#100PENMembers No.7: Tsitsi Dangarembga

Our seventh influential PEN member has just received an award for her campaigning and is the subject of ongoing court proceedings in her Zimbabwe for her role in peaceful protests last summer.

Photo Credit: Hannah Mentz

Tsitsi Dangarembga will today receive the PEN Award for Freedom of Expression. Since it was established in 2005, this annual award has been given to a range of prominent writers for their ‘work in fighting for freedom of expression’. 

The internationally-acclaimed Dangarembga was short-listed for the Booker Prize this year for her novel, This Mournable Body.

She was arrested in July 2020 during anti-corruption protests against the Mnangagwa government, and in defence of Hopewell Chin’ono, a journalist recently arrested for protesting and for criticising the government. Dangarembga wrote about the events that day for PEN

Talking to al Jazeera she said: ‘My arrest and the arrests of others who protested on July 31, or even in the days leading up to July 31 indicate that the right to peaceful protest is seriously eroded in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean citizens are expected to keep silent and docilely accept whatever the authorities decide to do, or face arrest for peacefully expressed differences of opinion.’

She was charged in September with the intention to incite public violence and freed on bail. She was still awaiting trial at the time of writing. Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said: ‘In a bizarre turn of events that could be part of a surreal novel, Tsitsi Dangarembga was arrested for peacefully expressing her opinion over rising corruption in Zimbabwe, and then released as if the government was being magnanimous. She was arrested because she said on social media: Friends, here is a principle. If you want your suffering to end, you have to act. Action comes from hope. This the principle of faith and action – which the government confused for ‘insurrection.’ Zimbabwe’s authorities need to get not only their semantics but also their understanding of human rights and free expression right.’ 

Dangarembga has always been a trailblazer and began her career writing plays before turning to novels:”There were simply no plays with roles for black women, or at least we didn’t have access to them at the time. The writers in Zimbabwe were basically men at the time. And so I really didn’t see that the situation would be remedied unless some women sat down and wrote something, so that’s what I did!” Her debut novel Nervous Conditions (1988) was the first to be published in English by a Black woman in Zimbabwe.

Dangarembga holds a placard during the 31st July Protests in Harare. Photo Credit: AFP

As part of her activism work and to defend free speech in Zimbabwe, Dangarembga revived the dormant Zimbabwean PEN branch in 2016. She currently holds the post of International Chair of  Creative Writing (Africa) at the University of East Anglia.

The award ceremony takes place tonight as part of the opening night of the online Winternachten International Literature Festival The Hague, and can be streamed live (tickets & more details: writersunited.nl).

Get involved: Find out how you can lend your support to Tsitsi.