Power Struggles: Tsitsi Dangarembga & Achmat Dangor
YVETTE CHRISTIANSË: I’m going to begin by asking a broad question about beginnings. Tsitsi, if I may start with you: I know you were born in a small town in Mutoko, but you moved back and forth between Zimbabwe, what was then Rhodesia, and England. I was wondering if you could talk about the kinds of educations you had, both formal and informal, and how that influenced you as a writer.
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: The formal education wasn’t that different between Rhodesia and England because we were a British colony and all the practices were very similar. In fact, the informal education was quite similar as well. I think one learns early where one’s place in life is meant to be and one has to decide whether to occupy that place or not. Luckily, my parents encouraged me not to occupy a set place.
CHRISTIANSË: Achmat, could you speak about the kinds of formal and informal influences you had in South Africa?
ACHMAT DANGOR: I had three kinds of education. The first was obviously the formal government schooling. My mother tongue was Afrikaans but my father said there was no future in the language and forced us to go to an English-speaking school, so I went to school and didn’t understand a word. Simultaneously, we went to madrassa, which is where I learned to read the Koran in Arabic, and I didn’t understand a word in Arabic. So I guess I compensated by finding an informal education, which was my grandmother’s stories. That’s where my love of literature came from. I think I loved the third part more than anything else.
CHRISTIANSË: Tsitsi, could you talk about the place for a young woman in the Rhodesia of that time and switching over to Zimbabwe?
DANGAREMBGA: It’s really difficult for me to answer that question because I didn’t conform to anything but I also wasn’t consciously rebelling. The way I managed this—I see it in my daughter and I get frightened—was by going into my room and closing the door and reading. I could have been reading D. H. Lawrence at the age of ten. The next book might have been lighter, but this was the place where everything was happening.
CHRISTIANSË: Yes—the Famous Five. It’s the colonial curriculum of another kind. You must know the Famous Five as well, Achmat.
DANGOR: Yes, I had another peculiar advantage in that in my grandmother’s household, where I lived, there were her children, my uncle, and my aunt. My uncle, unbelievably in those days, was gay though he never announced it. He had a Jewish boyfriend, and that was also never announced. They trafficked in unbelievably wonderful literature, so, like you, Tsitsi, I was, reading books I never should have read at my age. Maybe that’s what formed my imagination, reading The Origin of Species at the age of twelve. Then going to madrassa the next day and listening to these guys talk about how God created the world literally in less than seven days because Muslims always do it quicker.
CHRISTIANSË: At what point did the reader become the writer?
DANGOR: I think I always knew I would be a writer, but when I finished high school and for the first time resisted my father’s will and didn’t become an accountant, I went to Cape Town. I lived in District Six. For those of you who know South Africa at all, District Six is almost a mythical place. It was the one place apartheid had to destroy as a symbol of multiracialism. I lived in a room above Hanover Street and watched the world go by, and I had to record it. In a year, I had finished a monstrously big novel, which took me ten years to turn into something publishable. That’s when I knew—sitting there and recording what I saw in front of me.
CHRISTIANSË: In Waiting for Leila, there’s a sense that the character walking through District Six, which is about to be dismantled, is reminding himself of the streets, for his writing, because his place is about to vanish. Were you aware of what the fate of District Six was to be?
DANGOR: Not consciously. We all knew that the apartheid laws were coming in, that there was a Group Areas Act, and that this would be a designated white area. But for me, what was frightening was to watch how systematically the bulldozers pushed down this little city street by street, road by road, house by house. I saw history being made in front of me.
CHRISTIANSË: Tsitsi, you’re quoted as saying you returned to Zimbabwe out of a sense of political and national service. And Achmat, I know that you have also done what one could call national service through your various involvements—the Youth League, the Kagiso Foundation. You’re now at the U.N. in Geneva working on increasing awareness, activity, and action around the issue of AIDS. I wonder what role, if any, you perceive literature to have played in the struggles in which you have both engaged?
DANGAREMBGA: I made that statement a long time ago and I’d probably be less dramatic now. I think it wasn’t so much the political sense of service, but the home instinct, if you like. I was in England and there were events taking place in Zimbabwe. This was 1979 and 1980—the country was becoming independent. Lots of Zimbabweans had left Rhodesia under schemes for displaced people and now the country was opening up. One didn’t have to be displaced anymore so it made sense for me to go back and see what I could do in this place that was my home. This has happened again a second time now. It’s funny how one’s life repeats itself. I hope it’s not going to happen a third time. When I was in Berlin in 2000, unrest was beginning in Zimbabwe, and I felt compelled to go home, simply to be at home while all these things were happening, partly because by then, I had realized I was going to make narratives about what I experienced. It seemed important as a maker of narrative that I should be where the things are happening in order to witness it later on.
