The Jalada Conversations No 5: Tsitsi Dangarembga
Interviewed by Anne Moraa
Welcome to the Jalada Conversations. These are conversations about literature and writing where Jalada talks to some of the continent’s most talented and respected writers. My name is Anne Moraa. Today, I shall be talking with prolific writer and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga. From the publication of her first novel Nervous Conditions – critically acclaimed as one of Africa’s most important novels of the 20th Century and winner of the Commonwealth Prize – Tsitsi has created numerous award winning works that are both deeply thoughtful and universal. She completed a trilogy of novels, following on Nervous Conditions with The Book of Not and the soon to be published Chronicle of an Indomitable Daughter. She is also an acclaimed filmmaker with films like Neria, Flame and Everyone’s Child, and the groundbreaking short film Mother’s Day. A multi-award winner, she pushes not only her own work but those of others as well. She chaired the Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe among other groups, and was the founding force behind several organisations, including founding the International Images Film Festival for Women. In 2006, the Independent named her as one of the 30 greatest artists shaping the African continent, and she is personally one of my favorite authors.
ANNE MORAA: So, Tsitsi, it is such an honor to be speaking with you today and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: Thank you, Anne. I am delighted to be here. I am completely honored that Jalada wants to speak to me in this day and age of the internet, and we are on the other side of the internet, and people who are internet natives can still think of us internet immigrants. I really am humbled and honored. Thank you.
ANNE MORAA: Thank you so much. You have no idea how excited I am. When Jalada started the Conversation series, and they were like does anyone have any suggestions, you were literally the first person I said, “Give me Tsitsi please!” I am really honored that you want to have a conversation with us.
Now, my first question is, because you are so prolific, I found it almost hard to find a common element because you do so much different types of work. I came across your Ted talk, The Question Posed by My Cat and I found it really interesting because there you raise this point of insatiability, the concept that it is impossible to be satisfied unless you understand both what is required to be satisfied and when that requirement has been met. I was thinking about your work and characters from different genres, like Tambu in both Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not, the Father in the short film Mother’s day (or Kare Kare Zvako – I’m probably butchering those names, but there we go), where the Father literally devours his wife.
I am really curious about this concept of insatiability you raise in your Ted Talk and how does it run through your work. Does it drive your work? Is it an unconscious theme that you stumble across or is it something that you really do try and tackle as you are creating?
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: Anne, I’m really happy. I love that you picked that up. I think when I started writing, and I started mainly writing poetry and for the stage, I wasn’t really conscious of my themes. I always talk to my students when I am teaching Creative Writing and we discuss the nature of fiction, and whether fiction actually exists because obviously we can’t even begin to engage with something we haven’t experienced so it’s all a question of degree, its relative. So obviously, the things that I am writing with are things that I am concerned with because they have been in my environment and they’ve been significant to me or I found that I personally, my judgement has been that these are significant issues.
Really, this concept of insatiability is something that is not just peculiar to Zimbabwe but is peculiar to the whole continent and to the whole planet actually. I’ve just been hanging out with my son and we were having a conversation about Rhodesia, and the nature of the economy in Rhodesia, and we came to the conclusion that Rhodes did not actually have a plan for Rhodesia. His plan was Cape to Cairo. Again, insatiability. If he’d had a plan for Rhodesia, Rhodesia might have been constructed in a more viable, sustainable way which would have given a better basis for Zimbabwe to begin another journey as a nation.
I think it’s something that we are struggling with as human beings. You can go back to the bible, and we are told, you must not covet your neighbor’s goods or your neighbor’s wife. So it is something that is known among human beings, we tend not to be satisfied. We do not know how to make ourselves satisfied. I think that if we can engage with the root of our dissatisfactions and our constant desire for more, and when you get the more, you still do not feel satisfied. If we could actually engage with where that is coming from, we might actually do better and then, we would establish a better balance. Nature is balanced. It’s got feedback systems that cause balance. Now if these feedback systems, go awry, then we go out of balance.
So obviously, I think human beings, because of the nature of our intellect, we’ve been so impressed with our intellect, that we’ve forgotten to realize that even our intellect has to be part of our nature and the bigger picture, and we have taken ourselves out of that so we are no longer governed by any of the natural feedback systems that were created in the beginning, however you want to say they were created. So. for me, I think it is one of the fundamental questions. And we see it with Wall Street, another example at the social level with the economy; we see it with bulimia; we see it now with young men and their obsession with body building; we see it with alcoholism, all forms of addiction; so, that is why for me that is one of the fundamental themes and I am so happy that you picked that up because I hadn’t actually heard it expressed that way myself.
