In 1988, at the age of twenty-eight, Tsitsi Dangarembga published her first novel, Nervous Conditions. Immediately acclaimed by Alice Walker and Doris Lessing, the book has come to be considered one of Africa’s most important novels of the twentieth century. Lessing wrote: “This is the novel we have all been waiting for . . . it will become a classic.” Set in Rhodesia in the 1960s, almost twenty years before Zimbabwe won independence and ended white minority rule, the novel’s heroine, Tambudzai Sigauke, embarks on her education. On her shoulders rest the economic hopes of her parents, siblings, and extended family, and within her burns the desire for “personhood,” to no longer be part of such an “undistinguished humanity.” Nervous Conditions borrows its title from Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, in which Sartre evokes the “disassociated self” created by colonialism: “Our enemy betrays his brothers and becomes our accomplice; his brothers do the same thing. The status of ‘native’ is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonized people with their consent.”
Nervous Conditions was the first book in what would become a trilogy. However, eighteen years would pass before Dangarembga published her second novel, The Book of Not. With its searing observations, devastating exploration of the state of “not being,” wicked humour, and astonishing immersion into the mind of a young woman growing up and growing old before her time, the novel is a masterpiece. Dangarembga is almost alone in mining the psychological “nervous condition” in African women and the relationship between this troubled inner landscape and the current crisis in contemporary Zimbabwe. In the last decades, she has chosen film as her medium and founded the International Images Film Festival for Women in Zimbabwe, which is now in its twelfth year. In 2006, the Independent named Dangarembga one of the fifty greatest artists shaping the African continent. Last year, she completed the final book, Chronicle of an Indomitable Daughter, which will be published in Zimbabwe in 2013.
I first met Tsitsi Dangarembga in Nigeria in 2010, where we taught a workshop organized by Helon Habila. Habila had never met Dangarembga before, but he told me that his experience of reading Nervous Conditions decades ago had marked and changed him. When I met Tsitsi, Zimbabwe was moving forward from a disastrous 2008 election that saw the opposition Movement for Democratic Change pull out of the second round of the presidential vote in the wake of widespread and horrific violence. At the same time, the economy had collapsed: between 2007 and 2008, the rate of inflation was seven sextillion percent. As much of the world knows, a power-sharing agreement was reached between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai in 2008, and Zimbabwe retreated from the news headlines. In the fall of 2012, Tsitsi invited me to come and teach in Harare. She envisioned a workshop called Breaking the Silence, which would gather testimonies from across Zimbabwe on political and domestic violence. These testimonies, which could be submitted anonymously, would form the basis of our reading material. Any Zimbabwean interested in writing could come into the workshop, read the collected testimonies, and, informed by these stories (more than one hundred were collected), write fiction. Tsitsi asked these writers to think not only about the victims but also about the lives and histories of the perpetrators. She also asked each of us to consider our own acts of violence or aggression, including instances when we used our authority or status for purposes of intimidation or personal gain. She wanted writers to claim these stories, wrestle with and interrogate them, and, finally, bring them back to the communities from which they came. As someone from outside, I did not know if what Tsitsi imagined was possible; I must admit, I was stunned and moved to find that it was.
We had this conversation in early December 2012, on the balcony of Tsitsi’s home in Harare, at sunset, just before I caught my flight home.
Thien: I wanted to ask you about the few years you spent overseas in the 1960s, when you were a child. Outside of Rhodesia and white minority rule, what was it like?
Dangarembga: In England?
Thien: Yes. I’m wondering about your first experience of race.
Dangarembga: The racism in England was not so institutionalized. Well, it was institutionalized, but then it was so efficiently realized that it didn’t need institutions, if you understand what I mean. In England, it was much easier not to be affected by it to that extent because my parents were students and people were somewhat respectful.
Thien: And you were six when you returned to Rhodesia.
Dangarembga: Coming back here . . . you know, it was such a shock. Everywhere we’d been before, my parents were so well respected. But in Rhodesia, the fact that we were black meant that once we walked into that society, all of that meant nothing. It was really a blow.
You might actually say that white people in this part of the world were so insecure, I suppose about having so many black people around, that they had to make their institutions into very obvious apartheid structures. But the whole internalized attitude, that’s been going on for centuries, these are attitudes that we have.
It was very interesting for me to have a character like Tambudzai, who understands the lack of respect because of poverty but not because of blackness. When she is taken into her uncle’s house, she feels everything is now okay because the poverty factor is no longer effective. Then she moves into the school [the elite Young Ladies’ College of the Sacred Heart, a convent school attended by mostly white students], where she’s doing everything as well as everyone else. The only issue is her blackness. She has an experience, a different kind of movement, into that position. Because if you have always been aware of racism, I think that you develop ways of dealing with it. I think it was Ama Ata Aidoo who said she didn’t even know there was such a thing as racism until she came to Germany. That’s where she learned she was black. So it was a bit the same for Tambudzai. She knew she was poor, and she knew she was uneducated because she could see the poverty of her home and she could see the differences with her relatives who were educated. But then she had to learn that she was black.