I think of myself as a storyteller. Maybe later on when I’m a bit older and experienced, I may think of myself as a writer. Now, I think of myself as a culture producer, someone who produces narratives.
CHRISTIANSË: So, the film Mother’s Day: Are film and the written word just part of a continuum for you?
DANGAREMBGA: I find that. I also find that, given my character, it’s good to have both. I really cannot take the isolation of being a writer; it just floors me and I haven’t got the discipline. In between takes, ideas come while I’m busy with something else. I find that the two complement each other very well. I also find that one can do things in film that one can’t do in prose and vice versa. It’s interesting for me to be able to delineate what belongs to the realm of prose and what belongs to the visual realm.
CHRISTIANSË: What is it that film can do and what does literature do? It’s a huge question, but humor us.
DANGAREMBGA: A film like Hard Earth is basically about the early months and years of the land issue in Zimbabwe; I shot that in June 2000. There’s one scene where a man who’s a land owner rides over to his estate on his horse with a film crew. I had a friend from New Zealand doing the shooting at that point; I thought it would be best if I didn’t appear. So the man invites the crew back and as they’re going into a huge Cape Dutch-style farm house, an old woman appears and the man starts laughing and says, “Oh, I know that woman. Her husband used to work on the farm. Look, she’s really funny, I’ll show you.” He greets her and he says, “Mother, dance.” She begins to dance and it’s gruesome. He’s standing there and the camera’s running; the man knows the camera is running and he’s laughing and saying, “I told you! She’s so funny!”
This kind of thing cannot be written, or it takes a very different way of writing. But when people see that it’s real, they can’t accuse you of having staged something. It has a great impact. That particular scene always makes white people mad at me, I’m sorry to say.
CHRISTIANSË: Achmat, could you speak about the role you perceived literature to play during the struggle?
DANGOR: We must first remember that apartheid was an absurdity in which there was no such thing as normal life, and those of us who love the world, who love literature, who were exposed to literature, would have preferred just to continue writing. We had to put aside our personal ambitions just as people who wanted to be doctors had to put theirs aside. We became involved in the political struggle because the apartheid government gave us no choice.
I remember my emotions the day we watched Nelson Mandela walk out of prison. I thought, Perhaps we’ll soon all be able to live a normal life because the leaders can run the country, they can get involved in the political struggle. We can go back to doing things we love. Writing and literature in South Africa during the anti-apartheid years, became, in the words of activists, a “cultural weapon.” You had to use it to fight apartheid and some of us resisted that. How can you use your language? How can you use your creativity? But in the end, you recognize that you are facing a government that has absolutely no scruples about using culture and art to oppress you and you have to respond.
CHRISTIANSË: When you were publishing, you had access to—in fact, you were a founder of—Ravan Press. What other kinds of spaces were available for writers, particularly non-white writers in South Africa during this time?
DANGOR: We started a collective called Ravan Press, which became the vehicle for publishing many writers. But more important than formal publishing were the innumerable magazines and township samizdat newspapers. My work, even when I was banned, was being published under pseudonyms in newspapers, leaflets, and magazines. We used to distribute subversive little letters, cyclostyles. We made our own space because the apartheid regime denied it. There was no such thing as black literate culture.
DANGAREMBGA: In Zimbabwe, when we were going through the revolution, in the late ’60s and ’70s, people of color—indigenous Zimbabweans—didn’t have the means to start up a press. Where did you get the money you needed?
DANGOR: A lot of people collected money individually. Writers like Nadine Gordimer contributed, so we had the big-name writers and some funding from external donors. Without the Dutch government and people in the Ford Foundation, Ravan Press would not have survived. The funny thing is that Ravan actually kept the bookstore alive; it sold. We were amazed at how hungry South Africans were for books. Ravan Press, by the way, was bought by a big conglomerate and has since disappeared.
DANGAREMBGA: Zimbabweans didn’t have the money. We didn’t have a culture of indigenous people who had been in an economic system for maybe a century. Also, our Rhodesian community did not have that long tradition of being in the country. They hadn’t built up their own literary traditions.
One reason film seemed to be an appropriate medium for the kinds of things I wanted to do goes back to the liberation struggle. Literature did not play a big role. People had the standard Marxist texts at that time, but what was coming out of Zimbabwe was literature that had been ratified the Literature Bureau—stories about witchcraft and wives and evil stepmothers. For me, the revolution in narrative came from the more indigenous forms of narrative—a lot of singing, messages put through songs. “The Voice of Zimbabwe,” a radio station in Mozambique, really moved me every evening. My dad would tune in and you could hear songs and little stories: “It’s Mom and Dad. We’ve gone out of the country, we’re in Mozambique. But don’t worry, we’ll be coming back.” That was a whole narrative in one song.
