Author: Tendai Huchu
This interview was conducted through e-mail.
I’m glad to begin 2016 with your interview.
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.
Me: I was pleasantly surprised to see the game Pacman’s graphics amidst the text. What was the motivation behind it and how was it received by your editor?
TH: As far as I’m concerned, no game is ever going to top Pacman. I wasted my youth (and pocket money) jamming that shit in arcades and on consoles at petrol stations. The stakes are just so much higher when you’ve paid for the privilege to play and there’s a whole queue of people peering over your shoulder, waiting for their turn should you ‘die’. So, I just thought it would be great to have Blinky in the text and chew up the text. Jane Morris, my editor from amaBooks, was pretty cool with this; she got the concept and saw what I was trying to do.
Me: I liked this line ‘He feels the slight anglophonic annoyance at text in a foreign language.’ Could you elaborate?
You know the Caucasian in the movie shouting, “Do you speak English?” at the natives? Well, it turns out everyone’s doing it now. Farai (the Mathematician), like so many other third world elites, is heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon culture, traditions and values, and this also means adopting a lot of negative traits from that culture. Notice how it says ‘text in a foreign language’, like, the guy doesn’t even realise English itself is foreign to him.
Me: The Magistrate, The Maestro or The Mathematician. Who is your favourite and why?
I really couldn’t say. They each play a very specific and important part for the book to work. I am interested in the whole and, so, even the minor characters with walk-on roles matter to me.
Me: Each of the three main protagonists had a very different tone from one another. How challenging was it for you as a writer?
I originally envisioned the work as a unified conventional novel, I still worry that had I been a more skilful writer, I would have been able to present it as such. The decision to break the narratives down was part of a simplification process, the same way one would approach a complex mathematical problem. Once I knew the tone, cadence, voice required for each one, I could then weave the strands around each other. Each narrative then had its own stylistic demands and, along with the style, I also had to figure out very basic mechanical issues to do with how the story was presented. I’ve been finding, lately, that my process has become a lot less spontaneous compared to when I first started writing. It’s still a lot of fun, though.
Me: Also the novel made me feel I’m reading three novellas instead of one novel, it is a compliment. To compile three awesome characters and three awesome stories into a novel, not easy. Any comments?
That’s a very kind thing for you to say. Thank you. If you notice the structure of the thing, up to minute details like the headers in the text, I wanted to leave this question up to the reader. The title is The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician, and that’s on the front cover, but you never see those words anywhere in the text again. The headers only tell you the PoV character, and because the stories are designed to function independent of one another (you can also read them in any order), I thought the reader should decide whether we had one story or three. So that’s me just trying to fuck with your mind.
Me: ‘The Maestro saw it was a Nora Roberts romance and he smiled. There was something about the status of the Romance genre that infuriated him. It was pulp, no different to Sci-fi and Crime, but it had followed a different trajectory in the bullshit hierarchy of literary works. At some point thinkers and readers had agreed that Sci-fi and Crime were worthy works of art that, from time to time, should be taken seriously and given the same consideration as that due to literary fiction.’
Loved this para. Do you feel strongly about this?
