Life & Times Interview
‘WE ARE ALL MOURNABLE IN OUR PAIN AND ABJECTION’
Interviewed by Molara Wood
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s debut novel ‘Nervous Conditions’ was published to instant acclaim in 1988, winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa in 1989. Set in the author’s native Zimbabwe, the novel is widely regarded as a modern classic; it is listed among Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century and also appears on the BBC List of 100 Stories That Shaped the World. In the novel as well as its sequels – ‘The Book of Not’ (2006) and ‘This Mournable Body’ (2018) – the reader connects with various stages in the life of Tambu, one of the most memorable protagonists in African Literature. Also a playwright, filmmaker, scholar and cultural activist, Dangarembga founded the International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF), in Harare in 2002. She is also the founder and director of the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa (ICAPA) Trust. Ahead of her headlining appearance at Ake Festival 2019, she granted an interview to Molara Wood, editor of Ake Review 2019.
Congratulations on the publication of ‘This Mournable Body,’ bringing to completion what we might call The Tambudzai Trilogy after a span of some 30 years. Did you know it would take that long, and how did you stay the course?
Thank you for your kind congratulations, Molara. I am very glad that part of my work is done. No, I didn’t know it would take that long. It took me about six years to write ‘Nervous Conditions,’ so I had calculated with ten for the two sequels. I thought both the writing and the circumstances grew easier with time. I was wrong. I stayed the course because there were things I just had to say about Zimbabwe, about being a woman in Zimbabwe, about being a black woman in Zimbabwe and about being an older black woman in Zimbabwe. The trilogy was prose I could not not write, work I could not not do.
The first installment of the trilogy ends with the words: ‘This story is how it all began.’ You seemed to have mapped out Tambu’s unwritten future, even then.
Yes. I wrote ‘Nervous Conditions’ during the first years of Zimbabwe’s independence. It was clear that the country was only at the beginning of its development trajectory. It was also clear to me that the trajectory the country took would affect people’s lives at the personal level, just as had been the case under the white settler regime. I had a sense of optimism. I had no idea that the trajectory would be so distressing and challenging.
‘Nervous Conditions’ almost never got published, until you happened to drop by at the Women’s Press in London, four years after you submitted the manuscript. Were you then surprised at the novel’s phenomenal success on publication and its continuing impact?
Yes, I was and continue to be surprised at the novel’s success and its continuing impact. I’m also very grateful. Having one’s work validated in that way is wonderfully uplifting. I am delighted that my work has made a positive difference in many people’s lives. That’s at the personal level. On the other hand I am sad that the situation of black women and the rural poor in Africa that is described in the book has not changed much since the book was published just over thirty years ago.
The novel’s opening line is unforgettable. Can you recall the process that led to your settling on that uncompromising, even brutal, first line?
I had written the manuscript and realised that it did start quite quietly describing Tambudzai’s rural home. I thought that without a pointer as to where the story was going, and why the description of the rural area and the brother was necessary, readers might get lost. Reading ‘How to Write’ books, I was advised to have a memorable first line. The line came to me, and I wrote it down.
The New York Times called the book “a work of demolition,” which it is in so many ways. Do you worry sometimes that your characters might not be likeable?
I do worry that my characters might not be likeable. On the other hand, I’ve tried to make my characters likeable and that tended to flatten them out. I always try to make my characters more likeable and then give up and let them be.
With the second novel, ‘The Book of Not’ and the third – ‘This Mournable Body’ – now out in the world, many would say you have now explored the three ages of pre- and post-independence Zimbabwe in your work.
I would say I have explored some aspects of pre- and post-independence Zimbabwe that are important to me. I find that, rather than putting things behind me, my writing causes me to analyse situations and processes increasingly deeply. Pre- and post-independence Zimbabwe are very much my subject matter in the sense that the socio-political environment works formatively on subjects so that characters are as much a product of their environment as producing it. I am fascinated by the question of how much the subject is produced, how much the subject produces and what conditions are necessary to tilt the balance in favour of the subject producing, rather than being produced.
You got the title of ‘Nervous Conditions’ from Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’. Like Fanon, you studied Medicine and Psychology. He seems to have had a strong influence on your preoccupations as a writer.
Yes and no. Fanon was preoccupied in his intellectual practice with much the same things that I and many Africans are preoccupied with. I actually read ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ after I had written the manuscript and was searching for a title. The first title I had thought of for the work is not one I like to remember.
Like Fanon, you examine the trauma and loneliness of the post-colonial subject in your work. Why was it necessary to do this in the context of Zimbabwe, particularly through the female perspective?
