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Zukiswa Wanner  

Book Review:

The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Publisher: Ayebia

Reviewer: Zukisma Wanner, South African writer.


Fifteen years ago, Tsitsi Dangarembga wrote Nervous Conditions, a text that has become one of the set books in most African countries. In Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga gives us a tale of Tambudzayi, a young, rural, black Rhodesian female who is informally adopted by her paternal uncle so she can get an education and change the lives of her rural family. At the end of Nervous Conditions, Tambu has learnt how to use a fork and knife. She has also become somewhat politicized by her bulimic cousin, Nyasha, and has won a scholarship to The Young Ladies’ College of the Sacred Heart. What more can she want? A lot, as the sequel, The Book of Not (Ayebia), shows.

In the The Book of Not, set mostly at the high school Tambu attends, the author shows the struggles of young Tambu in a pre-independence Zimbabwe and a post-independent Rhodesia as she attempts to fit in as one of a handful of black students at a largely white private girls’ school. Tambu takes heed of her uncle’s words and believes that with education she can earn the world’s respect but this meets with disillusionment, when, after she gets the best O Level results, a less qualified person is given the school honours.

Her principal announces the winner: “… this young lady is also a champion swimmer. As the Young ladies’ college of the Sacred Heart undertakes to nurture well-rounded human beings, the O-Level trophy goes to….” And the name is not Tambudzai’s but that of a white classmate who was second best. Her only black colleague pushes her to question the status quo but our Tambu keeps quiet.

She again responds in the same manner after her studies in post-independence Rhodesia when, as a copywriter at a white owned advertising agency, her advertising campaign is credited to a senior white male copywriter who then gets an award for it. The country is free. She is now staying in a multicultural hostel for young ladies as one of a handful of black ladies but she encounters the same injustices post as she did pre-independence and there is no one she can complain to because the powers-that-be are the same at her workplace as at her high school. If there was ever a way of highlighting that the more things change the more they stay the same, Dangarembga manages to make that theme shine in The Book of Not.

To a reader of the 21st century, Tambu is infuriating in her timidity and her inability to fight back, and yet, Dangarembga writes her prose so well that in spite of wanting to kick Tambu even as you read, you cannot, but avoid turning the pages to find out just what the lead character’s end will be. It is also a sign of Dangarembga’s historical accuracy that Tambu is the way she is in spite of her education because, face it, women (black or white) who acted liberated and spoke back in the early years of post-independence Zimbabwe were an anomaly.

But Tambu can also be endearing even as she annoys. She joins a group of white schoolmates to go and knit for the Rhodesian Army. Her reason? Her twin white classmates’ parents were killed by black guerillas and she hoped when the twins got back to school they could hear what she is doing and realize that ‘we are all not bad.’ Reconciliation? Forget Bishop Tutu. They should have had a Tambudzayi as leader of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In The Book of Not, Dangarembga reintroduces a lot of her old characters, including Tambu’s detestable mother, her misogynistic uncle, her bitter aunt, and her intelligent and ever-questioning cousin Nyasha. It is the family we have all wanted to run away from at some point in time. For all connoisseurs of African literature, The Book of Not is an important new read. The story of Tambu surprises with its poignant commentary on a still painful Zimbabwean past.


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