Sunday, October 27, 2019 4:14 am
By Nehru Odeh
It was the first book published by a black woman from Zimbabwe in English. It was hailed by Doris Lessing as one ofthe most important novels of the 20th century. It is on the list ofAfrica’s 100 best books of the last century and also BBC list of100 stories that changed the world. It won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa in 1989 (It was published in 1988). And has been followed by two sequels, The book of Not which was published in 2006 and the latest, This Malleable Body, published last year.
This is the incredible but groundbreaking story of Nervous Condition, a semi-autobiographical novel written by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Zimbabwean writer, poet, playwright, film maker and activist. The novel, the first of a trilogy, tells the story ofTambu, a woman determined to focus on her education in order to escape the denigrating poverty and debilitating condition at home , no matter what goes on around her. As a result she is always hard on herself and strives to do her best and makes the correct decisions. It illustrates the dynamic themes of race, colonialism and gender in the post-colonial conditions of present day Zimbabwe.
However, the intriguing thing about the novel is that it almost never got published – it was published seven years afterDangerembga had sent it to her publisher; and not only had she already given up hope that it would ever be published, she was thinking of jettisoning writing for film making as she had just applied to a film school. “I thought writing was not my thing,’she said in a conversation with Molara Wood on riday, 25 October 2019 at the ongoing Ake Arts and Book Festival in Alliance Francaise/Mike Adenuga Centre Ikoyi, Lagos.
Dangarembga, who headlined this year’s festival, narrated her torturous and tortuous experience on her road to publishing her debut novel and getting international recognition and fame to an enthralled audience. “I wasn’t actually a successful writer when I went to film school because it hadn’t been published. I had tried to get it published in Zimbabwe as I had mentioned. We had a lot of black publishers as at that time. It was shortly after independence in 1980. So they had taken over from the white publishers. But these were young black men. To be charitable I could say they could not understand it. So I had actually given up. I thought writing wasn’t my thing. And then I began to read a lot of African American living writers,” she said.
The award–winning writer, determined to get her novel published, also said she then looked to see where those AfricanAmerican writers still living at the time were published and found out that many of them were published in the United Statesand according to her, she had more experience with the United States. She then went further and realized that Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was published by The Women’s Press in the United Kingdom, which also resonated with her because of hercounty’s colonial experience.
“And so I sent it to them. I didn’t hear from them. Then many years – seven years after I had sent it to them – I happened to be in London. So I went down to their offices. And I asked If they had received it. They said no they don’t think they received something of that nature. I told them I definitely sent it to them. So the woman said to me ‘Well If you sent it, it must be at the basement. Let me go and check.’ So she went down to the basement. She came back with this package, which also now had cobwebs. And then she said, “Is this it?’ I said yes. Very oftenthe universe is really very helpful because the person who was heading The Women’s Press at the time was a South Africanwoman who was in exile, a writer. And so they gave her the book to read that day. The very next day she called me up and that was it.”
Asked what advice she has for writers who are struggling to get published, Dangarembga said: “Keep going. It doesn’t matter what people say to you. It doesn’t matter what you say to yourself. If you are shouting too loud at yourself, leave it for a while until your voices calm down. But keep going. Try as much as you can. Some people don’t feel comfortable talking too much. But as much as you can means you are opening yourself up to their help.”