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can you be balanced at the moment of unhinging? Interview with Tsitsi
August 05, 2009
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Inzwa feature. Find out more
Inside/Out with Tsitsi Dangarembga
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your stories and films the protagonist is always female. Why is
In my stories and films the protagonist generally tends
to be female because growing up, my closer relationships were with
females. I think this is normal as one is young, but I do think
that as I have matured and become older I have had relationships
with people who are not female, and I think this is also beginning
to reflect in my work.
feel a responsibility to tell the stories of African women?
I do not feel the responsibility to tell the stories of
African women. I feel the responsibility to tell the truth about
the world as I see it. Now the world as I see it is very much like
an onion. When I'm young I see it in this way because I'm
relating to certain people in such a way, as I get older my world
expands, and there's another skin to it. I talk to different
people in different ways. It's a continual developmental process.
What I hope is that by the time I come to the end of my lives there
will be some continuity. That I will have developed some kind of
theory that people will say this is what Dangarembga believed in,
and that I have not contradicted myself too dramatically.
storyteller, have you felt that your way of story telling has evolved
I definitely think that my way of storytelling has evolved
over time. The reason why I would say that is that I took my English
Composition lessons at school very seriously, and I always thought
of them as stories I was telling. And so I would really hope that
from those early compositions at school that something has changed.
To look at that question another way, I would say that I am consciously
pushing boundaries. I am constantly looking for different ways to
tell stories. I am constantly looking whether its film, whether
it s prose, whether its poetry, for those forms that echo at least
something of our culture, but is still understandable in the context
of the 21st Century. That actually is one of my missions. It's
an issue of form as well as of content. I am really concerned that
the form I use be relevant to the content. Because, when you look
at it, the experience that I am having as an African woman, in Zimbabwe
today, is a unique experience. Every person who is living in Zimbabwe
today is having a unique experience that no forms of representation
have actually captured before. So it's very possible that
those forms are not adequate. In fact this is something that is
coming up in the literature on post-colonial studies, about the
disjuncture in the voice of those who have suffered certain trauma.
So I am definitely looking to push the boundaries, yes.
inspires your stories and particularly the strong women in them?
What inspires my stories is what I see. That sounds really
mundane but I do believe that it is difficult to imagine the unimaginable.
So basically, what one has has come from somewhere. And that is
what one works on. Just as a great man, a great sculptor like Dominic
Benhura will make stones dance and fly, I mean, who would have thought
that stones can dance and fly? But he makes them do it because he
has the concept of flying, he has the concept of stone, he has the
concept of dancing. What he has that other people don't have
is the ability to put that all together. So my stories come from
what I experience. Now the way I put those different things together
is what I think makes my stories different from other peoples stories.
strong women is very interesting, and I am interrogating the notion
of strong at the moment. There was a time in Zimbabwe when women
who wanted to be perceived as tough called themselves mahadhi
and I don't whether that is still in fashion, but that is
something to interrogate. Is being hard the same as being strong.
We know that hard substances can be brittle, so again the notion
of a strong character, a strong woman is something I'm interrogating.
For example in the Book of Not, Tambudzai unravels as a human being,
but what I admired about her is that she can tell that story of
her unravelling. How many people would be able to stand up and say
‘look I did this, I did this.' Knowing that people are
going to judge it negatively, and say ‘I'm telling you
this. This story needs to be known so that we can interrogate what
makes us behave in those ways.'
you say you're a strong woman?
Not at all! I'm actually made of putty. Which I think
is what has enabled me to survive. Being made of putty so many impressions
are made upon me, that I have to deal with them if I want to continue.
You know I would like to be a lot stronger, if I was stronger, I'd
have done a lot more. But for somebody made out of putty I'm
not doing too badly.
would you define a strong woman?
Do you know I wouldn't. I would not define a strong
woman because I do not find that category useful. What is a strong
man? What is a strong person? What we have are certain sets of conditions,
in which people have to act to do the best for themselves and the
group. For me this is very important. And its an aspect of my Shona
and African heritage that I will not discard no matter what. You
do the best for yourself AND the group. It can't just be the
one or the other, it's got to be balanced. If one insists
on a definition of strength I think it is somebody who is able to
do the best for self and the group.
woman, what challenges did you face in establishing your production
Every day is a challenge. A friend of mine said to me,
‘Tsitsi, my mum also had a tough time and she would get up
in the morning and say to God: Well, it's you and me against
them.' and that's the attitude that I've adopted.
To be very honest there are some good men out there. But most of
them do not want to see a woman in a position of power, they want
to undermine women if women have vision they want to make sure that
that vision is not realised. You're up against this on a daily
basis. You win some you lose some, but as I said if your conviction
is that you need to do the best for yourself and for the group,
then losing some will not discourage, it will teach. It will say
‘ok, this didn't work, so maybe something else can work.'
Also being made of putty helps, you go to bed and you remould yourself
and you get up in the morning.
books that you have written which is your favourite?
