Just a few days after her novel was long-listed for the Booker Prize, Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga found herself spending the night sleeping on the concrete floor of a Harare jail. Her crime? Taking part in a protest against government corruption and repression.
Now with her book, This Mournable Body, having made the shortlist of the prestigious award, the 61-year-old author tells us about her recent arrest, why she felt compelled to take a stand, what it felt like to find out that she was in the running for the Booker and how winning the £50 000 award would change her life.
How did you feel when you heard you'd made the Booker shortlist?
It was hard to believe that over 30 years of work had finally paid off with this recognition.
How did you find out?
My publisher called me to give me the good news.
How would winning the prize make life easier for you as an author?
Winning the prize would give me a bit of financial respite from living from hand to mouth. I would be able to concentrate on the book I am writing without the constant anxiety of not knowing whether or not I'll be able to make ends meet.
Have you read any of the other works that have been nominated? If so, what did you think of them?
No, I have not read any of the other works that have been nominated. I have ordered them for Christmas.
How have you been coping since your arrest?
I've been holding up well. I've kept abreast of events in Zimbabwe and tried to keep my voice going on social media. Not a great deal is expected of me, except that I do my quota of writing each day, as I don't have other full time employment, and I've been able to do that.
Can you tell readers why you were arrested?
I was arrested while participating in a demonstration against corruption, misgovernance and repression in Zimbabwe on 31 July. The demonstration had been called by a small opposition party.
How were you treated by the police?
I was treated reasonably well by the police by my standards Very well in comparison to how other people arrested in Zimbabwe have been treated by the police.
You are due to appear in court soon on charges of inciting public violence and acts of bigotry. How do you feel about this? Are you scared?
As I prepare to stand trial I am sad that it has come to this. I have always seen myself as a law-abiding citizen. I have also seen myself as a responsible, engaged citizen who should speak up and act when necessary. I have never seen myself as a person who should by cowed by unjust, repressive systems. I am anxious about the matter possibly taking a negative turn, but I do not dwell on it.
Why did you stick your neck out and protest? Why did you feel it was so necessary?
The deterioration in Zimbabwe has to be halted. The politicians are the reason for the deterioration. It is therefore up to us, the citizens, to save our country for ourselves.
For many authors making the Booker shortlist would be a definite career highlight. Has your arrest put a bit of a dampener on this achievement?
On the contrary, the Booker shortlist coming after my arrest has given me a lift that has kept me hopeful during this challenging time.
How do people in Zim feel about your shortlist nomination? Is there any excitement?
Yes, there is some excitement in some circles in Zimbabwe.
What is the one book that you read that changed your life?
Recently I read Undoing the Revolution: Comparing Elite Subversion of Peasant Rebellions. I've been seeking frameworks to help me understand what is going on in Zimbabwe. This book changed my outlook by giving me new model for the destructive processes in Zimbabwe.
* Tsitsi was due back in court on 24 September but the prosecutor failed to pitch so the case was postponed until 7 October.
The list includes four debut novelists. All writers on the shortlist, except Dangarembga, are Americans or hold join US citizenship. And with four writers of colour, it’s being described as the most diverse line-up in the prize’s history.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
A daring, passionate and terrifying novel about a mother’s battle to save her daughter in a world ravaged by climate change.
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
This novel catches up with the heroine of Dangarembga’s classic 1988 novel Nervous Conditions. According to the Booker prize website, the book “channels the hope and potential of one young girl and a fledgling nation to lead us on a journey to discover where lives go after hope has departed.”
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Wallace has spent his summer in the lab breeding a strain of microscopic worms. He is four years into a biochemistry degree at a Midwestern university. But, over the course of one weekend, the destruction of his work and a series of intense confrontations force him to grapple with both the trauma of the past, and the question of the future.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
An exploration of the unsinkable love that kids can have for their damaged parents. After her husband leaves her, Agnes Bain turns to alcohol for comfort and all but one of her children abandon her. But Shuggie has problems of his own.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
This is a love story and it is a story about betrayal. But not between lovers - between mother and daughter.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Ethiopia. 1935. With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid working for an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army. But as the emperor goes into exile she comes up with an inspiring plan to maintain morale while fighting a battle of her own.