There’s now some very interesting stuff about genre romance coming out in certain academic circles, so that’s positive. But think for a moment, we’ve had a lot of crime and SF novels from old pulp publishing houses that’ve been drawn into the canon, right? I mean, if you think about guys like Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Isaac Asimov, (I could rattle out a long list of males from these two fields), you find their work is taken very seriously, despite fact that this may not have been the case when they started out. Then you ask yourself why a comparable genre, Romance, has never really given us the same. I mean, it has so many readers and generates an incredible amount of revenue, a billion dollar industry that far outperforms Literary Fiction, SF, Crime, and even religious books, year on year – this is serious stuff. When was the last time someone came to you holding something from the Mills and Boon catalogue and said, this is actually a very serious piece of literature, read it? Could it be true that this entire genre has produced nothing at all that deserves to be read by the mainstream audience and taken seriously? I find this highly dubious and the only reason I can think why this is the case is because it is stuff written by women for women readers. (Mansplainer alert?). Even the New Yorker, along with so many others, takes pot-shots at this stuff now and again, comparing women reading romance to men watching porn! My worry, as someone who tries to consume as much literature as I can, from as wide a range of sources as I can get, is that because of this situation, I am missing out on great stuff that might enrich my reading life just because I have been (like a lot of readers) preconditioned to sneer at this stuff without actively engaging with it. I hate repeating myself, but there is simply no way, of the millions of romance novels published out there, we can’t find a few exceptional classics in there. And let me make it clear that I am not just speaking of novels with a romantic component, rather I am talking about the pulp end, the core romance stuff as published by Harlequin & Mills and Boon, etc. There’s a great article by Maria Bustillos on the subject, which everyone should read. It contains a great quote about these works: “The underlying philosophy of the novels of Mills & Boon is that love is omnipotent—it is the point of life. It is the solution to all problems, and it is peculiarly feminine. Men have to be taught how to love; women are born with the innate ability to love.” I am not claiming I’m an expert here, but I think an entire genre constructed to explore human relationships and our dependence on one another is a serious enterprise.
Me: The novel was passive and assertive wherever required. How did you balance it?
I think this one is just a case of the novelist’s intuition. One of the things you find in this game is that you do a lot of retro-rationalisation of decisions that were made for you by your subconscious. A lot of the time you are simply going with your gut for a particular scene or movement in the novel. You just go with what you think it should feel like and this affects the language on the page.
Me: There are references to African folk music in the novel. Did you research it for your novel or do you like the genre?
You are referring to Sungura, which is, without a doubt, the most interesting musical genre produced in modern Zimbabwe. I didn’t need to do a lot of research because I grew up in the culture and was surrounded by this stuff. What I did have to do is to listen to a lot of the classics from Sungura during the time I was writing the novel, which gave me a new awareness of what the various artists I covered in the book were trying to do. You can appreciate the instrumentals from the music really easily, the showy guitarmanship and hard drums, but the complex lyrical component in most compositions requires a level of maturity that I simply didn’t have when I was listening to this stuff in my youth. Now I am older, I hope I understand better what these artists (a lot of who are dead now) were trying to do. This music speaks to the Zimbabwean soul.
Me: What’s the reason for creating three characters and alternating the chapters based on the characters?
Again, this was because doing the thing as one unified whole would have been impossible. It would have meant that I would introduce inorganic connections between the characters. I may well have had to write a very different novel to achieve that. One of the things I was trying to do here was to also emphasise how separate our lives are, but, despite that separation, we are still interconnected. So you actually find that there are blank pages, physical demarcations separating each chapter, as you move from one PoV to the other. And, when one character moves into a separate character’s section (which happens a couple of times in the book) they just become a secondary character like any other and are viewed from the dominant interiority of the PoV character.
Me: After the success of your first novel, keeping the pressure to outdo yourself in mind, how difficult was it for you to write this second one?
I go work by work, story by story; I think if you keep looking back to what you did before then you might as well be dead, man. Each book or story I work on makes its own specific demands, so I tackle it as it comes. As for pressure, to be honest, I don’t see myself as being particularly successful, you will find thousands of writers who do better than me in terms of whatever metric you choose to use, be it sales, awards, or critical acclaim. There is no real pressure on me from anyone to do anything. I just do my own thing.
Me: What is the best feedback you have received from a reader about your novel and how important do you think feedback is (post publication/prior publication)?
I don’t hold much store by what even my closest readers have to say about my work.
Me: Has an excerpt of your novel ‘3Ms’ been published anywhere online before its publication and how important you think it is to place an excerpt of an upcoming novel in a literary magazine?
Not that I recall. I think something appeared in one paper or the other post-publication. Excerpts are a nice thing to have out there, but I don’t think they are essential to the life of the novel, one way or the other.
