Critical analysis surrounding Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, has frequently focused on the portrayal of Nyasha’s eating disorder in relation to Westernised notions of feminism. For instance, Supriya Nair explains: “It is interesting that in a larger context of severe malnutrition, Nyasha suffers from anorexia nervosa and bulimia, disorders generally associated with white, middle-class women.” Readings such as Nair’s recognise that Nyasha’s ‘nervous condition’ originates out of a ‘context of severe malnutrition’, however, they stop there decontextualising her symptoms by diagnosing her in relation to Westernised ideas of medicine. Moreover, by decontextualising Nyasha’s surrounding, critics are failing to understand the politics surrounding food consumption in colonial Rhodes (now Zimbabwe). By focusing on Nyasha’s self-response to food in Nervous Conditions, the self becomes a precursor to understanding how cultural politics of Shona traditions are linked to food consumption. Moreover, Nyasha’s response to food consumption in the novel highlights how the colonised self struggles to negotiate their return to indigenous traditions. For Nyasha, her eating disorder not only becomes the physical embodiment of the internal conflict of Shona and Western values, but the self also finds itself in the liminal space between two conflicting cultures. Therefore, by understanding Nyasha’s relation to food consumption, we not only understand how the colonial self ends up in liminality, we understand them to be a hybrid product of two cultural systems.
Nervous Conditions is primarily a text of development within the confines of the indigenous Shona society. However, throughout the narrative of Nervous Conditions, we see how the mentality of Nyasha’s eating disorder develops in a way which causes the self to split from the individual and become a means for interrogating how the self, readjusts into a society surrounded by starvation and cultural tradition. Nyasha throughout the novel is emphasised to be someone who is “too Anglicised”, suggesting that her education in England makes her a product of the West. However, one way that the Nyasha’s ‘nervous condition’, her eating disorder, can be understood is in how the self-attempts to readjust to the ‘context of severe malnutrition’. In contrast to her cousins who live in what is defined as “squalor”, Nyasha lives in the relative comfort of her father’s mission house. This contrast between the comfort of the mission house and the poverty-stricken homestead destabilises the self. By examining the figure of Ma’ Shingyai who is described as being: “so haggard and gaunt”, Dangarembga highlights how in the context of ‘severe malnutrition’, the self-regresses into a state of self-starvation. Nyasha’s ‘nervous condition’ by the end of the text is one of complete instability, which is illustrated through how Tambu describes her to have “grown skeletal.” This sense of mental regression demonstrates the self’s inability to readjust to notions of food consumption in a society surrounded by constant binary oppositions poverty and wealth, shortage and excess. Moreover, Nyasha’s inability to have a stable relationship with food can be seen through how the cultural context of colonial Rhodesia places emphasis on the lack of food, which destabilises the self in contrast to the comfort of the West. This destabilisation of the self in response to the consumption of food and the surrounding of food-shortage means that the individual, Nyasha, finds themselves in a liminal space in her response to food-shortages in colonial Rhodesia.
Liminality in postcolonial theory is useful for “describing an ‘in-between’ space in which cultural change may occur […] the colonialised subject may dwell in the liminal space between colonial discourse and the assumption of a new ‘non-colonial’ identity.” Liminality is often related to the splitting of the self. For Nyasha we see this split through her relationship with food; Clare Barker notes that “the notion of rebellion against middle-class values has been frequently acknowledged within empirical research as a factor in the onset of eating disorders.” For Nyasha, her ‘nervous condition’ her eating disorder; is related to her attempts to go against the hierarchy of Shona social traditions. At the dinner table, food becomes a means of testing the agency of the self; which we see through Babamukuru and his relationship with Nyasha. Following Nyasha’s outburst regarding her book, Babamukuru instructs her to eat her silence: “‘Er, Nyasha,’ said Babamukuru to his food, ‘I don’t want to hear you talk to your mother like that.’” This point in the novel is pivotal for the progression of Nyasha’s selfhood. When Babamukuru addresses his food instead of Nyasha directly, it becomes clear that food is where power and agency lie within the novel. Moreover, by addressing his food, Babamukuru essentially enables Nyasha’s rebellion against his authority and Shona institutions of power. Nyasha’s rebellion against Babamukuru’s authority primarily begins through the consumption of food, and we see this following their confrontation when Nyasha: “rose from the table, her food unfinished.” By leaving the table without finishing her food Nyasha not only defies her patriarchal structuring of the indigenous Shona society; she also goes against her father’s authority. This refusal of food, therefore, begins to place the self in a liminal space where the self becomes conflicted between opposition and consumption.
