Cover Story: How Tsitsi Dangarembga, with Her Trilogy of Zimbabwe, Overcame

Her debut novel, Nervous Conditions, is a modern classic, and after The Book of Not, she concludes Tambu’s story with the Booker Prize-shortlisted This Mournable Body. But the literary and film icon never planned for these to take almost four decades.
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Tsitsi Dangarembga.

Tsitsi Dangarembga.

Tsitsi Dangarembga was studying psychology at the University of Zimbabwe when she first opened Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple. It was 1983 and she was 25. She had just completed a slim manuscript of the novel that would become Nervous Conditions, written in-between plays for the school’s drama club. It is the story of a young Shona woman, Tambudzai Sigauke, the eldest of four daughters growing up in ’60s and ’70s Southern Rhodesia before the country (after name changes) gained independence from Britain and became Zimbabwe; and Dangarembga had chosen to start it with an unsettling line that would eventually become classic: I was not sorry when my brother died.

At the time, no Zimbabwean woman had published a novel in English; the publishing presses were closed to women, catering instead to the male names: Dambudzo Marechera, Charles Mungoshi, Chenjerai Hove, Shimmer Chinodya, Stanley Nyamfukudza. Not even the pedigree of her mother Susan Dangarembga being the first Black woman in the country to obtain a bachelor’s degree sufficed. With no hope at home, Dangarembga decided to mail her manuscript to the publisher of The Color Purple, a small London company called The Women’s Press.

Three years passed and Dangarembga didn’t hear back, and the fourth year, she happened to visit London. “I was not really thinking of the manuscript,” she recalls. “I thought their not responding was rejection. I didn’t think I wanted to go and hear that.”

Tsitsi Dangarembga is on the December 2020 cover of Open Country Mag.
Tsitsi Dangarembga is on the December 2020 cover of Open Country Mag.

But she went to The Women’s Press’ office, and the editor, Ros de Lanerolle, a White South African anti-Apartheid activist who was now a leader in the rise of feminist presses, told her that the manuscript was in the basement. They struck a deal, and, in 1988, The Women’s Press published Nervous Conditions.

“Many good novels written by men have come out of Africa, but few by Black women,” wrote the British Zimbabwean novelist Doris Lessing upon its publication. “This is the novel we have been waiting for. It will become a classic.” Another early appreciator was the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, whose Things Fall Apart, published 30 years earlier, had similarly been mailed to Heinemann in London, where it was left in a corner until his colleague visited to ask about it. There was, Dangarembga would find out, a peculiar burden for pioneers.

In 1989, Nervous Conditions won the Commonwealth Best Book Prize for Africa Region. That year, The Seal Press published it in the US, with a blurb from Alice Walker, who called it “an expression of liberation not to be missed.” The positive reception helped the novel onto reading lists at African, British, and American universities. A new generation of Zimbabwean, African, and Black women grew up citing it as a formative influence.

In 2002, it ranked in the top 10 of the epochal “Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century” project. In 2018, on its 30th anniversary, the novel’s place in the postcolonial literary canon was consolidated when the BBC named it among “The 100 Stories That Shaped the World.”

Tsitsi Dangarembga in Berlin, in 1989. From Tsitsi Dangarembga.
Tsitsi Dangarembga in Berlin, in 1989. From Tsitsi Dangarembga.

“I did not think that Nervous Conditions was such a success at all,” Dangarembga tells me from Harare, on our Zoom call in early December, after I ask if she felt left behind by the book’s success. A year after she mailed it out, she placed second in a Swedish short story competition, which then failed to give her exposure. In that despair, and with silence from London, she’d decided that writing “was not a career path that was open to me. I’d given up attempts to be active in the world of literature.”

By the time Nervous Conditions came out, Dangaremgba had left Zimbabwe and was living in Berlin, attending the German Film and Television Academy. “It was very positive for me,” she recalls. “I was not a shining star in the area of film. I had time to learn. After the book was published, I began to reconnect with the literary world. If I had remained in Zimbabwe, being the only woman, it would have been isolating. The dangers of that were great.”

