The Rumpus Book Club chats with Tsitsi Dangarembga about her new book, This Mournable Body (Graywolf Press, August 2018), choosing to write in the second person, and living with the same characters over three decades and three books.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Nicole Chung, Idra Novey, Tom Barbash, Esmé Weijun Wang, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi! Welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Tsitsi Dangarembga about This Mournable Body. Tsitsi, thank you so much for joining us.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Hello, Marisa. I’m excited to engage with the Rumpus Book Club.
Eva Woods: Hello! I’m so excited for this chat.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: My pleasure, Marisa. Thank you for the invitation.
Marisa: I’d love to begin by asking you what it was like to revisit these characters after significant time away? Your debut novel, Nervous Conditions, was published in 1988, and the sequel, The Book of Not, followed in 2006. So it’s been just a little over a decade.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Well, it wasn’t really a matter of revisiting the characters. I’ve been working on the trilogy off and on for a very long time. The real gap was between Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not.
Eva Woods: Tsitsi, I’m interested in the idea of viewing your hometown through the eyes of a tourist, or anyone else who pays to be there. This book really dives into that. I’m wondering what (if any) real life experiences brought you to exploring that?
Eva Woods: (Also the link between visitors and the military is SO REAL. If you have any other thoughts on that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them.)
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Hi, Eva. No, I haven’t really had the experience of viewing my home town form the point of view of a tourist. The whole idea, for me, was more the idea of photography. I became very interested in the subject as viewer and the object as viewed as a result of my work in film.
Eva Woods: That makes a ton of sense. I’m from the American Southeast, so there are a lot of issues with people who don’t take into account the history of the place using it as a backdrop for a pretty story or photo, and it’s very frustrating.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Does that happen in the American Southeast as well? However, I was thinking more of the issue of who is allowed to look at whom and for what purpose. In the book, it was tourists looking at Tambudzai’s mother and the villagers for some kind of gratification.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Eva, I don’t really understand the comment about the link between visitors and the military. Could you please explain?
Eva Woods: Oh! So in the book it’s almost taken as a foregone conclusion that when visitors start going to the village, there is going to be an increased security presence. That’s something I’ve seen happen where I’m from, and it was somehow comforting to see that reflected in a book. Like it wasn’t a secret.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: I’m not sure I understand correctly, Eva. There was no military presence in the book. I assume you are referring to the Chief’s bagpipers. They are ceremonial and not military.
Eva Woods: Ah, that makes sense.
Marisa: Tsitsi, is your work process similar for film and fiction?
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Marisa, no, the work process for film and literature are miles apart. When I went to film school I had to learn the processes—the grammar, if you like—of visual storytelling. It is very difficult and gave me no end of trouble until I grasped it.
Marisa: I imagine that once you have a handle on the visual storytelling, it might become very useful in writing fiction. I have a very difficult time making sure to be visual and not too exponential when writing fiction.
Eva Woods: Why did you choose to tell the story in second person? It’s rare to see a whole novel told that way.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: I wrote it in the second person because that was the only way I could access the subject matter in a way that I felt made sense. I just didn’t have the heart to use the first person. I needed distance and I imagined the reader would to. On the other hand, I didn’t want to jump into the third person when the other two books were in the first. I also thought that might be too much distance. So I tried it out in the second and I liked the effect.
Eva Woods: I think you were spot on about the distance needed. The thing I loved best about this book was how unflinching it was in making Tambu a whole person, flaws and all.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Thank you, Eva. I am so glad that that aspect of the work seems to be resonating. I felt that a lot of literature from Zimbabwe was depicting people as victims of some awful power outside of them. I wanted to point out that the flaws are as much within people as without. The flaws might well be the result of some structural processes, but people’s reactions to them are as important as the structural processes themselves.
Eva Woods: Can you talk a little bit about living with these fictional people as long as you have?
Marisa: Did it get harder or easier (or perhaps not change at all) to write these characters as you moved through the trilogy? Also, I realize I’m assuming this is a trilogy, but you may be planning to write more—do you think you’ve finished this story?
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Living with these fictional people for such a long time has been exhausting. After Nervous Conditions was published I thought to myself that I would write a trilogy. I wasn’t that serious about it until my first publisher asked me to write a sequel shortly before she passed away. I told her I would and so had to go ahead. It was clear the story wasn’t over with The Book of Not, and so This Mournable Body was written.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: I am not one of those writers that write easily. I have to excavate for my work. It is not so much about having ideas but about how to write about those ideas in a way that readers can relate to. Sometimes I feel as though I’m turning myself inside out mentally. There are so many sensitivities to be aware of.
