The wounds that burst open

Writer, filmmaker and activist Tsitsi Dangarembga entwines the troubled story of herself and her country Zimbabwe in the book of essays, 'Black and Female.'

Image credit Brandon Mushori via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

In a pivotal early scene from Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 1988 novel Nervous Conditions, narrator Tambudzai’s preteen cousin Nyasha returns to her small Southern Rhodesian village after spending several years in England, where her parents moved to earn advanced university degrees. Nyasha arrives in town wearing a short dress, which is presumably stylish and appropriate abroad, but codes as immodest to conservative Tambu, whose disapproval outweighs any sympathy for her cousin’s visible discomfort and embarrassment at her sartorial misstep. Narrated from Tambu’s point of view, Nervous Conditions leaves readers to mostly imagine how Nyasha’s time overseas formed her tastes, sensibilities, and precocious critical insight into the injustices of the world around her. One brief and seemingly tangential observation that she “had taken seriously the lessons about oppression and discrimination that she had learnt first-hand in England,” suggests that Nyasha’s subject formation and the crises of selfhood that befall her after her return to Africa owe much to a set of painful experiences in her early years abroad. Readers are never told exactly what “lessons” she learned during this time, nor how they were taught.

For fans of Dangarembga’s fiction, then, one of the most gratifying aspects of Black and Female, her newly published collection of essays, might be that it fleshes out some of those mysteries of Nyasha’s backstory through the account it provides of Dangarembga’s own early childhood. Like Nyasha, Dangarembga moved to England with her parents when she was quite young so that they could pursue advanced university degrees. Also possibly like Nyasha, and certainly like many children of African immigrants in the postwar UK, she and her brother were entrusted to a white working-class foster family while her parents completed their studies. For Dangarembga this time in foster care was deeply traumatic, not because her foster family was cruel, but because of the cruelty of the structural forces that led to that early separation from her family and a clear and secure sense of self. Her time in foster care marked the start of a long journey toward self-negation, the story of “how I came not to be for many years”—that gets gradually laid out over the course of the volume’s four essays.

Dangarembga has shared pieces of her life story in many interviews over the years, but in Black and Female her autobiography is cast as a key component of a broader story about empire, white supremacy, patriarchy, and what it means to use writing as a tool of decolonization under ever more fraught material conditions in the 21st century. After the completion of her “Tambu and Nyasha trilogy”—her three-novel sequence that culminated with the publication of This Mournable Body in 2018—Dangarembga’s next publication could certainly have been a straightforward memoir; it is important that Black and Female is not that. In fact, one gets the sense, from Black and Female, that Dangarembga is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of focusing on herself for too long on the page. Short bursts of details about her own past quickly give way to broader historical or theoretical reflections throughout the collection. These modal shifts are abrupt and potentially jarring, but for me they are also one of the most interesting stylistic features of the volume, an indication that Dangarembga is no less innovative and resistant to keeping her reader comfortable in the essay genre as she is in her fiction.

The introductory essay opens with a series of characteristically evocative statements about the circumstances of her birth and her entrance into the world as “an existential refugee,” but then quickly changes gears, shifting to a historical account of Southern Rhodesia’s establishment as a self-governing colony in the early 20th century, with an emphasis on the land dispossession, racial segregation, and hierarchical education system that supported that project in subsequent decades. Into this history Dangarembga’s parents enter a few pages later, her father as “a man who, by the law of the land, was obliged to carry… a pass book in the country where he was a citizen” and her mother as one of the first students to attend one of the colony’s first government high schools established for Africans. One might imagine Dangarembga casting this accomplishment in triumphant terms, proof of resilience in the face of adversity and injustice. Instead, her mother’s time in school is the source of trauma that remains in place throughout her life: the “outrage and anger” of being physically and verbally abused by her classmates reverberated when she recounted these experiences for her daughter decades later.

This shuttling between autobiography, history, and theory is a formal illustration of the fracturing and negation of personhood that for Dangarembga is the essence of imperial patriarchal violence. When Dangarembga returns to first person narration at the end of her opening essay, the common ground she stakes out across her own life story, that of her parents, and that of her country is that all three have been shaped by a history of colonial unmaking and brutal negation: “I was born… into a vicious society that constructed me as essentially lacking full humanity, needing but never able, as a result of being black-embodied, to attain the status of complete human.” Dangarembga presents her autobiography both as a testament to the destructive work of empire and as evidence of what it looks like to narrate self and nation through that destruction, to confront the history that has produced “the wounds that burst open as I write.”

Language of wounding, cutting, and dismemberment pervades the volume. This is language that will be familiar to readers of the second of Dangarembga’s novels, The Book of Not (2006), whose opening image is of Tambu’s sister’s leg flying into the air in the wake of a landmine explosion. Wounding and dismemberment are central metaphors throughout the essays: the suffering of black people is described as “the metaphysical equivalent of a phantom limb,” and empire is “like a guillotine,” a structure of sovereignty that severs its subjects from themselves through mechanisms that often appear benign or even benevolent. But as in her fiction, Dangarembga also narrates the much more concrete indicators of systemic violence: a short but vivid account of her own experience with self-harm during her time in foster care that supplements her claim that this experience was the original “guillotining” event of her childhood.