Me: The theme of the novel is the African immigrant experience. You live in Edinburgh right? How has immigration affected you as a writer?
The funny thing is that when some white dude writes a novel set anywhere in Africa or Asia, it’s never referred to as an immigrant novel. They just have the right to be where they want to be and to write what they want.
Me: Have you read ‘The Namesake’- a novel about the Indian immigrant experience?
Alas, I haven’t. I had the privilege of coming to India a few years ago for a writers’ residency at Sangam House in Bangalore. For me, the most interesting thing was going through bookstores there and finding works published by Indian writers working in India. So, I fell in love with Mridula Koshy’s exquisite prose, which should have a wider readership. I wait in anticipation for Tanuj Solanki’s debut novel due out this year – his short stories are exceptional. Hell, and you may want to shoot me for this, but I really dig Chetan Bhagat – virtually every Indian writer I’ve met expresses some level of disdain for his work. But if I also think of authors of Indian origin in the diaspora, one is spoilt for choice. I haven’t read The Namesake, but, like everyone else, I have read Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, and I won’t waste your time trying to offer my opinions on her fine work. You’ve just now added to my reading list for this year, thank you.
About writing and publishing
Me: You have published a lot of short stories online. When can we expect a short story collection from you?
Oh God, I like to think I dabble in the short form, while the novel is my thing. I really don’t know, I have a number of stories, you are correct, and I will write a couple more, and when the time is right and I have stuff I feel passionate about, I may well order them in a collection. But that won’t be any time soon.
What poetry I produce stays firmly in my drawer; I would not inflict it on the world. I leave that form to people who actually know what they’re doing.
Me: How different is writing a short story from a novel for you and which do you enjoy more?
The novel is definitely more my thing, the area I feel most comfortable. You have a lot more room to play around, which is a luxury the short story does not allow. They both demand focus and precision, but I find the novel a lot more forgiving and malleable. With a short story, it is often best to only include the essentials because you’re working on a miniature, whereas the novel is a vast landscape painting and you can go as far as the canvas allows.
Me: How important is it for writers to be published in literary magazines?
It’s a good area to practice. The great thing is that there are so many literary magazines out there – you just have to wonder who’s reading them all. Working with the editors is always great for honing one’s craft. Outside of a few really big magazines, most lit mags are by and for writers writing for writers, so they are a great way to involve oneself in contemporary lit dialogue. So I am saying, don’t just try to get published in them, but please read the stuff that’s out there, because there’s a sea of great material waiting for you. On the business end, some literary agents read them too, so they’re great for showcasing material and building up credits.
Me: You have been published in a couple of Indian literary magazines like The Bombay Literary Magazine, Open Road Review among others. How is the reception of your work from the Indian audience and do you like the work of any Indian writers?
It’s been pretty positive, in the main. I mean, when I read stuff from India, or anywhere in ‘the Global South’ it speaks to me directly. I can relate to it in ways that novel about some-middle-aged-white-dude-in-America-experiencing-a-mental-breakdown-because-the-barista-in-Starbucks-gave-him-a-Frappuccino-instead-of-a-Cappuccino does not, and, so, it may well be the case that the Indian reader has a similar experience reading something by an African dude. (Aside: when I was in India, I was embarrassed to converse with so many guys who knew more about the Zimbabwean cricket team than I did. For real, these guys weren’t just talking the contemporary game, but they recalled matches from the 90s and archaic historical stuff! Maybe literature is not the great unifier, guys hitting a ball with a stick do a better job, it seems).
I think earlier I alluded to some Indian writers that I really like, outside of the names that you see on big global literary prizes. But if we’re going to take it there then please add Jeet Thayil to my list of favourites, Arundati Roy – surprise, surprise. You have new guys like Hansda Swvendra Shekhar making waves with an IMPAC Dublin longlisting for The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey. My problem isn’t liking Indian literature, it’s finding the damn time to read it all. And, I should add that I am also aware that I am only able to access the English language writers. From what I heard, the guys writing in Indian languages do really interesting stuff, which, unless there is a drive towards more translation, sadly, remains closed off to folks like me.
