This article addresses the formation of female intellectual subjectivity in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Bildungsroman, Nervous Conditions. Written just five years after Zimbabwe became an independent nation, Nervous Conditions critiques government representations of females as physical labourers confined to domestic space, thus functioning as a counter-narrative to that limited national imaginary. The article rethinks concepts of resistant agency that other critics of the novel employ in their readings of the protagonist, Tambu. It argues that resistance, like any other concept, has a history, and that because Tambu is not a Western creation, Western ideals of freedom and individuality cannot account for the heroic aspects of her behaviour. Reformulating Judith Butler’s concept of subject formation, it develops ways of reading agency outside the binary logic of subordination and subversion, suggesting that agency develops unevenly on a continuum between complete compliance and complete resistance to norms. It also argues that spatial politics are crucial to Tambu’s quest for intellectual subjectivity. Thus, Tambu reconstructs the daughter’s bedroom to make it into a space that matters, producing bodies that matter.
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