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Zimbabwe: Ndebele Novelist Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya Is Seeking the Ancient Paths

Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya is one of the more prominent writers writing in Ndebele. Her new novel, Zalabantu Ziyebantwini’, came out this month. It will be followed by her fourth book, Portrait of Emlanjeni, later this year.

Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya writes with particular immersion in her Ndebele background. Her concern for women is grounded in the ways of her people, but she is also a critic of fixed narratives that enable oppressions. Ngwenya has also written on Zimbabwe’s hyper-inflationary era and broached darker regions of social memory in her work. In this interview with Priviledge Mugejo (PM), Ngwenya (TNN) talks about what it is to be one of the few women still writing in Ndebele.

PM: Mrs Ngwenya, we interview you because you are one of the few woman writers today writing in Ndebele. May you say anything about your upbringing as a Ndebele speaking girl?

TNN: Thank you for the honour and your kind recognition of my work. Ngwenya is my maiden name; Mrs Ngwenya is my mother. I am Ndebele and grew up in a Ndebele community. We lived and did everything we did the Ndebele way. I was aware that I had Shona blood in me and respected that, but I could only speak fluent Shona when I came to Harare for college. Before that, we just visited my grandparents in Nyazura, and other maternal relatives in different parts of Mashonaland. I did not get the chance to learn my mother’s mother tongue. She speaks Ndebele more and has been accustomed to the Ndebele way of life for more than 60 years now.

PM: What aspects of Ndebele culture do you appreciate most?

TNN: I am immersed in culture and try to speak it into my Ndebele novels. Portrait of Emlanjeni, my novel in English, and some stories in The Fifty Rand Note are also grounded in our culture. These are things that make you who you are, although, of course, modernity is working to erase that. Children are coming along when broader family structures have been broken by urban life and individualism. Our languages themselves are slowly disappearing. These days you may meet a child who cannot speak her mother tongue while also lacking a natural relationship with the English they want to be identified with.

In my writing, I remind my audience about cultural activities which do more than hold people together. Growing up, a child was everyone’s child. Manners where cultivated at a tender age. The community taught us to be polite to each other, to elders, every person we came across. Help was passed around the community in so many ways, helping a sick child even if the parents were not around, redirecting lost livestock, or keeping them from danger till the owners found them, helping each other at communal farming activities like ilima, nhimbe in Shona. I remember we could go and do laundry in a well or river a distance away from home, we would leave our clothes to dry and then collect them later. The village shared food and responsibilities as well as problems and solutions. People were allowed to be who they were in the community as long as they blended well and did not harm others. I was in love with that.

PM: Your father is Ndebele and mom is Shona. What has been the experiences of such a parentage?

TNN: Being hybrid – that’s what I call myself – is a great advantage. My names actually mean the same thing in the two languages. I get to know our cultures and appreciate them at an intimate level. I love that I am two sides of Zimbabwe by heritage and navigate both cultures on a natural level.

PM: You are a surveyor, an aspect of engineering. How did you come into writing from the sciences?

TNN: I am a town planner. I turn a bush into a town with all networks coming together before people can come in. That takes as serious imagination as writing does. Town planning is a creative process just like writing. Creating characters and making them say what you want them to say.

PM: What were your earliest unpublished writings like? What inspired them? Where did your earliest writings go?

TNN: I was angry at the system for reducing Zimbabweans to paupers overnight. I took my pen and vented. This was 2009. The economy was in terrible decline. At the time, I was running a real estate and a town planning consultancy, offering both services. I lost all my investments and was left with debts I struggled to service for years. Everything I had earned before that was through hard work, integrity and commitment. When I started writing, I never thought I would be published, I was writing for myself really. I became a published writer after being discovered by those in the industry also after accidentally bumping into my manuscripts.

PM: What was your first publication? Talk about how you felt with your first publication?

TNN: I was first published by a UNISA journal, Imbizo, in 2014. I was thrilled to say the least. My first full-length solo was published by Radiant Publishing House, in 2016. I was overjoyed. I was happy I could leave something down here. Priviledge, I am that sort of person you call a progressive obsessive. I feel guilty if I idle about. I know it may not sound good, but that is me. I like being alone. I quickly remove toxic people from my space. That is how I have survived all my life.

PM: Can you say a bit about your first Ndebele novel? What is the story about and how was it received?

