Saturday, January 31, 2015

Tendai Huchu interviewed, from


Tendai Huchu’s first novel, The Hairdresser of Harare, was released in 2010 to critical acclaim, and has been translated into German, French and Italian. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Manchester Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Interzone, Gutter, AfroSF, Wasafiri, Warscapes, The Africa Report, Kwani? and numerous other publications. In 2013 he received a Hawthornden Fellowship and a Sacatar Fellowship. He was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize. His new novel is The Maestro, The Magistrate, & The Mathematician.

I cannot believe I did not have you over my blog sooner. Well, better late than never… So, how have you been doing?
Thanks for having me, Debdatta. I’ve been great, doing a bit of this and that, you know, trying to save the world one tale at a time.

Tell us, when did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer/ a storyteller?
I think it’s more a gradual process than anything. You tell a story, here and there, someone likes it and you think, ‘Great I can do something other people enjoy,’ because at the core of it, you’re really telling stories you yourself want to hear. Folks indulge you, and before you know it, you’re this 30-something year old dude, still making stuff up.

What inspires you to write?
Real life – to be fair, there’s a lot more crazier shit out there in the real world, than anything that can be conjured up in a book. But I enjoy literature as an art form, so other writers inspire me. The inspiration comes from just existing and checking stuff out.

What was the general response to ‘The Hairdresser of Harare’ and ‘An Untimely Love’?
Readers are very kind, especially to a writer still trying to find his feet.

How did you come up with the idea for your current story?
I don’t want to sound all mystical or hocus-pocussy, but it just came to me. Ideas are there, churning away in your subconscious, you just have to be a little patient and a little receptive to them.

What is your favorite scene in the book? Why?
The book works as an integrated whole for me. I couldn’t pick one scene over any other.

Did any of your characters inherit some of your own quirks?
Inevitably some of you filters into the work, unintentionally. But I suppose I can point to a character called Tendai, who has a very brief cameo in the book. He’s a bit awkward, drinks more than he really should, and generally makes an ass of himself.

Tell us about your writing process.
I wake up at 7am, have breakfast, then I work till 10:30. After that I run/cycle/walk for 1 ½ to 2 hours.  I come back, have lunch. Depending on how the work is going I may write a bit more, or rewrite and revise. There’s a lot of flexibility in that structure allowing me to do important stuff like Twitter or Facebook or generally procrastinate and ruminate over my unappreciated genius and/or world peace.

What is your most interesting writing quirk?
I generally loath my work after it has been published. Each sentence feels like a step away from the perfect idea that was there on the blank first page. What keeps me going is the naïve hope that the next story might just be a little bit better.

Do you read? Who are your favourite authors and how have they influenced your writing style?
I read all the time. You can’t even contemplate being a writer if you don’t read – forget it. 
Favourite authors – really hard coz I read so much, and am at the stage where I really don’t know what I get from whom. But if I had to pick:
Dostoevsky and Jim Thompson – insane psychological exposition.
David Mitchell – breadth of imagination and structural prowess
David Foster Wallace – need I say more

What is the best piece of advice you have received, as a writer, till date?
No one knows what they’re doing in this game, we’re all winging it.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone that wants to get into writing?
Don’t do it, get a real job instead. You’ll be a lot happier that way. However if you must – then read a lot first and learn from the masters. The best creative writing tutors are in your local library.

What would be the Dream Cast for your book if it was to be turned into a movie?

Idris Elba – The Magistrate

                                                                        James Franco – The Maestro

Michael B. Jordan – The Mathematician

                                                                             Chiwetel Ejiofor - Alfonso

If you were to be stranded on the famous deserted island, what three things would you carry?
Paper and pen and a cool sunhat.

How do you spend your free time? Do you have a favorite place to go and unwind?
I play a bit of chess, walk or cycle a lot, usually along Union Canal in Edinburgh.

Can you share with us something off your bucket list?
I wanna see the Lalibela churches in Ethiopia.

