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An interview with Tsitsi Dangarembga
Thien, Brick Magazine Issue 91
In 1988, at the age of twenty-eight, Tsitsi Dangarembga published
her first novel, Nervous Conditions. Immediately acclaimed by Alice
Walker and Doris Lessing, the book has come to be considered one
of Africa’s most important novels of the twentieth century.
Lessing wrote: “This is the novel we have all been waiting
for . . . it will become a classic.” Set in Rhodesia in the
1960s, almost twenty years before Zimbabwe won independence and
ended white minority rule, the novel’s heroine, Tambudzai
Sigauke, embarks on her education. On her shoulders rest the economic
hopes of her parents, siblings, and extended family, and within
her burns the desire for “personhood,” to no longer
be part of such an “undistinguished humanity.” Nervous
Conditions borrows its title from Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction
to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, in which Sartre
evokes the “disassociated self” created by colonialism:
“Our enemy betrays his brothers and becomes our accomplice;
his brothers do the same thing. The status of ‘native’
is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler
among colonized people with their consent.”
was the first book in what would become a trilogy. However, eighteen
years would pass before Dangarembga published her second novel,
The Book of Not. With its searing observations, devastating exploration
of the state of “not being,” wicked humour, and astonishing
immersion into the mind of a young woman growing up and growing
old before her time, the novel is a masterpiece. Dangarembga is
almost alone in mining the psychological “nervous condition”
in African women and the relationship between this troubled inner
landscape and the current crisis in contemporary Zimbabwe. In the
last decades, she has chosen film as her medium and founded the
International Images Film Festival for Women in Zimbabwe, which
is now in its twelfth year. In 2006, the Independent named Dangarembga
one of the fifty greatest artists shaping the African continent.
Last year, she completed the final book, Chronicle of an Indomitable
Daughter, which will be published in Zimbabwe in 2013.
I first met
Tsitsi Dangarembga in Nigeria in 2010, where we taught a workshop
organized by Helon Habila. Habila had never met Dangarembga before,
but he told me that his experience of reading Nervous Conditions
decades ago had marked and changed him. When I met Tsitsi, Zimbabwe
was moving forward from a disastrous
2008 election that saw the opposition Movement for Democratic
Change pull out of the second round of the presidential vote in
the wake of widespread and horrific violence. At the same time,
the economy had collapsed: between 2007 and 2008, the rate of inflation
was seven sextillion percent. As much of the world knows, a power-sharing
agreement was reached between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai
in 2008, and Zimbabwe retreated from the news headlines. In the
fall of 2012, Tsitsi invited me to come and teach in Harare. She
envisioned a workshop called Breaking the Silence, which would gather
testimonies from across Zimbabwe on political and domestic violence.
These testimonies, which could be submitted anonymously, would form
the basis of our reading material. Any Zimbabwean interested in
writing could come into the workshop, read the collected testimonies,
and, informed by these stories (more than one hundred were collected),
write fiction. Tsitsi asked these writers to think not only about
the victims but also about the lives and histories of the perpetrators.
She also asked each of us to consider our own acts of violence or
aggression, including instances when we used our authority or status
for purposes of intimidation or personal gain. She wanted writers
to claim these stories, wrestle with and interrogate them, and,
finally, bring them back to the communities from which they came.
As someone from outside, I did not know if what Tsitsi imagined
was possible; I must admit, I was stunned and moved to find that
We had this
conversation in early December 2012, on the balcony of Tsitsi’s
home in Harare, at sunset, just before I caught my flight home.
I wanted to ask you about the few years you spent overseas in the
1960s, when you were a child. Outside of Rhodesia and white minority
rule, what was it like?
Yes. I’m wondering about your first experience of race.
The racism in England was not so institutionalized. Well, it was
institutionalized, but then it was so efficiently realized that
it didn’t need institutions, if you understand what I mean.
In England, it was much easier notto be affected by it to that extent
because my parents were students and people were somewhat respectful.
Thien: And you
were six when you returned to Rhodesia.
Coming back here . . . you know, it was such a shock. Everywhere
we’d been before, my parents were so well respected. But in
Rhodesia, the fact that we were black meant that once we walked
into that society, all of that meant nothing. It was really a blow.
You might actually
say that white people in this part of the world were so insecure,
I suppose about having so many black people around, that they had
to make their institutions into very obvious apartheid structures.
But the whole internalized attitude, that’s been going on
for centuries, these are attitudes that we have.
It was very
interesting for me to have a character like Tambudzai, who understands
the lack of respect because of poverty but not because of blackness.