ANNE MORAA: Okay great. It’s actually interesting, as you were talking about that you brought up the question of bulimia because it’s one of the other connections I noticed for example Nyasha’s eating disorder in Nervous Conditions. I guess my question, based on what you just said and what I was going to ask originally about that, is this question of the body or expressing your needs or desires through the body. So, the way Nyasha uses, I think, her bulimia as a form of control but now that you are talking about this form of insatiability, how does that impact that reading of Nyasha which I’ve seen in reviews and in journals? Is it a measure of control, is it her desire, her own insatiability, her own desire to be something else or to be somewhere else?
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: Yes, that is very interesting that you bring that up as well, and it’s one of the sad consequences of where we have put ourselves as human beings and this power hierarchy that we have as human beings. Now you have a character like Nyasha who is a black girl in a colonial state within a very patriarchal family. She is the lowest of the low. And, she is also seen to be an outsider because of her English experience having lived in England so she cannot even find her place as the lowest of the low. I mean, if you have no place, you have no power. To effect anything, you have to be able to launch yourself from somewhere. So if you have no place, you have no power. Nyasha is one of the most powerless characters I have ever written about. Even, for example, there is another character in Nervous Conditions who is the mother of Tambudzai, Nyasha’s cousin. One would think that she has no power but she actually has power because of her position in the family, and she wields this power over her daughter Tambudzai.
Although at the societal level, you might say she is one of the most downtrodden, rural women, she nevertheless has a platform, a social platform from which she can exercise some kind of power. Nyasha had absolutely none.
So what does the body signify when you are powerless? The body is the one thing you still have.
Women in those kinds of extreme conditions of lack of power, often resort to using their body as an instrument of obtaining power. We see it for example, with transactional sex. You use your body as a means of obtaining the money that you need; it is your instrument. Other people can do it with the skills that they have learnt. That’s their marketable capital. If you are another kind of woman, you have to resort to your body.
In the same way Nyasha could only resort to her body, and what could she do with that body? Well, one thing about being powerless, is that one might think, ok then I shouldn’t be existing. The whole of society is telling me I shouldn’t exist, and that is the push to then suicide or annihilating yourself in some way, which in Nyasha’s case was the phase of not eating.
But then there’s the other push, because you have been created so you have that spark of life, and Nyasha also had that abundantly. So that was the push towards eating, which became overeating. Because when you have this negation of what you are taking in, then you are in a condition of insatiability, and that is how it then manifested in the material world.
I hope never to have to write about such a tragic character in my life again. And one of my aims in writing the trilogy was not to let her die.
Because I’d meet people, and they say what happened to her, and I would say well what do you think happened to her (this was before I’d written the other two novels) and they would say, she must have died, there is no way she could have survived that, and I thought to myself, no this cannot be.
In African American feminism, one of the fundamental rules is stay alive. And what we see now with the way black men, and now black women, are losing their lives in the states, in the circumstances that they are, we see that that is a really revolutionary rule.
So for me, I thought, Nyasha has got to stay alive at all costs.
ANNE MORAA: First of all, I am so glad to hear you talk about this because one of my favourite things about your work, and one of the things that drew me to you. To give a small anecdote, I was working at Kwani? at the time and I asked Billy Kahora, before I read your work a few years ago, who do I look to to find really interesting and well-rounded female characters, and you are one of the first names he mentioned. Even in this conversation, bringing up African American feminism and so on, I really love this unapologetic and unrestrained female perspective that you put into your work. Seeing how they are really well centered, and I guess my question to you is about that centering of the female experience in your work. How conscious or deliberate is this? How much do you work towards making sure, forgetting even your external work with the women’s film festivals, but within the texts and literary pieces and so on?
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: Up until now it has been my focus, and it is has actually been my goal to examine what I will call the female subjectivity that African, black female subjectivity, or being – which for me may be a better word than subjectivity – because the world behaves as if we don’t exist.
ANNE MORAA: …Yes..
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: …but we actually exist! It happens to the African man as well, but within the context of Africa, the African male is extremely visible. Within the context of the wider world, the African woman simply is not there. And I thought to myself [laughing], this can’t be, I am here, my mother is here, my sisters, my cousins are here. How can the world try to obliterate us and disregard us as though we were not created, as though we are black holes walking about [laughing] on the planet?
I very consciously wanted to put our experience out there, and to say, look, this is part of the sum of what makes up the planet. If you are going to ignore us, you are ignoring something that is part and parcel of creation, and it cannot go well for us. Don’t blame us that we are not standing up and speaking out for ourselves because that I have been doing. I am here to do it, not in the stereotypical fashion. I am here to do it in the way that says this is human, we are our flesh and blood, our bones, our experience, our desires, our capabilities, our weaknesses.
