In July this year, the Story Club invited renowned Zimbabwean novelist and film maker, Tsitsi Dangarembga, to an arts festival held in Lilongwe. Makewana’s Daughters were privileged to be amongst those who were called to interact with the writer, along with Jessie Kabwila and Brooke Marshall. Below are excerpts of conversations with the writer:
Makewana’s Daughters (MD): In both Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not, one sees a form of paralysis. In Nervous Conditions, there is a scene where Tambudzai has to attend her mother and father’s Christian wedding, and suddenly her body just can’t seem to move any more, and then when we move on to the Book of Not, there is a similar scene in which Tambudzai is supposed to get up from bed, and again she can’t. To what extent would you say paralysis is a form of resistance?
Tsitsi Dangarembga (TD): Before I answer that question, I would just like to say thank you to the Story Club for inviting me here. The privilege is mine.
This is a really interesting question because, you may or may not know, but those books are turning into a trilogy. So there’s a third one. Because when I wrote Nervous Conditions, the story ended abruptly. It begins with Tambudzai as a young girl in the village, and then she ends up at what was called a multi-racial school in Rhodesia before independence. I don’t know if you had the same kinds of schools or if you still have something similar; the black children would go to one school, and the white children would go to another. It’s kind of persistent even though the apparatus of apartheid has been dismantled.
So I was aware that the story had not been told, but I was really wondering how to tell the story of what happened afterwards. And the story of what happened afterwards in terms of Tambudzai’s timeline was the liberation struggle. So that meant getting into some really awkward things to analyse. And Tambudzai herself still had to discover these things, and this is what you find in Nervous Conditions, that Nyasha is always telling Tambudzai, “Life is not as rosy as you think it is, and even if you think you’re moving out, maybe you’re not moving out, maybe you’re just moving into something else.’
And so this idea of paralysis signifies Tambudzai’s failure to engage with that notion. You know, because you want something to be positive, you want South Africa to be the Promised Land. So you want to go to South Africa, you want education to be the panacea for all your ills. So you want to go forward with it. However, you are not stupid, so you also see what is going on around you. Now, that moment of paralysis, ‘what am I going to do when I see it like this’ is exactly what you are referring to.’ I’m very grateful that you’ve actually put it into words. This is the thing… you know, when I’m writing, I’m not necessarily thinking, okay, what is the psychological concept here? How do I translate that? It is just the movement of the characters but you have absolutely put your finger on it.
So the third book shows us how that paralysis actually deepens to include, well, basically, her whole life. And I kept on saying when I was writing the third book; I’ve got to get these women through this. You know, I cannot have a book that tells the experience of a young girl looking forward to life, I cannot have her fail completely. She’s got to come through. And it was very difficult that she has been ignoring all these things which paralyse her from time to time, how is she going to actually be able to face them and come out as a whole woman.
I hope I managed. I will read some extracts from there later on if we have time. But that whole idea of paralysis…In the third book, it can even be deemed to be something that characterises the whole society that she’s living in. which is where we are now, actually. You know, somebody, a young woman, was asking, ‘What can we do in terms of encouraging Malawian youth to maybe stay…what can we do to fix the economy?’ I mean, actually maybe you could say the world is at that level of paralysis.
Jessie Kabwila (JK): Before I ask my question, I would also like to thank everybody for having me….For me this is very special; my Masters and PhD focus on Tsitsi Dangarembga’s work. So for me, it’s coming straight out with someone I respect highly.
Tsitsi, you were not afraid to be known as a feminist when everybody was afraid of the ‘F’ word. When you look at the work you’re doing, as a person who has always been taken feminism into the post-colonial area of theory, how do you see Tambudzai’s future? Let’s take Tambudzai as a microcosm of the post-colonial woman in Africa. And then, people have looked at The Book of Not and said, “This book is sad. How do we compare it with what read in Nervous Conditions?” What’s happening to Tambudzai? Does she get the land?
TD: Thank you Jessie. It’s wonderful being here, it’s like being home away from home. Yes, the issue of Tambudzai…it’s interesting that you understand Tambudzai as having to situate herself politically, because the third part of the trilogy, which is called A Mournable Body, ends when she’s understood who she is. So when I think about her now, I say, “What is she doing?” There was that moment of closure, but what did she go on to do? And in my mind I always think that Tambudzai is starting a women’s political party in Zimbabwe. This is the thing I think she’s doing now. I’m not going to write about it, I think the three novels are okay for her, but when I think about what is going on with that woman, that is what she is doing.
Why is she doing that? Why does she think that this is necessary? The woman in the two books that have been published so far…who had that kind of consciousness of where she is situated in history and in politics and even in the whole socio-economic system, was Tambudzai’s cousin, Nyasha. But this is a woman who had alternatives. Tambudzai goes on to define that post-independent Zimbabwe does not really offer as much as she had thought it was going to offer. She finds her oppression in many ways. She is not one of those women who are able to say from the beginning, I am a feminist, and therefore situate herself in a certain context. And therefore she has got to go on to do that. And A Mournable Body really chronicles her struggle, how everything she tries to do goes wrong. And you know, sometimes I think we do need to be able to look at our past and say, “Wow, that didn’t work as well as we wanted it to.” For me, if I take what is happening between different classes of women, and leave out the gendering which brings out all the sex and all the hormones, I am better able to analyse what is happening.