By understanding Nyasha to be in a state of liminality, we, therefore, understand how Nyasha as a colonised subject can also be considered, in her own words a “hybrid.” The idea of “hybridity has been frequently used in post-colonial discourse to mean simply cross-cultural ‘exchange’.” This notion of hybridity can be seen in relation to Nyasha’s attempt to negotiate the hierarchical structuring of Shona society. However, Dangarembga’s depiction of the hybrid self within Nervous Conditions, is one of disruption differing from Bill Ashcroft’s belief that “Most post-colonial writing has concerned itself with the hybridised nature of post-colonial culture as a strength rather than a weakness.” The depiction of the hybrid-self that we see through Nyasha is one that struggles to negotiate her return to the indigenous Shona culture and the traditions that follow. Nyasha, in her return from England, is only selectively re-customised into the Shona traditions. One way that we see this is through her behaviour at the homestead during Christmas in which Tambu describes her as “planting herself in the chair. I thought Nyasha was behaving very badly, in a much less civilised way than she was capable of.” Tambu’s belief here that Nyasha was behaving ‘very badly’ suggests that by sitting in the chair offered by Ma’ Shingyai, Nyasha is failing to recognise the exaggeration of Shona politics being displayed. This failure to recognise Ma’Shingyai’s behaviour suggests that Nyasha’s hybridity “operates within […] conflictual structures.” By operating within the conflictual structures of Westernised Christianity and Shona traditions, Nyasha is further embarrassed by Ma’ Shingyai who comments that Nyasha’s “breasts are already quite large.” The implications of this comment pasted by Ma’ Shingyai further complicates Nyasha’s hybridity, reducing the functionality of the female self to being mainly a wife and child bearer in Shona culture. This reduction of the female self, further fuels Nyasha’s rebellion against her father, who represents both the colonialised subject and indigenous tradition.
Throughout the novel, we see many females trying to negotiate the politics of the body, which is often related to the Shona construction of beauty. The indigenous construction of beauty is argued by Barker to be “in terms of health promotes fatness as a desirable state, […] containing within its meaning the attractiveness of an ability to work the land.” An example of this is Lucia, described as “plump” and able to “cultivate a who acre singe-handed without rest.” The portrayal of Lucia as the Shona ideal of beauty is something of an irony for the self as, throughout the novel, she has a reputation for being a “loose woman.” This tension between beauty and sexual looseness can be read in terms of the splitting of the self from gendered Shona customs. The splitting of the self from tradition can be seen through Nyasha’s self-inflicted vomiting; she explicitly states: “I did it myself. With my toothbrush. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know.” Nyasha’s repeated use of the short sentence form here, implies the instability of the self, suggesting that it is splitting into two parts. However, despite the insistent denial of why she is forcing herself to throw up, the unconscious self appears to be attempting to negotiate a way past and away from Shona politics. If in Western society and Western feminism eating disorders are a means of rebellion against middle-class authority; in Shona culture, Nyasha’s ‘nervous condition’ is a symbol of rebellion against the patriarchal system and its control over politics of the female body and the self. Nyasha’s refusal to consume the food provided by her father causes outrage at the dinner table as Babamukuru outrages: “She is always doing this, challenging me. I am her father. If she doesn’t want to do what I say, I shall stop providing for her …” Babamukuru’s outrage at Nyasha’s refusal to eat suggests that by refusing to nourish her body with the food he provides, Nyasha is undercutting his authority and refusing to be a part of Shona culture. This refusal to respect Babamukuru’s authority not only rejects the Shona recognition of his authority as the male head of the family, but she is also refusing to aspire to the ideal of female beauty, which would ensure a future suitor would provide for her.
Nyasha’s complicated relationship to food and its consumption at surface value may present itself to be a product of Western femininity as many critics have claimed. However, by examining how her relationship with food is coded by her return to colonial Rhodesia and the traditional structures of Shona society, food becomes a means of understanding the extent to which the self can readjust from one system of cultural values to another. For Nyasha, she is essentially a hybrid, a physical embodiment of Shona and Western values at conflict, which can be seen through her eating disorder. Nevertheless, Nyasha’s ‘nervous condition’ serves as a means of understanding how the self attempts to negotiate a return from liminality while maintaining agency in a patriarchal society. For Nyasha, her agency progresses which we see in her refusal to consume food yet, this refusal also causes the self to regress meaning that even at the novel’s conclusion the self is still in liminality.