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Tsitsi Dangarembga’s trials of freedom

The Zimbabwean novelist is today admired worldwide, but hounded at home—and by the very regime whose postcolonial pathologies she has spent a lifetime documenting
July 19, 2021

During the past year, the Zimbabwean writer and activist Tsitsi Dangarembga has experienced a seesaw of possibility and reversal. Last July, in a dismaying twist of circumstance that readers of Dangarembga’s fiction might find familiar, she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for her novel This Mournable Body, and also arrested for allegedly inciting public violence after taking part in a peaceful anti-corruption protest in Harare. 

Nearly a year on, the case is nowhere near resolved, with constant postponements made to her court appearances. When I talk to Dangarembga over Zoom, she appears relaxed and—for the moment, at least—resigned to a troubling situation. This temporary easing of tension is due, she tells me, to a six-month fellowship she has been awarded by Stellenbosch University in South Africa’s Western Cape. “I’ve been here since January,” she says with delight, adding that in order to travel she had to obtain permission from the Zimbabwean authorities to relax her bail conditions. 

Dangarembga was born in 1959 in the small town of Mutoko, just over 100km from Harare (then called Salisbury), in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. In 1965, the white-minority government—emboldened by neighbouring apartheid South Africa—made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) and became the state of Rhodesia, which led to its isolation from the international community. For the next 15 years the ruling white powers were engaged in a bitter and bloody guerrilla war with black nationalists, which ended when independence was won for a new nation—the Republic of Zimbabwe—under the leadership of the initially popular Robert Mugabe. He would dominate it, with increasingly naked authoritarian rule, until he was deposed in 2017 at the age of 93. It might have been a moment for a fresh start, but those who toppled him were former allies complicit and well-schooled in his old tricks. 

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe inspects an honour guard upon his arrival to attend Heroes' Day commemorations in Harare 13 August 2007. Zimbabwe celebrated the day to commemorate heroes and heroines who died during the country's liberation struggle fr Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe inspects an honour guard upon his arrival to attend Heroes' Day commemorations in Harare 13 August 2007. Zimbabwe celebrated the day to commemorate heroes and heroines who died during the country's liberation struggle fr

Robert Mugabe inspects an honour guard in 2007. Photo: Desmond Kwande/ AFP via Getty Images

Dangarembga’s unsparing fiction tracks the pressures on one woman who lives through her country’s troubled colonial and postcolonial history: the unjust relations between white and black Africans as well as men and women, the hopes of liberation and the economic disaster of hyper-inflation in the 1990s, as well as the authoritarianism of Mugabe and his ilk. Of modern Zimbabwe, plagued by poor governance, corruption and economic inequality, Dangarembga says that “just surviving is very ingrained in this part of the world. We seem to have lost connection with the bigger values of life—joy, and peace…” 

“Quality of life discussions,” she continues, “have absolutely no place in the environment I live in.” And she traces this joyless modern reality directly back to British imperialism: “colonial government was a commercial enterprise from the very beginning, from 1890—not government for the citizens but for economic extraction.” Perhaps trumped-up charges grow almost naturally in the postcolonial soil because under the empire—in her words—“there were no notions of justice.” And what immediately followed it was even worse. “The UDI was a peculiar manifestation of statehood. In 1975 the Rhodesian government guaranteed indemnities for atrocities it committed during the armed struggle.” Hopes of anyone being held to account were extinguished. “People have been experiencing this post-traumatic syndrome for generations. And this is bound to have some effect. Obviously, people will develop a life that involves just coping while those who are able to do better simply leave. This is the reality of Zimbabwe.”

The publication of This Mournable Body, the final part of a trilogy of novels Dangarembga began writing in the 1980s, marked a triumph both of artistic endeavour and personal tenacity. A piercing and often satirical examination of gender, race and class, the books tell the story of the coming-of-age of Tambudzai Sigauke, or Tambu, a girl born into a poor black family in rural Rhodesia. The first book, Nervous Conditions (1988), follows Tambu’s fight for an education in a racial system designed to deny it to her, and was the first novel in the English language to be published by a black Zimbabwean woman. The book takes its title from Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s 1961 work on the dehumanising effects of colonisation: “the condition of native,” writes Sartre, “is a nervous condition.” 