When she is taken into her uncle’s house, she feels everything
is now okay because the poverty factor is no longer effective. Then
she moves into the school [the elite Young Ladies’ College
of the Sacred Heart, a convent school attended by mostly white students],
where she’s doing everything as well as everyone else. The
only issue is her blackness. She has an experience, a different
kind of movement, into that position. Because if you have always
been aware of racism, I think that you develop ways of dealing with
it. I think it was Ama Ata Aidoo who said she didn’t even
know there was such a thing as racism until she came to Germany.
That’s where she learned she was black. So it was a bit the
same for Tambudzai. She knew she was poor, and she knew she was
uneducated because she could see the poverty of her home and she
could see the differences with her relatives who were educated.
But then she had to learn that she was black.
Thien: Yet Nervous
Conditions begins as a very hopeful book. Does this hope come because
she sees her freedom in relatively straightforward terms, that education
will equal emancipation?
Tambudzai starts off as a typical gifted child. She achieves a lot
through her own initiative, and she sees the world as an arena in
which she can act and succeed, no matter what comes. In a childish
way, she thinks of herself as a kind of superwoman, but she cannot
succeed on those terms because there never has been such a person,
there has never been a superman or a superwoman. Sometimes what
one perceives as freedom binds you more tightly.
There was so
much invested during the Rhodesian era in educating Africans only
up to a certain level and for certain tasks. An illusion had to
be created, however, that there was some sort of mobility and fairness
in the system. People like Tambudzai were swept up in that illusion.
She had to find her own painful way out of it.
Thien: At the
beginning, she also looks for freedom through selfhood, and the
concept of unhu. The traditional greeting is “How are you?”
“I am well if you are well too.” Can you describe unhu?
This is a very interesting concept. In South Africa, ubuntu is exactly
the same kind of philosophy, which is “I am because you are”
or “I am because we are.” This is the kind of philosophy
that used to bind villages and communities together until other
forces interrupted those communities. So now I feel that this idea
of “I am because you are”-meaning there is no great
difference between you and me, so if you need something I can give
it to you because I know you’re just like me, and when I need
it you will also give it to me-has been disconnected from its material,
physical base because of the way the world has progressed. Yet people
retain the psychological emotion of it. So here we have a whole
nation of Zimbabweans thinking we’re so wonderful because
we have this unhu. We believe in “I am because we are,”
and certainly, symbolically, we know that’s part of our framework
and our reference, but on the ground it’s not happening anymore
because all the conditions have changed and do not support that
notion. And so this is why there is so much questioning in that
book. Is this really the unhu that I believe in, that I came from?
People are not behaving in that way anymore. Tambudzai does not
resolve it for herself, but I think that there is a kind of a metanarrative
there that shows the complexities, that actually the society has
moved away from unhu even if they think they haven’t.
Thien: I was
fascinated by the idea that personhood, or wholeness, requires reciprocity.
But unhu was completely incompatible with the Rhodesian political
structure, wasn’t it?
Absolutely, I would say so. But I would not only say that it’s
not reciprocated. For sure, when you come out of the confines of
a society that had unhu, you kind of expect to find it elsewhere,
which was baffling to Tambudzai in the beginning. But also, once
you’ve gone outside and you’ve come back, the question
is, do you also experience that from your own people? Or will they
now see you as somebody outside the whole unhu construct? I feel
that she has become an outsider, especially with her mother. You
know, the mother should have been really happy for her daughter,
and then that relation would have been reciprocal. But then Tambudzai
is denied the comforts of home, and the mother is also denied the
benefits of associating with a daughter who has some education and
some access to the exterior world. Even if the construct doesn’t
transfer outside, does it persist when the person comes back? If
not, then the person coming back also becomes part of the fragmentation,
as we see in the third book.
Thien: In the end, the pragmatic ones who accept
the status quo, which is white rule, seem to flourish. Halfway through
the trilogy, Tambu has refused to accept society as it is, and she
nearly loses herself. Why?
When I write, I try not to put messages in but to say, Are we here
or are we there? You’ll find people who are willing to accept
what happens at the advertising agency, thinking, Well okay, the
money I’m getting is better than sweeping floors somewhere.
So they protect their position. And then there are the type of people
who will talk about it at parties or when they’re with their
friends and just shake their heads and laugh. But can that be said
to be emancipation? It’s this internalization of your own
inferiority that Tambudzai has to struggle against. The question
becomes, Do you identify with the sector of society that has money
and business opportunities? That’s what people aspired to
before. Or do you identify with other women like yourself? Where
do you place yourself?
I realize that
creative women often do not fit easily into certain paradigms. I
think to myself, Then where do they go? Where do they go? Because
I feel that these women have so much to contribute, that they just
see things in a different way. Every society has people like that
and marginalizes them in some way. So it’s a very difficult
Thien: Can I
detour here and ask how you left medicine? You were at Cambridge
and you came home and went in an entirely different direction.