I am just reading Balzac at the moment, La Cousine Bette and Le Cousin Pons and one of the forewords was talking about the diabolical in the female, in woman. My thinking is to say yes, because we are part of creation, we have everything in us, we have the divine and the diabolical also, and I want to talk about this!
Now, some of those characters are not very pleasant, like MaiShindai, downtrodden as she is, Tambudzai’s mother becomes a very negative influence and destructive influence. Even Tambudzai’s mother has not really managed to manifest much of the divine in her nature,
ANNE MORAA: yes
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: And I think that is okay! Talk about it, hey sisters, what’s with us? Why are we behaving like this? How can we improve? If we cannot start doing that for ourselves, how are we then going to come to the fullness of our being and contribute positively to the planet. So, for me, that is very much where I started at and I am talking of maybe, three decades ago. So, it’s been a journey now.
Maybe I am coming to a point where I am also engaging with other things, but definitely for the first decades of my career, I found that I had to look at that. The payoff for me was that I could understand myself and my relationship with the world better. It’s been very grounding for me. And I have found that actually quite interesting, that I am doing this because I am thinking society needs it, other women need it, but I discovered that as I’m doing it I’m also doing it for myself.
People ask me Tsitsi, ‘how do you carry on?’, you know I am living in Zimbabwe which is not really the most friendly place to creative expression and independent thought, but how do I carry on? It’s because I have seen ow I sustain myself, by this kind of work which is also other focused. It then gives the light to the fact that we are so individual and yes, we are individual but we are social. There are spaces of relationships, to yourself, to your family, to your wider social group, and I am just very glad that I took that path with my work. It hasn’t been easy but it has been extremely rewarding for me personally.
ANNE MORAA: This is fantastic because as we are talking about this, you started this conversation you said a few decades ago, but it is as relevant now to me, even as a trying-to-become-a writer, it is as relevant now as it was to you years ago. It’s one of the reasons I love Tambudzai when I was reading Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not, and seeing her grow, seeing her move from her childhood through her adolescence and teenage years and that in the school. Witnessing her understanding shifts from when she was a child in Nervous Conditions in the beginning after she said that infamous opening line “I was not sad when my brother died” with that authority that she had then, and that belief that she was more than enough, more than the space she was held in, to seeing her – I don’t want to call it collapse, sadness is maybe the word, at the end of The Book of Not – when she realized how much, how she could never possibly be enough. I am kind of rambling, because you raised so many questions, but I guess my first question on that, is that how was it working with that kind of narrative voice which is so deeply reflective and adult, but manages to maintain that youth? How is it writing Tambudzai?
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: I find it liberating. It is difficult but liberating, because you have to maintain this double consciousness which is not easy to do. But I have found that I did not feel that, for example, society in Zimbabwe is given to reflection, but it is actually that we have. Humans are born with that intellect. When we combine that intellect with emotions and experiences, reflection is one of the great products of that. It means that if we are not doing that we are not using a tool that we have actually been given in order to progress in a positive manner. I have felt that I was not finding that kind of reflection outside that referred to Zimbabwe and what was going on in Zimbabwe, and by extension many other African societies, because we have so many similarities even though we all have our differences. And I have found that this was something that I needed to do. I also felt that this kind of reflection would be useful to stop seeing oneself only as a victim, because if you reflect on what you are doing, you then begin to see how you are engaging within whatever you are saying is victimizing you. This reflection for me is a tool to stand outside the role of a victim.
You’re quite right, it was very painful in The Book of Not for Tambudzai to have to make that journey that she started off thinking that she was more than enough, even as the death of her brother, never mind, I’m going to manage it all, hey this is me, to realizing that actually as just Tambudzai, I cannot be enough. Again, it is this, how do we become enough for ourselves? And you can’t do it just as one person, for most human beings. I mean, there are hermits and so forth, but they usually have some kind of spiritual connection somewhere that enables them to survive. It was a bitter journey for Tambudzai in The Book of Not that had to realize, it is not going to work like that.
