BULAWAYO - Zimbabwean author Tendai Huchu (TH), who was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize, is making a name for himself on the international scene through his fictional and non-fictional pieces.
|Tendai Huchu with Baaba Maal|
photo courtesy of Ranka Primorac
Huchu’s second novel, ‘The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician’ has recently been published by amaBooks Publishers in Zimbabwe and by Parthian Books in the United Kingdom. It will soon be published by Ohio University Press in the USA and by Kachifo in Nigeria, as well in German by Peter Hammer Verlag and in Italian by Corpotre. His first novel, 'The Hairdresser of Harare', which was released in 2010, has been translated into German, French, Italian and Spanish.
The Daily News’ Jeffrey Muvundusi (JM) interviewed Huchu on his writing career.
JM: Who is Tendai Huchu?
TH: To quote Eminem, “I am whatever you say I am.” On a forum like this, in a public newspaper, it doesn’t really matter how I choose to define myself or which aspect of my multifaceted identity I choose to reveal. Ultimately, what prevails is the misconception you and your readers decide to project onto the avatar that stands in for me in your imaginations.
JM: Briefly tell us what motivated you to become an author?
TH: I have an itch that can only be scratched by writing, demons that need exorcising. Flashback 10 000 years ago and I was the dude drawing an antelope on a rock somewhere. I love reading, and writing is only a flipside of that same coin.
JM: What was your inspiration for writing The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician?
TH: I wanted to try something a little different from my first novel ‘The Hairdresser of Harare,’ to stretch myself a bit more as I played with language and structure. The great thing about being a Zimbabwean writer is that so much crazy shit happens, you’re in this unique position whereby your fiction is actually a watered-down simulation of an insaner hyper-reality.
JM: The novel tells the stories of Zimbabweans based in the UK. Do any of the stories relate to your own experience of living in the UK? Which of the three main characters do you feel closer to?
TH: That’s a tricky question because I am, by default, deeply suspicious of semi-autobiographical fiction. Then again, a writer can’t write something they don’t know, so an extreme argument goes, all fiction is autobiographical. Let’s just say my novel is a mishmash of stuff I’ve seen, stuff I’ve heard about, stuff I’ve experienced and plenty of stuff I made up.
The characters are all my babies – I moulded them from dirt and breathed life into them. I can’t say I’m any closer to one or the other.
JM: I think your novel tells us much about Zimbabwe by looking at the lives of Zimbabweans abroad. But does the book have appeal to non-Zimbabweans?
TH: Look, good fiction is universal. I read books by people from all four corners of the world, some dead folks for whom the separation is not only geographical but one of time too.
So, national identity, which in itself is a fictional construct, is neither here nor there for what draws readers to literature. The vast majority of my readers, by a significant margin, will be non-Zimbabwean.
Why? Because there are places in the world where this art form is considered important and where the economy allows people both the resources to buy books and the leisure time to read them.
JM: The novel has strong storylines, and a startling finale, but I also found myself laughing out loud at some sections. Why do you think humour is important in such a novel?
TH: Humour is an intrinsic and important part of human nature. Humour is a weapon, a cutting tool; you can use it to point out the absurdities and contradictions within society and culture. Then again, either you have it or you don’t, either you get it or you don’t.
JM: The Magistrate in the novel keeps 'in touch' with Zimbabwe through listening to Zimbabwean music as he walks the streets of Edinburgh. What keeps you in touch with home?
TH: Small point of correction, the magistrate isn’t using music to keep ‘in touch’ with Zimbabwe. He is conducting a psycho-geographical experiment, using music to buttress his memories of a new space.
And he is doing this consciously as opposed to the spontaneous, automatic, memory formation most of us do. Here is a man saying I want to remember this and I will use music as a tool to help me remember. You don’t need to stay ‘in touch’ with home, it’s in your heart, coded in your DNA.
JM: One comment about The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician is that the book shows your 'development as a writer'. In what ways do you think your writing has developed?
TH: That’s a pretty generous thing for anyone to say. I suppose writing is like anything else you do in life. You pick up new tricks as you go along. Few of my stories are as spontaneous as they used to be.