But reconnecting, as a debut novelist, proved tricky. It was 1989 and she was young, 29, Black, African, and a woman, which meant that, despite her Commonwealth Prize, she was stepping into a vortex of disappointment.

“In the ’90s, the whole idea of youth had not begun,” Dangarembga says. “When I was young, the focus was on the canon and what’s older. Now that I’m older, the focus has shifted to what is new, what is fresh. I think that is good. If I’d had that when I was younger, it would have been positive for me.”

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The openings she had were invitations from the African Literature Association (ALA), whose African American members, she says, “realized it was necessary to support young writers.”

She agrees that “gender was definitely part of it. It affected women regardless of other demographics of age, race, nationality. Without feminist presses, the work of women won’t be published.”

Tsitsi Dangarembga's debut novel, Nervous Conditions. Credit: AbeBooks.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s debut novel, Nervous Conditions. Credit: AbeBooks.

And so she was shocked, a few years later, to receive a weird update about her book. “Someone left The Women’s Press and wrote to me and said: ‘Tsitsi, they’ve been sending you royalties but they haven’t been sending you all your money at all.’ It turned out that tens of thousands of pounds had not been paid to me, tens of thousands of British pounds. They had also violated our terms of contract. They were supposed to get my permission to do other language editions and they hadn’t even informed me.”

A UK-based lawyer represented her pro bono. “For some time, they paid some sum, then they wrote and said, ‘Sorry, we can’t continue to pay,’ and that was it,” she says. “The royalties augmented my student grant in Germany. But the size was definitely not enough to tell me my book was a runaway success. There was nothing to tell me my book was a success.”

(In the mid ’90s, The Women’s Press was struggling from both the UK’s economic recession and internal disagreements over its creative direction, eventually going out of business by 2002. Ros de Lanerolle died in 1993.)

Later, Dangarembga tells me, “I didn’t think myself a success; I thought myself a woman struggling to learn to make films.”

There were 18 years between Nervous Conditions and its sequel, 2006’s The Book of Not. (Ros de Lanarolle suggested that it be written.) After The Women’s Press’ issue, Dangarembga focused on film, the Zollywood industry back home. Her first script, 1993’s Neria, produced by an American company, remains the highest grossing film by a Zimbabwean. With 1996’s Everybody’s Child, reviewed in Vanity Fair, she became her country’s first female film director. “It was difficult learning to do film as a black person, which is more difficult than in literature,” she says.

At the turn of the new millennium, Dangarembga returned to Zimbabwe and continued curating film spaces for women. She merged her Nyerai Films (founded in 1992) and Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe (WFOZ, 1996), both of which collaborate on the International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF, 2002), into the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa (ICAPA, 2009), where she is Director. (The IIFF, Sub-Saharan Africa’s only film festival for women, has been held 11 times.)

Literature returned calling in 2004 when a small publisher, Becky Clarke of Ayebia Clarke Publishing, approached Dangarembga for the rights to republish Nervous Conditions, which had gone out of print. They discussed the sequel and she, now a mother of three in want of time and energy, started writing.

Tsitsi Dangarembga's second novel, The Book of Not. Credit: @DrMJFrancis on Twitter.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s second novel, The Book of Not. Credit: @DrMJFrancis on Twitter.

In the ’70s-set The Book of Not, Tambu attends the Young Ladies’ College of the Sacred Heart, run by nuns whose sense of charity includes admitting five Black Africans. Racial and class uneasiness unfold with the nationalist war of independence as backdrop, with guerilla warfare that costs her sister a leg. Her cousin Nyasha, so present a force in Nervous Conditions, leaves for England. As Tambu realizes the determination of racism, “the depth of the agony is palpable,” writes the Zimbabwean journalist Percy Zvomuya in his Mail & Guardian review, “much like in the Afro-American novel of the 20th century.”

For a sequel to a major novel, The Book of Not’s arrival passed quietly.

In 2020, dissatisfied for the second time in her literary career, Dangarembga would leave Ayebia Clarke Publishing. She would announce plans to seek legal representation over rights to her work.

