© 2005 - 2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.
PC: Your first novel, Nervous Conditions, (1988) which you published when you were only twenty-five, won the African section of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Doris Lessing praised it as one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. The scope and nature of your project reminds me of the trajectory of Lessing’s Martha Quest series, which not only follows the life of Martha Quest, but which also has as its subjects feminism, racism and politics. Who are some of the writers whose work you admire?
TD: I admire Toni Morrison, Isaac Asimov, Barack Obama, Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, Maya Angelou, Phillip Roth, Sefi Atta, Mariama Ba, Chinua Achebe. For light reading I turn to John Grisham. I like fearless writers who believe, as I read them, that understanding is a state of mind, not a fact.
PC: After the enormous success of Nervous Conditions, what impelled you to move into film-making rather than pushing to get out the second novel in what was presented as a trilogy?
TD: The success of Nervous Conditions came late, after I had already made the change. Unfortunately, in any case, given the way the publishing industry appears to work, the success of the novel has not translated into financial security for me. Especially as an African writer living in Africa I am subject to all sorts of shocking exploitation without recourse. So it is good that I have a second career.
PC: How have you been able to use the skills you acquired while you worked as a copywriter in a marketing agency? Which are particularly useful in your film-work with your production company and in the International Images Film Festival for Women (IFFF)?
TD: That experience helped me to consolidate my notion of story. I also did a bit of directing, so that helped when it came to working with actors.
PC: Have you found your study of medicine and psychology applicable to your work in writing and film?
TD: Yes. I do actually remember some details from the time I studied medicine, which I incorporate into stories. Studying psychology definitely helped me understand character and the eccentricities of the subjects I write about.
PC: A woman of many talents, you’ve written plays, short fiction, films, novels, poetry, and produced films and film festivals. What were some factors in your professional evolution? For example, your skills in poetry? Your work in drama?
TD: I think the key factor in my evolution was curiosity, a perpetual asking “what if?" Sometimes now I think I don’t really want to know. But it is hard to change the way I have been operating for so long. I think again I have had to be absolutely hard-headed. A few days ago I went to a public meeting in town. I asked a question that quite a few people did not like. Afterwards a young man came up, addressed me by my first name and demanded to know by what authority I had dared open my mouth! Male chauvinism in Zimbabwe is rampant and I have had to fight this all my life. I had thought that the fight might be won, or that one might make discernible progress, but it is taking much longer than I had hoped. Sometimes it does not seem as if it is happening at all. Nevertheless, I am still ready to try things out. A few years ago someone asked me to direct a play for youth and I did that. I do not like to close any doors. One simply has to keep going through them.
PC: What took you, in 1989, to Germany’s Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie in Berlin [dffb] rather than another film school?
TD: A friend of mine worked at the German Volunteer Service (as it was then called) office in Harare. When her boss heard I was looking for a film school, he told me about the German Film and Television Academy Berlin. I had been looking at Cuba and Australia without any results, so when my friend’s boss offered to help me with obtaining the necessary information, I was happy to take up the offer. At the time Germany was beginning efforts to rebuild its film industry, which they have now accomplished so successfully. Part of the plan was to bring in creativity from other parts of the world. So I became a tiny part of that plan. It fills me with awe when I think about it. I think the ideas I was exposed to in Berlin have been crucial in my development as an artist. That experience made me what I am.
PC: You said [Interview in Borrowdale, Harare on 8 August 2003], “... I have never been somebody who says what is expected of me, wherever, so I tend to fall into a very small space, and it makes life difficult, but I feel I cannot betray what I see and my convictions. And if I am not convinced that a particular point of view is the correct point of view, it is very difficult for my to jump on that bandwagon just because it might be easier in life if I did.”
It seems to me that the principled view you express would indicate a moral throughline in the body of your creative work. You founded Nyerai films in l992 in Harare, and in l993 released the film Neria, which you wrote. What connection, if any, do you see between your making documentaries and your fiction films—and your other work such as your novels?
TD: Writing is much more personal because it is true that I write what I like. On the other hand, films have to be paid for by someone who has the resources. This person then determines which film is made or not made. I was commissioned to write the story for Neria which was produced by Media for Development Trust. When looking for topics for documentaries I am always aware I have to have an interest in common with the interests of the sponsors. It is more often than not difficult to reconcile those two interests, but so far, even though I sometimes do not know how I will pay my children’s school fees, my family and I have not starved. On the other hand, morality is, in my opinion, the backbone of narrative. It structures subjectivity, and the way my subjectivity is structured is bound to influence my writing whether I consciously take a moral position or whether I consciously adopt what I define as an amoral perspective.
PC: Do you see any parallels in the making of a short film to the writing of a short story?
TD: I have not mastered the technique of short story writing. I tend to write what I like to read, and I prefer to read longer pieces. Similarly I prefer to write long films to shorts, although I have not ever received funding for any of my long films.
PC: The Book of Not, which came out in 2006 was also received with acclaim. How do you balance working on the third novel your filmmaking and raising children?
TD: With difficulty. Right now I have not worked on my novel since October due to the festival and some film work. But I am hoping to return to it now and have it finished this year as originally intended. My husband is a great help and pitches in to make sure I have time for my work.
PC: As we’re publishing a section of the novel in Per Contra, what would you like our readers to know about the third novel?
