Thirty years after her iconic debut novel, Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga is back with a final look at her heroine’s harrowing journey through the Mugabe years, hoping to spark debate about violence against women in her country.
Often praised as a leading feminist voice, Dangarembga shot to fame in 1988 with “Nervous Conditions”, a coming-of-age story about a girl’s battle to escape poverty and get an education. The book became an instant classic.
Since then, Dangarembga said little had changed for women in Zimbabwe.
“Women are still being silenced,” she told AFP at the Frankfurt book fair where she presented “This Mournable Body”, the final instalment in the trilogy featuring her bowed-but-not-broken protagonist Tambudzai.
As in real life, the book describes a country where women “suffer disproportionally” and abuse by men is so normal it barely registers as gender violence, Dangarembga said.
“Violence is very much part of the fabric of our society and I believe we have to address this… if we want to overcome it.”
Dangarembga, 59, said she has been trying to get a #MeToo campaign started in Zimbabwe to highlight the abuse and discrimination suffered by women, as the viral movement had yet to make waves in her country.
“I want to talk about my own story of abuse, which really robbed me of eight years of my life. I want to be one of the people in the #MeToo spots.”
But her efforts have floundered so far, she said, running up against a lack of funding, the reluctance of families to let their daughters speak out and a lack of support from civil society groups.
Mugabe ‘myth’ broken
With her trilogy, Dangarembga paints a bleak picture of the years under former president Robert Mugabe’s rule, touching on everything from racism to economic hardship and the traumas of post-colonialism and war.
Despite the sometimes desperate circumstances, Dangarembga said Tambudzai’s struggles to find employment or put food on the table were never devoid of hope.
“This is about your average Zimbabwean woman who is doing nothing special apart from surviving day to day,” she said.
“Sometimes one doesn’t do it elegantly, or very morally, but one does manage.”
“Nervous Conditions”, recently named by the BBC as one of 100 stories that shaped the world, and its 2006 sequel “The Book of Not” were both narrated in the first person – but the final book is written in the second person.
Dangarembga said she opted for the unconventional “you” point of view because some of Tambu’s experiences were “so emotional and painful” that she needed distance from her.
The story ends at the turn of the millennium, around the time that Dangarembga, who is also an award-winning filmmaker, moved back to Zimbabwe after living in England and Germany for years.
The author said she wanted to see with her own eyes the land seizures she heard about on the news.
She witnessed Mugabe’s historic ouster in a de facto coup last year but said she doesn’t “really see things changing in the post-Mugabe era”, as the country’s wrecked economy undergoes a fresh bout of chaos.
“I think that because of the way Mr Mugabe was removed from power, the government today has to be more circumspect… it needs to cultivate legitimacy.”
But with Mugabe’s downfall, “a myth was done away with”.
“Now people believe that things are possible, and that’s good.”
Dangarembga’s appearance at last week’s Frankfurt book fair came as African writers grabbed the spotlight at the annual event with a record 34 publishers from 19 countries on the continent showcasing their work.
“This is an exciting time to be an African author,” Dangarembga said, noting that there was also “a big rush” to make African films and television shows.
“These are where the new stories are that shed another light on our shared humanity. I think it’s beautiful the world is beginning to understand that.”