Literary Zone

Zimbabwean writer and film maker Tsitsi Dangarembga

16 June 2020 at 17:07 | 1651 views

Tsitsi Dangarembga (born 4 February 1959) is a Zimbabwean novelist, playwright, and filmmaker. Her debut novel, Nervous Conditions (1988), which was the first to be written in English by a black woman from Zimbabwe, was named by the BBC in 2018 as one of the top 100 books that have shaped the world.

Early life and education
Dangarembga was born on 4 February 1959 in Mutoko, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), a small town where her parents taught at the nearby mission school.Her mother, Susan Dangarembga, was the first black woman in Southern Rhodesia to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and her father, Amon, would later become a school headmaster. Dangarembga lived in England from ages two to six while her parents pursued higher education.There, she recalled that she and her brother began to speak English "as a matter of course and forgot most of the Shona we had learnt." She returned Rhodesia with her family in 1965, the year of the colony’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence. In Rhodesia, she reacquired Shona, but considered English, the language of her schooling, her first language.

In 1965, she moved with her family to Old Mutare, a Methodist mission near Umtali (now Mutare) where her father and mother took up respective positions as headmaster and teacher at Hartzell High School.Dangarembga, who had begun her education in England, enrolled at Hartzell Primary School, before going to board at the Marymount Mission convent school. She completed her A Levels at Arundel School, an elite, predominantly white girls’ school in the capital, Salisbury (today Harare), and in 1977 went to the University of Cambridge to study medicine. There, she experienced racism and isolation and left after three years, returning in 1980 to Zimbabwe several months before the country’s independence.

Dangarembga worked briefly as a teacher, before taking up studies in psychology at the University of Zimbabwe while working for two years as a copywriter at a marketing agency. She joined the university drama club, and wrote and directed several of the plays the group performed. She also became involved with the theatre group Zambuko, during which she participated in the production of two plays, Katshaa! and Mavambo. She later recalled, "There were simply no plays with roles for black women, or at least we didn’t have access to them at the time. The writers in Zimbabwe were basically men at the time. And so I really didn’t see that the situation would be remedied unless some women sat down and wrote something, so that’s what I did!" She wrote three plays during this period: Lost of the Soil (1983), She No Longer Weeps, and The Third One. During these years, she also began reading works by African American women writers and contemporary African literature, a shift from the English classics she had grown up reading.

In 1985, Dangarembga’s short story "The Letter" won second place in a writing competition arranged by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and was published in Sweden in the anthology Whispering Land. In 1987, her play She No Longer Weeps, which she wrote during her university years, was published in Harare. Her first novel, Nervous Conditions, was published in 1988 in the United Kingdom, and a year later in the United States. She wrote it in 1985, but experienced difficulties getting it published; rejected by four Zimbabwean publishers, she eventually found a willing publisher in the London-based Women’s Press. Nervous Conditions, the first novel written in English by a black woman from Zimbabwe, received domestic and international acclaim, and was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa region) in 1989. It is considered one of the best African novels ever written, and was included on the BBC’s 2018 list of top 100 books that have shaped the world.

In 1989, Dangarembga went to Germany to study film direction at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin. She produced a number of films while in Berlin, including a documentary aired on German television. In 1992, she founded Nyerai Films, a production company based in Harare.. She wrote the story for the 1993 film Neria, which became the highest-grossing film in Zimbabwean history. Her 1996 film Everyone’s Child, the first feature film directed by a black Zimbabwean woman, was shown internationally, including at the Dublin International Film Festival. The film, shot on location in Harare and Domboshava, follows the tragic stories of four siblings after their parents die of AIDS. In 2000, Dangarembga moved back to Zimbabwe with her family, and continued her work with Nyerai Films. In 2002, she founded the International Images Film Festival. Her 2005 film Kare Kare Zvako won the Short Film Award and Golden Dhow at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, and the African Short Film Award at the Milan Film Festival. Her 2006 film Peretera Maneta received the UNESCO Children’s and Human Rights Award and won the Zanzibar International Film Festival.She is the executive director of the organization Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe and the founding direction of the Women’s Film Festival of Harare. As of 2010, she has also served on the board of the Zimbabwe College of Music for five years, including two years as chair.

Asked about her lack of writing since Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga explained in 2004, "firstly, the novel was published only after I had turned to film as a medium; secondly, Virginia Woolf’s shrewd observation that a woman needs £500 and a room of her own in order to write is entirely valid. Incidentally, I am moving and hope that, for the first time since Nervous Conditions, I shall have a room of my own. I’ll try to ignore the bit about £500. Indeed, two years later in 2006, she published her second novel, The Book of Not, a sequel to Nervous Conditions. She also became involved in politics, and in 2010 was named education secretary of the Movement for Democratic Change political party led by Arthur Mutambara. She cited her background coming from a family of educators, her brief stint as a teacher, and her "practical, if not formal," involvement in the education sector as preparing her for the role. She completed doctoral studies in African studies at Humboldt University of Berlin, and wrote her PhD thesis on the reception of African film. In 2016, she was selected by the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center for their Artists in Residency program. Her third novel, This Mournable Body, a sequel to The Book of Not and Nervous Conditions, was published in 2018. In 2019, she was announced as a finalist for the St. Francis College Literary Prize, a biennial award recognizing outstanding fiction by writers in the middle stages of their careers.