Tsitsi Ndangarembga - A cannon of African and feminist literature


A cannon of African and feminist literature Tsitsi Dangarembga is one of Africa's most recognized authors, filmmakers and cultural activists. While she first garnered international recognition for her novel, Nervous Conditions, which won the Commonwealth Literature Prize in 1989, she has since gained recognition as a film writer, director and producer and has worked on over a dozen documentary and short films, including  'Neria,'  (1993) which she wrote, which has become one of the top grossing films in Zimbabwean history. In 2009 she founded the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa, an organization that supports filmmaking and creative arts.

She sat on the board of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (2011 to 2013), on the board of National Arts Council of Zimbabwe (2010 to2012), as well as on the boards of the National AIDS Council (2005 to 2009) and on the board of the Zimbabwe College of Music (2003 to 2009). She’s also chaired "Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe" from 1998 to 2005 during which she founded the "International Images Film Festival for Women" in its thirteenth edition this year. Tsitsi has also taught African film at MIT and she sat on the Etisalat Prize for Literature panel of judges (2014). Below, find a TAP conversation with Tsitsi Dangarembga; a cannon of African and feminist literature

Kindly introduce yourself to the TAP audience, who is Tsitsi in this moment in time?

Tsitsi Ndangarembga: I am a mother of three wonderful adolescents/young adults. That’s my strongest identity at the moment. It informs everything I do, to the extent where the current novel I am working on is young adult dystopian speculative work. The background to that is I felt, some years ago, that I was losing touch with my children, especially my sons. A friend advised me to read what my boys, particularly my elder son was reading. That started me off on Percy Jackson and set me off. I find it important to identify with myself as I currently am, rather than identifying with my past. So the other aspect of my identity is that I am someone struggling to make a difference in contemporary Zimbabwe and in the world through my art. I have just stopped working on a number of social projects, including the International Images Film Festival for Women in order to concentrate on other concerns. The film festival is established now and no longer needs my ongoing input.

 What current projects are you working on?

Tsitsi Ndangarembga: What I have realized in the fifteen years that I have been back in Zimbabwe after finishing film school in Germany, is that if you want to do anything good in the art scene in Zimbabwe, you have to do it yourself. This is easier said than done. It’s an exercise in perseverance. My current projects are an industry oriented arts education institution because most of the arts education in Zimbabwe is theoretical rather than practical. The other perennial problem is funding. So I am looking at creating funding structures for film. My current two projects are for an African women’s film fund and a Zimbabwe national film fund. While at Writivism in Kampala this June, I discovered an even more ambitious program for funding African art with some colleagues. I am mulling over how to go about that as well and expect to begin in the next six months. Where my personal work is concerned, I am trying to raise either interest or money to publish the third and final novel in the TAMBUDZAI trilogy, which is called A MOURNABLE BODY. I am mulling over a crowd funding campaign anchored by a reading on YouTube. I am also working on the young adult speculative fiction I mentioned above and am having a lot of fun with that. I also have a couple of completed film scripts that I would love to produce that I am fund-raising for and I am working on two more scripts that I am excited by. One of the big projects I have embarked on is adapting three of the novels long-listed for this year’s Etisalat Prize for African literature. I read them as a judge and realized that we have a huge number of wonderful stories already plotted with fabulous characters in our vat body of literature.

Speak briefly about your childhood, what was your favorite moment growing up?

Tsitsi Ndangarembga: My happiest moments were playing. We had so much to do - going to the river to the dam to fetch clay, playing house, or playing sports, or trying to build a house with mud bricks. There were always people to play with in the neighborhood, or relatives came to stay. I feel so sorry for children today who spend their time gazing at screens.

When you write/speak, besides informing and challenging, what else do you seek to accomplish?

I am all about breaking boundaries.

Tsitsi Ndangarembga

 On Education  

Primary and secondary schools curriculums in most of African countries are outdated, would you endorse an overhaul? If yes, what would you like to see added?

Tsitsi Ndangarembga: The primary and secondary school curriculums in most African countries are a source of some despair. I had to work very hard as a parent to supplement the things my children were learning with more creative stimulating mental activity. I think that the matter is deeper than the curriculum. It goes back to the philosophy of education. While we wished for old oppressive systems to be overhauled at independence in our countries, this did not often happen. The kind of education that had been developed predominantly to produce servants of an oppressive system was not changed. As our leaders were products of that system, it is understandable that they found it and still often find it difficult to look beyond the mental universe that was constructed in them by that kind of education. In southern Africa the education availed to people of color was explicitly such as to produce “”drawers of water and hewers of wood”. Creativity and independent analytical thinking were suppressed in favor of rote learning and mindless repetition. We are suffering the consequences of that to this very day.

 On Feminism

You have described yourself as a feminist, and Nervous Conditions has become part of the African feminist canon, what does feminism mean to you?

Tsitsi Ndangarembga: Feminism means to me finding the ways of living an empowered life that is not fettered by gender for myself and for other women, in such a way as to contribute to dismantling the systems that seek to disempower on the basis of gender.


 Is African feminism distinct? If so, how?

