Zimbabwean author Tendai Huchu, author of the well received TheHairdresser of Harare is at it again. He has a new book out. It is called The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician and will also be released in Nigeria later this year. He discusses about his novels, writing in Zimbabwe, being shortlisted for the Caine Prize and talks back at Ben Okri. Enjoy!
I have always been curious about how writers are made. You started off studying mining engineering at some point and now you are a podiatrist. How was Tendai Huchu the writer made?
That’s always a tricky question, because there’s no eureka moment. Instead you join up a few arbitrary stars in the constellation which becomes the writer’s origin myth. In my case: well stocked primary school library plus enthusiastic teachers plus high school newspaper, the Churchill Times plus discovering the Russians in my 20s. Then at some point young Huchu went to the book store and couldn’t find the book he wanted to read, so he wrote it.
Interesting. And that book you wrote, your first novel The Hairdresser of Harare was published to critical acclaim in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in the world. How significant do you think it was in opening up discussions about same sex relationships especially in Zimbabwe were it is still considered a taboo subject?
First we have to look at the role and status of literature in Zimbabwean society, and you may agree that it’s not the most popular art form going. A kid on Twitter spouting his views or spray painting graffiti on a wall will probably have a greater reach. I don’t think the book has much significance outside its role as a piece of entertainment for the few middle-class folk who can spare their American dollars on it, while the majority concentrate on the more urgent business of day to day survival.
But the Hairdresser is not just about same sex; it is among many other things a nuanced social commentary on the situation in Zimbabwe as well. Considering how people are afraid to talk because apparently phone messages are being monitored, how important a role do you think literature can play in documenting through fiction the realities of life in Zimbabwe?
Again, I must refer back to the limited role literature plays in the lives of most Zimbabweans. We have only been a literate society for the last 140 years or so; in historical terms that’s the blink of an eye. Literature is an alien art form which must prove its utility for it to claim any significance. As a practitioner of the art form, I’m tempted to play up its importance, but I feel a truer answer, in this regard, would be that literature may continue to play a minor role alongside other art forms and digital media.
Regardless, it is important to document this things and documenting fiction through literature in Zimbabwe’s recent history can be traced to the writer Dambudzo Marechera who still has huge cult-like following and I think a lot of young writers aspire to be the next Marechera, sort of like a writer activist. How big an influence has Marechera been to subsequent generations of Zimbabwean writers?
More people know of Marechera than actually engage with his work. I worry, over time; the myth has become louder than the literature he produced. I view him with a mix of amusement and skepticism. I’m more interested in his unique literary style and technique, his contrarian and multifaceted ideas, than the voyeuristic obsession we have with his biography. He is an icon of our new and growing canon who deserves to be read seriously and analysed, but for any young writer who wants to be the next Marechera or ____, I would say find your own voice and be yourself.
So how much influence has Marechera had on you as a writer, assuming your dreadlocks are not inspired by him; and which other writers have influenced you the most?
I think I appreciate him a little more now than I ever could when I was younger feeding off the romantic myth of the mad writer. I paid homage recently by penning a pastiche; The Second Coming of Dambudzo Marechera here. When it comes to my influences, I get a bit confused, because when you read a lot, you can pick and choose from the buffet. For example, Sarah Ladipo-Manyika was my metronome to regulate Vimbai’s voice in The Hairdresser. At other times I might look to Dostoevsky, Jim Thompson, David Mitchell, David Foster Wallace, Mridula Koshy, Tanuj Solanki, I could go on and on here. I pick, choose, discard, pick, choose…
Your second novel, The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician has just been released in Zimbabwe and will be coming out in Nigeria sometime soon. What more can you tell us about it?
We spend a lot of time discussing the problems of the intra-African book trade, so I’m very grateful to the guys at Farafina for taking a risk and buying the book.
It’s about the lives of three dudes living separate realities in Edinburgh, doing their thing. I don’t think it has a central theme (my work seldom has because real life doesn’t) but the book has stuff about the city, love, music, deception, ideas.
Let’s talk about the Caine Prize now. You were shortlisted last year for your story The Intervention. How did you find the period between the shortlisting and the eventual announcement of the winner?
It was great fun! I enjoyed it immensely and it went by as a blur. Running in Green Park, lots of free food (yeah, I’m Zimbabwean, what’d you expect?), great events, meeting interesting folks interested in interesting stuff. The Caine is a fantastic institution and there should be more like it. Anyone who forks out their cash to support literature gets my vote.
Considering the kind of reception The Intervention received among certain critics, do you think, as Ben Okri seems to think in his recent Guardian article, that there is a certain expectation in the west of what an African writer should be writing about?
I think the contemporary debate about “African Literature” and/or “African Writers” has reached the crescendo of cliché, to which I’m unlikely to add anything usefulmeaningful. Name one writer who wakes up in Lagos or Lubumbashi or Lilongwe and goes, “God, I wonder what westerners want me to write?” Of course we poor Africans have no agency; the wicked west has its claws on our literature, on our very powers of imagination. Dude, we’re so, so obsessed with what the west thinks. We go ape when our books are put in the ethnic section, we go insane that our books are read as anthropological documents, we moan when editors italicise text in African languages, we’re in a constant neurotic state about what we produce, how it may be perceived, and what Africa’s image may or may not be. The way I see it, this only masks our deep seated anxieties that we are of little relevance on the continent itself, that it is impossible to actually earn a living from sales on the continent, that our most prominent writers are the ones that sell lots to wicked westerners, ergo, we conclude that they’re pandering to western expectations. I think it is remarkable in and of itself that western consumers actually pay their money to read stuff from outside their borders and engage with it. Maybe we ought to start saying African footballers playing abroad only play for western audiences too.
I think Ben Okri is both highly intelligent and a supremely talented writer, but he could do with reading work by from independent publishers on the continent like Modjaji, amaBooks, Laanga, Kachifo, Kwani? et al Better still, visit the African Books Collective, before making sweeping pronouncements. I won’t go on because Sofia Samatar (here) already gave an eloquent rebuttal and dropped the mic. Mukoma Wa Ngugi has said before, we’re not tourism officials. As for me, I write whatever the fuck I want, whatever matters to me.
Finally, Tendai, you have developed a style of using humour to address serious issues as we have seen in your two novels. How did you develop this style?
At least from an existential perspective, one can’t help but get the feeling that humanity is the butt of some grand cosmic joke. Humour is one of those things, either you have it or you don’t – either you get it or you don’t, it can’t be forced. I never quite think that I am addressing serious things; it’s just that the world has these interesting dichotomies, like you’re having a pint with your mates and a plane crashes halfway across the world. Those two events co-exist in frightening and disorienting ways. I’m interested in how we live our ordinary lives under the umbrella of these grand events, how we fall in love even as we are aware of the inevitability of our own deaths, how we manage to be engaged and apathetic simultaneously as Schrodinger’s humans.