Thien: Yet Nervous Conditions begins as a very hopeful book. Does this hope come because she sees her freedom in relatively straightforward terms, that education will equal emancipation?
Dangarembga: Tambudzai starts off as a typical gifted child. She achieves a lot through her own initiative, and she sees the world as an arena in which she can act and succeed, no matter what comes. In a childish way, she thinks of herself as a kind of superwoman, but she cannot succeed on those terms because there never has been such a person, there has never been a superman or a superwoman. Sometimes what one perceives as freedom binds you more tightly.
There was so much invested during the Rhodesian era in educating Africans only up to a certain level and for certain tasks. An illusion had to be created, however, that there was some sort of mobility and fairness in the system. People like Tambudzai were swept up in that illusion. She had to find her own painful way out of it.
Thien: At the beginning, she also looks for freedom through selfhood, and the concept of unhu. The traditional greeting is “How are you?” “I am well if you are well too.” Can you describe unhu?
Dangarembga: This is a very interesting concept. In South Africa, ubuntu is exactly the same kind of philosophy, which is “I am because you are” or “I am because we are.” This is the kind of philosophy that used to bind villages and communities together until other forces interrupted those communities. So now I feel that this idea of “I am because you are”—meaning there is no great difference between you and me, so if you need something I can give it to you because I know you’re just like me, and when I need it you will also give it to me—has been disconnected from its material, physical base because of the way the world has progressed. Yet people retain the psychological emotion of it. So here we have a whole nation of Zimbabweans thinking we’re so wonderful because we have this unhu. We believe in “I am because we are,” and certainly, symbolically, we know that’s part of our framework and our reference, but on the ground it’s not happening anymore because all the conditions have changed and do not support that notion. And so this is why there is so much questioning in that book. Is this really the unhu that I believe in, that I came from? People are not behaving in that way anymore. Tambudzai does not resolve it for herself, but I think that there is a kind of a metanarrative there that shows the complexities, that actually the society has moved away from unhu even if they think they haven’t.
Thien: I was fascinated by the idea that personhood, or wholeness, requires reciprocity. But unhu was completely incompatible with the Rhodesian political structure, wasn’t it?
Dangarembga: Absolutely, I would say so. But I would not only say that it’s not reciprocated. For sure, when you come out of the confines of a society that had unhu, you kind of expect to find it elsewhere, which was baffling to Tambudzai in the beginning. But also, once you’ve gone outside and you’ve come back, the question is, do you also experience that from your own people? Or will they now see you as somebody outside the whole unhu construct? I feel that she has become an outsider, especially with her mother. You know, the mother should have been really happy for her daughter, and then that relation would have been reciprocal. But then Tambudzai is denied the comforts of home, and the mother is also denied the benefits of associating with a daughter who has some education and some access to the exterior world. Even if the construct doesn’t transfer outside, does it persist when the person comes back? If not, then the person coming back also becomes part of the fragmentation, as we see in the third book.
Thien: In the end, the pragmatic ones who accept the status quo, which is white rule, seem to flourish. Halfway through the trilogy, Tambu has refused to accept society as it is, and she nearly loses herself. Why?
Dangarembga: When I write, I try not to put messages in but to say, Are we here or are we there? You’ll find people who are willing to accept what happens at the advertising agency, thinking, Well okay, the money I’m getting is better than sweeping floors somewhere. So they protect their position. And then there are the type of people who will talk about it at parties or when they’re with their friends and just shake their heads and laugh. But can that be said to be emancipation? It’s this internalization of your own inferiority that Tambudzai has to struggle against. The question becomes, Do you identify with the sector of society that has money and business opportunities? That’s what people aspired to before. Or do you identify with other women like yourself? Where do you place yourself?
I realize that creative women often do not fit easily into certain paradigms. I think to myself, Then where do they go? Where do they go? Because I feel that these women have so much to contribute, that they just see things in a different way. Every society has people like that and marginalizes them in some way. So it’s a very difficult situation.
Thien: Can I detour here and ask how you left medicine? You were at Cambridge and you came home and went in an entirely different direction.
