Books, UEA Live

UEA Live: An Emptiness That Hurts, In Conversation With Tsitsi Dangarembga

Filmmaker, playwright, director, and Booker Prize-shortlisted author. To this list of accolades Tsitsi Dangarembga can now add International Chair of Creative Writing for UEA’s world-renowned Creative Writing MA. It was with great anticipation, therefore, that Dangarembga joined Jean McNeil, Professor of Creative Writing at UEA, and Canongate’s Editor-at-Large Ellah Wakatama to discuss her expansive body of work at the most recent UEA Live event.

The talk, led by questions from Wakatama, offered insights into Dangarembga’s early life and her career. Mapping a path through her student days at the University of Zimbabwe (where the idea for her first novel came), to her experiences of being a Black woman working in film and production, and ending with her goals for her time as International Chair, Dangarembga offered the audience a unique insight into her life, art, and ambitions.

The majority of the talk, however, was focussed on her writing. When she was young, Dangarembga felt she could not recognise herself in any of the novels that she was reading. Recalling the experience, she quotes Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”. And so she did.

The final book in a series of three, ‘This Mournable Body’is Danagarembga’s latest and most highly acclaimed novel. Set in a nation still coming to terms with the toxic legacy of colonialism and violence, the novel follows the life of a young woman, Tambudzai, as she battles for stability in a post-independence Zimbabwe. Trapped in the cross winds of her personal and national history, Tambudzai yearns for security and acceptance – and yet she is haunted by humiliation and shame, which follow her through Harare’s sun-blistered streets and all the way home.

Exercising the reader’s discomfort, and boldly adopting a second-person narrator, Dangarembga forces us to walk in her anti-hero’s ill-fitting shoes as she navigates a life fraught with internal and external obstacles. As Tambudzai’s prospects steadily diminish, Dangarembga successfully captures the tension between the dream of success and the often-crushing reality of a world that was not built for Black women.

We are led to feel that Tambudzai is living in a space between fear and hope, drawn to the allure of both and unable to decide upon which side she should fall. At the heart of this novel, therefore, we find a hollowness: “an emptiness that hurts”. As the dream of independence slowly subsides, all that is left is the residue of war and the broken dreams of yesterday.

Listening to Dangarembga speak it became clear why she heard Tambudzai’s voice echoing through the halls of her university all those years ago: Tambudzai’s fate was that of many Black women following Zimbabwe’s independence. The pangs of emptiness are still being felt today. Leveraging her position of International Chair of Creative Writing, Dangarembga is hoping to change this.

The new Global Voices Scholarship Programme, launched this year, is looking to recruit 50 international students from 5 territories over 5 years. It is hoped that this programme will empower people around the globe to “tell important stories – stories that may change the world”. The role of the International Chair will be to inspire and advise these budding writers; Dangarembga believes this work is vital because “representation matters”. In seeing one’s struggle reflected on the written page, one is reminded that they are not alone and is therefore liberated to hope, and work, for a better future for all of us.

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Troy Fielder

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July 2021
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