By the time BBC Culture ranked Nervous Conditions the 66th top fictional “story that shaped the world,” in 2018, the most acclaimed writers from Zimbabwe, as from the entire continent, were now women. Yvonne Vera had come and gone and left novels of poetic force and historical engagement: Under the Tongue, Butterfly Burning, The Stone Virgins. Petina Gappah had two story collections, An Elegy for Easterly and Rotten Row, and a novel, The Book of Memory. NoViolet Bulawayo’s 2013 debut, We Need New Names, made her the first Black African woman and first Zimbabwean to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. And Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, with the collection Shadows and the novel House of Stone, and Panashe Chigumadzi, with the novel Sweet Medicine and the nonfiction These Bones Will Rise Again, were rising, too.

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Beyond Zimbabwe, Dangarembga was also being acknowledged as a door-opener: Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie quoted the novel in a 2010 talk and Uganda’s Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi said it influenced her.

During these years, Dangarembga, away from the literary scene, worked on the last book in the trilogy. It would continue the story of Tambu as a woman reeling from regret. She would set in the ’90s, in freedom fighter-turned-lifelong ruler Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, a country that had failed to ascend, that was yet to transcend its issues with women. It would show the capital city Harare, Sunshine City, now “Shadow City,” in all its energy. Importantly, it would be told in the second person, distancing Tambu from the woman she has become. It would be a sequel that wouldn’t rely on its prequels.

An artist open to influences, Dangarembga had read an essay by the Nigerian writer Teju Cole, titled “Unmournable Bodies,” about the terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and she decided she would invert the idea and name her book: This Mournable Body. (Nervous Conditions had also been named from elsewhere: a line in Jean-Paul Satre’s introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth: “The status of the ‘native’ is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among the colonized people with their consent.”)

But Dangarembga had no publisher, no agent, little else in literature beyond a name that hadn’t gone as far as her book. “I was writing into the void not knowing whether it was good or bad,” she tells me. “I didn’t know people who could give me professional feedback. I started putting excerpts on Facebook, in desperation, to know if people resonated with it.”

One evening, “probably 2014,” Dangarembga got a Facebook message from the editor Ellah Wakatama. Like her, Wakatama is Zimbabwean, but was also an influential presence in British publishing, a former editor at Granta and Jonathan Cape. Wakatama asked to see the full manuscript. Soon, she was shopping it around her network, and an agent picked interest, and Graywolf Press picked US rights.

“It was the first time I had a Zimbabwean editor appreciating my work and wanting to craft it with me,” Dangarembga says. “It really was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.”

Then one morning in July of this year, Dangarembga was in her sitting-room in Harare, doing some research, and Louisa Joyner, from her British publisher Faber & Faber, called with news. This Mournable Body had been longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.

Tsitsi Dangarembga's third, Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, This Mournable Body. Credit: The Booker Prize.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s third, Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, This Mournable Body. Credit: The Booker Prize.

Upon the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist, the big news in the UK was about another trilogy-concluding novel: the absence of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light. But in African literary circles, it was that, for the first time, two African women had been shortlisted. The other was Ethiopia’s Maaza Mengiste, for her The Shadow King, both of them being the only non-debut novelists, with Dangarembga the only non-American finalist. The judges were calling the novel Dangarembga wrote in a void “arresting,” hailing how it “drew an immediate reaction like a sharp intake of breath from all of us.”

Faber released it in paperback and acquired the entire trilogy for reissue. “To read the opening chapters of This Mournable Body is to know you are in the presence of greatness,” said Louisa Joyner in the announcement. “The shock to us all should be that a writer of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s stature and critical reception is not already as familiar a name in our industry as Hilary Mantel or Julian Barnes.” Writing in New Statesman, the English critic Leo Robson described Dangarembga as “one of the most remarkable authors the Booker Prize has ever celebrated.”

In her statement, Dangarembga wrote: “Success which comes later in life is a beautiful, mellow blessing.” Even though she tells me now that the books “are out, living their own lives, I cannot take that as a personal accolade,” she admits that the doors are now firmly open, 32 years after her first book, 36 years after she began knocking.

