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Celebrating English PEN at 100

Recently I attended online an award ceremony for the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga. She was being honoured at the British Library with the PEN Pinter Award for 2021. In turn she had nominated, as a writer of courage, Kakwenza Rukirabashiya, from Uganda, who read from his account of arrest and torture: Banana Republic: where writing is treasonous

Tsitsi Dangarembga

The event was moving, not only for the celebration of these brave writers facing opposition in their countries, but also because we were reminded that English PEN is 100 years old this year. Few international organisations in defence of human rights have lasted a full century. We should celebrate the work of the organisation, its purposes and those it supports.

A brief history

Founded in 1921 by novelist, poet and playwright Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, with John Gallsworthy as its first president, the organisation boasted from the beginning many well-known writers of the time: May Sinclair, Radclyffe Hall, Vera BrittainEM Forster, WB Yeats, Joseph Conrad and HG Wells. It spread quickly to other countries.

In 1940 in wartime it issued it Appeal to the Conscience of the World, a plea for the protection of freedom of expression. The text was written by Storm Jameson and signed, among others, by Vita Sackville-West and Rebecca West. In 1948, in the wake of the Second World War, its Charter was agreed in Copenhagen

Its first principle is as appropriate now as it was more than 70 years ago:

Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.

There are currently 145 PEN International centres, in over 100 countries. The current president of English PEN is Phillipe Sands. 

Activities

The phrase Common Currency, from the Charter, has been adopted as the name of a series of events this year to mark the centenary. See the website for details.

The PEN Pinter Prize has been awarded annually since 2009, in memory of the playwright Harold Pinter. The criteria for the award are taken from Pinter’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 2005. It is presented to the artist who casts an

‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world, and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’.

As I said, this year it was Tsitsi Dangarembga. I reviewed her 1988 novel Nervous Conditions earlier this year, and I’m currently reading the second book in the trilogy, The Book of Not. The third novel, This Mournable Body, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year.

The Hessell-Tiltman Prize is awarded for non-fiction. Among the winners was David Olusoga for Black and British in 2017. I am currently reading this book too.

The PEN/Ackerley Prize is awarded annually for autobiography. 

English PEN also have several campaigns and other actions. There is the Writers at Risk programme, and a programme to support translators and translations: PEN Translates. An outcome is The World Bookshelf, a list of more than 100 translated titles. Bringing writing to new languages is an important part of sharing ideas and of free expression. 

Reflections

I notice, as I have included links from the posts on Bookword blog, how many of the early PEN supporters I have read and been impressed by. And how many prize winners I have read over the years.

I also notice how significant women writers have been from the start. Not only was English PEN founded by a woman, now renown more for this action than her writing, but many of the activists and presidents have been women, and this year’s PEN Pinter winner is a woman of colour. 

And since I enjoy the adventurousness of much writing in translation, I look forward to exploring The World Bookshelf. One volume of short stories is already on my tbr pile: a present from my daughter: Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, Tilted Axis press (2020). 

Sadly, I think that English PEN will be needed for the next 100 years, but this year let’s acknowledge and celebrate its achievements over its first hundred. 

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Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

It is so often the case that if you are female your childhood will be tougher than your brother’s, especially if you are also Black and born into a rural setting in a colonial country. Nervous Conditions is set in Zimbabwe when it was still Southern Rhodesia and under British rule. Rural poverty is a real impediment to Tambudzai; as a girl she has responsibility for collecting water, cleaning latrines, laying the dung floor, child care. Her cousin Nyasha has spent some of her childhood in London. She has forgotten her first language, Shona, and many of the ways of her family. Both girls live with nervous conditions, despite their differences. 

Tsitsi Dangarembga quotes Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) as the novel’s epithet and source of her title:

The condition of native is nervous condition.

Nervous Conditions

Tambu is born and lives her early childhood in the rural homestead of her family. She has two younger sisters and a brother. Her mother finds life hard and her father is feckless. Her brother is privileged, receiving education at the local school. Her UK-educated Uncle provides fees for her brother and when he is older takes him to the mission school where he is headteacher.

