Desire and Mimicry: Robbers of Identity?

Mimicry, a term that has huge implications in post-colonial literary theory, is weaved throughout Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions. It can be seen throughout the many eloquently worded scenes and also it is represented by some of the main characters. One of the most obvious observances of mimicry in Nervous Conditions is in the character Nhamo.

Nhamo attends the mission under supervision of his uncle Babamukuru. Life away at the mission proved to be much different than Nhamo’s homestead because the mission taught western culture and practices. At the mission, he learns how to speak and communicate in English and he learns of running water inside the house (which was previously unimaginable to him), amongst other things. The exposure to these commodities changes Nhamo, which is when the practices of mimicry and its effects begin to shine through.

It is not until Nhamo returns to the homestead that the reader can gauge the effects of mimicry on Nhamo; it becomes clear that he embraces and willingly chooses to mimic the western practices that he is exposed to. It becomes evident that the mission and its dominating (colonizing) practices and culture start to take over Nhamo causing him to lose sight of his individual identity as well as his identity on the homestead. Tambu, Nhamo’s sister who is narrating the text, talks of Nhamo’s identity loss when she notes,

“Then when Nhamo came home at the end of his first year with Babamukuru, you could see he too was no longer the same person. The change in his appearance was dramatic…All this was good, but there was one terrible change. He had forgotten how to speak Shona” (Dangarembga 52).

At this very moment, the concept of mimicry and its altering effects on humans, specifically the colonized, becomes apparent. As Homi Bhabha states in his essay “Of Mimicry and Men,” “In mimicry, the representation of identity and meaning is rearticulated along the axis of metonymy” (Bhabha 270). Nhamo’s identity is redefined. He is not the same person, as his sister Tambu notices, but instead becomes a “blurred copy of the colonizer,” which, here, the colonizer is the mission and its western cultures and practices (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 125).

This exemplifies how Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions represents the threatening power of colonialism. In seemingly every case of colonialism, the colonizer has possessions that are far-more advanced than anything of the colonized natives. With colonization, the colonizer always tricks the natives into believing that they can offer them more commodities and more goods if they should fall under their power. The appeal to these comforts to the colonized allows the colonizer to cunningly fool the colonized and thrust a dominant western culture onto the colonized society. There is an appeal to the comforts and the mimicking of the colonizer because it offers a false sense of hope. Amardeep Singh explains, “Mimicry is seen as an opportunistic pattern of behavior: one copies the person in power, because one hopes to have access to that same power oneself.” There is a hope in the colonized that mimicry will allot power to the colonized; if they mimic the colonizer, they too may obtain the same power as the colonizer. Similarly, Bhabha speaks about the colonizer’s ability to indoctrinate the native people when he notes,

“The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority…They are also figures of a doubling, the part-objects of a metonymy of colonial discourse which alienates the modality and normality of those dominant discourses in which they emerge as ‘inappropriate’ colonial subjects. A desire that, through the repetition of partial presence, which is the basis of mimicry, articulates those disturbances of culture, racial, and historical difference that menace the narcissistic demand of colonial authority. It is a desire that reverses ‘in part’ the colonial appropriation by now producing a partial vision of the colonizer’s presence” (Bhabha 268).

Nhamo witnesses the commodities of the colonizer and falls prey to their allure. He chooses to mimic the dominant culture, and at once, seemingly looks down upon his old identity. Tambu perfectly notices, “All this poverty began to offend him, or at the very least to embarrass him after he went to the mission, in a way that it had not done before” (Dangarembga 7). This process of colonization and the menacing effects of mimicry can often allow a comfort in the colonized materialisms and commodities such that, upon returning to the native culture or land, the colonized who mimics the dominant culture begins to see their own traditions as inferior.

Nhamo’s mimicry of the western culture is bothersome to his sister Tambu. She notices his feelings of superiority and that he has begun to look down upon his own blood and his own identity as a result. She is bothered by his lack of interest and effort when helping on the homestead, a job that used to be required of him just to live somewhat comfortably. Tambu is even more bothered when she discovers that he loses his native tongue. However, despite her initial frustrations with her brother and his mimicked practices, she is, at the same time, extremely jealous of her brother and his access to luxuries that are unimaginable and unattainable on the homestead. This creates a sense of ambivalence in Tambu. Ambivalence, according to Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, “describes the complex mix of attraction and repulsion that characterizes the relationship between colonizer and colonized” (10). Tambu is ambivalent about her brother’s mimicry. However, this changes as soon as her brother dies at the mission and Tambu is then brought to the mission by Babamukuru declares that “Tambudzai must be given the opportunity to do what she can for the family before she goes into her husband’s home” (Dangarembga 56).

As soon as Tambu is brought to the mission, she too is exposed to the western doctrines and practices that Nhamo once was. Despite her ambivalence towards mimicry before, Tambu soon begins to mimic some ways of the dominant culture. Being exposed to luxuries that were not available at the homestead (a direct correlation to the happenings between the colonized and the colonizer), Tambu decides to give in to some of the pleasures offered by the dominant culture by taking a bath. This is just the beginning of what we, the readers, see as Tambu attempted to blend into the western cultures of her “new life.” Having only read the first five chapters of Nervous Conditions, I am wondering if the effects of mimicry will engulf Tambu too?



3 thoughts on “Desire and Mimicry: Robbers of Identity?

  1. I really enjoyed reading your thorough application of mimicry and ambivalence to Nervous Conditions. I struggled fully understanding the ideas of mimicry and ambivalence, but your application helped elucidated these ideas and allowed me to better understand the novel. One thing I enjoyed in the novel was the ease to which Tambu at once accepts and rejects the Western world. She longs for schooling in England with Babamakuru, but resents him when he returns. Her resentment continues as she discusses Shono with her Aunt Maiguru. Tambu is seems, to me, to exemplify the ideas of ambivalence and mimicry and the damage it has on the colonized people. She is resentful of her own people but at the same time longs for what she resents. The power of mimicry and ambivalence are a dangerous pair. Thanks for this great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like how you’ve made the connection to Nhamo in Nervous conditions. I found it interesting that he chose to continue to leave in the way he was taught in the mission. I kept asking myself why did he choose that lifestyle. But, I think that speaks to how hybridity is formed in some cultures and its people.

    Liked by 1 person

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