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14 September 2022

Tsitsi Dangarembga: “People started pointing fingers at me, saying ‘She’s a Western puppet!’”

The prize-winning novelist on colonialism, her family, and being tried in Zimbabwe for political protest.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

On 31 July 2020 Tsitsi Dangarembga and her friend Julie Barnes went onto the streets of Harare, Zimbabwe, to protest against government corruption. Dangarembga, a novelist and film-maker, carried a sign that read: “We want better. Reform our institutions.” The corruption they were protesting against is wide-ranging, she told me. “The enforced disappearances, the torture – sometimes people die of torture – the clampdown on opposition and on people who express any contrary ideas to the ruling party’s ideology.”

The demonstration was expected to be large, but just before it was due to take place President Emmerson Mnangagwa imposed tighter restrictions on public movement under the guise of reducing rising Covid-19 infections. “However, the constitution of Zimbabwe does confer the right to demonstrate, protest or petition the government peacefully,” Dangarembga said, and so she and Barnes, a journalist, went ahead.

Following the protest Dangarembga and Barnes were arrested, spent one night in prison, and then were released on bail. In September 2020 the pair were charged with intention to incite public violence and with breaking Covid-19 lockdown measures. The case has dragged on, with the trial beginning in May of this year.

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When we met in a hotel lounge in London in early September, 63-year-old Dangarembga was awaiting the verdict, due at the end of the month. She was in the city for an event to celebrate her new essay collection, Black and Female, and had spoken the previous evening at a bookshop in Bath.

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For the last two years she has existed as both an internationally successful author and the target of a criminal case. Just days before she was arrested in 2020, her novel This Mournable Body, the third part in the Nervous Conditions trilogy, was longlisted for the Booker Prize. It went on to be shortlisted.

“When I was longlisted, I was really happy,” said Dangarembga, who wore a black and white checked jacket, jeans and stylish cat-eye glasses. She spoke seriously. “I thought, ‘I’ve been working, as far as I’m concerned, very hard at my writing for decades, and it’s nice that there will be some recognition’ – because I really was living hand to mouth. And then the arrests came. There were people who immediately started pointing fingers at me: ‘She’s a Western puppet!’ ‘Look, she’s getting all these prizes now!’”

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The way the case has been prolonged, and that there has been so much publicity around it, “makes me feel that something is being engineered here”, she said. “It makes me think that a story is being constructed to show people that you may not transgress.” And who is constructing that story? “The government.”

Dangarembga was born in 1959 in Mutoko, in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Aged two she moved with her parents and older brother to England. Her mother, Susan, was the first black woman from her country to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and her father, Amon, would later become a headteacher. The couple had taken up scholarships to study for master’s degrees at University College, London, overseen by the British Colonial Office. Tsitsi travelled with her parents only as far as Dover; from there, the children were fostered by a white family while Susan and Amon pursued their studies.

When Dangarembga was six, she returned home with her parents and brother, but the time she had spent away – and the difficulties she faced adapting to life back in Rhodesia – altered her sense of self. 

That period in England “was the beginning of the discrepancies”, she said. Her parents “couldn’t have understood what cross-racial fostering would entail psychologically for a child”. But the impact was significant: “The sense of disorientation, the sense of having a part of me that knows something that other people don’t know. Writing Nervous Conditions was an attempt to put those things down so that other young girls could benefit from the kinds of affective knowledges, if you like, that I had. There were things that simply did not fit as well as other people seemed to have them fit.”

Until Zimbabwe became independent following a long war in 1980, Southern Rhodesia was a British colony. The opportunity offered to her parents to come to England was in effect an extension of imperial dominance. “There is not a day when I do not think about how colonisation ripped through my family,” Dangarembga writes in one of the essays in Black and Female, a sharp and profound collection of writing on “the wounds of empire”.

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She wrote Nervous Conditions during the 1980s, while she was studying at the University of Zimbabwe. The novel follows Tambudzai, a pre-independence teenager, who strives to pull herself out of poverty through education. But the best school she can attend is a convent institution run by white nuns, and her mother fears what will happen to her if she spends too much time with white people. In 1988 the book was picked up by the London-based Women’s Press and Dangarembga became the first black Zimbabwean woman to be published in English. Nervous Conditions was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989 and is now considered a landmark African work. Its sequel The Book of Not was published in 2006, followed by This Mournable Body in 2018 in the US, and in the UK two years later. She has also made a career writing for screen, including Neria (1991), the highest grossing Zimbabwean film ever.

Her work is political but she doesn’t see herself as an activist. “I’m a writer, and my subject matter is human beings. I look at myself as an engaged citizen.” In Zimbabwe, where “the economy is in a critical condition” and where “there is no literary industry anyway” – most of Dangarembga’s books are sold outside the country, and for most of her work she travels abroad – there are few ways she can engage in politics beyond taking to the streets. She has been invited to read at events in Zimbabwe “maybe four times” over the course of her 34-year career.

The country’s lack of a literary culture is intertwined with its colonial legacy. “Writing has been associated with education, which came into the country not even one-and-a-half centuries ago. Literature was commandeered, first by the colonialists and then by Zanu-PF [the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front, the party that has ruled since 1980].” This political hold over literature “has to be dismantled. I think we have to liberate the imagination, and then we will be able to take advantage of it.”

Dangarembga’s experience of the Zimbabwean court system has revealed to her how “the organs of the state function. Now I understand why people are reluctant to engage against the government. Many Zimbabweans think, ‘I’ve got so little to begin with; I can’t afford to begin to lose even a little bit of it.’”

Yet this realisation does not mean she has lost hope for her country, where she wants to remain and help bring about political change. “Because the government does not seem to have any interest in the well-being of the ordinary person, people are going to realise that even that little bit that they do have will be at stake soon. I think that realisation will push people to be more actively engaged.”

In the meantime Tsitsi Dangarembga awaits the outcome of her trial. “They will give whatever verdict they want to, so there’s nothing I can do,” she said, calmly. “My preference is obviously to be acquitted. But that is out of my control. I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, so I realise how power can play out in situations like that, and I’m thinking: ‘Well, at least I will keep my head.’”

“Black and Female” is published by Faber & Faber

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession