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Tsitsi Dangarembga, shaping the world with stories

April 5, 2019

She is the curator of this year's African Book Festival in Berlin. Despite struggles to get support for her projects, the award-winning Zimbabwean author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga keeps on writing against power.

Tsitsi Dangarembga, author from Zimbabwe
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Roland

Whenever journalists interview Tsitsi Dangarembga, they all focus on her novel from 1988, Nervous Conditions.

There are good reasons for this: Not only was it the first book written by a Black woman from Zimbabwe to be published in English, it was also awarded the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1989 and was translated into many languages afterwards. In 2018, the novel was included on the BBC's list of "100 stories that shaped the world," landing between Salman Rushdie's Midnight Children and Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince.

Despite the flattering honors, the constant focus on this work feels a bit tedious for Dangarembga. "I mean, I wrote it 30 years ago," said the author, who is this year's curator of the African Book Festival held in Berlin from April 4 -7.

What adds to her frustration is the fact that the recognition obtained by her debut novel didn't make it easier for her following projects to materialize.

Book cover for Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

"Nervous Conditions didn't get any traction in Zimbabwe," the author said. "I have always been writing against power and that's why things don't always happen."

It took three decades for her trilogy of books, based on the main character of Nervous Conditions, to be completed. The sequel to Nervous Conditions, titled The Book of Not, came out in 2006; the third one, This Mournable Body was just published in 2018.

That novel almost didn't see the light of day. "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 opening panel of the African Book Festival. Fortunately, the novelist's digital SOS was spotted by the reputed editor and literary critic Ellah Wakatama Allfrey — also a guest at the festival's opening panel, along with author Olumide Popoola— and she got the book published.

Cover of the book This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Image: Graywolf Press

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."

A filmmaking activist

Back in the 1980s, the author, who was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1959, had already realized she needed to expand her skills to make a living. That's why she decided to study film. She was accepted at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin, where studied from 1989-1996, moving on to a PhD in Africa Studies at Berlin's Humboldt University afterwards.

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, and Growing Stronger (2005), a documentary on two very different Zimbabwean women living with HIV.

Read more: The strength of compassion: Toni Morrison at 85

Engaged in her home country

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. For example, the filmmaker founded a production company called Nyerai Films as well as the Women's Film Festival of Harare. She is also the director of the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa, an organization that supports works of art and audio-visual productions in Zimbabwe.

Despite these various prestigious roles and the series of awards she has collected in Zimbabwe and worldwide, Dangarembga admitted that it was still hard to obtain funding for her films. She is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to finance her feature project Nnenna, adapted from the novel Trapped in Oblivion by Ifeoma Theodore Jnr E, about a young girl discovering sexuality — a topic she can't discuss with her mother.

At the panel, Dangarembga pointed out that her struggles to get her projects funded — even as an established filmmaker — are symptomatic of a situation that affects Zimbabwe's entire cultural landscape. The last film to obtain a large budget, of $240,000 (€214,000), was Chinhoyi 7. The epic is about the country's liberation struggle, which is typical for the country, says Dangarembga. "If you don't fit in that tradition of narrative production, you can't produce in Zimababwe."

Read more: Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo: 'I like to write from the bone'

Tsitsi Dangarembga and Ben Okri sitting on a bench in Berlin
Tsitsi Dangarembga and the African Book Festival's headliner, Nigerian novelist and poet Ben OkriImage: African Book Festival/InterKontinental

Finding a way to power

To allow a diversity of voices to emerge, the issue of power is central, said the curator of the 2019 African Book Festival. 

"I have become very aware of the institutionalized nature of narrative production," she said; it is through institutions that filmmakers and authors manage to release their works and get heard, an essential part of storytelling, added the author: "The birth of the narrative is only complete when it is also in someone else's head."

Through her work in Zimbabwe and as the curator of the Berlin Literary Festival, Tsitsi Dangarembga also contributes to spreading those stories, and at the opening panel, she empowered others to do so as well: "We all have to take the power back into our own hands."


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