Meanwhile Tambu had to give up schooling because the family don’t have the money for her fees. She is so keen to go to school that she begs mealie seeds from her father raises her own small crop to sell. Her brother steals the mealies. Later he dies while away at the mission school. Tambu now becomes the privileged sibling.

I was not sorry when my brother died. (11)

This is the rather shocking but realistic opening sentence of the novel. It pitches us immediately into the different trajectories of girls and boys.

Tambu takes her brother’s place at the mission school, leaving the homestead behind. Tambu and her cousin Nyasha become friends and allies in their Uncle’s very fine house, even though their attitudes are so different. Nyasha questions everything, but Tambu is grateful to her uncle for the opportunities he provides. 

We see how her education takes Tambu away from her rural roots when she returns to the homestead for holidays and family gatherings. These provide the setting for some great drama and humour. A dare takes place, a kind of council of men, to discuss the difficult problem of Lucia. Lucia is a splendid character, full of self-worth, and undaunted by the menfolk. She undermines the dare and achieves her aims of employment and education.

Tambu, Nyasha and Lucia are all beholden to Bamabukuru, the headmaster uncle, for the advantages they gain. Tambu is especially torn when he opposes her ambitions to enter the White Catholic Convent in Salisbury. She depends upon him for her advantages, but chafes at his rule. This is the fate of peoples who are colonised and patronised everywhere. 

Nyasha, with her UK experiences, finds his most pompous pronouncements and rules unbearable and defies her father, while also seeking to improve her future through education. After Tambu leaves for the convent, Nyasha declines into bulimia. 

Tambu’s mother finds it hard that daughter’s aspirations and Bamabukuru’s patronage will remove Tambu from her family roots. 

‘Tell me, Tambudzai, does that man want to kill me, to kill me with his kindness, fattening my children only to take them away, like cattle fattened for the slaughter? Tell me, daughter, what will I, your mother say to you when you come home a stranger full of white ways and ideas? It will be English, English all the time. He-e, Mummy this, he-e, Mummy that. Like that cousin of yours. I have seen it happen – we saw it happen in our own home. Truly that man is calling down a curse of bad luck on my head. You have survived the mission so now he must send you even further away. I’ve had enough, I tell you, I’ve had enough of that man dividing me from my children. Dividing me from my children and ruling my life. He says this and we jump […] If I were a witch I would enfeeble his mind, truly I would do it, and then we would see how his education and his money helped him.’ (269)

This is the cry of the colonised to the colonial power, caught in a dependent relationship that mostly benefits the colonizer. This novel was set only a few years before Zimbabwe fought a bitter battle to end colonial rule and written after Independence was gained in 1980.

Tsitsi Dangarembga

I read this book for three reasons: it is the first of a trilogy whose third volume This Mournable Body has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. My second reason is that I spent a month in Zimbabwe when it was still young, in 1986. It was a country of such hope and possibilities at that time. I heard Tsitsi Dangarembga interviewed recently and that too inspired me to read the trilogy: Nervous Conditions (1988) The Book of Not(2006), This Mournable Body (2020).

She was born in Matoku in Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1959, and spent some of her childhood in England, her childhood resembling Nyasha’s more than Tambu’s. She had planned to read medicine at Cambridge but returned to Zimbabwe University to read psychology and become involved in theatre and film as well as writing fiction. Last year she made international news when she was arrested for taking part in a peaceful anti-corruption demonstration in Zimbabwe. 

She says of Nervous Conditions

I wrote it as a fugitive. A fugitive from my first memories and of what my life had become. [from Guardian 27th March 2021.]

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, first published by the Women’s Press in 1988. I read the Faber edition published in 2021. 298pp 

The BBC poll of 100 books that shaped the world placed Nervous Conditions at #66.

You can find Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 10 reading recommendations here.

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