Hybridity, Cousin of Mimicry

At the end of my post last week, I left wondering if mimicry would end up engulfing Tambu, just as it had engulfed her brother Nhamo. After finishing Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions this past week, I quickly learned my answer through Dangarembga’s powerful words. Not only did I become witness to the powerful and dangerous effects of mimicry, but I was also introduced to the power of hybridity–and again, I quickly discovered its power.

Thinking back to Amardeep Singh’s thoughtful explanation of mimicry and hybridity, I remember something important stated, “As a general rule then, cultural hybridity under colonialism seems to be a close cousin of mimicry.” This I learned to be true.

The closing chapters of Nervous Conditions exemplify both mimicry and hybridity (in fact, the entire novel exemplifies these terms). In the beginning of the novel, the reader becomes familiar with the crippling effects of mimicry through Nhamo and his untimely death and through Nyasha, who does not hold back from mimicking the English colonizer customs and ways. In the latter half of the novel, it becomes apparent that Tambu and Babamukuru also fall prey to mimicry.

Looking to Derek Walcott’s essay “The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry?”, explains just how easily mimicry occurs, especially in the Third World. Walcott explains that power is at the root of everything and it is the result of this power/powerless binary that results in mimicry and/or hybridity. The Third World is seen on the latter negative end of the binary as powerless/colonized and easily imprinted upon and influenced by the power/colonizer. Walcott states,

“Perhaps powerlessness leaves the Third World, the ex-colonial world, no alternative but to imitate those systems offered to or forced on it by the major powers, their political systems which must alter their common life, their art, their language, their philosophy” (Walcott 258).

It is the lack of power of Tambus and Nhamo which allows them to be so easily influenced and controlled by the colonizer’s dominant ways, specifically the English (colonizer) ways they learn from both the mission and England.

As Amardeep Singh pointed out, mimicry is a close cousin to hybridity. Tambu and Nyasha, two characters who depict mimicry of the colonizer ways, can also be viewed as hybrids. Throughout most of the novel, it is obvious that Nyasha is a hybrid of two different cultures: her African culture and the English culture that she learned while in England. We do not begin to see the hybridity of Tambu until a little later, when she finally attends the mission and becomes exposed to the English culture, and then again towards the end of the novel when she embarks on a journey to Sacred Heart in England, which quite obviously exemplifies the dominant English culture.

Nyasha, a hybrid of two starkly different cultures on opposite ends of the binary of colonizer/colonized and white/black, depicts the difficulty and near impossibility of hybridity when she states, “You get so comfortable and used to the way things are. Look at me now. I was comfortable in England but now I’m a whore with dirty habits” (Dangarembga 117). This is one of the first instances where we learn that hybridity is not always a positive thing, and in fact, that it has some damaging effects. Nyasha learns how difficult it is to be two things at once: she cannot adhere to both her native African culture and her newer English culture. The customs and traditions clash, causing a split in her identity. In her native home, she is seen as dirty because of her adherence to English culture. Nyasha faces a conflict of “self verses surrender” that is not yet apparent to Tambu.

We, as the readers, begin to see Tambu falling into the traps of hybridity and mimicry when she swoons over the idea of attending Sacred Heart in England. Nyasha, as well as Babamakuru and Tambu’s mother heed warning of the dangers of the dominant colonizer culture, part of Tambu’s hybrid identity. Babamukuru states, “It may change her [Tambu’s] character for the worse…these Whites, you know…you never know” (Dangarembga 182). Similarly, Tambu’s mother speaks of the power of the dominant, colonizing English culture. She understands the power it holds, especially after Nhamo’s death at the mission, a place that instills the dominant colonizing culture and ways. Tambu’s mother fears the worst: Sacred Heart will use its power to imprint the dominant culture upon Tambu, causing her to become “a stranger full of white ways and ideals” (Dangarembga 184). In a desperate last attempt to save Tambu, Nyasha warns Tambu of the dangers of hybridity (which we soon find out has crippling effects on Nyasha). Dangarembga writes,

“She [Nyasha] thought there were more evils than advantages to be reaped from such an opportunity. It would be a marvelous opportunity, she said sarcastically, to forget. To forget who you were, what you were and why you were that. The process, she said, was called assimilation” (Dangarembga 179).

Despite Nyasha’s warning, Tambu ultimately decides to learn for herself of the way in which  mimicry and hybridity alike can attack and tarnish one’s identity. Tambu surely states, “I would go. I was sure  of myself. I was not skeptical like Nyasha. How could I possibly forget my brother and the mealies, my mother and the latrine and the wedding?” (Dangarembga 179). Certain that she would be able to juggle two cultures, and ultimately two identities, Tambu decides to attend Sacred Heart.

Much to my dismay, Nyasha has a complete breakdown at the end of the text, after struggling so hard to confront two very conflicting cultures, two cultures which exist at the opposite sides of the binaries white/black, English/Shona, and power/powerless. Eventually the burden of struggling between two cultures wears Nyasha thin, causing her to have an identity crisis. She says, “They’ve done it to me…Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away” (Dangarembga 200). Immediately following this crack in her self, Dangarembga explains the crisis that hybridity has brought upon Nyasha,

“Nyasha was beside herself with fury. She rampaged, shredding her history book between her teeth (‘Their history. Fucking liars. Their bloody lies.’), breaking mirrors…’They’ve trapped us. They’ve trapped us” (201).

Hybridity has split Nyasha for the worse. She realizes the two cultures cannot coexist within her. Upon seeing her cousin so sick, Tambu soon begins to wonder and essentially question her mimicry.

“For I was beginning to have a suspicion , no more than the seed of a suspicion, that I had been too eager to leave the homestead and embrace the ‘Englishness’ of the mission; and after that the more concentrated ‘Englishness’ of Sacred Heart” (Dangarembga 203).

Tambu finally realizes and accepts the fact that she the dominate colonizer culture and binary has won over. She, too, sees that it is nearly impossible to accept both of her halves.

I find this quotation to be extremely relevant to Nervous Conditions. 




One thought on “Hybridity, Cousin of Mimicry

  1. What was so troubling for me about Nyasha’s breakdown was how the only thing she could vent her frustration on was herself. Her existence was not between two worlds with the option to choose one or the other, but between two worlds that placed similar restrictions on her life. Whether in the English or African world, she realized her pathway was restricted due to her sex, and that no amount rebellion was going to give her the agency she so desperately needed. Perhaps that’s the main theme of Dangarembga’s book, that even in these hybrid spaces between white and non-white, there is no room for a woman to act on her own. In either world she is restrained. Maiguru and Mainini can look at each other through that liminal doorway and both see a chained woman on either side.

    Liked by 1 person

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