That is a question that I cannot answer. I cannot tell
you which is my favourite book. I've had three published.
One play and two novels. I'm working on the third and usually
I say that the one that I'm working on at any given time is
my favourite. Simply because that's where my creative energy
is. The others are done. I think that it's not fair for me
to hold onto them. They have to go out and do their own thing. So
its very astonishing for me when I'm, lets say in Sweden,
and a young girl comes up to me, this year or last year or whenever,
and says ‘Oh your character Nyasha, tell me about her in Nervous
Conditions.' And I think ‘Oh my God, you know, what
was all that stuff about Nervous Conditions again.' because
I'm so invested in what I'm creating at the moment.
So what I'm working on is always the current favourite. But
once it's done it just has to take its place with the rest
of my works. This is also something I learnt from reading about
Toni Morrison, because she said that your works can become very
greedy. You may think you are in control of them, but actually they
are in control of you. You are not writing them, you are not producing
them, but they are producing themselves through you. So at some
point you have to realise that this thing has produced itself through
me so let me let it go.
2008 interview with Miriam Kotzin in Per Contra you say ‘as
an African writer' you are ‘subject to all sorts of
shocking exploitation without recourse'. What forms of exploitation
have you experienced?
Well right now I'm in a legal battle with ZPH who
have been behaving in what I think is a shameful way. I hope I will
be able to settle that amicably with them. Of course, in Zimbabwe
at the moment its very difficult to give good reasons for things
happening. People will always blame the economy, blame exchange
rates et cetera. But again it comes back to what I was talking about
earlier about what is it that makes a person a person? You always
have a choice, even if the economy is like this, you can behave
this way or that way. For me if you behave for the good of yourself
and the group, which as a publisher means the good of your company
and your author, then there should be no problem. So I think we
do not have that ethic. I think we have an astonishing lack of morality.
Then again I want to say that jealousy is something that we as Zimbabweans
know is endemic in our culture. That's why we have such belief
in uroyi, because if you're jealous of someone give them a
bit of crocodile bile and that's it they're gone. So
we have a lot of that as well. I think that has also led to some
people not wanting to support my work. But its not just in Zimbabwe,
outside the country I've had challenges with my publisher,
I'm in a legal battle with my English publisher as well. I'm
quite sure that I will win these battles, but it takes a long time
and a lot of effort.
I think one of the problems
that we have as artists in Zimbabwe is that we do not have arts
managers and administrators. We have business people in this country,
but business people think that the idea of business is to make money
any way. We do not have business people who have a real passion
an understanding for the arts, so therefore they mislead the arts.
Or if you're an artist who understand that perhaps these people
do not have the necessary knowledge, it means you end up on your
own, because you don't have someone to organise your affairs.
For me I think that has been my biggest problem. If I had been able
to find an agent, a lot of these problems would not have happened.
But then again, as an African woman, who is going to take you on
until you've won the Nobel Prize? I might have to put that
on my agenda.
feel that male African writers experience the same sort of exploitation?
I actually do. I really do not think that the exploitation in the
arts is gendered to the extent that one might think so. I think
there are social issues that make it more difficult for women to
engage in the arts. But I think that once a woman has overcome that
and decided that she is going to engage in the arts as a profession,
she faces many of the same problems that men would. For example
take a male dancer, how many people will respect him as a real man?
They'll call him all sorts of names, they'll imply sexual
orientations which these men also have to deal with. I think once
the decision has been taken to be a professional artist, I think
that the problems are pretty much the same across the board. Where
women are more affected is in obtaining the basic skills for their
art in terms of education and in being able to overcome the societal
pressure against entering that profession. Then the only other thing
in my opinion, the true male artists respect women artists. You
look at somebody like Oliver Mtukudzi, he's not somebody who's
going to undermine somebody like me. Somebody like Dominic Benhura
is going to respect me in the same way that I respect him for his
art. But it's these other people on the periphery who feel
that there's something for them to get, who become the problem
now. And there again a gender issue does become apparent.
stereotypes of African women, and particularly as a woman artist,
have you been confronted with?
I personally do not think of stereotypes as such when I
do my work. I think of what I feel is necessary to be said. So I
do not feel myself confronted with these stereotypes. Maybe I didn't
really understand your question. But maybe it means that because
I am not in that orbit, the stereotypes just don't reach me.
You will find for example, this is why a character like Tambudzai
in the Book of Not, becomes so disappointing. Because actually the
stereotype would have been of the strong African woman, that nothing
can dismay, who just goes on and does it all. I try to look at the
particular. On the other hand, of course one has got to look at
the general as well, to make it appealing to the general audience.
And I feel that the way one does it is what constitutes one's
art. Whether one does it in a stereotypical way, or whether one
does it in a very individual, original way, which gives value to
that art. And I think that has a lot to say about a lot of the political
art that's coming out. I do not believe that political art
has to be propaganda. I am a feminist. I've been a feminist
since the 1980s, and in the 1980s our slogan was ‘The Personal
is Political'. So for me, the more you can reveal the person,
whether that person is a politician, whether that person is a woman,
whether that person is a man whatever, the more political you are
being, in terms of your acting as an artist in the world today.
working woman, how have you managed to strike a balance between
your dual roles as a wife and mother; and then as the head of an
acclaimed production company and an artist?
