation is testament to its inextricable ties to the colonial culture.

Ultimately, the battle between the languages stems from the fact that neither side is willing to acknowledge and accommodate the legacy of colonialism. Having spent centuries in control of the world order, the “first” world is terrified of the consequences should the ‘center’ cease to hold. Thus, it has instilled this fear in the rest of the world as well, in the values it has disseminated regarding national identity and the use of standard English as “a construction of imperial rhetoric that constantly separates ‘center’ from ‘margin’”(166). Moving forward, however, such ideals of an “authentic” national language and culture will prove even more difficult to preserve given the colonial establishment of diasporic communities and the increasing porosity of borders in the age of globalization. The threat of death to a native language and culture in the colonialist’s language is reified only in the conceptualization of language and culture as static, “natural” entities. The continued subscription to these rigid ideals only serves to obscure the nature of language and culture as social, not natural constructs, and impedes the progress of all nations.

National Identity: Escaping the Bog of the Single story


The story of the nation in its current guise begins (like everything else) in Europe, in the dissolution of the ancient European empires and their recasting as the personal territories of monarchies into abstract entities whose interests and powers are manifested through institutional vehicles (e.g., parliament and the military).

It begins in Europe because power determines whose stories get told, how and when they get told (see Chimamanda Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story). In their quest to consolidate these newly-emergent nation-states, an overarching national ideology had to be perpetuated by the authorities. According to Hobson, colonialism thus became an extension of this social construction, a vehicle to perpetuate nationalism in the juxtaposition between a unified “us” and “them”, creating oppositional groups characterized by exclusivity and homogeneity. So it became that spatial and cultural lines were redrawn according to this Eurocentric vision; nothing existed prior to the dawn of European “civilization”. Thus, we were denied the right to write our own stories, and instead forced to swallow the ones arbitrarily assigned to us by the European colonizers.

Although the colonial era has since ended, its legacy has dramatically impacted all areas of the postcolonial society, and none more profoundly so than the question of national identity, ironically the same fundamental question that plagued the colonizers’ homeland. The readings this week were instrumental in my understanding of the forces that reordered the international community with Europe (and later the U.S.) at the top of the food chain – devouring and conquering ruthlessly as they saw fit through the colonial enterprise – and shed light in different ways on how this has impacted the immense struggle of postcolonial nations to wrest back authorial control of their own narratives.

According to Fanon, the first, and most crucial step in reclaiming a national culture (and thus national identity) is the physical liberation of the nation from colonial rule, for “it is the fight for national existence which sets culture moving and opens to it the doors of creation. Later on it is the nation which will ensure the conditions and the framework necessary to culture” (217).  There is and can be no nation apart from colonial rule, for to be colonized is to be denied a nation and a culture. Or to put it in Césaire’s words: “colonization= ‘thingification’”(62). Césaire rails against this colonial legacy in his Discourse on Colonialism, dismantling the noble façade of the colonial enterprise by arguing that there was no room for human contact with the colonized man apart from his subjugation into an “instrument of production” (62).

Physical liberation has since been achieved but the seeds of colonial mentality have germinated, growing deep roots into the subconscious soil of the colonized, imbuing their values into the psychological fabric of the colonized peoples, and turning them against their own culture. These psychological scars, I would argue, have been the most damaging to the postcolonial endeavor at reconstructing a national culture. Furthermore, the postcolonial nation is beset with the same challenges that plagued its European colonizers in carving out a national identity because it stands on the same fragile grounds of the nation as a social construction, founded upon a contested myth of a cohesive national ideology that reflects the interests of the dominant class. It seems that we have untangled ourselves from the pernicious web of the colonizer’s narrative only to find ourselves forced into the rigid contours of another monolithic national narrative that is equally exclusionary.

Anderson’s piece on the cultural origins of the nation illustrates this myth of a national unitary whole when he elaborates on the twin precipitants of capitalism and print technology that laid the linguistic bedrock for the modern nation, culminating in the theory-practice disconnect in the use of national languages today. The postcolonial nation finds itself doubly challenged in this process amid a Eurocentric world order that ensures the preservation and expansion of Western interests at the expense of the developing world. Thus, it is Western culture and Western values that continue to be promulgated today through the agents of globalization.

The issue of Western hegemony is apparent in the study of literature, which was used as an instrument of socio-political control by the colonial authorities to disseminate Western culture in India, replete with all its Eurocentric values, assumptions and prejudices that are still intact today. Frederic Jameson pushes back against this exclusionary view of the literary canon, arguing that the exclusion of “third-world” literature comes at the price of crippling human impoverishment to the “first-world”. While I agree with the thrust of his argument that first and third-world literature should be read differently due to their vastly different histories as colonizer and colonized, I find it difficult to accept his assertion that the story of the third-world individual always functions as an allegory of the national destiny, even as I have alluded to this parallelism myself in my own struggle for identity. I would love to explore what other theorists have said on this matter.

In the face of all this opposition at creating a national identity, what then is the postcolonial nation (and subject) to do? An avenue for redress can be found in appropriation as a method of counteracting the discourse of the colonizer. Postcolonial subjects can utilize aspects of colonial culture to aid in the articulation of their identities. Yet, here again, power hijacks the stage of the postcolonial subject whenever the colonizer appropriates the culture of the colonized. Such cultural co-opting is prevalent in the entertainment industry, the most recent example being Coldplay’s music video with Beyoncé, “Hymn for the Weekend”,  disguised under the innocuous sheep’s clothing of artistic freedom and creative license:

Cultural appropriation in itself is not the problem (as explained here and here). While I love Coldplay, the problem with productions such as “Hymn for the Weekend” is that they occur against a historical backdrop of unequal footing and exploitation. Relegating the people and streets of India to the background is problematic because it denies the postcolonial nation its authorial right to write and star in its own narrative. In taking the Indian culture out of context, videos like these also perpetuate the single story of an exotic and poor India. For unlike the developing world, the United States and Europe are privy to the modes of production that accord them the privilege of generating a multiplicity of stories to counteract the single reductive version of  culture that plagues many postcolonial societies.

Thus, the challenge faced by the postcolonial nation in carving out a national identity is two-fold: it struggles to cast off the single story imposed by the legacy of colonialism even as it stands on the contested foundation of a unified national ideology that it created for itself. This is not to say that these challenges are insurmountable, but rather to highlight the pitfalls of the single story that remains a pervasive obstacle in the postcolonial endeavor to create a truly inclusive and representative national identity.