Tsitsi Ndangarembga: African feminism is distinct from other feminisms because of its intersection with race in the bodies and experience of African women. As an African feminist I have to engage with how race works to disempower me as a person of colour, as well as with how gender works to disempower me as a woman. I have to engage with the specificities of existence that emerge from this intersection. This is something other feminists do not have to negotiate in experience, thus they cannot theorize it from the perspective of lived conditions. This is not the only basis for theory, but I do think it is as valid as controlled experimentation or extensive inquiry.   I have to find solutions to the negatives that the condition of being a black African female entail, as well as find ways of embracing in a wholesome manner any positives that may result. The truth is, however, that it is difficult to embrace positives in a wholesome manner because more often than not a positive is extended by one who has the power to do s, who will have certain expectations from you as a black African female. Unilateral expectations are in the nature of power.

On Politics

In your TEDx talk in Harare ‘The question posed by my cat” you argued that at the core of the crises in Africa is an “existential neurosis”; we, as Africans, do not know what we want hence what we do get never satisfies us.  Can you say a little more about this idea?

Tsitsi Ndangarembga: To know what you want, you have to know who you are and what is available. I have applied the Freudian concept of lack to dimensions other than gender where a polarity exists. Thus in the race dimension, Africans are socialized into lack. Because we are socialized to perceive our very selves as personifying lack, nothing that we obtain from “put there” can be satisfying. The only solution is to begin with the source of lack itself, which is in the imaginary. Systems of power understand this very well. This is why all systems of power maintain a stranglehold on cultural production.


You argued that to find out what we need, we have to “find the essential” within us, as Africans. How would you define this “essence?”

Tsitsi Ndangarembga: I don’t define the essence. For me it is an experiential phenomenon. It is that part of me that says “yes” when I encounter a great truth. It is a part we all have, but that we often tune out due to socialization. This is the great challenge of my art: to sublime that phenomenon into something more tangible.

What unites, defines, or differentiates Africans from the rest of world?

For me the differentiating factor is common history. This is a common history that is closely associated with geographical location and cultural practices, which is different from the history of other geographical locations and their associated cultural practices. Beyond that what differentiates us is that which is common to us all. But history has taught us that it is within human nature to emphasize the differences. A strategy against this is to emphasize similarity.

What role do you think writers; storytellers and filmmakers have play in highlighting this essence? 

Tsitsi Ndangarembga: It is, in my thinking, the singular and particular task of artists to highlight this essence. In my work that is what I strive to do. I have found that other artists I engage with are engaged in a similar endeavor, even if they express it differently.

 In a recent talk you gave at the Writivism Festival in Kampala, Uganda, you spoke at length about the need to diversify African narratives. Could you say a little more about this?

Tsitsi Ndangarembga: I believe that we are at the mercy of genre. At one time the genre was the political novel, at another coming of age. Recently we have heard call for more African romances or more African detective stories. The point I was making is that genre is shorthand for a certain kind of story, which is told according to certain rules. These rules were laid down as a result of numbers of writers writing that kind of narrative. This is good, but I feel that it can stifle diversity.   While we should celebrate genre - which also requires less of us as the reader - we should also celebrate and require more demanding narratives that take us into uncharted waters even if such narratives might initially deliver a bit of a shock to the system rather than in the first instance causing a nice warm feeling. I do believe that we are fitter mentally with some literary weigh lifting.

What advice would you give to a budding writer that wants to tell stories that might not be popular?

Tsitsi Ndangarembga:My advice is to grit your teeth and keep writing. You will only hate yourself if you give up. We have to be committed and willing to suffer some discomfort while we figure things out. The practical thing to do is to surf the Internet regularly for opportunities. There are increasingly more of them. This year already I have attended four arts events on the continent, with two more already lined up. Not so long ago I would hardly attend a single event on the continent in half a year. Things are changing and we have to be worthy of the change so that we can capitalize on it, rather than have changing circumstances find us unready.

Who would you say are your top 3 favorite African authors of all time?

Tsitsi Ndangarembga: Difficult, but here they are: Chinua Achebe, Sefi Atta, Helon Habila. I name those three although my baptism by fire was Ngugi wa Thiongo’s A GRAIN OF WHEAT, and even though the first time I recognized myself in a novel was in Camera Laye’s THE AFRICAN CHILD. I remember how, after I read A GRAIN OF WHEAT in my early teens I could not understand why the writer went by the name of James.


 Where do you see the literary scene in Africa going?

Tsitsi Ndangarembga: I really don’t know. Everything is so open. I think that not knowing is good, because it means that the literary scene still has the capacity to surprise us. My fear is that it will become more sterile with predictable stories about predictable encounters of predictable protagonists who have made peace with being “other” to the self and narrating that self-otherness instead of wresting with it as we are told Jacob wrestled all night with the angel. But the signs are that we are beginning to lose our fear of wrestling and are willing to do it in a variety of styles. This is exciting. The question remains, though, that even if writers are throwing off their shackles, are publishers?

Which book/books would you enlist as a must read for every young African?

There are so many. ROSES FOR BETTY certainly tops my list. The stories are accessible, engaging, fearless and profound while being formally accomplished. I haven’t been so excited by a book for a long time. PENUMBRA by Songeziwe Mahlangu, winner of this year’s Etisalat prize for literature is another. The classics are always worth dipping into.


Interview by Naseemah Mohamed and Moses Mutabaruka

First published in TAP MAG ISSUE 4