Melissa Dennihy, Binghamton University
Melissa Dennihy is a first year Master's student in the English Department at Binghamton University, where she also earned her undergraduate degree in English and Global Culture. Her interests focus on gender/sexuality studies, colonial and post-colonial literature and theory, feminist theory, and feminist readings of novels from the 18th century to the present.
A New Kind of Cure: The Diseased Female Body's Exposure of the Illusory and the Invisible
Dominant discourse in medicine and psychology has allowed for the dissemination of knowledge about disease through which much of the general public develops its understanding of illnesses. However, findings are often based upon the analysis of limited samples which may fail to represent variations amongst different population groups; furthermore, findings may rely upon over-generalized assumptions that can be totalizing and damaging to individual experiences and needs. African writers such as Frantz Fanon and Ngugi wa Thiong'o, while having made valuable and critical contributions toward understanding modes for colonial and post-colonial liberation, attempt to "prescribe cures" for the subjects and conditions they discuss in their works in the same manner that doctors and psychologists often examine and study disease – that is, without fully considering the ways in which individuals differ based on factors such as gender, class, social status, race, ethnicity, geographical location, or individual life experience. In the preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre writes that "the condition of a native is a nervous condition." Drawing upon this argument, Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel Nervous Conditions portrays the varying degrees of sexual, physical, emotional and psychological trauma experienced by the members of a traditional patriarchal Shona family on the brink of colonial independence in Rhodesia. By portraying Nyasha - a self-proclaimed "hybrid" and daughter of the wealthy head patriarch of the family - as a liberal, outspoken adolescent who ultimately becomes anorexic/bulimic in an attempt to gain control over her own body and self, Dangarembga creates a character who is often criticized for trying to resist colonial oppression while simultaneously embracing ideals associated with what is generally considered a "white" "Western" woman's disease. However, overlooked in such arguments is the way in which the drastic nature of Nyasha's actions makes her disease both "symptom" and "cure," exposing the illusory nature of the "glass-ceiling" system she and her family members are a part of. It is largely because of Nyasha’s illness that Dangarembga's text succeeds in demanding that methods of agency and resistance be recreated in order to allow for individually specific experiences to be voiced and understood within both a national patriarchal and transnational (post)colonial context. Bearing in mind Michael Taussig's argument that "the signs and symptoms of disease, as much as the technology of healing, are not 'things-in-themselves,' are not only biological and physical, but are also signs of social relations disguised as natural things," this article examines how illnesses, specifically bulimia, anorexia and other forms of eating disorders, not only mirror but also expose the corruption present within societies; a re-invention of the ways in which we understand diagnoses, symptoms and treatments is as necessary as a re-invention of other forms of dominant discourse which fail to consider variations amongst individuals when suggesting strategies and prescribing cures. By placing the individual within a social, political and cultural context, disease becomes much more than just a self-affliction - rather, it is a way of making visible the unseen ideologies and power structures that allow for the existence of illusions and deceptions that subjugate and silence individuals and marginalized groups.