Kwame Anthony Appiah introduces the novel by repeating its opening line: Tambu tells the reader that she wasn't sorry when her brother died. Tambu goes on to say that she refuses to apologize, and Appiah poses the question of whom the expected reader is. Appiah gives a brief overview of the novel's events: Tambu's brother, Nhamo, learns to despise his sisters as a result of his education, and Tambu wonders why she can't be educated. Her parents are dismissive, and Mainini, Tambu’s mother, tells her that she needs to learn to carry the weight of womanhood and the "poverty of blackness"—two things that won't be helped by education. Tambu proceeds to fight for her education.
Appiah's introduction gestures to many of the novel’s big ideas and suggests that all of Tambu's enemies (colonialism, sexism, and racism) are interrelated. He also sets up that Tambu is, at least initially, headstrong and independent and believes that she can escape the weight of her enemies simply by fighting hard against them.
Appiah says that this all shifts when Nhamo dies and, because there are no other brothers, Tambu finally has access to Western education. She struggles to reconcile her moral upbringing with the injustices she observes and experiences because of her gender, and she watches her female relatives also be brutalized by these injustices. Tambu also watches her cousin Nyasha reject her father's controlling nature, which leaves her struggling with dangerous eating disorders. Mainini suggests that Nyasha is plagued by "Englishness," though Tambu persists in her studies.
The fact that Tambu persists in pursuing her education even after Nyasha's hospitalization indicates that Tambu believes that she'll be able to escape the same fate as her cousin and essentially exist in two worlds: the traditional Rhodesian world, and the white colonial one she sees at school.
Appiah notes that in general, people believe that modern African novels are addressed to Western readers. However, he says that Nervous Conditions doesn't in any way do this. Dangarembga uses Shona vocabulary with no explanation, and Tambu's assessments of white people are uncomfortable. He suggests that in particular, the book's primary issue— how Western-educated women and their uneducated family members can escape oppression because of their gender and skin color—is a part of a very non-Western context and is unique to the novel.
By suggesting that the novel isn't written for a white and Western audience, Appiah suggests that the colonial system that Tambu experiences—which is the same one in which the author was raised—is beginning to dissipate, and authors like Dangarembga now don't need to go through Western channels to create art like this novel.
Appiah insists that, regardless of who the intended audience is, the problems of race and gender are still familiar. He says that Dangarembga writes with the assumption that her novel will make sense to many different people by having Tambu narrate the tale. This, Appiah suggests, is why Nervous Conditions has received so much worldwide acclaim.
By stepping back and insisting that racism and gender issues are universal, Appiah creates a way into the novel for readers who know little about colonial Rhodesia and offers readers familiar things to look out for as the novel unspools.