Eva Woods: Wow, Tsitsi, that’s really thoughtful and sounds awful! I thank god I’m not a writer every day. I love reading y’all but damn it’s so much work.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Yes, Marisa; this is the end of Tambudzai. Even as I write this, I have a vision of where she ends up finally. I don’t think I’ll pursue it though. If I write a story about where Tambudzai goes after This Mournable Body, I’ll probably use another character.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Writing is hard work. I’ve read about writers who warn people not to do it unless they can’t live without it. That just about sums it up for me.
Eva Woods: I loved in this book how “you” kind of became permission to look at the facts of a body outside of the normal narrative weight. Like, “you’re sweating” is different from “she’s sweating,” in that we have no choice but to relate rather than judge. Which is crazy because we all sweat, but so often we’re being asked to assign moral value on bodies. I loved that this didn’t do that.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Thank you again, Eva, for your positive comments on the second person. Yes, I tested it out and found that it had the effect you describe. Often when we talk we use “you” when we mean “I”. So that was the sense in which I used it. I’m glad it has apparently worked well. it did result in some point of view restrictions. The editing team at Graywolf helped me to find my way around them.
Marisa: Tsitsi, I read in a book review or an interview that this title is referencing Teju Cole’s 2015 New Yorker essay, “Unmournable Bodies.” Can you share how that essay resonated for you, and with Tambudzai’s story?
Tsitsi Dangarembga: That essay pointed out how the world reacted to the Charlie Hebdo Massacre, but rarely reacts to massacres in Africa. Teju Cole asks us why we mourn the death of some bodies but not the death of other bodies. I extrapolated that question to living bodies. Basically I asked the question whether, if we could mourn the circumstance of certain living bodies we might not create a better world. At the same time those living bodies also need to mourn themselves in order to begin to heal and move forward.
Marisa: That’s a thoughtful—and powerful—answer. Thank you, Tsitsi. I think the impulse to ask Teju’s question about not just the dead but also the living is an important one. And the idea of living bodies mourning themselves, or loss of parts of their identities, is very resonant, too.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Marisa, my observation has been that women often find it difficult to mourn themselves and their circumstances. In Zimbabwe today a lot of women think they are born to put up with all sorts of abuse, beginning in the families they are born into and equally in the families they marry into. It is the idea that society foists on women that suffering is a woman’s lot. It’s beginning to change, but we still have a long way to go. Such women do not know how to mourn their circumstances. It’s a question of being allowed to grieve for yourself. One has to see oneself as worthy to be able to grieve about the negative things that happen to one.
Eva Woods: God, that’s such a resonant concept, that we need to esteem ourselves highly enough to mourn when bad things happen.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: That’s what depression is about, in a way. It’s a failure to grieve and to mourn.
Eva Woods: How do you mean? Like it’s an extended grief?
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Grieving and mourning are active. You feel and you wade through the feelings. With depression one does not wade through but more or less drowns. Grieving and mourning, because they are active, pull one through, in spite of being terribly difficult. This, I think, is true whether one is grieving or mourning for oneself, or for someone else. I think that many Zimbabweans have not begun to mourn their situation actively yet. They are still denying it so as not to feel the pain.
Eva Woods: That makes so much sense. I read an essay recently about language and how it shapes a society’s ability to feel about itself. Like in America we have so much “pride” about being “self-made” that it’s really poisoned our ability to grow through self-criticism. This book said a lot about how Zimbabwe views itself, and maybe how you wish it did differently?
Tsitsi Dangarembga: That sounds like a remarkable essay, Eva. I absolutely agree. Different languages carry different nuances of emotion. In addition, as you point out, different groups use the same language in different ways. This usage reflects the group’s identity, and also reinforces it. it can be an upward or downward spiral. This is why people say we have to change the way we think in order to change our lives. We think through language, so changing the way we think is also about changing the language we use.
Marisa: We only have a few minutes left. Tsitsi, thank you again for joining us today to talk about this wonderful novel. Can I ask, before you go, for you to share some of your favorite writers with us, or writers who have felt influential to your own writing?
Eva Woods: Seconding that question!
Tsitsi Dangarembga: At the moment I’m reading Ben Okri. On the occasion of V. S. Naipul’s passing, I have to say that A House for Mr Biswas is one of the most astonishing books I have read. Earl Lovelace’s The Wine of Astonishment is another favorite. I’ve just read the incredibly beautiful first novel The Theory of Flight by Zimbabwean writer Siphiwe Ndlovu. There are so many.
Thank you very much, Marisa, for the invitation and the discussion here. Eva, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you.
Eva Woods: Thank you so much for your time!
Marisa: Thanks to you both for your time and for the great conversation!
Featured photograph of Tsitsi Dangarembga © Mateusz Zaboklicki.