Tsitsi Dangarembga – A Literary Icon


Rhoda Molife

Tsitsi Dangarembga, the award-winning writer and filmmaker, was born in Mutoko, Zimbabwe. Her first novel written in 1988, Nervous Conditions was hailed by Doris Lessing as one of the most important novels of the 20th century and was included in the BBC’s 2018 list of the ‘100 Books That Shaped the World’. The Book Of Not (2006) and This Mournable Body (2018) complete the trilogy that started with Nervous Conditions.

In 2005, her short musical, Kare Kare Zvako – Mother’s Day was screened at Sundance. Tsitsi then founded the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa (ICAPA) in 2009 and its publishing division in 2014. She runs capacity building programmes for African women filmmakers, in addition to fundraising for her productions.

Tsitsi is currently writing Sai-Sai And The Great Ancestor Of Fire, a dystopic, speculative fiction work for young adults.

Your novel Nervous Conditions was listed as one of the BBCs ‘100 Books That Shaped the World’ in 2018. What inspired the story?

Nervous Conditions was inspired by a desire to put African girls into literature. Growing up the only black girl I had encountered in literature was Fanta in Camara Laye’s The African Child. Otherwise it was a case of being mildly astonished when I came across golliwogs in Enid Blyton.

And was the plan always to make Tambu’s story a trilogy?

I didn’t plan a trilogy when I started Nervous Conditions. When it was published, it became clear to me that the story had not come to a real conclusion with both the young female characters entering new, life-changing situations at the end of the book. My then publisher asked me to write a sequel. As I worked on the sequel, I realised the story would become a trilogy. I liked the subversion that a whole three volumes dedicated to a little African girl from a village would bring.

Can you share a little about your childhood in Zimbabwe?

Well, it was informed by having spent four years in England where I moved to with my family when I was two years old. My stay in England meant English was my first language. I wasn’t prepared culturally for the encounter with Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, when I returned and started school. The teasing by some of the bullies in the senior school was dreadful. They would laugh if I hurt myself and taunt me about where I ‘came from’. I remember almost always being alone and I don’t think my parents were prepared to
guide me through the transition. People didn’t care about the minds and emotions in black bodies at the time, in the 1960s. Black bodies, minds and emotions were meant to be grateful for what they received.

You became a writer because…

… I love story telling, whether it’s drama, poetry, prose or film. I love the process of making up worlds, getting to know characters, giving them space to grow and communicating with them. Early in my career, reactions from readers who interacted with
my work were a shock. I had basically been having fun and fulfilling a need of my own. It was a privilege to find out that fulfilling my own needs through storytelling gifted other people with a positive experience. This love of storytelling was bequeathed to me by a wonderful, gentle, older cousin-brother, who would gather us round and tell us folk tales.

What was your first publication?

It was a number of poems in the University of Zimbabwe student periodical. And of all of your literary works, which, if any, has a special place in your heart? All my major literary works have a special place in my heart. They’re like children. Each has its own special character and is significant for having occupied a certain period in my life, bringing with it its own lessons.

And in film?

I do have a favourite film, my short musical Kare Kare Zvako – Mother’s Day. It’s based on an old Shona folk tale. That was the one and only time that I received funding to tell a story dear to my heart. I was able to experiment with form and genre with quite a
lot of freedom. What prompted the move into films and theatre? I wrote and produced stage drama at the University of Zimbabwe at the same time that I wrote prose and
poetry. Nervous Conditions was not accepted for publication for several years after I wrote it. That led me to think I did not have a career in writing and so I applied to film school.

You also started your own publishing house ICAPA. What can we expect to see from ICAPA?

Icapa Publishing published an anthology of short stories by Zimbabwean writers in 2014. It’s called A Family Portrait and is about the creeping violence that is so entrenched in Zimbabwean society. At the same time, we Zimbabweans like to reassure ourselves that we’re a peace-loving nation. I think positive transformation can only occur where people are able to face themselves. A Family Portrait contributes to that process of seeing the self, individual and collective, in all its untransformed nakedness. Icapa publishing also invented the ani-book. These are e-books in which illustrations are animated and I’m working on a project to produce three children’s ani-books.

A lesson you learnt after living in the diaspora is…

… I take myself with me, baggage and all, wherever I go.

What are two of the biggest challenges you faced in your career and how did you tackle them?

Two big challenges I face are finding a social and cultural ecosystem to support my creative ambitions and finding resources to enable me to work. The digital era has made finding a supportive ecosystem much easier. It also enables me to read more as I don’t have to be in a place physically to buy a book. Obtaining resources to finance my writing, film and capacity building projects continues to be a big hurdle but I give myself an ‘A’ for persistence!

How do we keep the arts alive and viable for artists in an economic and social crisis like we have in Zimbabwe?

It’s a huge task. Repressive regimes do not favour then arts as the arts allow people to express themselves and also put ideas into communities in new ways that can be inspirational. Africans in general and Zimbabweans in particular need to grow into an understanding of the vital role the arts play in regulating and regenerating societies. Wealthy Africans, Zimbabweans included, eagerly donate significant sums to projects such renovating Notre Dame or to an Ivy League college like Harvard or Yale but are not interested in donating to a similar extent to homegrown arts initiatives on the continent. I find this kind of ignorance quite shocking.

Do you have any writing rituals?

No. My writing patterns generally depend on the rest of my schedule at any given time.

The first thing you do when you wake up is…

… At the moment, pray.

The last thing you do at the end of your day is…

… At the moment, pray or listen to sacred music. I might do something else while I listen to sacred music, such as wind down with social media.

What’s the last thing that you read…for pleasure?!

I’m fortunate that I freelance. This means all my reading is for pleasure. No one gives me lists of works I’m obliged to engage with. I’m currently reading Vasabjit Banerjee’s Undoing the Revolution: Comparing Elite Subversion of Peasant Rebellions for the light it sheds on Zimbabwe’s crisis.

Are your children interested in following your footsteps? What advice do you give them?

The good thing is that choices have expanded since I began my career so, I made sure to let my children study whatever they wanted to. I’ve encouraged them to find professions they can enjoy, earn a living practicing, and to work towards an arts career later
in life if they still feel moved to.

What’s one thing you’d like to do that you haven’t done yet?

I would like to get my African women filmmakers’ programme up and running.

Find out more about Tsitsi’s work and follow her here:

Twitter: @efie41209591
Photo Credit: Prabook.com



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