Tsitsi Dangarembga Turns From Fiction to Polemic

BLACK AND FEMALE: Essays, by Tsitsi Dangarembga

The Zimbabwean novelist and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga’s oeuvre has been defined by her unwillingness to render her characters — citizens of newly independent nations, wandering through the unmapped expanse of the post-colonial moment — as unknowing innocents or foundering victims. Tambudzai — the protagonist of Dangarembga’s 1988 debut, “Nervous Conditions,” its 2006 sequel, “The Book of Not,” and the excellent and acerbic “This Mournable Body” (2018) — wants to make a respectable life for herself amid the experiment of a now self-governing Zimbabwe. At every turn she is foiled, most often by the noxious combination of racism and capitalist accumulation, and the distorted relations it produces between the novels’ characters.

But Dangarembga does not reduce Tambudzai to a passive sufferer; she can be meanspirited, Dangarembga forcing readers to walk in her jealousy-prone shoes via second-person narration. In other words, Dangarembga’s achievement has been to show the violence colonialism inflicts on human minds.

Last September the novelist, now in her early 60s, was found guilty of “promoting public violence” in the capital city of Harare, where she peacefully protested state corruption back in 2020. Perhaps her persecution (she was given a suspended prison sentence), and the political climate that surrounds it, at least partly inspired her new essay collection, “Black and Female.” In it the author turns her withering attention more acutely upon her nation’s politics via forthright — and sometimes overly broad — polemic. In essays that range from an account of her writing life to an examination of the reasons feminism has failed to win victories for Zimbabwean women, Dangarembga weaves personal and material histories to explain how race and gender are lived in her country. The result is a compelling collection that sometimes stumbles, leaving this reader pining for her trademark exactitude.

Though at times Dangarembga feints toward a Frantz Fanon-inspired, phenomenological account of Black experience (“I am an existential refugee. I have been in flight since I left the womb”), these essays are mostly about a particular experience of Blackness that is grounded in the history of Zimbabwe. Born in an American Methodist Episcopal mission hospital in northeast Zimbabwe, she ties these origins to colonial history: Her parents worked hundreds of miles from the hospital, but chose it because they were “staunch members” of the United Methodist Church, in what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia.

Later her parents moved the family to England, where they left Dangarembga and her brother with white foster parents in Dover so they could gain their “professional education” in London — a transition she narrates in a heartbreaking story of abandonment. On their arrival in Dover, the siblings were ushered into a parlor full of marvelous playthings. “After a while,” she remembers, “one of the pale people came to fetch us. I was bursting to tell my mother and father about all the wonderful toys I had played with. Looking around, as I skipped back into the sitting room, I realized my parents were no longer there.” Little did she know that she and her brother were among an entire generation of Black Zimbabwean children subject to the cleaving and scattering of colonization — mutilations these communities will never recover from.

At its best, “Black and Female” accumulates and intertwines such details, yoking the personal and political to demonstrate how the experience of race and gender depends not on overarching essentialism but on local histories that are written on the body. She makes this disturbingly clear in a chilling account of her own childhood self-mutilation while in foster care. “I did not learn to be concerned about my own body,” she writes, “because there was no one who knew enough about what a little Black girl’s body looked like to notice what I had done to my own body parts.”

Such moments constitute the sort of searing work we’ve come to expect from Dangarembga, and are far more effective than the broad, often vague claims she tries to make regarding the failure of Zimbabwean feminism. “We have to work hard for moments of affirmation, where we can experience feminist community, power, lightness and joy,” she writes, before clumsily overgeneralizing: “Such moments of regeneration and community do not occur frequently for us feminists on our African continent.” The book too often left me longing for the author to return to the personal, where her most convincing political arguments get made.

Ismail Muhammad is a story editor for The Times Magazine.

BLACK AND FEMALE: Essays | By Tsitsi Dangarembga | 158 pp. | Graywolf | $23

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