Prof’s Blog: Nervous Conditions

So if your read the epigraph to the novel you notice that the title is taken from Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961).  Here’s the full quote: “The status of the ‘native’ is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonized people with their consent.”

Fanon is probably one of the most important anti-colonial thinkers of his time.  He was born in Martinique, studied medicine and psychiatry in France, worked as a psychiatrist in Algeria, and joined the Algerian independence struggle.  He wrote about the psychological conditions of colonized peoples and argued that violence, in the colonial situation, was not simply physical violence but structural and institutional violence that had a negative impact on the psyches of colonized peoples.

Think about the quote above and how it relates to the novel Nervous Conditions.  What do you think the part about consent is doing in there?  How does this quote enable us to think about the novel in terms of the structural and institutional violence that Fanon is talking about?  This is where we’ll begin our discussion tomorrow.

Also, if you are confused by any of the relations, titles, or Shona words in the novel, this is an excellent study guide:


About Lindsey Green-Simms

Assistant Professor of Literature at American University

Posted on September 11, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Though I concede that Nervous Conditions resists an allegorical reading, the ease with which I can interpret Nyasha and Babamakura as stand-ins for larger colonial archetypes makes it hard. Keeping in mind the project of Ian Smith’s government to educate a select few black Rhodesians and thus, by degrees, both pacify and “integrate” the larger population, coupled with the Sartre comment on “consent,” I’ve come to understand Babamakura as synecdochally representative of those select few who, by virtue of their “fortunate” status as the chosen natives convince themselves that the colonial powers are not so bad. His is the consent of which Sartre speaks; in many cases, I think Sartre’s comment may miss the mark (I assume he elsewhere gives consideration to (the threat of) violence as motivation for compliance), but in the case of the native chosen and elevated (but never quite to the level of the colonizers!) the colonized state can be (tacitly) accepted. It may be a stretch, but I see Nyasha’s resistance, rejection, and break down as a representation of the second generation’s trauma-ridden pathology. Her nervous condition is the nervous condition of the native who will not consent (and Babamakura’s is the anxiety of rejection by his daughter, of raising children straddling two cultures, of passing in the colonial state.)
    I may be misremembering/butchering the essay, but I have a foggy recollection of reading Fanon on the topic of language and the trauma of replacing a native language with English (or French, Portuguese, etc). Though I think his point was somewhat essentializing in its assumption that the language itself was better suited to the native population (an argument undone by post-structuralist thought), I think the merit of the argument remains on a psychological level. It is the implicit debasing of the colonized language, the privileging of the colonizing language, that educates the colonized to believe their language (by extension, country, culture, way of life) are somehow less. Nyasha too mourns and is troubled by her loss of Shona, and, more generally, her having forgotten the customs of her home. And yet, I recognize that Nyasha’s embrace of many aspects of English culture (her reading choices, for example) and her rejection of Shona customs (her general rebelliousness, the confrontation with her father) cast such a reading into doubt. Still, such confusion may speak more strongly to the case of the colonized subject than one who clearly and definitely demonstrated allegiance to “pre-colonial culture” (whatever that may mean.)

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