TNN: My first Ndebele novel, Izinyawo Zayizolo, is about the things I mentioned before. What I did not mention earlier is the course of judicial management. I am really concerned about how the judicial system works. I am comparing the official system versus our indigenous system. I am saying let us take not completely abandon our way of life favouring the adopted one. We can pick what is good for us and carry it along, and pick what us good from the modern system and combine with ours since not everything about our traditional systems is dated.

PM: Say more about your second novel.

TNN: My second Ndebele novel is a sequel to Izinyawo Zayizolo. It is an award-winning story. My publisher asked me to bring a manuscript of not less than 32 000 words for a writing competition in 2020. I had written the story but it was just 18 000 words under another title. I just sent it as it was. The publisher returned it and asked me to reach 32 000 words. I was very busy at work and was feeling too tired to write. She insisted until I developed the story to just 32 772 words. I sent it back without editing, it came out number 3. As the editors worked on it we agreed to change the title to Zalabantu Ziyebantwini’. This book was published on 11 May 2022. In this book I try to show the modern life and its challenges. I show cases of mental illnesses, confusing situations in religion, failure to manage our affairs as a people and invite us to go back to were we started for help and direction.

PM: You work with a publisher who is a very highly regarded writer in Zimbabwe. Talk about your artistic and woman-to-woman relations with Barbra Nkala?

TNN: I am very lucky to have been discovered by this distinguished artist, Barbara Makhalisa Nkala. She is one of the most humane people I know. She encourages others, not only in writing but also in her day-to-day life. I enjoy spending afternoons with her, be it talking about our works or other stuff. I like to watch her do what she does. She is very welcoming to her home and full of love and life. She makes a person feel important. Those are the kind of people I like to spend time with. She brings positive energy wherever she is and in whatever she does. We talk a lot about women’s issues, even when around fellow women writers.

PM: Why do you think literature in Ndebele tends to have fewer women authors and that Ndebele literature has very few books?

TNN: I think Ndebele literature has fewer writers because as a language Ndebele developed from Zulu. So, that makes Ndebele books compete with its original language. Naturally readers will prefer a language with a deeper history and more resources around it. At school, during my time, we used Zulu books as literature texts, so there is little encouragement for Ndebele writers. Also as a local language, Ndebele readership is limited to people who can understand it.

PM: You also write in English. Say something about The Rand Note.

TNN: Yes. I write in English as well. The Fifty Rand Note is a collection of short stories I wrote in 2009. Most of the stories were written from my real estate office in Harare. I was writing them for myself since we did not have much to do. It was after the days of serious economic meltdown and I was very angry at what I had lost. I wrote as a way to pass time and not focus on the painful situation everyone was going through. The stories where well-received especially in the academia. I have tertiary students from all over the world using the stories for research. That gave me encouragement to continue writing even if it was just a hobby in the beginning.

PM: How are you able to switch easily from novel to short story, then from English to Ndebele?

TNN: Switching languages comes naturally to me since I speak three different languages everyday. I live in Harare, at home we speak Ndebele but I speak Shona and English during the day with clients and colleagues who are mostly Shona. When writing, a story directs the writer. A short story remains a short story and a novel develops itself to the end. A writer does not need to think; good stories lead and end themselves. A naturally gifted writer knows that.

PM: [Memory] Chirere tells me you have a new novel in English coming. I have seen parts of it and it is about where you grew up. Say more about this story.

TNN: Yes. The novel is titled Portrait of Emlanjeni. It is a more elaborate English version of Izinyawo Zayizolo. It was supposed to be delivered by end of last year. However the final editor is holding it in Germany for a technical reason we cannot reveal just yet. The hard copies of the book should be in Zimbabwe by mid-year.

PM: What is your idea of a good woman writer?

TNN: My idea of a good woman writer is a writer who writes what they know. However, craft is very important. Use of language and being real is something I look for in a story because fiction is not really fiction; it is something that the writer knows. In most cases it is the change of names, places and some craft and arrangement.

PM: What do you think is the state of women’s literature in Zimbabwe?

TNN: Women writers have been writing enormously. Almost each year, there is a Zimbabwean woman who publishes a book. Just recently two of Zimbabwean woman writers Tsitsi Dangarembga and Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu received the prestigious Windham Campbell Prize in America. No easy feat. NoViolet Bulawayo, Petina Gappah, Batsirai Chigama, Virginia Phiri and others are taking Zimbabwean literature far.