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How can you be balanced at the moment of unhinging? Interview with Tsitsi Dangarembga
Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa,
August 05, 2009

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Tsitsi DangarembgaIn your stories and films the protagonist is always female. Why is this so?
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.

Do you 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.

As a storyteller, have you felt that your way of story telling has evolved over time?
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. Listen

What 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. Listen

Talking about 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.' Listen

Would 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.

How 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. Listen

As a woman, what challenges did you face in establishing your production company?
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.

Of the 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.

In a 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.

Do you 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.

What 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.

As a 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.

What 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.

Do you 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 even better.

What 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. Listen

Do you 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. Listen

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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