I actually have the same issue now with Tambudzai. She’s ended in this low emotional phase in The Book of Not. How do I bring her up again, so that people can see that this is a kind of character who can make this reflective journey, who can put these novels out into the world? That was one of the most joyous things I have ever done, because in Chronicle of an Indomitable Daughter, (which is the working title – as I work through with the Publishers that might change), Tambudzai was able to stand outside her own lack if you can understand what I mean. I look at it and I laugh at it. It was very difficult journey, but I made it. My thinking is okay, if this can be done in this one character, if she actually comes out of it all triumphant (breaks into laughter) and I remember thinking to myself, she’s going to make it! It was very much like the Nyasha thing, no I’m not having
If this Tambudzai character can do it, then there is the possibility, it’s not impossible without experience, it should be possible. It has really been a truly liberating journey, and I just hope that when the 3rd one comes out, I mean it’s tough because it needs to take Tambudzai from her nerdia where she was and brings her back. I hope that book is going to be glorious, in that I was achieved no matter how painful it was in the end.
ANNE MORAA: I am so glad to hear you are working on getting her to that happy ending, because at the sad ending I was like No, why! When she was talking to the hotel manager who couldn’t remember her name, all these things, terrible moment happen. I guess the term would be micro-aggressions, those tiny things that break a person, a woman, an African, a black person. What was really interesting in that book especially was how you viewed relationships. There was that scene in the school where they were lining up for assembly, and it was a whole 2 pages of where do I stand? Can I stand here? Can I stand in front of this girl? Can I stand beside her or beside her? And it was so fascinating, and you brought this earlier in the conversation, and is something that runs through your books and work, like Neria and the brother in law. This kind of power dynamics that women have to navigate. I’d love to know a little more about that, and how you mentioned no one can just exist just by themselves, and how difficult that is.
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: Very interesting, I love the little bits and pieces that you are picking up from The Book of Not. I mean this whole issue of where do I stand, is again a body thing isn’t it?
ANNE MORAA: Yes…
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: Can my body be situated in space close to this body? And we know that for a long time, black bodies were not meant to be situated very close to white bodies, I mean lynchings in the states were all about that. You got too close to a white body, you’re a black man, nope we’ve get to get rid of you. It’s just that the degree is different here but as you said these are the little things that break people.
For me, narrative does not really have to be about the big things because we don’t all live at that level. Does it mean because we are not all presidents or rebel leaders or whatever, we cannot be known? We should not be known? We don’t have a story to tell. No, I think absolutely not. I think my life is just as important as any president, any monarch. The life of the girl in the village is just as important.
Yesterday I went to the hospital to see a relative of mine, and there was a scene that is still haunting me. There was a young man lying on a bed, very emaciated, just about unconscious. He had four relatives around just leaning over the bed, with a chin in a hand, the forehead in the hand, the hand on the cheek. I thought to myself that boy’s life is so important. Here are four people around him who you can just see are at a loss. So that boy’s life has affected these four other people to that extent that their lives are now in turmoil. I just wish I knew. Because that is an important thing that we need to be saying. I mean, this was a teenager, must have been 16/18 that kind of age.
For me, it’s really important that we understand that these little things, are what make us who we are, so that by the time we become rebel leaders or presidents or whatever on Wall Street, et cetera, we have already been made by these little interactions and that’s where we have got to start to try and make things better. Even the President of this country has publicly spoken about the fact that his father messed the family! We know that in the heyday of Western psychology informed by Freud, the formative years were seen to be very important but now the world has a different dynamic, a market dynamic, and we seem to have forgotten that. So it is very important for me to bring this back into the public arena in the little ways that I am able to do it, and if it is having an impact on people like you in a positive manner, then I am really happy, because that is what it was intended for. It was intended to speak to people like you so that you have something to begin with.
ANNE MORAA: Wow! It is great listening to someone who has such intent, and such deliberate intent behind the work, because, especially as a young woman, one of the questions I’ve been asked a lot of times is why do you use the word feminist instead of humanist and so on, or why do you have to have girls in your stories or be the main character and such things. Having someone make that a deliberate choice because of that knowledge and that intent is so interesting. So I am curious about, you mentioned earlier that while that was a big focus, you have started to shift into other things. What other things are you trying to bring out in your work more of late?
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: Well, you mentioned relationships and I didn’t go into that, but just briefly, we had been talking about how one can only exist in relationship to something else out there. How do you even know that you exist, if there is nothing out there that can tell you, you are different you are not me?
There is this famous Shona greeting where you say, “How are you” and the response is “I am well if you are well too”
In fact, one version of it is “Ndiripo kanamuniko”? which is I am there if you are there too.
ANNE MORAA: Wow.
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: [laughs]
Yeah, that’s even deeper. So for me, I have explored the relationships that young girls, that women have amongst themselves. Now I have, two sons, my daughter as left home and my few sons are still at home, and so I am also thinking about men – [both laugh] – and also about relationships of women with men. My focus as just changed, because when I was younger, I was engaged with being female and with the other women that I was engaged with but as I have grown my perspective has also grown. I realized that there are other things that I also need to engage with. So thats one of the focuses on now. In the 3rd book of nervous conditions trilogy and even in the book of not, it was more difficult to get the gender perspective in the glance because then someone of the other perspectives would have been subsumed because the gender perspective in Africa is so strong.