Tambu’s educational trajectory continues in The Book of Not (2006), in which two polarised worlds co-exist within one country: the superficially pristine order of Tambu’s majority-white boarding school, the Young Ladies’ College of the Sacred Heart, and the surrounding violence of Zimbabwe’s war of independence. Tambu, who has overcome extreme obstacles to reach this pinnacle—at the age of eight she cultivated her own maize crop to raise her school fees—is almost crushed by the demeaning racial exclusion at her school, which renders her a non-person: an “I was not.”

This Mournable Body, which completes the cycle, arrived another dozen years later: 2018 in the US and, after a further delay, 2020 in the UK. (The long hiatuses between each novel are due in part to the author living outside Zimbabwe for extended periods of time, and also, importantly, the absence of a supportive publishing ecosystem in the UK.) Tambu, now in her late thirties, grapples with life as a conspicuously single woman in Harare, semi-estranged from her family, living first in a hostel and then a run-down boarding house. As becomes clear following an array of disturbing episodes, she is struggling to manage her increasingly fractured self. 

“Just surviving is very ingrained in Zimbabwe. We seem to have lost connection with the bigger values of life”

She has attained her hard-won education—but at what cost? She leaves her job at an advertising agency after her work is credited to white colleagues, much like in The Book of Not when her white classmate was awarded the school prize although Tambu’s exam results were better. Desperate for money, she briefly becomes a biology teacher—a stint that ends catastrophically after Tambu physically attacks her most promising student, in whom she sees so much of the potential of her former self. The girls Tambu instructs are preyed on at the school gates by rich older men, while the teachers take backhanders to turn a blind eye. “There is an establishment, a mainstream,” Dangarembga tells me, “and if one wants to survive in that system, one has to be complicit.” 

Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga (C) and a colleague Julie Barnes hold placards as they are arrested during an anti-corruption protest march along Borrowdale road, on July 31, 2020 in Harare. - Police in Zimbabwe arrested on July 31, 2020 internatio Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga (C) and a colleague Julie Barnes hold placards as they are arrested during an anti-corruption protest march along Borrowdale road, on July 31, 2020 in Harare. - Police in Zimbabwe arrested on July 31, 2020 internatio

Dangarembga being escorted into a police van for protesting against the government
last year. Photo: Zinyange Auntony/AFP via Getty Images

This casual corruption is part of the wider debasement of a post-independence Zimbabwe. This is a country ill-at-ease with itself and severely deprived, its pained psyche at times indistinguishable from that of Tambu: “you feel you are creeping up over the edge of a precipice and that this cliff beckons you,” she says, in the semi-accusatory voice used throughout the novel; “worse, that you have a secret desire to fall over its edge into oblivion and that there is no way to stop that fall because you are the precipice.”

Reading This Mournable Body as a standalone work is an intense experience: reading it alongside Dangarembga’s previous two books (both recently republished by Faber) is a revelation. The defiant first-person narrative of both Nervous Conditions (which opens with the uncompromising sentence “I was not sorry when my brother died”) and The Book of Not has been replaced by a shapeshifting second person—“you”—to mark Tambu’s disassociation from facets of herself. 

All three novels underwent a fraught journey to publication. Even after Nervous Conditions had become a staple of postcolonial literature courses, This Mournable Body was widely rejected by agents. She only found representation when she posted excerpts on Facebook in frustration. 

From the 1980s onwards, getting published has been “a mission in itself,” she tells me. “When I started writing, most of the literature coming out of the continent of Africa was written by men—Heinemann’s African Writers series had provided a platform for that kind of male voice that was coming out of Africa, really nothing that catered for female narratives.” Her original UK publisher, the Women’s Press, folded in the 1990s, which made it hard to release the sequel to Nervous Conditions. “I didn’t really have a mentoring hand in my work,” she says. 

Dangarembga is the daughter of teachers—her mother Susan was the first black Southern Rhodesian woman to obtain a university degree. Like her character Tambu, she was educated at a white-majority girls’ school, with a place that was dependent on her uncle’s largesse. Family hierarchies feature throughout her trilogy: Babamukuru, the younger brother of Tambu’s father, has been educated in England and supports the education of Tambu’s brother. That brother’s death from a case of mumps eventually facilitates Tambu’s own path to education.