Tell us three fun facts about yourself.
I have restless leg syndrome, so my legs run about while I’m asleep.
Addicted to marshmallows, I can’t stop myself whenever I get a packet I keep going till it’s empty.
I’m afraid of the dark… really afraid.

What do you have in store next for your readers?
Working on a scifi novel. Doing more short fiction in the noir and literary genres. Varying it up a bit.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with your readers?
I’m sure they’ve had enough of me by now. Thanks a lot, Debdatta :)

Three very different men struggle with thoughts of belonging, loss, identity and love as they attempt to find a place for themselves in Britain. The Magistrate tries to create new memories and roots, fusing a wandering exploration of Edinburgh with music. The Maestro, a depressed, quixotic character, sinks out of the real world into the fantastic world of literature. The Mathematician, full of youth, follows a carefree, hedonistic lifestyle, until their three universes collide.

In this carefully crafted, multi-layered novel, Tendai Huchu, with his inimitable humour, reveals much about the Zimbabwe story as he draws the reader deep into the lives of the three main characters.

The Maestro, The Magistrate, & The Mathematician was published by 'amaBooks, with the support of the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe Trust

Photo of Idris Elba "Idris Elba 2014" by DFID - UK Department for International Development, other photos from Wikipedia. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

'Long Time Coming' reviewed in the Herald - from a very different perspective

‘Long Time Coming’ : hope and the role of the artist
January 26, 2015 Features, Opinion & Analysis
@ the Bookstore With Elliot Ziwira in The Herald, Zimbabwe