It has been very difficult for me to strike a balance between
my various roles, and sometimes I don't. My poor children
sometimes don't see me. If I come back from a casting, for
example as I did yesterday, and I have an idea or my writing, supper
will be on the table, and I'll say to their Dad ‘Please
sit with the children while I go and write' and by the time
I come down they've gone to bed. So that's really very
sad. But I try to explain to them what's going on and I talk
to them about my work. I think they understand that this is what
mum does, this is who she is, and they appreciate it. What has enabled
me to continue with that kind of lifestyle, which is not striking
a balance, is the support of my husband. If I do say I can't
sit down with the children, he will sit down with them. If I say
I'm getting up in the morning because I want to write something,
he will take the children to school and bring them back. I'm
extremely blessed by God in having a partner who understands. That's
partly because he's an artist himself. He's a very experienced
and acclaimed editor who has edited programmes all over the world.
I have been lucky. That's what I would say. It's not
anything that I have done that has enabled any balance to be established,
because I would say that generally artists are not extremely balanced.
I have been fortunate in the sense that when I am not acting as
an artist, I am able to act in other ways, I've learnt other
skills also. But, when it comes to actually being the artist, it's
impossible to be balanced. You've got to be able to unhinge
to let all those things out. How can you be balanced at the moment
of unhinging? But I'm very happy to say I've learnt
the other skills of getting the hinges back together and saying
ok now we're in administrative mode or whatever.
do you feel is the role of women in Africa today?
I feel that women in Africa have a role to live. They have
a role to be happy. They have a role to interact with the people
around them, in ways that also contribute to the wellbeing and happiness
of the people around them, reciprocally, not only in a sacrificial
way. I think we have a role to the planet. We have to understand
that our behaviours are going to affect the legacy of this earth
that we leave for our children. But I think that those are roles
that everybody everywhere has. I do not see why, because I am African,
my role in this world should be different from anyone else's.
Personally I don't.
feel that having Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, as the first woman President
in Africa has advanced the cause of women on the continent?
I do think that people need role models. So to the extent
that we have President Sirleaf as the first woman President in Africa,
it is a good thing, because young women can look up to her and say
‘Gosh I could do that one day.' I think from that point
of view, it's very good. In the same way that now, young men
of colour can say ‘ I can be the President of the most Powerful
Nation in the world' at the present moment which we did not
have that kind of role model for, before. So that is positive. However,
we have to see how these people perform. And this is where again,
our role as the general society is important. If we see them performing
wrongly we have to say so, because these children, these young people
who are looking up to them, will understand that that this is something
great, but this might not have been so good and that might not have
been so good. So that the generations that are coming up can do
do you think women can do to bring about change?
There's one thing I think women can do to bring about
change. We can co-operate. Women and non-co-operation is one of
the biggest hindrances to our progress. Women don't like other
women. We mustn't blame ourselves for it. It's quite
normal, in any oppressed group, you will find that hate that causes
the oppression becomes internalised. So when you see somebody like
you, instead of saying this is wonderful thing that I must love,
you think this is an awful thing that I must destroy. This is my
prey. I think the women's organisations have to seriously
begin dealing with that fundamental human issue which is a women's
issue. You can have all the gender budgeting in the world, and we
can put millions of dollars into programmes for gender budgeting,
but if we do not understand why two women cannot work together in
an office and make something positive happen they're not going
to make it happen. So for me that is the starting point and this
again is why I believe that my calling has been to the arts where
one can interrogate those kinds of issues.
have any words of advice for upcoming women writers or filmmakers?
Absolutely. Go for it. Just do it. To write, you need a
pencil, and you need some paper. It could be any paper. So go for
it. Maybe you want to write a novel, but maybe you don't have
the time, write a poem, write a short story. Just get on with it.
Talk to other people, read as much as you can, investigate yourself.
Where is this desire coming from, where is the voice coming from,
what is it actually saying to you? Or are you just writing because
you think this is glamorous. In my opinion if one writes for glamour
one might succeed. But I don't know where it has really happened.
You have to listen to yourself to know what is urging you on, and
when you're in touch with that aspect you just go for it.
Later on you
need to look for organisations where you can get the mentoring.
We have Women
Filmmakers of Zimbabwe, whose offices (5 Windemere Close, Helensvale)
are where we are having this interview. We are open to new member,
my commitment there, has been to offer skills training to young
women who the education system doesn't really cater for because
artists do think a bit differently to other people. So often artists
will not continue through the education system. So I wanted to offer
a space for those women. We have Zimbabwe Women Writers. We have
women who are in publishing like Endai Nyagura who is at NUST
University. We have so many women who are beginning to understand.
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