Lean In

My thesis work and my postcolonial readings collided again this week. As I read an article about, of all things, the attitudes of Victorians toward the Japanese wearing Western clothes, Hami Bhaba and his assertions on mimicry and ambivalence came into play. The Victorian’s deprecating comments and attitudes toward people attempting to assimilate part of their culture was a perfect example of the disruption of mimicry. The reaction, on the surface, seems like the paternal condescension of a large empire to its new pupil, but deep down it is the uneasy realization of one’s own preposterous-ness when presented from the outside. It is also the disruption of that paternal state, equivalent to your child marching around in your shoes; one day they will fit and they will no longer need you.


“Tourist photographs rarely depicted the Japanese in European dress, and, when this did occur, the intention seems to have been to critique rather than to flatter. In the photograph […] c. 1870s, entitled ‘The civilized Japs’ [sic], there is something uncomfortable rather than graceful in the appearance of the unidentified man and woman depicted; the man, for example, gnaws on an almost comically large cigar and his suit billows around him ” (Kramer 18).

Source: Kramer, Elizabeth. “‘Not So Japan-Easy’: The British Reception Of Japanese Dress In The Late Nineteenth Century.” Textile History 44.1 (2013): 3-24. Historical Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

Ambivalence is one of those words I remember learning. Sometime in my early teens, around the same time I thought I knew what patronizing meant, ambivalence became part of my lexicon. But I only had a partial meaning, thinking that I had no clear opinion, or none at all, about a particular topic. “I’m ambivalent about the whole matter” meant that I didn’t care. Only upon reading Homi Bhaba’s use of the word, did I realize my initial relationship with “ambivalence” had been entirely wrong. My “ambivalence” did not exist between two conflicting feelings, those feelings didn’t exist at all. Only when confronted with an extended definition, one that seeks to highlight the muddy existence of people caught between two worlds, neither one metaphorically black and white, did I realize what I thought was ambivalence was actually indifference.

In Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Tambu exists in an ambivalent world, kneeling in the doorways between education and ignorance, urban and rural, girlhood and womanhood, Shona and English. She elevates one over the other at different times. When she begins menstruating her initial reaction is a practical one, duly educated by her mother, aunts and other female relatives, though still a matter too dangerous for male ears. She only experiences shame when confronted with the pristine bathroom of Babamukura’s house, anticeptic and porcelain white. The wholly natural process stands out in stark contrast to the construction of civilization – which would not exist without it. At this point in our reading, her cousin Nyasha appears as a possible guide to help Tambu navigate between all possible realities, though she has much navigating to do for herself. She, too, exists between two worlds, when recalling her visit to Tambu’s homestead upon their return from England:

“For [her parents] at least, because now they’re stuck with hybrids for children. And they don’t like it. They don’t like it at all. It offends them. They think we do it on purpose, so it offends them. And I don’t know what to do about it, Tambu, really I don’t. I can’t help having been there and grown into the me that has been there. But it offends them – I offend them. Really, it’s very difficult.” (78).

Nyasha finds some solace in books and cigarettes and, at least at dance-hall distance, boys. She also surprising enjoys church. Bhaba’s description of the portioned dispersing of Christian morality to colonized people is expressed in Nyasha’s attitude toward church, recognizing the “Christian cause, which was conformist but could clandestinely be translated into a progressive ideology” (98).

As we continue reading, I will be curious to see from which side of the doorway Tambu leans. Perhaps she will continue to remain there, standing rather than kneeling, leaning to and fro, gathering everything she can from both sides. Her position as an African woman insists that she never fully control her own life in either place, as exemplified in Maiguru’s lack of agency even while holding her own Master’s Degree. Will the ambivalence of Tambu’s situation force her to choose, and will she have the power to make that choice?

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Writer, teacher, PhD student, former web developer, jerk

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