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!)