Zimbabwe’s 40th independence anniversary, this year, was not the celebration it could have been. Two years before, the country had experienced “the coup that was not a coup”: the resignation of Robert Mugabe, after 30 years as president, and his succession by his vice president Ernest Mnangagwa. In July, there were calls for protest. Three days after being longlisted for the Booker, Dangarembga went out to the streets in Harare to protest and was arrested. The incident raised international dust, with writers signing on to solidarity letters and PEN International calling for her release. Since her release on bail, she has been to court five times without the judge showing up.

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Across the African continent, there are similar stories of unrest: Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests, Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis, Ethiopia’s movement towards civil war. I ask Dangarembga what she would tell young people. (Her full, 10-minute response is published as a separate feature.)

“I do feel that young people have been hard done by forgoing generations and definitely on the continent,” she says. “The way education is structured now is to reproduce more of those kinds of beings who mortgage the wellbeing of all to baser instincts. Young people need to understand that what they do has impact. And so they have choices about how they are going to impact the world they are going to live in beyond most of us of my generation. And I would urge young people to choose wisely.”

In September, the University of East Anglia appointed Dangarembga the International Chair of its Creative Writing Program. This month, New African named her on its annual list of “The 100 Most Influential Africans.” And last week, The Continent named her one of its “Africans of the Year.”

“For more than 30 years, she has been quietly changing the world,” writes Maaza Mengiste in tribute. “Who will stay and fight, she has asked in interviews, if all of us leave? She deepens our capacity to envision a world where a step is just a step.”

Dangarembga has told The Guardian: “My work so far has been about pain. Until very recently, admitting to feeling any pain that is not clearly physical was an admission of weakness in my culture.”

Now she tells me how the books she read growing up helped shape her to be rooted, to be free. Camara Laye’s The African Child was “the first time I saw an African girl being the protagonist—it was like being in a bath of warm water. I could feel it was different then but I didn’t quite know why until in hindsight.”

Camara Laye, she says, showed her that “self could be confronted and produced in literature.” Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in A Grain of Wheat, showed her that “self is bound up with history and power, and Thomas Hardy showed me that self is bound up with place.” But she did not fully awaken her internal confrontation until university, until she encountered the defiantly loving voices of African American women: Walker’s The Color Purple and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and, later, the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aiddo.

Like Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not, the heart of This Mournable Body is the relationships among its women: Tambu’s with her aunt Lucia, a veteran of the Liberation War; with her cousin Nyasha, returned from Europe to run a workshop; and her mother, before whom she painfully comes to face her reality. Dangarembga’s depiction of women holding each other up would, I suspect, anchor her work-in-progress, a YA dystopian novel titled “Sai-Sai and the Great Ancestor of Fire.”

Having been the only woman in the room for so long, in both literature and film, Dangarembga makes a natural point: “The way the world is structured makes it very difficult for women to be nurturing to each other. The temptation is to fall in with patriarchal expectations in order to be rewarded by the patriarchy. That often involves neglecting and actively disadvantaging other women.”

She pauses, as she often did all through her answers, like a moonlight storyteller with full trust in her words.

“But we have women who understand these things and say, nevertheless, this is what I’m going to do. It’s been a long journey for me to find women nurturing my career. Ellah Wakatama. Fiona Mattray at Graywolf. Louisa Joyce at Faber. I feel I am there now.”

More Big Stories from Open Country Mag

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— Nigerian Literature Needed Editors. Two Women Stepped in To Groom Them

— Hannah Chukwu’s Call to Help Uplift Unheard Voices

— How Lanaire Aderemi Adapted Women’s Resistance into Art

Otosirieze Obi-Young
Otosirieze Obi-Young is the founder and editor of Open Country Mag. He is a writer, culture journalist, curator, former academic, and media consultant. Until recently, he was editor of Folio Nigeria, CNN’s exclusive media affiliate in Africa, where he profiled innovators in over 20 fields, including art, music, tech, sports, cuisine, fashion, beauty, health, and activism. He sat on the judging panel of The Morland Scholarship, a British grant for African writers, and currently chairs the panel of The Gerald Kraak Prize, a South African initiative for storytelling about gender, sexuality, and social justice. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review and Transition. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among “The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians” by Avance Media. Website: otosirieze.com.
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