Me: Have you considered starting a literary magazine?
God no! I’ve spoken with enough editors to know it is such hard work that they do for the love, often dipping into their own pockets to keep the enterprise going. Recently I was made associate fantasy editor for Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, a new pro-paying science fiction and fantasy magazine, and an incredible amount of my time has been spent reading submissions. It’s crazy. Having said that, I would love it if more writers from India sent us stuff. Please find us here.
Me: What is your writing routine like?
It varies a lot depending on what I’ve got going on. Ideally it is: up at 7am and do admin type stuff, answer emails etc. 8:30 to 12:00 creative writing. An hour’s break for lunch and a walk or bike ride. Another hour or two of writing. Then revisions, and then more emails and admin stuff etc, finishing the day at 6pm. Now my evenings also involve reading slush from the magazine and my own personal reading. I mean this routine is interrupted whenever I have deadlines or stuff from uni to do, so there is a lot of academic work I tend to roll into my afternoons as well. Everything’s a bit of a mess at the moment. Not enough hours in the day.
Me: Do you encourage beta reading of your manuscripts?
Each to their own, I think. Find the method that works for you. Most writers have a trusted circle that do this for them. It’s desirable but not essential.
About African writing in English
Me: The last book I had read by an African writer was ‘Americanah’ by Adichie. I loved it. What is your take on the book and Adichie as a writer?
It’s hard to say anything about Adichie that hasn’t been said before. She is a phenomenal talent, no doubt about that. The stuff I like about Americanah probably revolves around the mechanical aspects of her work, the crisp prose, the use of blogging as a device, the characterisation and so on. It’s a great book on so many levels. And, it’s a romance, so you get that interplay between literary fiction and genre-romance in the same sort of way literary writers feed off crime and sci-fi these days. I think that’s great.
Me: Your book had almost nothing about race. Was it intentional? (Not that an African writer is obliged to write about race or that any writer is obliged to write about anything for that matter. I’m asking this probably because I still have ‘Americanah’ lurking in my head.)
One of the things I am conscious about as an African writer is how so very easy it is for your work to be deciphered in some sort of simplistic anthropological reading. So they tick boxes for you, post-colonial, queer, patriarchy, taboo, culture, war, and so on, because you are not allowed to engage with grand ideas and/or philosophy. I put a lot of stuff in my first novel, The Hairdresser of Harare, but it’s read almost exclusively as a gay novel, nothing else in there matters. But to answer your question on race, that is a well-worn area in which I doubt I could say anything new or original or even meaningful at this point. When I write, what I am trying to do is to engage with stuff that matters to me, so let me make it very clear that I am not against anyone writing about race or whatever they choose, it’s up to every writer to produce the work that delves into what matters to them about the human condition.
Me: How was your book ‘3Ms’ received in Africa? Zimbabwe to be specific? Also by the African diaspora?
There is a time distortion between when the author writes a novel and when readers engage with it. Often, when I speak about my work, I feel like I am talking about someone else’s shit because I have moved on, become interested in different things, am working on something else. While readers have been kind, which is heart-warming, they’re in the past, I’ve moved on. Does this make any sense?
Me: Which African authors should we be looking out for?
There is so much literature coming from the continent, it’s hard to even think where to begin. I for one can’t keep up with it. If you’d asked me about Zimbabwean literature, I could just about point you down a few interesting avenues. African Lit – God help us all. For this year alone, may I suggest this list by Aaron Brady (and he’s just interested in books coming out in America in the first half of the year). I really don’t know where to start…
Me: Last but not the least,
Any question you would have liked to have been asked and what would your reply to it be?
Would you like to go now?
Yes, ma’am, thank you for having me. I’ve had enough. Live long and prosper!