Tsitsi Dangarembga: ‘Reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved changed my life’

The Zimbabwean author on her love for Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing, and why Reni Eddo-Lodge changed her mind about England

The book I am currently reading
I opened Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift to give me a Zambian perspective.

The book that changed my life
Reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved changed my life. My work so far has been about pain. Until very recently, admitting to feeling any pain that is not clearly physical was an admission of weakness in my culture. Morrison taught me decades earlier that articulating pain and the failure of hope is the stuff of literature.

The book I wish I’d written
Doris Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing. Many years ago, a gentleman at a hotel check-in desk in Tehran looked up from my passport and said: “Zimbabwe. Used to be Rhodesia. My father once worked there. He knew Doris Lessing.” Lessing was able to write in an amazingly human way about empire and its oppression.

The book that had the greatest influence on me
Reading Ben Okri’s The Freedom Artist a few months ago was like taking a course in creative writing. The structure of his short sentences left me breathless. I’m hoping it has imbued my style with a new elegance.

The book I think is most underrated
The Malawian Shadreck Chikoti’s debut novel, Azotus the Kingdom, tells the story of Kamoto, who lives in a country where the state provides everything for citizens who are to remain inside their houses. Kamoto finally succumbs to an urge to go outside, where he learns about survival, love and struggle. I’d love for more people to value this book.

The book that changed my mind
Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race changed my mind about Britain – or should I say England? It had always been a mystery to me why the English were so silent about race, given the history of empire. Now the conversation has exploded, I think England can wake up out of a long slumber.

The last book that made me cry
Set in the era leading up to South African independence in 1994, Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying chronicles with wit, compassion and steely composure the dozens of ways in which people died in apartheid South Africa.

The last book that made me laugh
I reread Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle recently and was pleased to understand it better. I was able to laugh at the wry wit as well as at many of the heroine Joan’s scatterbrained antics.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
I’m never ashamed at not having read a book. I’m simply pleased when I can get my hands on them, living as I do in a country where the book industry has collapsed save for textbooks.

The book I give as a gift
I give young people books about young people of colour. Since my son idolises Trevor Noah, I picked up a copy of his Born a Crime. He hasn’t stopped reading since.

My earliest reading memory
Reading the newspaper at four. I was fostered, together with my brother, in a home in Dover. My foster mother, whom I called Grandma, was so impressed by the fact that I could read at such an early age that whenever visitors came to tea, she’d pick up the newspaper and point at a paragraph. I did not understand much of the text. I remember switching off any search for meaning and enjoying the attention.

My comfort read
I read Zukiswa Wanner for comfort. She writes chick lit set in South Africa in a Drabblesque fashion. Couples hardly ever live happily ever after in her writing, but the heroines emerge from their adventures smiling. My favourite is Men of the South.

• This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga is published on 16 January by Faber. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com.

Tsitsi Dangarembga

The GuardianTramp

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