“LONG Time Coming” (2008), edited by Jane Morris and published by amaBooks, chronicles the mundane and sordid experiences of the common man, as he stoically trudges on along the scalding earth of his existence in a community desperately waiting for the rain.
The book taps into the journalistic function of the artist which complements the didactic nature of literature. As Soyinka (1973:89) observes: “The artist always functioned as the voice of vision in his own time.”
His telescopic eye should capture current and topical issues which burden his people, because it is such concerns that the reader easily identifies with.
This journalistic aspect of the role of the artist is also echoed by Chinweizu et al (1985:89) when they say: “Our job as writers is to be articulate and to present to our audience the stresses and joys of our societies as they take place.”
Such is the role of the competent artist that the collection exploits effectively through chronicling the recession that brings the sovereign nation to its knees, which however strengthens its resolve as the heavy rain bearing clouds gather on the horizon.
Thirty three writers and poets drawn from the African landscape and predominantly Zimbabwean, converge to tell the story of suffering, patience, hope, violence, despondence and deceit in the crises ridden Zimbabwe of the never ending queues, as the nation reels under the burden of Western imposed sanctions.
The bone of contention is the land, a finite resource whose wealth; mineral, aquatic or otherwise, the host country feels obliged to protect for the betterment of its people much to the chagrin of the alien gangsters from the West, who retaliated by imposing an illegal embargo on the sovereign motherland.
But the pious son of the soil, President Robert Mugabe could not allow Western hegemony to continue fettering his fellow countrymen to the colonial yoke, because indeed there is no freedom without ownership of the means of production.
In the ensuing chaos, poverty becomes the order of the day as the majority ekes out a mere existence from the little they could scantily put their hands to, in the vast expanses of empty shops, deserted hospitals, dry taps and a non-existent will on the part of service providers as well as those with the economic stamina for a haul forward.
An aura of desperation pervades the daily toils of the majority as their hope to untangle themselves from the labyrinthine snare of their existence only lie in the promising rains; both literal and metaphorical; the rains that will wash away the pain, sweat and blood from the impoverished and drought stricken land of their being, and leave sprouting seeds of hope in their wake.
Waiting, a dominant motif in the collection, and a commodity abundantly available in the national discourse, seems to be the only way out.
However, in this situation where others are malnourished, ailing and willing to trade their wretchedness for a morsel of bread, the avaricious, corrupt, cunning and obese minority crouch menacingly at their horizon of hope; taking the situation as a self-aggrandising enterprise.
This rationale is aptly captured in Wim Boswinkel’s “Justice” and John Eppel’s “The Awards Ceremony” as well as Sandisile Tshuma’s “Arrested Development”.
The rich use of metaphors; both from nature and Man’s creations, the autobiographical mode, which aptly chronicles the writers’ own experiences, and cultural diversity through the different authorial voices exploited, does not only allow the exploration of a plethora of themes, but also authenticate the fictional experience as the reader is drawn into the nuances of events highlighted, and juxtaposes them with the reality of his or her being.
The frustration, despondence and disillusionment is so real and vividly conjure the reality of lack, as the suffering masses endure whatever comes their way with such stoicism that shames the devil, who desperately prophesises doom and violent disturbances.
The people’s refusal to have their spirits dampened and hope strangled in the face of adversity and hunger, is illuminated through the metaphor of the rain, the encouraging smiles and winks from strangers.
Truly the Zimbabwean cannot be broken that easily.
His or her fighting spirit will spur him or her on to higher resolves, if only chance avails itself and Providence Divine intervenes.
The use of the journey motif taps into traditional folkloric drama, as the search for the ever receding pastures and hope becomes paramount.
There is hope in travelling, yet the means to travel becomes a stumbling block.
Everyone is so much in a hurry to go somewhere away from the painful familiar environs, yet they remain rooted physically and emotionally to the same.
Where physical movement is possible, albeit in a stressful way, emotional movement remains flimsy; because one is never sure what to expect from the unknown hunting grounds; where morality and humane attributes die in the wake of physical satiation.
One has to cling on to hope, for “Who Knows What Season Tomorrow Brings” as Gothataone Moeng quips, as she admires the Zimbabwean women who toil to fend for their husbands and children back home through humiliating encounters in Botswana, her country, yet remaining resolute and proud of their nationality.
In a single journey from the city to one’s abode or to border towns, one would relate a lifetime of experiences about harness-able opportunities and elusive ones, which create categories in society; the “chicken bus clients” and the Landcruiser elite.
The “chicken bus clients” as revealed by Linda Msebele in the story “The Chicken Bus”, are the wretched of the earth, the downtrodden that those with the means seek to punish for the mere reason of them being Zimbabwean, with a right to their ancestral land.
The artist intimates: “It is the cheapest and certainly harshest, way of getting home these days. Such travelling is meant for those like me (believe me, there are millions like me) who cannot afford the emergence taxis that ply the same route and that charge a much higher fare . . .
“It is noisy, stuffy and smelly here . . . It really stinks in here.
“It stinks of poverty.
“It’s nothing like the chic smell of wealthy.”
In her struggle to put a meal on the table as one among the millions wallowing in abject poverty, the artist wonders: “How different the realities of life can be.
Some people drive the latest Mercedes, BMWs and Pajeros.
I wonder how they manage to make money in a country with such an inflationary and depressed economy.” She adeptly takes the reader into the emotionally sutured psyche of suffering in a society where the perverse, callous and greedy mighty strangle the feeble, as she ponders: “Am I doomed to forever board chicken buses?”
In this hubbub where the sexual perverts and mentally deranged impersonations of men quench their carnal desires on unsuspecting women in the packed buses, and are quick to erupt in tantrums if questioned on their intentions, there are some “who refuse to turn sour, the ones who won’t let fear cloud their brows, the ones who still smile.”
Lloyd Robson, who writes from a visitor’s viewpoint in “Rum and Still Waters”, highlights the Zimbabweans’ resilience, warmth and patriotism.
It is in such situations where one finds oneself without bus-fare to go home at 4.45 pm, as in Julius Chingono’s “Bus Fare” and his manly pride inhibits him from accepting alms from his ex-wife, whose star shines while his conspires with the demons of unemployment to wane; where a university post or undergraduate questions whether it is really necessary to be academically knowledgeable when those who make it to the top of the social and economic echelons are school drops-outs, like the Malayitshas, and cross-border traders, where everything seems to be in abeyance; that one begins to question his or her sanity or whether there is really anything called sanity or it is just a subjective idea, as everyone really seems to be sane in his or her own way; or maybe insane, depending on those around.
It is this subject that Ignatius Mabasa hilariously tackles poignantly in the captivating story “Some Kind of Madness”.