If you read men’s writing, when things get difficult, the characters will go off and have sex with a woman. It’s like light relief. They don’t really get into the nitty gritty of the problem. There is always the body of the woman to provide the cushion, whatever. So when I look now, in A Mournable Body, at women who are living without men, I can look at these issue of the times of class and oppression. What actually happens is that Tambudzai realises, “Oh, the only way that I can get what I wanted is to become the oppressor.” And this is what we see again in the example that you have spoken about; oppressing other women. And we see that, all the time, within groups. Post-independence, we have black people who become the elite, who forget the whole agenda of independence. You know, is it inevitable, we need to ask ourselves, really it is difficult for it not to happen. Because really, who doesn’t want the good life? It takes so much discipline for you not to simply go in that direction. Things have to happen to you which make it impossible for you to forget. Remember, Tambudzai keeps saying in Nervous Conditions, “I won’t forget, I won’t forget.” She is forced to remember in A Mournable Body instead of living happily in a lovely mansion. And so she is forced to situate herself in the political here and now. This is something I find frustrating about women in Zimbabwe; the way they do not want to engage in politics. This is something we have to engage with, because where is the new desire for change going to come from? You know, if we’ve gone through the peasantry, we’ve gone through the proletariat, where is the new impulse for change going to come from?
Brooke Marshall (BM): I just want to say it’s an honour to be sitting up here. Tsitsi, I thought it was really astute when you said educated women were attacked as loose. This is something I have seen as a teacher in Machinga district where our top student was a girl and the teachers were unable to talk about her grades and only able to talk about how many boyfriends she’d had. On page 140 of Nervous Conditions you talk about ‘the sensitive images women had of themselves, images that were really no more than reflections,” that the women had been taught to recognise these reflections as self. So, this is an impossible question to answer, but, how can we as women become humans and not just reflections?
TD: That’s really a powerful question, and it’s amazing, because the very opening scene of A Mournable Body has Tambudzai looking in the mirror and hating what she sees. So, to answer your question, I’m going to give you the short version: they have to go through the glass. It’s the only way. You’re going to get cut, you’re going to get splinters, but you’ve got to go through. It’s the only way.
MD: In Nervous Conditions, Nyasha had bulimia. At the beginning of The Book of Not, we have a situation in which Tambudzai is finding it difficult to eat sadza. Her mother actually comments on that difficulty. And yet Tambu is willing to get biscuits from Tracey, and to eat broccoli and fish. Is she ‘stomaching’ colonialism?
TD: Tambudzai is definitely stomaching colonialism. This is Tambudzai’s whole tragedy in The Book of Not. We see that although she does stomach it, this stomach does not do her a great amount of good. She survives, but ends up very alienated from herself and her family.
MD: Christopher Okonkwo talks about how the narrator/protagonist in the novel is often used as a surrogate for the writer’s views. Is this case with your novels? If so, who is the surrogate?
TD: It is inevitable that a narrator must be connected in some systematic way to the writer’s point of view. This does not have to be a clear linear one to one relationship, but it must be systematic otherwise the novel would lack cohesion. Tambudzai is related to my views. In The Book Of Not, I use her character to explore for myself and other people my views on the choice that many people make of complicity with oppressive systems. In the war situation described in The Book of Not, there is obvious complicity from people who were called “sell outs” and there was the psychological complicity that is so typical of oppressed people, as demonstrated by Tambudzai. So The Book Of Not is a study in Tambudzai’s “mental slavery”, as Bob Marley called it. It was important for me to show the cost of rebellion also, especially when it is flawed. Tambudzai tries to rebel against racism at the end of the novel, but does not realize her complicity with other systems and therefore does not manage to free herself of mental slavery in The Book of Not.
MD: Ousmane Sembène once said that he moved from novels to film in order to reach more members of society. You are using both genres. Was your motive for including film similar to the one expressed by Sembène?
MD: Based on your experience, how have censorship laws impacted on film production?
TD: In my opinion, the censorship occurs before the film is even made. It is market censorship. In past decades when the market was still seen as an autonomous, at least quasi-natural phenomenon, filmmakers like myself were told that we couldn’t fund our films because were not good enough and “nobody” was interested in them. This has been proven wrong by Nollywood, which came to be a market force in itself. We thus see that markets and their characteristic, including film markets and their characteristics, are controlled by power centres. There was and is deliberate withholding of certain stories. African American filmmakers have pointed this out with respect to Hollywood. Nollywood is doing the same things as particular concerns contralto that market and account for the kinds of content that we see. Women in the USA are also begin to work against the closure of the film market to women. In Zimbabwe the little locally funded practice that we see is enabled by men who often have ties to government and little knowledge of how to build a thriven sector. I am marginalized on many fronts. Sometimes I succumb to frustration. I never stop searching for and investing myself in solutions.