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Booker-nominated Tsitsi Dangarembga faces trial

September 16, 2020

Arrested in July for protesting against Zimbabwe's government, the novelist is now set to appear in court, right after being honored with a Booker Prize nomination.

Tsitsi Dangarembga protesting on July 31, 2020, shortly before her arres
Image: Zinyange Auntony/AFP

Three days after Tsitsi Dangarembga was nominated for the Booker Prize longlist on July 28 with her latest novel, This Mournable Body, she was arrested. Now, she has made it onto the UK's leading literary award's shortlist — also three days before her trial following her arrest is set to begin. 

Back in July, the internationally acclaimed author and filmmaker was simply standing at an intersection with a friend, holding a placard that read: "We want better. Reform our institutions." Shortly after, a riot truck arrived; police arrested them and kept them in detention for a night. 

Very few people had dared join the anti-government protests called by the opposition to coincide with the second anniversary of President Emmerson Mnangagwa's election victory on July 31. Ahead of the day, the president had described the demonstrations as "an insurrection to overthrow our democratically elected government" and declared them illegal, sending out police forces to crack down on all protest attempts.

Most people therefore preferred to stay at home and voice their opposition through social media, using the hashtag #ZANUPFmustgo, which refers to the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF). The political organization has been in power since the country's independence in 1980. Long under Robert Mugabe's rule, his longtime vice-president Mnangagwa took over after the dictator's removal in 2017. 

Fighting for basic citizens' rights

Despite Mnangagwa's threats, the author was among those who took to Harare's streets that day. "I was one of the few citizens who felt that our right [to demonstrate and petition the government peacefully] was taken away from us," she told DW, "And so, we went ahead." 

She explained that critics are protesting against "the misgovernance in Zimbabwe, the clampdown by authorities against dissent, and of course corruption, a lack of service delivery, a lot of alleged embezzlement of funds that were earmarked for the COVID response." 

A now, following her arrest, she is "accused of attending a meeting with intention to incite public violence, breach of peace and acts of bigotry," said the author. Those accusations could land her in jail. "I have to be prepared for everything. I'm hoping and praying for the best," she added.

Author of one of the '100 stories that shaped the world'

Published in 2018, This Mournable Body was praised by The New York Times Book Review as a "masterpiece," while Kirkus Reviews described it as a "haunting, incisive, and timely glimpse into how misogyny and class strife shape life in post-colonial Zimbabwe." 

Book cover Nervous Conditions   Tsitsi Dangarembga
'Nervous Conditions' has become a modern classic

The Booker-nominated novel is the third part of a trilogy that Tsitsi Dangarembga started with Nervous Conditions in 1988. The sequel, titled The Book of Not, came out in 2006.

Nervous Conditions firmly established Dangarembga's reputation in the international literary scene: It was the first book written by a Black woman from Zimbabwe to be published in English. The author won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize with it in 1989, which led to translations in many languages.

In 2018, the novel was included on the BBC's list of "100 stories that shaped the world," landing between Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince.

A filmmaking activist

Yet the acclaim of Dangarembga's debut novel didn't make it easier for her following projects to materialize.

"Nervous Conditions didn't get any traction in Zimbabwe," she said at the opening panel of the African Book Festival in Berlin in 2019, where she was invited as the curator of the event. "I have always been writing against power and that's why things don't always happen."

After her debut novel, the author, who was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1959, studied film at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin from 1989-1996, moving on to a PhD in Africa Studies at Berlin's Humboldt University afterwards.

Tsitsi Dangarembga
Dangarembga's PhD thesis was on the reception of African filmImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Roland

While doing so, she wrote the script for the film Neria (1993), which became the highest-grossing film in Zimbabwe. Contributing to its success was the soundtrack by the country's most internationally recognized cultural icon, musician Oliver Mtukudzi, who died in January 2019.

Dangarembga also directed her own documentaries and feature films, including Everyone's Child (1996), which was the first feature film directed by a Black Zimbabwean woman.

After her time living in Europe, she returned to Zimbabwe with her family in 2000, where she established various projects to develop the film industry and support female directors. She founded, for example, a production company called Nyerai Films as well as the International Images Film Festival for Women in Harare.

She is also a founding member of the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa, an organization that supports works of art and audio-visual productions in Zimbabwe.

A Booker-nominated novel initially rejected by publishers

Book cover This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
'This Mournable Body' is set in the late 1990s ZimbabweImage: Graywolf Press

This Mournable Body almost didn't see the light of day either. "It had been rejected by different publishers and at some point I was so desperate I started posting extracts on Facebook," Dangarembga revealed at the African Book Festival. 

Fortunately, the novelist's digital SOS was spotted by the reputed editor and literary critic Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, who got the book published.

The Booker longlist and shortlist nominations couldn't have been better timed to help her obtain international support: "I am happy that the arrest came after I had been longlisted for the Booker Prize, because I have been writing for over three decades and I haven't been very successful," the author modestly told DW in August during a video interview from her home in Harare. 

"That kind of recognition is very positive in terms of my self-confidence," she added. "And it's wonderful to have something so positive at the same time that I am going through these other challenges." 


DW's Sabine Kieselbach interviewed Tsitsi Dangarembga in August for the YouTube channel DW Books.

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture