Image taken from https://digitalobby.spu.edu/eng2248/2016/01/21/maiguru-and-hybridity/.
“It’s the Englishness,” she said. “It’ll kill them all if they aren’t careful…The problem is the Englishness, so you just be careful!” (207).
Mainini, Tambu’s mother, issues this warning with Tambu’s increasing immersion in the world of “Englishness” at the mission. In the second half of Nervous Conditions, the tension created by the ambivalence of mimicry crescendos and finally explodes as its accompanying anxieties wreak havoc on the psyche of the characters.
This fear of “Englishness” intensifies because clear lines have been drawn in the cultural milieu of colonial Zimbabwe, demarcating the boundaries between the cultures of the colonizer and the colonized. Threats and warnings are issued by the local community on the perils of crossing that line because there is no “in-between” in binary systems such as colonial Zimbabwe, no “ambiguous or interstitial spaces between the opposed categories, so that any overlapping region…becomes impossible according to binary logic, and a region of taboo in social experience” (Ashcroft 25 ). There is no return once a person crosses the line into an opposing category. Consequently, the state between binarisms, such as the colonizer/colonized binary, “will evidence the signs of extreme ambivalence manifested in mimicry, or will put energy into confirming one or the other side of the binarism, for example, Anglocentrism or nationalism” (Ashcroft 25).
The problems detailed above are illustrated in the second half of the novel, most clearly through Nyasha. Categorized as a “been-to”, Nyasha finds herself ostracized because she has crossed over to the culture of the colonizer on the other side of the binary. However, as I mentioned last week, she does not fully belong to the culture of her colonizer either, for to be Anglicized “is emphatically not to be English” (Bhabha 267). There is no space between these rigid binaries to accommodate her hybrid identity. Subsequently, this displacement weighs heavily on Nyasha and causes her acute distress. Nyasha confides these difficulties in a letter she writes to Tambu after the latter leaves to study at Sacred Heart: “I find it more and more difficult to speak with the girls at school. I try, Tambu, but there is not much to speak of between us…They think that I am a snob…because I do not feel that I am inferior to men” (Dangarembga 200).
Derek Walcott addresses the issue of mimicry in “The Caribbean: Culture of Mimicry”. Against accusations (specifically that of V.S. Naipaul) of merely being a mimic man, Walcott replies that if Caribbean culture is mere mimicry, then all prior cultural endeavors can be said to be no more than mimicry too, for “there is no memory or history of the moment when man stopped imitating the ape, his ancestor, and became human. Therefore, everything is mere repetition” (260). Defiantly, he proclaims that “Nothing will always be created in the West Indies…because what will come out of there is like nothing one has ever seen before” (261). He points to the Carnival, the calypso, and steelband music as evidence of this hybrid creative production. Produced from nothing, they “are original and temporarily as inimitable as what they first attempted to copy” (261). Despite its appearance of mere imitation, Caribbean culture has appropriated American culture and created something entirely unique and original – “the river, stilled, may reflect, mirror, mimic other images, but that is not its depth.” (259)
Walcott’s response echoes Bhabha’s assertion in the sense that mimicry never results in a carbon copy of colonialist culture. Instead, the result of colonial contact is hybridization, where “new transcultural forms” (Ashcroft 135) are produced due to the mutual construction of colonizer and colonized subjectivities. According to Bhabha, cultural identity always emerges in this contradictory and ambivalent “Third Space of enunciation” (Ashcroft 136). Hybridity is therefore presented as a solution to disrupt the fixities of binary oppositions. However, while Bhabha’s projection of hybridity is hopeful in theory, his concept translates rather messily to the realities of the characters in the novel.
Nyasha most clearly illustrates the perils of embodying this hybrid identity as she finds herself constantly challenging the boundaries of her native culture. The second half of the novel was particularly difficult to read as I watched Nyasha gradually consumed by this perpetual state of nervous displacement, as manifested in her battle with bulimia and anorexia. “Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away” (204)… They’ve trapped us. They’ve trapped us” (205)”, Nyasha rages at the end of the novel -“I’m not one of them but I’m not one of you” (205).
Bhabha’s proposed “Third Space” has the potential to be liberatory in theory, but the truth is that, more often than not, the hybrid subject acutely feels the walls of these rigid binaries closing in on both sides. In Nyasha’s case, this distress weighs on her psyche in the form of eating disorders. Inhabiting a liminal state of flux that is “a constant process of engagement, contestation and appropriation” (Ashcroft 145) is exhausting and comes at a cost, as evidenced by Nyasha. Therefore, to inhabit the liminal space is to live in perpetual discomfort, anxiety, and tension in a world constructed around rigid binaries.
Although Tambu is not as adversely affected by her state of liminality as Nyasha, she develops her own demons to battle even as she progresses in her education at Sacred Heart. She is increasingly tormented by the conflicting demands of navigating both cultures, especially in regards to the roles prescribed for women. Tambu experiences profound psychological distress when the Christian ideas of sin that she has been taught at the mission are applied to her parents, and indirectly to her. She struggles to reconcile the mounting discrepancies engendered by her hybridization, trying to maintain the roots of her native culture even while she pursues a Western education to increase her social mobility.
In many ways, Tambu’s journey reminds me of my own. Like Tambu, I had fought to pursue a Western education, eager to escape the confines of my society; like Tambu, I had looked to attaining a U.S. education “as a sunrise on my horizon” (208). I remember setting foot in Kutztown for the first time four years ago, nervous but hopeful, thinking that maybe this was where I would finally belong. But after spending four years here, I’m not so sure anymore. Like Tambu, I’ve tried banishing the doubts and the suspicion, but with graduation quickly approaching, I’m beginning to realize that I don’t really fit here as much as I didn’t fit at home. Still, Tambu’s fate is hopeful, if open-ended at the end of the novel, an alternative to the outcome of the liminal subject as embodied in Nyasha. I don’t know what inhabiting this “in-between” space entails yet for me, but Tambu’s experience shows that navigating this space, while difficult and painful, is not impossible.