Three days after her novel This Mournable Body was longlisted for the Booker Prize, Tsitsi Dangarembga was arrested.
The Zimbabwean writer and filmmaker was walking down a main street in Harare with a friend, holding placards for an anti-corruption protest. They were standing at an intersection when a riot police vehicle arrived and they were told to get in.
“I am much less comfortable in my country than I was before the arrest,” says Dangarembga, 61, who has had several court appearances but no trial date yet, a process she finds frustrating.
“It was a beautiful thing for me,” she adds of the nod from the Booker. “I’d been writing for 31/2 decades and didn’t really seem to be getting where I wanted to go.”
It also garnered her arrest the international spotlight.
“That was a very positive thing for drawing attention to the situation in Zimbabwe, which is extremely repressive in a very unobtrusive manner.”
This Mournable Body is the last in a trilogy about Tambudzai, whom readers first met as an ambitious young girl in 1960s post-colonial Rhodesia in Nervous Conditions (1988), and then as a convent student in The Book Of Not (2006).
Dangarembga made history with Nervous Conditions, the first English novel published by a black Zimbabwean woman. In 2018, the BBC named it one of the 100 books that have shaped the world.
It almost did not happen. The publishing scene in the 1980s was highly patriarchal, she recalls, and after many rejections, she mailed her manuscript to the Women’s Press in Britain, which had published black women writers such as Alice Walker and Ama Ata Aidoo.
She did not hear back and gave up on it until she visited Britain years later and dropped in at the publisher to ask if they had ever received her manuscript. They dug it out of the cellar and contacted her the next day with a book deal.
This Mournable Body also had a torturous path to publication, despite its predecessors’ acclaim.
“The literary scene in Zimbabwe has really deteriorated, along with most things in the country,” says Dangarembga. “It is very difficult to be published here.”
In desperation, she started putting excerpts of the novel on Facebook, which eventually led to it being picked up by publishers abroad.
In This Mournable Body, Tambudzai is approaching middle age, single and unemployed. “She has come to the painful realisation that education by itself does not guarantee an individual a better future,” says Dangarembga.
“Education cannot function in a dysfunctional nation.”
She had been disappointed by Tambudzai’s character in The Book Of Not, she adds.
“She could not stand up to the systems of oppression that she saw as a student of a multi-racial school because she wanted to fit in and get ahead. It was important for me to redeem her.”
She is adamant that there will be no fourth book. “I have found the story of Tambudzai to be very consuming in so many ways.”
Instead, she is now working on a young-adult dystopian novel set in post-apocalyptic Africa, which she started writing for her three children when they were teenagers. Two are now in their 20s and still patiently waiting for it.
If she wins the Booker, she says, it will be a “vindication” for the decades she has spent writing and developing creative enterprises in Zimbabwe.
“It has been a bit of a struggle. So it would be a proud moment for me, for my work and for all those people who have rallied around me and who believe in the same things that I believe in.”
Review: There is nothing ennobling about suffering
More than 30 years have passed since Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Bildungsroman about a village girl in Zimbabwe, swept into the literary world with the trenchant opening line: “I was not sorry when my brother died.”
This Mournable Body, the last instalment in a trilogy, puts us yet again in the shoes of Tambudzai – Tambu for short – who is now in her 40s and living in a run-down youth hostel in the city of Harare at the turn of the millennium.
The qualifications she earned at convent school and university – made possible after her brother died – were supposed to be tickets to a better life, but things have not panned out the way she had hoped.
The adult Tambu, a lot more psychologically contorted than her teenage self, is a bundle of bitterness and self-loathing.
After quitting her stagnant job at an ad agency, she finds a job as a school teacher, then leaves when she is driven to breaking point.
She later finds work at an ecotourism firm run by a white ex-classmate, Tracey.
This novel, quite aptly, is narrated in second person. The accusatory “you” evokes a sense of fatalism, as well as a deadening of agency. One feels that Tambu is constrained by outside forces – problems of racial and gender discrimination in independent Zimbabwe, say – yet partly to blame for her issues.
This Mournable Body is an accomplished piece of work by a novelist at the height of her career.
Dangarembga’s prose, as usual, is flawless. She deserves to be read more widely – neither Nervous Conditions (hailed as a modern classic) nor its 2006 sequel, The Book Of Not, can be found in National Library Board branches.
What makes this particular book stand out is its psychological complexity. If anything, This Mournable Body demonstrates that there is nothing ennobling about suffering. Tambu’s hardship, in fact, makes her cynical and cruel, as she turns against the very women with whom she could be banding in solidarity.
In one disconcerting scene near the start of the novel, Tambu’s attractive hostelmate Gertrude struggles to get onto the combi (minibus) and is taunted by lewd men. Tambu joins in, becoming one with the mob.
“The crowd ripples and fidgets, hums and buzzes with amusement. Energy swirls out from this mirth. It slides you from your seat to the ground and into the throng. The crowd guffaws. You do too. As you do, you grow and grow until you believe you are much bigger than yourself and this is wonderful.”
When Nervous Conditions was published in 1988, readers around the world found the novel accessible, even if it was set in a society vastly different from their own.
THIS MOURNABLE BODY
By Tsitsi Dangarembga
Faber and Faber/Paperback/384 pages/$19.26/Available at bit.ly/MournableBody_TD
Yet, as cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah points out, it sidesteps that “safari moment” found in other books where Zimbabwe is “constructed for the moral and literary tourist”.
Things take a meta-fictional, selfscrutinising turn in This Mournable Body, when Tambu leads a group of Europeans on a tour through her village. Who is Dangarembga writing the novel for, we wonder?
There is much to admire about This Mournable Body, although it is the kind of book that might ultimately leave you feeling empty inside. Here, Harare (once known as “Sunshine City”) is a wasteland with no deliverance and a backdrop to a tragedy with no catharsis.
If you like this, read: Nervous Conditions (Ayebia Clarke Publishing, 1988, reissued 2004, $21.60, available at bit.ly/NervousCond_TD), Dangarembga’s acclaimed debut novel about Tambudzai, a girl living in Rhodesia.