Dangarembga: I’d been studying psychology at the University of Zimbabwe, and I became involved in the drama club there and did a couple films. I started writing seriously, plays and prose, and I just felt that was really my niche. I was studying industrial psychology at the time I was seriously writing, but I realized it was going to be a struggle to make a living out of writing. So I thought, Okay, what other things can I do that are still within narrative and dealing with powerful subjects and putting ideas out there? I began to see the usefulness of film in a country like Zimbabwe. We boast about an 80 percent literacy rate. But even if you’re literate, which means you can fill in a form, it doesn’t mean you can read a piece of literature and understand what’s going on. So it seemed to me that film was also a very important medium for telling the stories that I felt needed to be told.
Thien: But why turn to film at the moment when you had such enormous international success with Nervous Conditions?
Dangarembga: Oh, Nervous Conditions was not so successful in the beginning. I finished it in 1984 and tried to have it published here, but most of the publishing houses at that time had young black men who had been outside the country writing and then came back and became the editors. When I submitted Nervous Conditions they would never give it respect. I realized they would never engage with a voice like mine.
Dangarembga: Yes, it took me four years.
Thien: So it was published outside first, in 1988?
Dangarembga: Yes, the Women’s Press. I actually didn’t know it was going to be published. So I thought, Let me try to do something different.
Thien: Were you already in film school in Berlin?
Dangarembga: I’d applied and been accepted. So when I got that letter I thought, I’m not going to lose this chance. I’m going to take it. Then what happened is that there was this huge conflict between the amount of work I was doing in film and in prose. But I just had to do the work together.
Thien: What was the conflict?
Dangarembga: They were just completely different. The skills I had learned for prose didn’t work in film. Those telling details, they’re completely different. Or the fact of these inner monologues in which you can write a whole book. Whereas prose is teasing out, film is stripping down, concentrating and compacting. I found I could not learn the one while doing the other. So it was a big struggle, actually. It took me years.
Thien: So The Book of Not was put aside.
Dangarembga: Yes, because I found I couldn’t do the two. Now that I feel I’m proficient in both, it seems to be working. But at the time, I really felt that I could not write The Book of Not while I was learning how to speak in film language.
Thien: Seventeen years, though! How could you keep Tambudzai quiet?
Dangarembga: Oh, my goodness! She was hopping mad. But you know, the point is, about the war and the racism, Nervous Conditions ends just as the war intensifies, 1977. So it was a very difficult thing to want to allow Tambudzai to talk. Because what she had to say is what happens in The Book of Not, and it wasn’t something that I thought at that time would be useful. I thought that with the kinds of divisions we had, it might be more inflammatory than anything else. The war might have brought us a little nearer to where we think we want to be as a people, but what did it consist of? It consisted of lies, forced abductions, horrible brutality on both sides, and treachery even within families. Afterwards it was just, Let’s forget, that’s all behind us. We had slogans like “This is the year of the people’s transformation.” I was young. I believed it.
So I think it was actually quite good for me to have something else to do at the time. It was only when other conflicts began again at the end of the 1990s that I thought, Tambu has this story to tell that is actually appropriate for what’s happening.
Thien: In what way was it appropriate?
Dangarembga: Because at the end of the 1990s, the whole land issue came up in Zimbabwe. We were looking at about 80 percent of the land being owned by about 20 percent of the population, which brought back the issues of racism, imbalance, and inequality. Zimbabwe had simply pretended 1890 to 1980 hadn’t happened, and many people had gone on with the same prejudices as before. It all came up again. And that’s exactly what Tambudzai was experiencing after Nervous Conditions. What resurfaced in the 1990s was in accordance with what she went through. And so, at that time when the villagers were assembling and organizing themselves into battalions that were going out into farms, I felt it was appropriate to look at those issues of race and who owns what and who has the power to bequeath what to whom in a fairly innocuous story of a young girl at school. You know, a kind of, “If you have ears to hear, then you will hear.”
Thien: Tambudzai has so much anger but not against the system itself. It all goes inward. Do you think it’s her own personhood that disturbs her most?
Dangarembga: You know, this idea of the happy African is something I really wanted to interrogate. Because if someone smiles at you it does not mean they’re happy. It just means “I think that if I smile I might get out of this alive!” And so I wanted to look into this notion of the happy African. Who is this person you are saying is the happy African? Is this person really happy? And if this person is not happy, then what is likely to be happening in this person’s life? Is this smiling, this being so complicit with the system, going to benefit society in the long run? And, of course, from my perspective as the writer, I thought not. But it was also important for me not to write an obvious kind of situation where black people are angry with white people because that doesn’t get us anywhere either. It was much more important for me to try to show to people what is happening to individuals within a certain system, and to hope that, after hearing this, people will understand, and maybe their conscience will become a little more open to things they were not open to before.
Madeleine Thien was born in Vancouver. She is the author of four books of fiction, most recently, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a novel.