Tsitsi Dangarembga is an award-winning Zimbabwean novelist, playwright, and filmmaker. She completed her residency at The Bellagio Center in 2016. Her debut novel, Nervous Conditions (1988), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa Section), and her most recent novel, This Mournable Body (2021), partly written at the Center, was nominated for the Booker Prize.

I was in a very difficult space when I went to Bellagio. Being a black, older female artist in Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, on the continent—it’s an extreme sport. And 2016 was a difficult year for me. Very busy, but also the long-term political crisis in Zimbabwe was intensifying.

We have periods of inflation where food disappears from shops. Most of us aren’t provided with clean water, and fuel is effectively rationed. We still have no effective currency at the moment. You have pensioners who have their entire life savings wiped out because of currency manipulation, and I know this because my mother was one of them.

People are so tied up with just surviving that we cannot produce anything worthwhile, and that threatens intellectual life in this country, too. By 2016 you could really see where things were going. I needed to get away from it all.

At the time I was trying to work on a novel—the third part of a trilogy that began decades ago [with Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not], about a family living in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in the decades since independence. I was also writing two scripts, and working on a YA dystopian speculative novel. I needed to bring these projects to an end, and there wasn’t the quiet for that in Zimbabwe. I was actually quite desperate. So when the offer came via the Africa Centre in Cape Town to go to Bellagio for a month’s writing residency, it was a delight.

  • It was so important to get away and breathe. I wouldn’t have been able to relax sufficiently to finish my novel, This Mournable Body without that time at Bellagio—and of course it’s now gone on to be quite a success.
    Tsitsi Dangarembga
    Writer, Filmmaker, Director, Cultural Activist, Teacher, Social Entrepreneur

I was there for a month. We had scientists, medics, artists—it was fascinating to be among people from such different professional backgrounds. There was Xavier Alpasa, a Catholic priest from the Philippines, and as a Christian myself it was refreshing to have deep theological discussions in such an increasingly secular age. Ann Marie Kimball, an epidemiologist who pioneered electronic surveillance of diseases, told me about her work across Africa, which was interesting then and doubly so now in the age of Covid. There was Jeffery Renard Allen, the African-American novelist, and we discussed the need to promote both African and African-American narrative—he recently interviewed me for his website, and TK TK. And there was Victor Ehikhamenor too, a Nigerian visual artist, whose work I just fell in love with. The whole intellectual climate was so stimulating. I was energized, and did get a lot of work done.

Someone said to me, “Tsitsi, when you arrived you looked like a nervous wreck, but you’ve relaxed into a normal person again.” It was so important to get away, and breathe. I wouldn’t have been able to relax sufficiently to finish my novel, This Mournable Body without that time at Bellagio—and of course it’s now gone on to be quite a success. I’m still writing my dystopian YA novel. It normally takes me around three drafts to even know what I’m writing about, so of course I’m now on my seventh draft, but I finally think this one’s clean enough to send to my agent. Both my scripts are done, too, and I’m looking for production funds for those.

I needed a break, and Bellagio gave me that break. It gave me confidence and renewed trust that things can happen when you need them to.

Explore More

We’d like to thank Tsitsi for her continuing contribution to the network. She continues to search for funding for her most recent film project, and can be contacted via her agent.

You can watch Thandi Newton read an excerpt from This Mournable Body, and hear novelist Sara Collines talk about why she enjoyed the book so much.

Find out more about the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa, which was founded by Tsitsi.

You may also want to connect with Tsitsi on Twitter.

About the Bellagio Center

Since 1959 The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center has hosted thousands of artists, policymakers, scholars, authors, practitioners, and scientists from all over the world enabling them time and space to work, to learn from each other, and to turn ideas into actions that change the world. To learn more about the Bellagio Center’s Residency and Convening programs visit The Rockefeller Foundation’s website: https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/bellagio-center/.