Notwithstanding all this suffering, chaos and despondency, glimmers of hope remain visible on the silver lining of the clouds which break into torrents to change the complexion of the Zimbabwean landscape as Pathisa Nyathi alludes to “And the Rains Came”, and Judy Maposa’s “First Rain” celebrates.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Gardening and Writing - Bryony Rheam

Ever since I was child, I have had a fascination for watching things grow.  When I was about ten, I kept glass jars on my windowsill in which I grew peas and watched, mesmerised, as their roots sprouted and spread.  I also kept onions in water, much to my mother’s consternation, and observed them sprouting.  My mum is a keen gardener and I loved going to nurseries with her as a child to buy flowers and shrubs.  I loved the organisational intricacies of gardening – leaving space for a shrub that might spread and a creeper that might climb and not planting this flower with that in case one dwarfed the other.  However, I was never really much of a gardener - as a student in the UK, I kept an African Violet called Shamwari, on my windowsill, but it never flowered and my attempts to grow things in pots also invariably met some form of disaster or another.
In my novel This September Sun (amaBooks, 2009), the grandmother, Evelyn, is a keen gardener.  When she eventually moves out of her little flat and into a house in Bulawayo’s Suburbs, she sets to work to restore the garden to some of its former glory:

She had a beautiful garden, full in the summer months of flowers and shrubs and birds; even in the dry winter, of a large selection of the same.  The long green carpet of a lawn was bordered by beds overflowing with flowers: petunias, marigolds, hibiscus, roses, hydrangea, lavender, geranium, African Violets, sweet peas and poppies.  She grew vegetables in the back garden: butternut, gem squash, beans and carrots, spinach, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, lettuce and cucumber.  And then there were strawberries and cape gooseberries, mulberries and lemons, oranges and naartjies, and a large herb garden with everything from rosemary to coriander.  It was a paradise; a place where everything wanted to grow, even the sweat peas, which Mrs Benson said would never survive in the heat of Matabeleland.
Perhaps it is true to say that Evelyn’s garden is a fictional wish fulfilment of my own desire for a beautiful garden.  Gardens have something of a sporadic nature in drought-riddled Matabeleland; a trip around Bulawayo’s residential suburbs will tell you at a glance who has a borehole and who hasn’t.  We moved to Zambia in 2008, but lived in a town house with a very small garden, which was easy to maintain but didn’t offer much scope for ‘real’ gardening. About a year and a half ago, we moved to Solwezi in North-western Zambia into a newly-built house with a garden, but with absolutely nothing in it, not even a blade of grass.  It was September and it was hot, dry and dusty and we were overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of getting the garden up and running.

A Flower Bed Now
Solwezi is not a beautiful place by any stretch of the imagination: the roads are riddled with potholes (craters, actually!), goats mingle with pedestrians and minibuses and litter is strewn far and wide.  It is hard to find flowers to buy and what there is available tends to be hugely overpriced.  People rather take cuttings from each other’s gardens, a much cheaper, but also often more lengthy process.  My childhood dream of miniature roses winding their way up archways and flowerbeds full of hollyhocks and snap dragons is still very far away from reality!

 A series of ineffectual gardeners did not help our cause, but at least we now have a beautiful green lawn, a vegetable garden p - producing wonderful butternuts, blue beans, spinach,onions tomatoes and lettuce – and a thriving herb garden.  To get this underway, we have had to rely mostly on cuttings and even brought some plants up from Bulawayo. After what seems a very long time, we now have flower beds full of flowers.  It has been quite a pain-staking process: getting flowers when I could and seeing what grew and what withered and died.

