SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
The writer Tsitsi Dangarembga has traced the history of Zimbabwe in a trilogy of novels from the end of colonialism and white minority rule through the country’s war for independence to, in her most recent book “This Mournable Body,” the tyrannical period following the joys of independence, a period marked by crackdown on dissent. In July, Dangarembga was arrested for protesting government corruption and is awaiting trial. And just last week, “This Mournable Body” was shortlisted for a prestigious Booker Prize.
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: I was really fortunate to have this shortlisting happen at practically the same time that I had to go to court. It’s very daunting to live in the circumstances that we have in Zimbabwe at the moment with increasing repression and the implosion of the economy and, basically, the fabric of the nation not being so stable. And so it’s really wonderful to have this good thing in my life that I can always look to. And it gives me strength, and it carries me through.
PFEIFFER: Do you think it’s also protective in some sense? Do you feel more protected as your government cracks down on you now that you’re getting so much international attention and accolades for your book?
DANGAREMBGA: Definitely – no government in the world would like to have negative publicity. I think I would not be exposed to some of the really terrible things that have happened to other people. That is one side. But there is another side, and that is the messages that have to be given to the Zimbabwean people however that message would appear to the outside world.
PFEIFFER: Tsitsi, when you say a message needs to be sent to Zimbabweans, are you talking about the message the government wants to send to protesters?
DANGAREMBGA: And also to the rest of the population – a government that wants to hold onto power needs to make it clear that they have the power to make life very uncomfortable for citizens so that citizens do not think that they are able to just stand up and demand things.
PFEIFFER: Well, it seems that you were also trying to send a message when you were protesting in July and arrested. This was an anti-government protest. For our listeners who don’t know what happened to you, can you explain why you were there and how it unfolded?
DANGAREMBGA: Yes, Sacha. I was trying to send a message as well on the 31 of July. A leader of one of the smaller opposition parties had called for a nationwide protest against corruption, and I decided to engage in that. As the time for the protests drew near, some of the people involved in revealing this corruption and exposing it were arrested, and the government said that the protest was illegal. And President Mnangagwa said it was an insurrection against the government. Now, I could not understand this because the Constitution of Zimbabwe gives Zimbabwean citizens the right to demonstrate peacefully.
PFEIFFER: And what kind of protest was this? I think I’ve read you were standing on a street with a sign.
DANGAREMBGA: Yes. This is all taking place during COVID-19 restrictions, so the idea was that people could gather in small groups in their neighborhood. So a friend and I met up, and we walked down the road to an intersection so that we could get the traffic going both ways. And then we saw the riot vehicle park by the side of the road, and we were asked to climb in.
PFEIFFER: What’s your level of concern about how this unfolds, your fate in the courts and whether Zimbabwe’s justice system will be fair?
DANGAREMBGA: I am concerned about the way the justice system handles cases at the moment. I was not charged with demonstrating because that is, in fact, legal. I was charged with attending a meeting with intention to incite public violence, breach of the peace or acts of bigotry. And clearly, I wasn’t doing any of those things. My friend wasn’t doing any of those things, so I’m hoping that justice will prevail.
PFEIFFER: In your writings over the decades, you’ve done a lot of, basically, political social commentary about Zimbabwe and its struggles. I’m wondering what it felt like to interact with your government in this new way, I mean, to be arrested, to be facing a trial.
DANGAREMBGA: So it was very disappointing for me – having become an adult in the 1980s after independence and having experienced the whole hope of the new nation and seeing the potential, it was really heartbreaking to come to a point where I am told I am not allowed to exercise my right to demonstrate. And when I do, the weight of the state comes down on me. It was a very sad moment for me.
PFEIFFER: As we’ve mentioned, this is the third book in a trilogy that unfolds toward the end of white minority rule in Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia, to the beginning of Zimbabwean independence. For our listeners who aren’t familiar with what was going on in Zimbabwe at that time, would you briefly explain?
DANGAREMBGA: Yes. The three books follow the life of a character called Tambudzai Sigauke. And “This Mournable Body” picks up the story after independence at the end of the 1990s, when we begin to see the change in the economy very obviously. It’s clear that something is not right. And if it is not put right, it will continue to worsen. And Tambudzai is unemployed, living in a hostel full of younger women in the city. And she has to leave the hostel because she is now over the age that is allowed by people – for people living at the hostel. So it begins with her searching for somewhere to live.
PFEIFFER: This character is somewhat of an antihero, I mean, in a particularly dark place at this moment in her life.
DANGAREMBGA: Yes. She is definitely an antihero. And it was very difficult to write it in such a way that the reader would go with it. But I am glad that it apparently has worked, and I am delighted with that.
PFEIFFER: Your first book you said you were writing to encourage young Zimbabweans to develop themselves. What is the message you’re trying to send now, given the despair of that main character in your current book?
DANGAREMBGA: The message that I want Zimbabweans to engage with is that what happens is up to us because Tambudzai – all she’s concerned with is getting ahead in her own life. And I show that that kind of attitude may lead to a person getting what they want for some time. But in the end, the repercussions of that kind of behavior are going to be felt by everybody. And so this is what I am trying to bring Zimbabweans to think about because since the economy is so difficult, people think, I just have to put my head down and do what’s best for me. But that doesn’t solve the community- and national-level issues that we have to engage with.
PFEIFFER: Tsitsi Dangarembga is the author of “This Mournable Body,” which was shortlisted last week for the Booker Prize.
Tsitsi, thank you for talking, and congratulations again.
DANGAREMBGA: Thank you, Sacha.
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