That which is traumatised is that which has been unable to prevent the trauma. In other words trauma occurs in conditions of powerlessness. We recognise that the trauma affects both the aggressor and the one aggressed upon. But the condition of powerlessness is present in the one aggressed upon. Women are powerless with respect to men in contemporary patriarchal society and were so in traditional patriarchal society, especially young women. I wanted to explore all aspects of this trauma as well as I could, as a way of mapping Zimbabwean society. It was important to me to have a young female African narrator because I remembered how I had missed that voice when I was growing up and looking to find myself in literature.
In ‘This Mournable Body’, the adult Tambu’s predicament strikes one as almost parallel with that of a nation for which the post-independence dream has turned sour. Would you agree?
Yes, I would agree. I see that individual predicaments do often reflect the larger social contexts in which these individual predicaments occur, right up to the national and beyond. It is a question of repeating patterns.
You have spoken of your belief that the crisis in Africa is a crisis of personhood. What should be the role of the writer in helping to resolve this crisis?
Yes, I do think that Africa suffers from a crisis of personhood. There are many aspects to this, including generational trauma that makes it very difficult for us to be still and reflect in honesty; that results in many psychological issues that beget self-defeating behaviour at the individual level, which then becomes apparent at group level. The writer can help us to reflect on our dysfunctional behaviour and can lead us through our trauma. These are healing processes.
Toni Morrison had a strong influence on your life as a writer, particularly her novel, ‘Beloved’. What are your reflections on her passing?
I am grateful for the life and work of Toni Morrison. She taught me that good writing consisted of writing the work and then going back to make it appear “unwritten”.
You set out to write Tambu’s story because you wanted to see a girl like yourself in writing, in a sense, acting on Morrison’s injunction to write those stories we want to read.
Absolutely. Every time I read that injunction, I smile because that is precisely what I do. I think I learnt that this is what needs to be done through reading her work.
“It was amazing how you can do beautiful things with pain,” you said of ‘Beloved’. In your novels, the reader contends with a lot of pain – anorexia and bulimia, mental illness, trauma and sustained violence visited upon the female body. Is this emblematic of an ever-present condition for women in our post-colonial societies?
There has always been violence visited upon the female body simply because it is the female body in patriarchal society. There always will be, because the values of patriarchal society are violent values. I don’t think this is peculiar to our African post-colonial societies. I do however think that the mixture of traditional patriarchy and contemporary patriarchy that we experience today is particularly toxic to women.
“That I be well so that others could be well also,” Tambu says in ‘The Book of Not’. How might African women be well and break the cycle of violence and trauma on their bodies and minds?
That is a big question with very few attainable answers at the moment. I think the beginning is that African women support each other across class, age and other demographics. The mutual support has to grow to transcend tribe, nation and continent. When an African woman knows she can rely on another African woman for what is necessary for her, the cycle will come to an end. There are many African women who are in a position to reach out to other African women. This is what we have to do, in spite of all the forces that work against such sisterhood.
You wrote the script of the acclaimed film, ‘Neria’ – about the plight of widows. One of the last public acts of the great Oliver Mtukudzi was to sing his song of the same title at the funeral of Morgan Tsvangirai, whose widow appeared to be having a hard time of it. There are echoes of this in the recent tussle over Robert Mugabe’s body. ‘Neria’ seems to be as relevant as ever.
I wrote the story to ‘Neria’ as a commission from Media for Development Trust. The producers then adapted the story for the screen. Women are very vulnerable in our quasi-traditional societies when a husband dies. The interesting thing is that this vulnerability transcends class. Whatever class you are, there are likely to be people out to humiliate you and exploit you.
Given Mugabe’s conflicted legacy and his long shadow over Zimbabwe as independence hero and latter-day dictator, would he be among our ‘mournable’ bodies?
Definitely. We are all mournable in our pain and abjection, which most of us have to one degree or another. The fact that one is “mournable” does not absolve one, but humanises one.
How do you juggle your very active life as a filmmaker with fiction writing?
I put my head down and keep going.
Literature or film, how do you choose which is best for a given subject?
Generally the subject matter dictates. Film requires simpler, less layered stories than long prose.
What inspires you?
Life. Love in its many manifestations, desire for betterment at fundamental levels, to say I see you when I have seen.
Now that the Tambudzai trilogy is done, what can we expect from you next?
I am currently writing a young adult dystopian speculative piece set in post-apocalypse Africa, called, ‘Sai-Sai and the Great Ancestor of Fire.’
How do you feel about new writing coming out of your country? Any Zimbabwean writers you are excited about?
I am hugely excited by new and maybe not-so-new writing coming out of Zimbabwe. I cannot praise writers such as Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, Siphiwe Ndlovu and Brian Chikwawa enough.