Solwezi has an average rainfall of two metres a year so there is no shortage of water whatsoever and everything seems to grow very well – including weeds!  However, I have discovered the joy of weeding and how it helps as a form of relaxation. Gardening has influenced my writing in many ways.  I have started one novel in which the chief protagonist is a gardener, but the novel I am currently concentrating on is a crime novel and one in which gardens form an important back drop to the mystery. My first short story published, The Queue, also involves a character who finds a type of comfort – and control – through tending her garden.  When I need a break I go out into the garden and weed for a while.  I find it gives me space to think and I often work through plots while I tug and pull!

I’m not an expert by any means and I hate garden know-alls who think that knowing the Latin name of all the plants makes them the fount of all knowledge.  I haven’t even got a pair of gardening gloves, the sign of a ‘real’ gardener.  For me, there is nothing nicer than taking a walk round the garden and seeing it develop.  I like doing this as though I am a character in a Jane Austen novel so I always put my wide-brimmed hat on, which is probably more Little Women than Pride and Prejudice, but it does the trick!  My girls also love planting seeds and there is great excitement when they see the little seedlings pushing through the soil.  We also go on excursions into a nearby game park and collect manure; this is a family favourite of ours!  And, finally, at the end of the day, we often sit on the veranda and watch the sun go down.  From here I can also view the flower beds and dream of that day the miniature roses are finally established, entwined around the pillars of the veranda.

Solwezi isn’t the most salubrious of places, but perhaps there is also something quite futile about trying to find paradise.  It is within our own capacity to create it and to make it ours.  For me, my garden is a chunk of peace and quiet far from the madding crowd and one which provides both solace and joy.

As Evelyn says in This September Sun: “ ‘You’ve no idea how much the garden means to me . . . It’s got me through so much.’”


Why We Should all be Listening to Zim Dancehall

photo of Soul Jah Love by T. Ndabambi/
The two most significant musical movements to challenge Sungura’s dominance in Zimbabwean popular culture have been Urban Grooves and, what at one time could have been seen as its appendage, Zim Dancehall.
While Urban Grooves had a head start, getting heavy rotation on the airwaves after Jonathan Moyo’s 70% local content decree, it now lags behind Zim Dancehall in terms of influence. I suspect this has to do with the origins and development of the two forms.
Urban Grooves looks towards American hip-hop and rap, both are powerful forms in their own right-but while that music is enjoyable in its original form, the message does not translate well to the average Zimbabwean.

