With her new novel, “This Mournable Body”, the Zimbabwean, Tsitsi Dangarembga is in the running this year for the prestigious Booker Prize, the English equivalent of the Goncourt Prize. It is a powerful novel that recounts the descent into hell of postcolonial Zimbabwe. The announcement in July of the first selection of works selected for the prize coincided with the arrest of the author accused by the police of incitement to insurrection and public violence. Portrait of a committed novelist.
“Writing is an act of courage”, likes to repeat the Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga. Hailed as a major feminist voice, she rose to fame by publishing her first novel a little over 30 years ago. Nervous conditions » (On edgeAlbin Michel), which tells the story of a young girl in Zimbabwe under colonization. His new novel “This Mournable Body” (Faber), published two years ago, is in the running for the 2020 edition of the Booker Prize, the most prestigious British literary prize. The name of the winner chosen from the four books of the last selection of the London jury will be announced on November 17.
It took a great deal of courage for Tsitsi Dangaremgba, when some four days after the announcement last July of the first list of authors shortlisted for the prize, she was arrested by Zimbabwean police and thrown in jail. She was accused of participating in a banned demonstration against corruption and repression of opponents.
Activist, without being a member of any political party, Tsitsi Dangarembga has been campaigning for several years against the disastrous management of her country by an authoritarian and corrupt power. During her arrest, she carried signs calling for the release of opponents who revealed corruption scandals in the fight against the Covid 19 pandemic in Zimbabwe. Released on bail after spending a whole night behind bars, the novelist must appear in court to answer the heavy charges of incitement to public violence against her.
” Yes, I have littler,” the novelist told international media that covered her arrest extensively. Her fate particularly moved British literary circles who mobilized, demanding that the charges against her be dropped. A coalition of prestigious authors, led by the director of Faber, Dangarembga’s publishing house, reminded the Zimbabwean government that ” peaceful protest is a human right » and that the writer had « the right to be a peaceful protester, to gather and express one’s opinions, without fear of being arrested or persecuted “. Will they be heard? Nothing is less certain in post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, where opponents are described as ” rotten apples “, of ” terrorists » or even « dark forces ” of the nation !
Tsitsi Dangarembga, who has lived in Harare for 30 years, had no doubt taken the measure of the risks she was running by defying the Zimbabwean regime, which had become increasingly repressive as the country sank into economic crisis and instability. . This headlong rush of Zimbabwe, independent since 1980, and the plunge of an entire people into disappointment and despair, form the backdrop of the story of female liberation that the novelist tells in her new novel.
“This Mournable Body”, whose action takes place in the Zimbabwe of the Mugabe years, is the last volume of the trilogy inaugurated by Dangarembga with “Nervous conditions”, published more than thirty years ago. Borrowing its title from Jean-Paul Sartre who described as ” the nervous state » the acculturation undergone by the colonized peoples, the writer had staged in this first novel the courageous struggle of a young woman confronted with colonial alienation in the former Southern Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe after independence .
Central figure of the novel, Tambudzai or Tambu, whose name means in Shona ” you made me suffer was in this first volume of the trilogy an ingenuous teenager who, thanks to her Western education, escapes the servitude to which traditional society condemns African women. Benefiting from the generosity of an uncle who is the director of a primary school, Tambu leaves his village to study in the big city. This development, which follows the accidental death of the heroine’s brother on whom the family had pinned all its hopes until then, will, as one can imagine, have dramatic consequences on the future of the protagonist. She will tear her away from her origins, her language, her family, while giving her the intellectual means to forge herself as a free and modern woman.
A self-fiction novel
“Nervous Conditions”, which was the first Zimbabwean novel to tell of the condition of women in a reputedly patriarchal society, has long been considered an autofictional, even autobiographical story. Like her heroine Tambudzai, Tsitsi Dangarembga, born in 1959, grew up in a colonial society. However, unlike her heroine, she did not have to convince her family to study. Her two parents were both teachers, but it is to her mother, the first black Zimbabwean woman to obtain the baccalaureate and acquired feminist ideas from an early age, that the novelist owes her interest in studies and literature.
In the early 1960s, the Dangarembga family stayed for a time in England where little Tsitsi took her first steps, before returning to Zimbabwe in 1965. With her baccalaureate in her pocket, the young woman returned to England again, more precisely to Cambridge. , in order to study medicine there, but she will not go to the end of her course and will return home after three years.
It was on his return to his country in 1980 that Dangarembga began writing “Nervous conditions”, while pursuing studies at the University of Harare. She works in her free time for an advertising agency to pay for studies. The year 1988 was a year of consecration for the young novelist, with the publication in London of “Nervous conditions”.
Dangarembga is just 25 years old. The reception of the work is enthusiastic. ” This is the book we’ve been waiting for. It is destined to become a classic “, said the Nobel Prize for Literature Doris Lessing, herself a native of the former Rhodesia. This novel is also part of a repertoire established by the BBC of 100 books of the 20th century that have shaped contemporary imaginations.
Despite this euphoric reception, the search for a publisher had not been easy, said the novelist. She first sent the manuscript to Zimbabwean publishers. Four submissions were followed by four refusals, before the book was picked up by a London-based feminist publisher. It is undoubtedly these publication difficulties that explain why we will have to wait eighteen years to read the second volume of the trilogy “The Book of Not” (not translated into French), and thirty-two years for “The Mournable Body”, the last volume.
Descent into hell
After the publication of her novel, convinced that African fiction had no future, the novelist made a detour to the cinema and to Germany where she trained as a director and screenwriter. She made a name for herself in the film industry by directing numerous films and documentaries for German television. She is also the author of the screenplay for the film Neria, released in 1993, on the condition of Zimbabwean women.
In the early 1990s, Tsitsi Dangarembga returned to Harare with her German husband and children. Harare, which she calls “shadow-city” (ghost town) serves as a promontory from the top of which she witnesses the descent into hell of her country under Mugabe.
It is in the twilight context of the Mugabe years that the novelist set the plot of the last volume of her trilogy, featuring her heroine struggling with the traumas of the past and the corruption of the present. This heroine is none other than Tambudzai, protagonist of the previous stories of the trilogy. Tambudzai is psychologically and spiritually broken. Despite the promises of the liberators, the class struggle is not dead in post-colonial Zimbabwe, nor the misogyny against which this character once rose up. Having reached the middle of her life, accumulating failures and humiliations in her fights against patriarchy, she becomes aware of the limits of her individual resistance. A major achievement which will, as one can imagine, have consequences for the outcome of the story.
One could also wonder if this awareness is not at the origin of the political activism of Tsitsi Dangarembga. Drawing the attention of an interviewer to the influence of her fictional writing on her political activism, the novelist explained recently that she might not have demonstrated and publicly denounced the authorities, if she had not been brought to explore the gloom that reigns in contemporary Zimbabwe in “This Mournable Body”. This back and forth between lived experience and fiction is undoubtedly the most fascinating dimension of the literary work of the Zimbabwean novelist. Will the Booker Prize jury be sensitive to this? Answer Tuesday.
We want to thank the writer of this write-up for this amazing material
Tsitsi Dangarembga, dissident novelist and feminist from Zimbabwe