TD: The third novel is the third part in the Tambudzai trilogy I am working on. It looks at some of the dimensions of the Zimbabwean persona that I find baffling. For example our helter skelter descent into wholesale corruption. Our dislike of ourselves and each other. I am hoping that by working through the issues in the novel I will come to that frame of mind of understanding that I referred to above.
PC: You point to the political aspect of Nervous Conditions with its title, which refers to Jean-Paul Sartre's introduction to Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth. This subject is described in Pegasos as follows: “The 'nervous condition' of the native is, according to Sartre, a function of mutually reinforcing attitudes between colonizer and colonized that condemn the colonized to what amounts to a psychological disorder.” In your work how do you seek to balance your consideration of feminist issues in a post-colonial society with other humanistic concerns?
TD: Balancing feminist and humanist issues is not, in my view, difficult as women are human. That is my point of departure. I cannot write what is outside my experience. This is to say that the underlying themes I write about have their seed in my human experience. As a woman, and as a member of other categories that seek to disempower me, I have a wealth of experience and conflict to draw from for my work.
PC: What role do you see for education in developing countries? Do you think it has to have a practical application?
TD: I think the value of education depends on its nature, I would say. I think Zimbabwe is waking up to the fact that the rote type of education that was put in place by the colonial government, where experimentation and independent thinking were discouraged, is not useful for our present situation. So I do think we need to revisit the kinds of education systems we have in place. The crucial question is educating whom for what? The answers to that kind of question are very open, and so we have to make choices. I do not think my parents’ generation was educated to ask the right questions. Today most Zimbabweans are asking, “How much money can I make and how quickly?” I don’t think that is the right question either, where an agenda of nation building is clearly needed. Yes, education is about practical matters, in my view, but the soul is also a practical matter: we cannot live without it.
PC: English is the official language in Zimbabwe, but you take into account both Shona, Ndebele. Are there special challenges/opportunities in filmmaking in a country with multiple languages? How do you use subtitles in your films? Does the role of a subtitle take on more significance in a country where you want to honor multiple cultures and also value national unity?
TD: In my experience as a filmmaker I have seen that people present themselves better on screen in their mother tongue. It is not always easy to persuade a person to speak in her or his mother tongue, but I very much prefer to work in that language and use subtitling or dubbing. Subtitling does work in Zimbabwe as most people can read. I do not regard filmmaking in a multilingual setting as a particular challenge as that is our norm.
PC: You’ve been a leader in creating the International Images Film Festival for Women (IFFF), and you’ve kept it going (and growing) for five years. You were quoted in All Africa as saying that, "The festival went ahead according to plan despite some minor challenges like electricity power cuts. We have also seen a growth in the festival this year and the films we received were of exceptional quality," That’s an upbeat approach. If electricity power cuts are minor challenges, what would consider to be major challenges? How did you work with the power cuts to carry on with the festival?
TD: It was ghastly! We had to camp in friends' offices and be sure not to outstay our welcome. We still don’t have offices of our own due to inadequate funding, but we have managed to hang on and are in fact going from strength to strength in our programming. I am particularly proud of our teaching programmes. When I wasn’t camping in other people’s offices I would get up at four o’clock in the morning to fit in a couple hours of work before the power cut at six a.m.. Then, of course, as more and more people did that, the power was cut earlier and earlier. I finally baulked at getting up at two a.m.! My assistant slept in the office on several occasions. We had to spend a large part of our hard won budget on generators, which meant people taking pay cuts! I think our major challenges are publicity and financial resources—which amounts to the same thing, really. Also the creative arts have not until recently been regarded as an honourable profession in Zimbabwe. Therefore it has been difficult to draw many competent people into the sector. That is now changing, and that is why a lot of my work focuses on film education. We need a pool of people who have the necessary skills and understand the issues.
PC: In the same interview you said, “"The way forward from now is to carry on with the annual festival which helps in telling the true story of Zimbabwe.” It’s far too complex to cover fully (as are others of these questions), of course, in an interview like this, but, taking into account a natural desire to avoid over-simplification, what are some misconceptions about Zimbabwe that would be dispelled if we knew the “true story”?
TD: Zimbabwe is a very complex issue. I think one of the most common misconceptions is that everything would work out in my country if President Mugabe were removed from office. This is a frighteningly simplistic and reductionist way of looking at a problem that has historical antecedents stretching back over a century. It is very unfortunate that some of our major opposition parties take this position because I think that such an over-simplification prevents the level of analysis we require to come up with solutions.
To be fair to oppositions, though, it does too often seem as though the attainable goals are goals we set against each other. Nevertheless, there are a host of contextual factors that need to be put into the equation, and these contextual factors also include our own Zimbabwean pre-colonial, colonial, and neo-colonial idiosyncracies. These contextual factors determine a lot of people’s behaviours, including those behaviours that perpetrate abusive and repressive systems.
Another misconception in my view is that Zimbabweans are victims of one diabolical plot or another. I believe Zimbabweans are responsible for the current deterioration in the country due to crude egoism and materialism, and an inability to conceptualise and work towards a common national good.
PC: What’s your next project? Will you be devoting yourself full time to the novel?
TD: I wish I could say what my next project will be. It’s easier to say what I would like it to be! Besides completing the novel I am working on now, I would love to make one of my long feature films. I also have a television project with Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe which is designed to train young filmmakers while making high quality product. I am strategising and fundraising for that. Training is one of my passions at the moment.