Zim Dancehall has its roots (I will argue later that it has moved on) in Jamaican reggae and ragga music. These forms have their party music, but reggae has a strong ‘conscious’ component, especially in popular artists like Sizzla, Capleton, Buju Banton and so on.
In its initial conception, thinking of Potato and Major E, Zim Dancehall suffered from the same derivativeness and crass imitation which still infect Urban Grooves. But it has forged its own independent identity and this is the main reason for its ascendance.
I’ve spent a long time thinking about Zimbabwean music. One of the central themes in my new novel, ‘The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician’ is the development of sungura and how the message is an absolutely central component of that genre. By this I mean, while instrumentals are important, Zimbabwean listeners place a high premium on what the artist has to say in his lyrics. This is where Zim Dancehall has excelled, because, arguably, their instrumentals, in the main, are reminiscent of low quality, synthesized productions from 90’s Jamaican ragga.
Zim Dancehall is, indisputably, the one area of Zimbabwean popular culture that is doing the most interesting stuff when it comes to use of the Shona language.
Its top artists now rival Sungura masters in terms of lyrical dexterity and the coining of fresh metaphors, pushing the language in new directions. Take the man of the hour, Tocky Vibes, for example. Mr Vibes dispenses with the awkward ‘toasting’ of his predecessors and simply sings on his tracks.
The phraseology of the average Tocky Vibes track is replete with cross references to tsumo nemadimikira(proverbs/idioms), occasional slips into Shona lullabies, biblical allusion, all the while maintaining a freshness derived from his incredible lyrical penmanship.
In Tocky Aenda Nenyika he manages the feat of praising God (not a bad choice for a Christian audience) and bigging up his mom, as if with ease, producing something deep from what should otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill bragging track so popular in urban culture.
This ability to hover over that thin line between frivolousness and profundity is key in the way the music is malleable and can tap into diverse audiences.
Take Souljah Love’s Nguva YeZhizh for example. Again, here we have a track that should be about babes in batty riders and bikini tops then, boom, you’re hit with a line that goes:
“Yanguvayekugova zvatakasima/ pataizvirima isu zvichirema/ taitorarama kuchitonhora/ … / Yanguva yezhizhandangonzwa ruzha vachitenda mhofu mazvita mhizha."
The song has a disorienting effect to the ear, like Shakespeare has been mixed with urban slang. But who can argue with the sheer beauty, wit and magnificence of its hook? You could lift it into a Sungura song by any of the late greats and no one would blink an eye. Nothing in Urban Grooves can compare.
Too often you listen to a song in Urban Grooves and think, why are these kids forcing a language to express things in a way it obviously cannot? Conversely, when you hear something in Zim Dancehall, you cannot envisage it being said in another language. This is to say Zim Dancehall has achieved a level of authenticity, which its counterpart has failed to do.
Urban Grooves might reinvigorate itself through collaborations as has already been happening with artists like Nox, Stunner and Trevor Dongo hooking up with their Zim Dancehall counterparts. We might yet see a resurgence here.
I’m not an early adopter of this music, in fact I used to sneer at it. My Pauline conversion was through a friend, Tinofireyi Mandaza, based in Edinburgh, at the time of Winky D’s Vashakabvu. I expressed my surprise at the referencing of Dembo, Tuku and Mukanya in the song. Mandaza explained to me (and it is largely his oral argument that I plagiarise for your edification in this article) that there was a huge difference between Urban Grooves and Zim Dancehall. In his view, the Zim Dancehall artist spoke straight to the heart; most of them are kids from the ghetto, whose life experience is shared by many of us.
In Mandaza’s own words: “Matune aya anotaura nyaya yaunonzwisisa inezvirunga mutauro. You listen to elderly talk being dished out ne tempo yaunonzwisisa and can relate to. You can only dismiss Zim Dancehall if you haven’t listened to it with a fair ear.”
An area of contention is the explicit lyrical content of some of the songs. The most obvious example being Lady Bee whose provocative, invective laden music maybe too much to stomach for some Christian conservatives. It is not this author’s intention to take a position on morality, and a counter argument can be made that this subgenre is edgy and within the artists’ right toself-expression. But one can’t help but see that in a country that still has a censorship board, this may yet be a contested area in future.
The inclusion of female vocalists in this popular genre has had a very positive effect. This is something Sungura has failed to do after so many years. Zim Dancehall has at least allowed artists like Lady Squanda, Ninja Lipsy, Bounty Lisa and Juwela to stake a claim in the genre and battle with male artists on various riddims. Empress Shelly, who reads Shona novels for inspiration, created one of the most hauntingly delicious lines this year: “Vanodiridza hupenyu hwavo nemisodzi yangu, vanhu ava (They water their lives with my tears, these people)…” It remains to be seen if any of these ladies can claim superstardom in her own right.
Music can do so much; capturing thoughts, emotions, expressing ideas both at a personal and societal level. The writer in me is impressed by the lyricism of the best Zim Dancehall artists, but they have done so much more by capturing a nation’s heart.
I certainly wish they would do something about the consistence of instrument quality and videos which can often be crappy. But more importantly we wait to see what new directions this music takes us in. In a StarFM interview, available on YouTube, Tocky Vibes states that his wish for the music in the future is for it to be like a big tree, with many branches, so that whoever wants to come in to the shade on a sunny day can find a spot to stand in. (Trust me that phrase is so much more beautiful in his Shona). With artists like Sniper Storm, Spiderman, Freeman, Ras Pompy, Shinsoman, Seh Calaz, Missle, Tipsy and many others, we can see that tree is growing, and even those of us in the diaspora enjoy its shade.