I’d been studying psychology at the University of Zimbabwe,
and I became involved in the drama club there and did a couple films.
I started writing seriously, plays and prose, and I just felt that
was really my niche. I was studying industrial psychology at the
time I was seriously writing, but I realized it was going to be
a struggle to make a living out of writing. So I thought, Okay,
what other things can I do that are still within narrative and dealing
with powerful subjects and putting ideas out there? I began to see
the usefulness of film in a country like Zimbabwe. We boast about
an 80 percent literacy rate. But if even you’re literate,
which means you can fill in a form, it doesn’t mean you can
read a piece of literature and understand what’s going on.
So it seemed to me that film was also a very important medium for
telling the stories that I felt needed to be told.
Thien: But why
turn to film at the moment when you had such enormous international
success with Nervous Conditions?
Oh, Nervous Conditions was not so successful in the beginning. I
finished it in 1984 and tried to have it published here, but most
of the publishing houses at that time had young black men who had
been outside the country writing and then came back and became the
editors. When I submitted Nervous Conditions they would never give
it respect. I realized they would never engage with a voice like
Yes, it took me four years.
Thien: So it
was published outside first, in 1988?
Yes, the Women’s Press. I actually didn’t know it was
going to be published. So I thought, Let me try to do something
you already in film school in Berlin?
I’d applied and been accepted. So when I got that letter I
thought, I’m not going to lose this chance. I’m going
to take it. Then what happened is that there was this huge conflict
between the amount of work I was doing in film and in prose. But
I just had to do the work together.
was the conflict?
They were just completely different. The skills I had learned for
prose didn’t work in film. Those telling details, they’re
completely different. Or the fact of these inner monologues in which
you can write a whole book. Whereas prose is teasing out, film is
stripping down, concentrating and compacting. I found I could not
learn the one while doing the other. So it was a big struggle, actually.
It took me years.
Thien: So The
Book of Not was put aside.
Yes, because I found I couldn’t do the two. Now that I feel
I’m proficient in both, it seems to be working. But at the
time, I really felt that I could not write The Book of Not while
I was learning how to speak in film language.
years, though! How could you keep Tambudzai quiet?
Oh, my goodness! She was hopping mad. But you know, the point is,
about the war and the racism, Nervous Conditionsends just as the
war intensifies, 1977. So it was a very difficult thing to want
to allow Tambudzai to talk. Because what she had to say is what
happens in The Book of Not, and it wasn’t something that I
thought at that time would be useful. I thought that with the kinds
of divisions we had, it might be more inflammatory than anything
else. The war might have brought us a little nearer to where we
think we want to be as a people, but what did it consist of? It
consisted of lies, forced abductions, horrible brutality on both
sides, and treachery even within families. Afterwards it was just,
Let’s forget, that’s all behind us. We had slogans like
“This is the year of the people’s transformation.”
I was young. I believed it.
So I think it
was actually quite good for me to have something else to do at the
time. It was only when other conflicts began again at the end of
the 1990s that I thought, Tambu has this story to tell that is actually
appropriate for what’s happening.
Thien: In what
way was it appropriate?
Because at the end of the 1990s, the whole land issue came up in
Zimbabwe. We were looking at about 80 percent of the land being
owned by about 20 percent of the population, which brought back
the issues of racism, imbalance, and inequality. Zimbabwe had simply
pretended 1890 to 1980 hadn’t happened, and many people had
gone on with the same prejudices as before. It all came up again.
And that’s exactly what Tambudzai was experiencing after Nervous
Conditions. What resurfaced in the 1990s was in accordance with
what she went through. And so, at that time when the villagers were
assembling and organizing themselves into battalions that were going
out into farms, I felt it was appropriate to look at those issues
of race and who owns what and who has the power to bequeath what
to whom in a fairly innocuous story of a young girl at school. You
know, a kind of, “If you have ears to hear, then you will
has so much anger but not against the system itself. It all goes
inward. Do you think it’s her own personhood that disturbs
You know, this idea of the happy African is something I really wanted
to interrogate. Because if someone smiles at you it does not mean
they’re happy. It just means “I think that if I smile
I might get out of this alive!” And so I wanted to look into
this notion of the happy African. Who is this person you are saying
is the happy African? Is this person really happy? And if this person
is not happy, then what is likely to be happening in this person’s
life? Is this smiling, this being so complicit with the system,
going to benefit society in the long run? And, of course, from my
perspective as the writer, I thought not. But it was also important
for me not to write an obvious kind of situation where black people
are angry with white people because that doesn’t get us anywhere
either. It was much more important for me to try to show to people
what is happening to individuals within a certain system, and to
hope that, after hearing this, people will understand, and maybe
their conscience will become a little more open to things they were
not open to before.
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