One consequence of being guillotined that occupies much of Dangarembga’s attention is the way it wreaks havoc on one’s ability to experience positive emotions. Estrangement from happiness, she claims in the final pages of the final essay, is a condition (a “nervous” one, indeed) shared by all “melanated people” who “are still wading through swamps of negativity, still grasping for the vital principle that was removed when our being was siphoned from our bodies by the forces of colonisation.” The anger, apathy, and depression bred by this relationship to negativity in turn produce subjects who are programmed to uphold and perpetuate the colonial and patriarchal violence into which they themselves were born, either out of hopelessness or ruthlessness. Readers of This Mournable Body will readily recall that adult Tambu is an exemplar of just such a crisis: up until the final pages of the novel her self-hatred, fear, and lack of selfhood drive her to acts of cruelty and selfishness. The corruption, impunity, and authoritarianism of Zimbabwe’s present-day political dispensation are clearly also products and producers of this affective disorder.

Dangarembga makes clear that a life of mistrusting positive emotions is a problem, a symptom that one has been born into a dehumanizing world order that has dangerous consequences for how one lives with others. Yet this author’s propensity to dwell in negativity has also clearly served as the source of her critical feminist vision. This vision also has roots in her early childhood. The young Dangarembga narrated in Black and Female is the epitome of what Sara Ahmed calls a “feminist killjoy,” whose failure to feel the things she should feel according to the rules of a colonial and patriarchal society enables resistance to that society. Resistance for Dangarembga, of course, took the form of writing. She first started keeping a diary shortly after her efforts to express her unhappiness in foster care were met with a “silence … so dry it crumbled to powder.” Writing provided Dangarembga an antidote to imperial patriarchy’s dismembering capabilities, a means of “fixing” the various parts of herself “on paper so they would not disappear into the void from whence they might flail at me like deranged and violent apparitions, as they had done when I was young and newly guillotined.” The volume concludes with a suggestive testament to the creative work of imagining the world differently, undertaking “a new revolution of the imaginary and its products,” as the key to decolonization in a post-independence but not yet postcolonial world.

Writing has vital decolonial potential in Dangarembga’s account, but Black and Female certainly does not romanticize what it means to pursue a writing career as an African feminist intellectual. In many interviews over the years, Dangarembga has hinted at the tumultuous story of Nervous Conditions’ road to publication. Here she lays it out more fully, attributing her inability to find a local publisher to the lack of interest from Zimbabwe’s male-dominated post-independence publishing industry in stories that centered women’s experiences and cast a critical eye on gender oppression in the proto-national community. Fans of Nervous Conditions will know that this story has a happy ending: a small British women’s press finally picked up the manuscript that would quickly become one of the most frequently read and taught works of African literature around the globe. But in Black and Female that happy ending is revealed as almost arbitrary: after hearing nothing from the press for months, Dangarembga visited in person only to discover that her work had been languishing in the basement of the publishing house.

A frequent refrain of Dangarembga’s commentary in interviews, truly her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s thesis about a room of one’s own, is that “writers need to eat.” The story she tells about her own career as a novelist and filmmaker accordingly centers around the challenges of supporting herself and telling stories, the frequent incompatibility—in her film career especially—between undertaking meaningful projects and finding the funding for this work in an economy that has its own preexisting priorities. Of the period in the early 2000s during which she wrote and published The Book of Not, Dangarembga simply writes, “[t]hese are not years I like to remember.” Readers eager for more information about her work as a filmmaker, or about the details of what it was like to live and create in Zimbabwe during the country’s very difficult first two decades of the 21st century, might be better served by turning to This Mournable Body, in which Nyasha’s efforts to help other women tell their own stories seem to bear a strong resemblance to the activist work the author herself was undertaking during this time period.

Dangarembga’s writing career is of course not over, and Black and Female does not function as a self-help guide mapping out the secret to the author’s success; indeed we are invited to be skeptical of what “success” means for a postcolonial woman writer whose variety of brilliance has often been at odds with her ability to find a platform for her work. Just as she resists casting her mother’s status as Zimbabwe’s first black female high school graduate in triumphant terms, so she is wary of characterizing her own career in that way when the playing field remains rigged. “African female feminists,” she notes, “are trapped in a cycle of always being the first.” Tokenism, scarcity of resources, and a general “queasiness about black women’s imagination”—epitomized for Dangarembga by the Booker Committee’s timid awarding of the 2019 prize to Bernardine Evaristo, sharing it with Margaret Atwood—undercuts the dissemination of a multiplicity of voices and ideas from black feminist writers.

One of the most remarkable features of Dangarembga’s writing career is that it has taken place entirely in Zimbabwe. This distinguishes her from many of her peers, including NoViolet Bulawayo, whose novel Glory was also published in 2022 and is in many ways a fascinating companion read to Black and Female. For Dangarembga, protest against government repression and corruption has been part and parcel of responsible citizenship, and in recent years this stance has made living and working in Zimbabwe challenging in ways that have attracted significant international attention. Just three days after the announcement that This Mournable Body had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize in July 2020, Dangarembga was charged along with Julie Barnes with incitement to participate in public violence for her roadside protest of the ZANU PF government’s arrest of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono. (Her conviction on these charges was recently overturned.)

Black and Female makes no mention of its author’s recent visibility as a political activist, a choice I read as very much in keeping with Dangarembga’s discomfort with making herself the story, though it is clear that despite the visibility and accolades that her four-decades-long career now afford her, precarity and adversity remain the fundamental conditions under which her writing, filmmaking, and activism take shape. The radical imaginative work that Dangarembga does requires material and political support in the form of resources for creators, publishing opportunities, and receptive readerships. Those of us who eagerly await this author’s next publication, as well as work from other decolonial feminist creators who do not yet have Dangarembga’s platform, bear responsibility for creating conditions under which that work can come to light.

Further Reading

Art in dark times

Interview with historian Dan Magaziner about his new book, The Art of Life in South Africa, about one of the few art schools training black art teachers under Apartheid.

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