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Review: 'Black and Female,' by Tsitsi Dangarembga

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"Black and Female" by Tsitsi Dangarembga.

"Black and Female" by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Graywolf Press/TNS)

NONFICTION: Slim but incisive, this collection of graceful essays explores the struggle to be Black and female in a world of toxic patriarchy.

"Black and Female" by Tsitsi Dangarembga; Graywolf Press (128 pages, $23)

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"The first wound for all of us who are classified as 'black' is empire." So begins the first essay in Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga's trenchant new collection, "Black and Female," firmly establishing the terrain and approach of the slim but incisive volume. "I had no inkling that I was just a black body brought into the world only to be, in the avaricious eyes of empire, useful to it," she continues.

In fewer than 150 pages, Dangarembga deftly lays out the colonial history which her writing both springs from and exists in opposition to the essential difference between writing and publishing while Black and female, and how current Zimbabwean efforts to achieve gender equity in the country's institutions become polluted by postcolonial patriarchy.

It's a tall order, but Dangarembga achieves it with grace, through a clear-eyed analysis of both her familial and national pasts.

A particularly potent observation in the book is that empires derive much of their power from turning objects and beings that are actually part of a collective commons (land, people, plants, animals) into things that may be bought and sold. "It is precisely because of this that the imaginative work of black feminists is frustrated. While white feminists imagine a world patterned along the lines of white private ownership patriarchy, in which rewards are merely redistributed, black feminists imagine a new world that has not been seen before."

I was moved by Dangarembga's obvious efforts to link the struggles of Black feminist writers on the continent to those in the American diaspora, including Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. As well as by poetic and powerful passages that linger in one's consciousness long after the last page is read:

"These are the wounds that burst open as I write. The force that propels my narrative through the damage is the hope not to be consumed, not to have my being rotted away, by the trauma. I write to raise mountains, hills, escarpments and rocky outcrops over the gouges in my history, my societies and their attendant spirits. The tears of the process water bushes and trees so that their roots may do the work of holding together that which was pulled violently apart. Through writing, I cultivate my being to bring forth forests that replenish our depleted humanity."

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Shannon Gibney is a writer in Minneapolis and the author, most recently, of "The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be."

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