I now put a great deal of thought into voice and language, structure and pace, genre, and so I’m a little more conscientious than I used to be. The technical aspects of the craft are now as important to me as the stories I tell.
This may all sound boring and mechanical, but I still have a hell of a lot of fun doing what I do.
JM: You have been very active recently, with several events at the Edinburgh Festival and now at Africa Utopia at the Southbank Centre in London. Do you think these activities help in promoting a reading culture?
TH: My bread and butter work is solitary, me in a room with my laptop. This other stuff is just a sideshow, because the writer is now expected to dance for her/his bread. I turn down a lot of gigs because I find the schmoozing required pretty painful.
But I am also aware that this kind of stuff makes literature more visible and readers (for reasons beyond me) like to see the people who create the art they consume.
Reading, too, can be solitary, just like writing, so these things bring out the nerds and introverts, so a couple of times a year they can congregate and celebrate the art form they so love. Let’s just say my feelings about it all are rather conflicted.
JM: What advice would you give to aspiring Zimbabwean writers?
TH: Do your own thing and have fun doing it. Read a lot, everything you need to learn about this is in your library and online. Everyone out there is probably trying to tell you what to do. Don’t listen to them, especially dudes in the newspaper dishing out advice. Do your own thing. Be yourself.
JM: The short stories you write show your versatility by being in a wide variety of genres: science fiction, mystery.... What are you working on at the moment?
What I write is probably a reflection of the fiction that I like to read and want to read. I hope the stories I write fill a gap in my library that needs filling. There’s always a subtle pressure for a writer to generate the same type of story and try to build a loyal market on that basis.
To me that’s just boring. I try to go into a story with an open mind and work it in the form that I feel is most appropriate for it, as opposed to saying I am an X type of writer.
Whether my readers follow me across all the fronts I’m fighting on is highly doubtful. But, you just do it for the love, man.
At the moment I’m scaling back on the short fiction which I’ve done a lot of this year.
I have to do a novel as part of the creative writing PhD programme I am on and with that will come a lot of academic reading and writing for my critical component.
That will take up a lot of my time. I also have a sci-fi novel and a literary novel on the hob. I’m also waiting to get into the next round of my translation of Ignatius Mabasa’s brilliant novel Mapenzi from Shona to English.
There’s quite a bit on my plate, so I have to step back and work out how I’ll use my time and how I can toggle between the various projects I am working on. I have to figure out the most efficient way of doing what I want to do without compromising the art.
JM: Do you intend to come back to Zimbabwe to promote the book?
TH: When my schedule allows, I may just do that. Though I can’t be sure what good that does for the book. The market, as Zimbabwean publishers will tell you, is pretty dire at the moment. Building up a reading culture that can sustain our growing canon requires a multifaceted approach. There is the state of the economy.
You need a decent sized, relatively stable middle-class for this art form to thrive. Libraries too are essential. I am talking well-stocked libraries with great staff willing to nurture their service users. Book stores too are important.
Then you have the school dimension, access to books for kids to hook them onto the literary drug while they are young and great teachers, who really are the writers’ pushers. But this kind of thing requires resources and a lot of thought over a long, long period of time.
JM: Who can you say are the greatest authors in the history of Zimbabwe and why do you think they are great?
TH: There are far too many to note down and this will quickly deteriorate into a name checking exercise. For a country that has only been literate for 140 odd years (mass literacy only really kicks off post-1980), I don’t think we’ve done too badly. I want us to stop thinking about great authors and maybe focus on great works of literature, that is, books that stand up on their own against the very best in the world canon. This, for me, is the really important question, because we spend so much time thinking about writers and very little on their work. The average Zimbabwean can name Dambudzo Marechera and will tell you he was a madman, blah, blah, but how many of us have read his work deeply and meaningfully?
Do we really have books that we can confidently stand alongside Crime and Punishment, Pedro Paramo, Infinite Jest, Germinal, 1984, Lord of the Rings, The Big Sleep, etc,?
Once we start framing these sort of things differently, thinking about the more fundamental elements of the truths we seek, I think we open ourselves up to a more intellectually rewarding debating space.