Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Tsitsi Dangarembga

I was not sorry when my brother died.

That is the first line of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s brilliant 1988 novel, Nervous Conditions. It tells the story of a younger sister in a poor Rhodesian family (just before Zimbabwean Independence) who gets the education promised her brother upon his death. It’s a brilliant coming of age story about the quest for education in a late colonial/postcolonial context. I adore it. So I leapt at the chance to go to a lunchtime conversation with her as part of the PEN festival.

It was an almost sacred, moving experience for me: so great, so rapturous, so thrilling that it’s hard to write about.

Lunch was at India House, just off Wall Street. About forty people were there—five tables of eight. The host, Yvette Christianse, teaches with me, so she was kind enough to introduce me not only to Tsitsi but also to both Achmat Dangor, the other interviewee, and Anne Landsman, who was there as a guest. Typical of me, I was too star-struck and shy to sit at the empty spot at Dangarembga’s table—so great is she, that perhaps I didn’t deserve the chair—but did get to sit at Dangor’s and that was it’s own treat. He is working in Geneva for UN AIDs relief and was with his wife and editor. We talked about many, many things and had a lovely time.

We ate, Yvette interviewed the writers, they each read, and then I went up with my copy of the book. I was really wobbly. I told her that I was embarrassed to admit how very much it meant to me to meet her, not only for myself as an admirer of her great book but also on behalf of the hundred or so students to whom I’d taught it. Those students, I told her, were in college in a village in Indiana; for them, Africa was a blank. Then, they read this wonderful book about a girl from a village in Africa who’s hungry for education and all kinds of things became real to them. My eyes were full of tears. She was lovely and circumspect and polite and thanked me and said, you see, we really can connect, can’t we?

Yes, we can, I said. And you did it.


(Next Wed: Her film at Walter Reade, Lincoln Center, NYC. She’s one of the only African women making movies. Go!)


Bud Parr said...

It's good to see that you get out to more than dora the Explorer!

I passed this on to a friend who has a small NGO with a purpose of educating girls in Africa. She may know of up given her background, but nonetheless it looks like a great recommendation - thanks for that.

Your post also reminds me of when I saw the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen at a Reuters Forum (Columbia's Journalism school used to put on these great lectures, but no more). Even the most famous and accomplished people in the room clearly revered this man who had spent his life devoted to thinking about the problems of poor people around the world. Amazing.

Anyway, Anne thanks again.

Anne said...

HI Bud,

You're welcome, as always. If your friend hasn't read this, she's in for a treat. It's great.

Meeting Sen sounds wonderful. Dangor, actually, has taken a job at UN AIDs in Geneva, so I had the honor of talking with someone who, like Sen, had made the decision to really let his intelligence work in service of the disadvantaged. It's a moving thing.

Amardeep said...


Nice post -- thanks for linking to it on The Valve.

I didn't know Dangarembga had made a film (indeed, I had been wondering what she'd been doing for the past 15 years or so since Nervous Conditions came out).

Unfortunately I won't be able to go this Wednesday -- student conferences! If you do go, I hope you'll have a chance to report on it for us. (Maybe I can get my library to buy it down the road)

Dangarembga's is one of the few African novels that really seems to work pretty much every time I teach it. Achebe's Things Fall Apart is a little too stark -- the psychology is hard for many of my students to relate to.

Emmanuel Sigauke said...

Thank your for the information about Nervous Conditions. A new novel is scheduled to come out in June. It is the portray of the grown up version of Tambu, who has just completed her univeristy education but is hopeless as the future does not seem bright. Again, a very relevant story to most university graduates.

Emmanuel Sigauke said...

One reason I would teach Nervous Conditons is that it is a story of the Sigauke family!