Studying Cultural Assimilation in Nervous Conditions and Green Grass, Running Water

July 4, 2021 by Essay Writer

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and Thomas King’s Green Grass Running Water both respond to the presence of white influence within native cultures. Although the King and Dangarembga focus on different ethnic groups—First Nations people in Canada and Shona people in Rhodesia—both question the it means to be a native searching for success in a Eurocentric world. Characters in both novels struggle with reconciling their cultural identity with the white world they exist in, eventually losing a part of their cultural identity in an attempt at a better life.

In both Nervous Conditions and Green Grass, Running Water, characters partly assimilate into white culture, sacrificing a part of their identity for the chance at a more successful life. In Nervous Conditions, Babamukuru’s white education causes his children to become Shona-English “hybrids” (72). Although he thought that his enhanced education would bring himself and his family prosperity, it only brings them trials. At school, Shona girls tease Nyasha because “she thinks she is white” (95). Similarly, in Green Grass, Running Water Norma accuses Eli—a retired University of Toronto professor—of wanting “to be a white man” (36). Accusations like these lead characters like Nyasha, Tambu, and Eli to confusing conclusions about their identities. Within the whiteness of their surroundings, they come to identify white values and behaviors as normal and expected, and their family’s expectations as unusual.

Although they might feel shame because of their race, the characters in both novels exploit their culture’s stereotypes to get success. In Nervous Conditions, Tambu’s teacher, Mr. Matimba, takes her to town to sell mealies in order to raise money for her school fees. While there, a white woman named Doris approaches them and accuses Mr. Matimba of “making [Tambu] work” instead of putting her in school (29). Dangarembga uses Doris to illustrate the ignorance white people often have toward systems that oppress people of color. Doris believes that the government “is doing a lot for the natives in the way of education,” so she doesn’t understand the normalcy of being an uneducated black girl (29). In order to solicit money from Doris, Mr. Matimba must lie to satisfy her belief that only the extremely poor Shona people are uneducated, telling her that Tambu is an orphan. Doris donates money to Tambu, and because Tambu capitalizes on white people’s perceptions of natives, she can return to school.

Thomas King’s characters similarly react to stereotypes about their culture. In Green Grass, Running Water, Latisha exploits Native American culture to transform her “nice local establishment” into a “tourist trap” (117). Because white tourists typically associate Native American culture with a kind of exotic savagery, the “Dead Dog Café” serves beef disguised as things like “Saint Bernard Swiss Melts, Doggie Doos, and Deep-Fried Puppy Whatnots” (117). The café even features servers dressed in stereotypical Native American attire, switching from “plains, southwest, and combination” costumes (116). Here, King shows Native Americans taking damaging stereotypes, and turning them into profit for themselves. Although this signifies a bit of power for the Natives because they successfully trick white people in order to make money, this also shows how Eurocentrism and cultural stereotypes lead natives to degrade their own culture in order to acquire economic gain.

King expands this idea with the character of Portland, a Native American actor who played Natives in several westerns. A western movie “wouldn’t be a western” without stereotyped depictions of Native of American culture (216). Portland exploits his own culture by being involved in the production of these movies. When Portland starts auditioning for more prominent roles, the shape of his nose becomes a problem. Even though he’s Native American, the casting directors argue that his nose isn’t “the right shape” for the stereotypical Native American roles in their movies (168). The casting directors ask Portland to wear a rubber nose while filming. When Portland wears the rubber nose he has trouble breathing, showing how stereotypes “grow and expand” to the point of suffocating Natives (170). Although Portland makes money from these movies, his role in the exploitation of Natives chips away at his identity.

While Dangarembga and King use these scenarios to illustrate how stereotypes drive natives to degrade their own culture for profit, they also use them to show the dichotomy between the way natives are and the way white people perceive them to be. In Nervous Conditions, Doris has a false perception of Shona society, leading to her accusations toward Mr. Matimba. In Green Grass, Running Water, King shows the way white people view Native Americans: dumb, savage, dog-eaters with big noses. King’s narrative creates a distinction between real Native Americans, and “Indians for the movies,” arguing that, while the natives portrayed in westerns don’t exist, the scars left from their stereotypes do (208).

Both novels also show how shifting away form one’s native culture leads to a destruction of family relationships. In Nervous Conditions, Tambu’s involvement in her white school cause her to visit her family less and less. When she finally returns home, her mother sees her not as a daughter, but as a “stranger full of white ways and white ideas” (187). Similarly, in Green Grass, Running Water, Eli puts off going home, resisting his girlfriend’s pleas to take her back to the Sun Dance. The longer he spent getting his education in Toronto, the easier it became to stay away from the reservation “until he could no longer measure the distance in miles” (317).

In the end, both Eli and Tambu learn to embrace their cultures. Eli eventually goes home, realizing that despite his academic achievements, “he had become what he had always been. An Indian” (289). Tambu makes a similar realization when she goes to a prestigious school only to find out that, no matter how intelligent she is, she is still discriminated against because of the color of her skin. Like Eli, she refuses to be allow herself to be “brainwashed” by the whiteness around her (208).

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