Tsitsi Dangarembga on Booker bounces and broadening the canon

Tsitsi Dangarembga on Booker bounces and broadening the canon

"I always think about prizes as being awarded rather than won. It’s a way of thinking that has kept me on an even keel over the decades,” says Zimbabwean filmmaker, writer and activist Tsitsi Dangarembga, who is this year’s recipient of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Nonetheless, she is “really delighted” with the honour, which is bestowed by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association and comes with a €25,000 (£18,348) purse.

Dangarembga was born in Mutoko, Southern  Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1959. She lived in England for a few years as a child, and again while studying medicine at the University of Cambridge. Back in Zimbabwe, she began writing plays and short stories before her début novel, Nervous Conditions, was published in the UK in 1988. It was the first book published in English by a Black woman from Zimbabwe, and won the 1989 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

There was then a big gap in her book publishing, during which she studied film and went on to pen the script for the highest-grossing film in Zimbabwe’s history (1991’s “Neria”), to direct her own documentaries and feature films, and to found projects supporting the creative arts in her homeland. For Dangarembga, there is a clear distinction between her work in the fields of film and literature. She explains: “I find them very different in the approach and the actual craft of the writing. When writing for film, one is always aware that the word on the page is not the end, it is not the stimulus that the audience will actually engage with, as the word on the page is when a person is reading… It’s a very interesting process and I find it quite exciting, but I find it has different technical demands on me from writing prose.”

A sequel to Nervous Conditions, called The Book of Not, was released in 2006, with the final instalment of the trilogy, This Mournable Body, published by Faber & Faber in 2020, earning Dangerembga a spot on the Booker Prize shortlist. The author is adamant that this story is now finished, expanding: “I’m very glad that I have brought the protagonist to a place where I feel they could rest, so they won’t be bothering me.” Faber also signed the first two novels in the series (previously published by Ayebia Clarke Publishing) and released new paperback editions of them in March 2021 (pictured below). 

Reaching out

The deal has been “wonderful” for the author in terms of enabling her to reach new readers. She says: “I do feel that being published by Faber means that I reach a wider audience, and I certainly have seen resonance of that on social media when people comment about [my books]  and recommend them to other people from very diverse parts of the world… It is the first time that I have been published by a mainstream publisher—I’m really grateful to the publishers before who enabled me to continue,  but it is a career leap to be published by such a well-respected publishing house.”

      

In addition to the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, Dangarembga, who is the founding member of writers’ association PEN Zimbabwe, was recognised with the PEN Award for Freedom of Expression and the PEN Pinter Prize earlier this year. She accepted the latter at a ceremony hosted by the British Library and English PEN on 11th October, where she delivered a keynote address and named Ugandan novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who was subjected to torture by his home country’s government while detained last year, as the International Writer of Courage 2021. These accolades come in the wake of Dangarembga’s own arrest in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare during a peaceful anti-government protest last July. Though she has been released on bail, she is charged with incitement to commit violence, and breaching coronavirus health and safety regulations. Following the arrest, several book-trade figures and prominent authors spoke out in support of the author, including English PEN president and author Philippe Sands, Hanif Kureishi, Kazuo Ishiguro and Carol Ann Duffy.

Dangarembga says: “It really was wonderful to receive that kind of support after I was arrested, because I had no idea that those groups of people knew who I was. And then suddenly they affirmed that yes, they did know because of my work, and they also found that the work I do and what I stand for—as an individual and through my work—is something worthy of support. So, I was very honoured by that.” She adds: “Of course, it did have practical implications as well, because when repressive institutions go about their repressive business, they do not want the public to know about it. It was very positive for me, in many ways, to have that support internationally.”

Upon the announcement of the Peace Prize, the jury of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association described Dangarembga as “not only one of the most important artists in her native land, but also a popular and widely recognised voice of Africa in contemporary literature”. This has been reinforced by her recent appointment as the University of East Anglia’s inaugural international chair of creative writing. In the role, Dangarembga is working with programme director Professor Jean McNeil to deliver a “far-reaching and ambitious” programme of literary events, classes and workshops across the African continent and in the UK.

Dangarembga is enthused about the current African literary scene and “the way it is diversifying”, adding: “So many people have the means to write now and, of course, the digital revolution has supported that tremendously and contributed to it. We have a diversity of voices that we did not have before. It used to be only certain people, who were in certain institutions that afforded them the platform from which they could write, whose works came to the public. Now that is not the case.” She continues: “This also means that we have a diversity of themes. When only a few writers constituted the canon, only those things [they wrote about] were brought to the public attention and so those things became ‘the African story’. But now… we certainly have more stories.”

The award ceremony for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade will take place on Sunday (24th October) in Frankfurt.