A resentful obeisance to Babamukuru and his family, including to Tambu’s cousin Nyasha, runs throughout Nervous Conditions. The issue explodes in the traumatic opening chapter of The Book of Not, when Babamukuru is accused at a guerilla meeting of being a government informer. At the same meeting, Tambu’s sister has a leg accidentally blown off by a grenade. The severed limb, which attaches itself to a tree branch, becomes a symbol for the raging war of independence scarring the country. Tambu, for her part, simply wants to get away from the “primitive scene,” back to school and its illusory sense of continuity. 

Elements of Dangarembga’s own biography are blended into those of Tambu and her cousin Nyasha. Like Nyasha, Dangarembga spent part of her early childhood in England, where her parents obtained higher degrees; she returned in 1977, aged 18, to study medicine at Cambridge. Her three years there were not happy ones, and she returned home to take a degree in psychology with her country on the cusp of independence. After the publication of Nervous Conditions, she went on to study at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin, where she produced a number of her own films and met her German husband, Olaf. In 1992 she founded Nyerai Films, a production company based in Harare; in 2000 she and her husband and three children relocated to Zimbabwe. Her 2006 film Peretera Maneta received the Unesco Children’s and Human Rights Award and won the Zanzibar International Film Festival. Dangarembga is also the executive director of the organisation Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe and the founding director of the Women’s Film Festival of Harare.

“From the 1980s and very often since, getting published has been ‘a mission in itself’ for Dangarembga”

Though This Mournable Body is set in the 1990s, the way Tambu is constantly thwarted is symptomatic of an ongoing ennui, I suggest. Dangarembga agrees. “Rebellion takes a lot of energy, especially when it is not fed. Especially when your family at home is destitute and there’s nothing you can do to help. In Zimbabwe people opt on the side of what they call pragmatism—but how pragmatism works when it leads to state collapse is something else, and here human beings have been turned into commodities at the service of the state.” 

“With Tambu,” she tells me, “I wanted to create a character who was very close to the bottom psychologically, but who also had an awareness of all these issues in order to be able to represent them. I didn’t want to write a naive character—people within Zimbabwe and Africa itself tend to shy away from the complexities of Africa. But without embracing those complexities we here cannot hope to move forward. So I wanted to reset them in a way that people can engage with them and begin to understand.” She sighs. “The struggle [for independence] had its own pedagogy as well—and I feel that that intellectual lacuna has not actually been addressed in substance”—a gap that Dangarembga parallels in the very different attitudes of Tambu and Nyasha. In The Book of Not, Nyasha immerses herself in African writing, while in order to succeed at school Tambu applies herself to the white literary canon. 

This Mournable Body culminates in an apogee of sorts for Tambu. Having had a spell in a psychiatric hospital, she accepts for pragmatic reasons the offer of a job on an eco-tourism project from Tracey, her white former classmate, which involves returning to her home village. “Your umbilical cord is buried on the homestead,” she writes, “in the empty space that widens within at every step, you feel it tugging.” Still, for a variety of reasons, the old power dynamics between white and black remain. And yet the novel does not end entirely without hope. 

So will there be a fourth book following Tambu and Nyasha? It seems not. “After Nervous Conditions, I realised I would probably have to do more for those two young women,” laughs Dangarembga. “My goal was to get both of them into a sustainable life… I think I’ve done that, and I really had to turn myself inside out to do that for both of them, so I’m just so happy to leave them there now.” 

Since the Booker nomination, Dangarembga has seen her star rise on the world stage. Last September she was appointed international professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia; earlier this year she won the PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression for her work which “centres on the lack of freedoms for women in Zimbabwe’s patriarchal world”; and then in June it was announced she would receive the prestigious PEN Pinter Prize. And yet still the shadow of her much-postponed trial hangs over her achievements. 

I ask Dangarembga what her feelings are towards the trilogy now? “It really is wonderful that finally, after more than three decades, there is so much recognition and appreciation of the work… in terms of understanding who Zimbabweans are, what they’re going through and how we come to be where we are,” she says. “The Book of Not is timely now because we’re in a situation where people are aware of systemic racism, and it is a conversation being had in most countries in the world. We’re talking about decoloniality, so I think it is a moment.” She adds that “it takes time for some issues to become topics in public discourse. This trilogy interrogates that in a way which is accessible and which ordinary people who are not academics can understand.”