Huchu’s first novel, The Hairdresser of Harare, was released in 2010 to critical acclaim and has been translated in several languages. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Manchester Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Gutter, AfroSF, Wasafiri, Warscapes, The Africa Report, The Zimbabwean, Kwani? and numerous other publications. In 2013 he received a Hawthornden Fellowship and a Sacatar Fellowship. He was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize. His new novel, The Maestro, The Magistrate, & The Mathematician, has just been released in Zimbabwe.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Bryony Rheam: The Ake Festival 2014: Meeting Friends and Making Contacts

Africa is a big place.  Really big.  When you fly over it, you get a sense of its immenseness; everything from cities to mile upon mile of open ground.  In turn, it is easy to feel very small and insignificant, a mere dot on the landscape.

As a writer in Africa, it is also easy to feel a sense of that aloneness.  I live in a small mining town called Solwezi in north-western Zambia.  If there are any other writers here, I certainly have not met them and I am not sure how I would.  There are no writers’ groups advertised, no literary events take place - and no one seems to be particularly perturbed. After all, why should they be?  Writing is a solitary job, isn’t it?  It’s just you and your notepad or your laptop.  What else do you need?
I am sure there are many writers who do write in isolation, either through circumstances or choice.
 The stereotypical writer is something of a recluse who refrains from talking about their work or giving interviews and generally detests the limelight.  In many ways, I fit this category.  I am naturally shy, I feel embarrassed talking about myself in anything but a self-effacing manner and I tend to introduce myself as a teacher rather than as an author.  However, more and more these days it is incumbent upon the author to organise their own publicity.  It is necessary to have a blog and a Facebook page and Twitter account and to use these for publicising one’s work.

Again, sitting in small town Solwezi, it is difficult to know who reads this information besides friends and family and maybe a one-time school mate who has wondered what happened to you in the last twenty years and googled your name just for fun.  A lack of bookshops means that is difficult to read the works of other authors; ironically, it is often more difficult to find books by African writers than it is by Western writers.

I was therefore quite excited to be asked to the Aké Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria, which was held in November of last year.  An all-expenses paid trip was offered in return for me participating on two discussion panels. My only reservation was that I was so out of touch with contemporary African writing that I would not be able to say very much.  I must also admit I feared that every discussion would degenerate into the rather worn ‘What is African Literature?’ question that seems to occupy so much time and debate.

However, I was pleasantly surprised.  The discussions were interesting and were an excellent way of promoting my work.  Aké offers a bookshop with a fairly comprehensive range of books on offer, yet for someone browsing for an interesting book, what is going to make one stand out more than the other?  What makes a book look more interesting than the rest?  What I found was that many people bought my book after hearing me discuss it.  I was also quite surprised at how many people approached me after the discussions to talk about issues that I had raised, especially after the second panel I was on, entitled Celebrating Otherness in Modern Africa.

It was great meeting other writers as well – talking about different writing strategies or experiences with having books published.  The best thing was not being something of an oddity.  I always feel a little self-conscious telling people that I am a writer.  Writers, for some reason, are not supposed to be known, they are not supposed to be real people.  It was wonderful to be able to talk to like-minded people without having to explain myself.  What was even better was that I didn’t feel so isolated anymore!

However, let’s be honest, many of these festivals – and quite a number have sprouted in Africa in the last few years – are really about networking.  The literary discussions are all very interesting and they give the four days a focus, but what we are really there to do is meet each other.  This is not meant as a criticism at all. Networking is as important as keeping a regular blog and posting pictures of your book on Facebook.

Some of the writers I met seemed to have spent the year travelling from one literary festival to another.  There were arrangements made to meet up in Kampala or Cape Town and I was asked a couple of times whether I had ‘done the Zanzibar one’ or if I was going to be in Harare the following week. Unfortunately, the fact that I am not a full time writer means that I cannot take a lot of time off work to travel the continent.  I am not sure, anyway, if I would like to.  Perhaps the novelty would wear thin?