I think Zimbabweans are now looking for ways to bring that kind of feeling into what we’re putting out. The written word, especially prose, is a bit constrictive. Sometimes I think one needs to bust out a lot more. Dambudzo Marechera was trying to do that in The House of Hunger. But I don’t think all of us can actually get to that level, so other forms are also useful.
CHRISTIANSË: Could you compare the Zimbabwe of the moment you were writing Nervous Conditions with the Zimbabwe of now, when you’re making your new films?
DANGAREMBGA: Psychologically, the space I walk in is very similar because a lot of the things that need to be said about that time still need to be said. Maybe in South Africa more has been said in the sense that the racial issues of the conflict have been looked at. At least you’re allowed to talk race in South Africa; in Zimbabwe you’re not allowed to talk race. If you’re black and you’re talking race, you’re a reverse racist. We never had that purging process, which I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began. What happened in Zimbabwe is that people had been bombing each other for about fifteen years, and then suddenly they said, “Let’s be reconciled.” People looked at each other and thought, “What’s going to happen?” or “It looks as if it’s going to be okay. Let’s be reconciled.” So everybody was walking about in the same little space they’d occupied before and nothing could actually happen. With the conflict now, we see that all these things are coming up again, whereas if we had dealt with them properly earlier, we might have resolved the issues.
In Zimbabwe, most publishers are putting out educational textbooks. They claim there isn’t a market to sustain any other kind of publication. That could be true, especially in recent years with devaluation of the Zimbabwean dollar and everything becoming so expensive. But Zimbabweans are not really very conscious of literary standards. I think we need a lot of education to improve the standard of writing and then, when the writing is good enough, maybe we can persuade more people to publish.
The other problem we have in Zimbabwe is that we have an equivalent of a ban in that very few people are given money by foreign sources to make literature available, and usually the money is given to people whose points of view are sympathetic to what I call the Anglo-Saxon Axis. There are lots of other writers who may not be sympathetic to the goals of the Anglo-Saxon Axis, who are saying things that are relevant to Zimbabweans, things that the world needs to know about.
The problem with Zimbabweans is not that we don’t read. We do. Anyone who’s been to Zimbabwe has seen the second-, third-, and fourth-hand bookstores on the street. One book is being read by about twenty people. They might even be paying money for it and the price is decreasing each time. I really don’t know what we can do about that. You really can’t expect people to pay a lot of money for a book when milk has to be bought as well.
CHRISTIANSË: Achmat, what effect did the ban have on your writing?
DANGOR: I was included in a group of about twenty writers who came together and printed a book called Black Thoughts. Quite arrogantly, we thought we would combat the entire apartheid propaganda machine, which claimed there was no such thing as black culture and black writers. This was the 1970s, and postcolonial literature was coming to the fore, so we not only read our subversive poems to township audiences and anyone who would listen to us but we also read the books that were coming out of Africa. We were reading the first wave of neocolonialist skepticism—Things Fall Apart, books like that. We were taking into the townships culture that students and ordinary people were denied and this was deemed subversive. It was deemed more subversive than standing on a platform and saying “Stand up against apartheid.” So they banned us.
The ban meant that I and the other twenty, along with eventually twenty thousand people, couldn’t be in company with more than one person in a time. That was a social gathering; we were forbidden from participating in social gatherings. No newspaper could quote me, which meant I couldn’t be published. Even worse: The wording said I couldn’t prepare anything for publication, which meant I couldn’t write. But it was probably my most productive year; I wrote and wrote and wrote, and we found ways of hiding and distributing things. We had pseudonyms. We wrote under enormous pressure because we could be found guilty, believe it or not, under the Suppression of Communism Act for being found at home writing. In many ways that was my most creative period.
CHRISTIANSË: Tell me about Buurmansdrift, which is a little town that some might know from South African history called Mafikeng. I know Buurmansdrift was really significant in your life as a writer.
DANGOR: Buurmansdrift means “neighbors’ little town.” It was a small little enclave on the way to Botswana. In fact, it was the route the so-called “terrorists” (the A.N.C. insurgents) used when they crossed the border from Botswana to South Africa.
My uncle had a small holding there, a little farm store. He was mixed like me, mixed Asian and everything. For some reason, the government didn’t expropriate that farm. Every December, my family used to come from Johannesburg to this place for a holiday; there was no cinema, there were no lights. The township was incredible in many ways, but at least there were lights; there was sound; there was music in the street. In Buurmansdrift, you had nothing but absolute silence, nothing.
I began to see what I called the many layers of our society. Conservatism had spread across the color line. If you spoke to the white farmer and you spoke to the black foreman and you spoke to my uncle, you couldn’t tell the difference between them. Each hated the other. If they had prevailed, there would have been no reconciliation. For me, it was the dark side of my imagination. It did help my writing later on, my critics said, but not much.