ANNE MORAA: Yes.
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: So I had to play it down but now I am re-visiting the gender aspect again but looking at men and women equally. I’m also thinking that you know, men are not writing some of the books that I think they should be writing about men, so some of the work that I got lined up for later I am going to look into that. Maybe to write for Babamukuru’s perspective, characters like Babamukuru, these patriarchal figures, who think that they can do whatever they want, take whatever they want from whoever and they don’t even think of it as being insatiable. They think that being insatiable is their right, and you know, its what makes them powerful so that is a dimension that I haven’t seen so much in women that our being diabolical tends not to be quite so overt. That’s something tat I think that I am ready to deal with now, but that is not for the book that I am working on now but maybe for the 5th book, or 6th.
ANNE MORAA: There is something you mention here, because as much as you say you haven’t touched on it, right from Nervous Conditions, there is a section when Tambu and Nyasha were talking with their cousin (his name has slipped my mind) –
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: Chido
ANNE MORAA: They were saying he was trying to be “the man” but they just made fun of him until he let go until he became the nice guy he always was. I see that thread, perhaps it wasn’t as deeply explored in the first set of books, but it seems to be a part of the conversation that you’ve been having…
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: …yes it is…
ANNE MORAA: …from the very beginning.
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: It definitely is part of the conversation but it wasn’t the central issue but I would like to look at it a bit more as the central theme and to go into that a bit more deeply. I think that, yes, I think I can do that with some authority now from where I am standing now.
ANNE MORAA: Okay, great. I guess, one of my last questions is, I’m kind of the TV Generation, spoiler alert. I’ve been hanging onto the books for so long though I know it is still in publication. If possible, and you can tell me Anne you’re being ridiculous, can we get a hint of Tambu, a little teaser to tide me bye…
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: [Both laugh] Okay, you’re not being ridiculous. I’m actually very flattered and I appreciate your interest.
One thing is that I realise that those characters have grown on people, and I really like that Nervous Conditions left things hanging. One of the reasons nervous conditions left things hanging, was that we were now going into the racial issues. And I did not think at that time, which was in the 1990’s and Zimbabwe had just become independent, and things were looking positive, I didn’t think it was appropriate at that time to go into all of that.
As things became as they have become in Zimbabwe, I then felt that maybe it is time to revisit those kinds of issues, and then we see many countries, race is becoming an issue again no matter how its cloaked, whether it is cloaked as terrorism or it is cloaked as something else, but it is becoming a central issue again.
So I went through The Book of Not and then with Tambudzai. What I need to say to you about Tambudzai is that she is struggling with her gender, she is struggling with her race. The race issues comes up quite strongly in the 3rd novel again. And she is struggling with her class. And somehow she has to find a way to resolve this that is going to give her sufficient hope to go on, and hopefully also the readers who are struggling with the same issues, whether from Tambudzai’s perspective or the people who want to know about people going through that kind of situation.
What I want to say is that she really reaches rock bottom, but she does climb…
ANNE MORAA: …More than The Book of Not?! Ah, my lord!
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: Actually, even more unfortunately, but she gets out of it! When I think about Tambudzai now, I think if ever there was going to be a female president in Zimbabwe, it should be that kind of character. She has gone through such a gamut of experiences that pertain to Zimbabwe. She has so many aspirations, that so many Zimbabweans have had. She has had to work through failure, to work through the disappointment, and she has had to find her way out to become whole again, and she managed to do it. At the end of the 3rd book, I’m really proud of her
I am so grateful to have a little spoiler about the next book, it actually made me more excited so I don’t know if I helped myself that much!
ANNE MORAA: So, yes, thank you so much for this conversation and taking the time to talk with us. We could talk for probably for another 2 hours based on the questions I have just off of our conversation but we will wrap it up for now. I am really grateful to take this time and hopefully we’ll speak soon again.
TSITI DANGAREMBGA: Anne, thank you so much to you in particular and also to Jalada. You know, we need this kind of interaction because we also need sustenance so it’s just been magnificent. Thank you so much.
ANNE MORAA: Thank you!
Anne Moraa(@tweetmoraa) is a creative writer, editor, performer and all round word-obsessive. Exploring various forms, her poetry has been commissioned and performed at venues from Kenya to Scotland. Anne is a Founding member at Jalada.