What came home to me most at the Festival is that African Literature is changing and, more than anything, expanding.  We have crime writers, we have science fiction writers, children’s writers and romance writers.  It’s really quite exciting.  When I look at a lot of contemporary Western fiction, it seems to focus on disillusioned middle class people who have lost faith in modern life.  That becomes quite mundane after a while.   On the first panel I was on – Representations of Africa in New Fiction - one of the writers commented that modern Africa is too bourgeois for a revolution.  There isn’t a Marechera equivalent today because no one wants to go without their cell phone or sleep on a park bench and not wash for days all in the pursuit of some glorious ideal.  I agree – but I also think it’s time for other things and that’s what makes the present an exciting time. 


Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician reviewed in Gateway for Africa


Tendai Huchu announced his arrival on the literary scene with his novel The Hairdresser Of Harare, in his second offering, The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician he follows the precedent he set in his Caine Prize shortlisted story The Intervention by setting it in the diaspora.

The setting is Scotland, Edinburgh; the plot revolves around the lives of three Zimbabwean expatriates so often marred in anguish. The Maestro is a fag blowing, ganja smoking bibliophile who withdraws from the world into a monkish life asking age-old questions like the meaning of life. The Magistrate is an audiophile who maps the city of Edinburg through music. His is a melancholic life, that of a man who was worth something once upon a time in the country he left and now has to stoop low into a life of menial labour and housework. As though the perceived emasculation is not enough, his wife despises his cooking and the intimacy in their marriage withers. The Mathematician is a mid twenties mathematical genius and ruthless pragmatist who laments not investing in Raytheon stock before Bush and Blair went war mongering in the Middle East. He is in pursuit of a PhD whose thesis explores profiteering in hyper inflationary economies which turns out to be a dangerous course.

The Magistrate is a relic of the past burdened by a sense of purpose and worth though the system he is plunged into does not recognise his past. He harbours a burning nostalgia of one trapped away from the home he yearns even after death. The book is itself a cultural experience: a tour of Edinburg’s soul: her streets, and landmarks which he maps with music through his Walkman. He is cleverly juxtaposed with the comical Alfonso, who appears to be the fool of the novel. The Magistrate could represent the first generation expatriates who believe they are only abroad for a while, until things shape up. He finely juxtaposes the detached way of the West with the more intimate and mutli-layered African, particularly Shona. Through him we see the ludicrousness of Western life, at least as perceived through the African lens.

Set during in The Lost Decade of Zimbabwe, the book not only zooms into the too often agonising life of the expatriate but provides some valuable insight into the political and economic landscape, the shaky opposition and the corruption which set into the fabric of Zimbabwean life. It is also a journey into Zimbabwean classics mostly played through The Magistrate’s headphones.

Being a work of literature, a ruthless one at that (The Guardian called Huchu ‘unflinching) it is not without casualties. The Mugabe Regime naturally takes a few shots, like the cringe-worthy moment when a Nomatter Tagarira, a spirit medium convinced them, at the cost of millions, she could draw diesel from a rock. So does Tsvangirai and his MDC, Bush and Blair et al. Fellow countryman, expatriate and novelist Brian Chikwava also takes shrapnel. According to two characters, Harare North is an awful book! According to Chenai, Chikwava “cannae be bovvered to learn proper English”.

As far as style goes it’s pretty clean and free flowing, the prose is compelling and propels the story forward with frequent beautiful turn of phrases like, ‘skeletons on parade’ where he describes naked birches. The final chapter folds with an eerie exchange, I will risk the literati running me out of town with pitchforks and compare it to the conversation between O’Brien and Winston towards the end of Orwell’s 1984.

A novel which deals with fundamental questions of the age such as the nature of ‘democracy - The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician comes at a time when writers from the continent are protesting the ‘African Literature’ tag and this text goes a long way in making the case. Though majorly concerned with the lives of three Zimbabweans abroad and those around them, it’s a universal and truly illuminating work.

Philani Amadeus Nyoni is a published Zimbabwean poet (“Once A Lover Always A Fool” and “Hewn From Rock”), short story writer and actor. His writings have been published in newspapers and magazines including The Sunday News, Zimbabwe Metro, South Africa Metro, and Ghana Poetry Foundation.