An Interview with Tendai Huchu
Tendai Huchu hit all the right notes with his first book The Hairdresser of Harare, published in Zimbabwe in 2010, with a US edition now available from Ohio University Press. Set mainly in Zimbabwe's capital city (though Huchu himself now lives in Edinburgh), the novel charts the blossoming love between a male and female hairdresser. Among its many urgent points of interest, The Hairdresser of Harare treats African gender roles, queer identity, and the yawning wealth gap between Zimbabwe's political elite and its poor majority. It is a novel that critics very much knew what to do with: it ticks every major box of a global pluralist sensibility, with a laconic, engaging style and roguish wit. This combination of traits won Huchu a review last year in the New York Times, placing him in the most visible echelon of African writers published abroad.
But Huchu's work is also formally surprising, and reading it one has the feeling that its social topicality may be less clear cut than it appears. His second book, 2014's The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician, only confirms this impression, by abandoning an issues-based linear plot in favor of three zany novellas braided together. Each of them follows the daily routine of a different Zimbabwean transplant to Edinburgh, all of whom discover a bit less than they set out to find. The story, to the extent one exists, is in the fabric of the novel itself, as it gets snagged on the vacant opportunities of global mobility (dead-end jobs, teenage pregnancy, and the perils of European takeout food, to name a few), and flailing national opposition politics. As characters' mundane paths cross and diverge with no one, really, the better for it, The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician plots the meaning of the phrase "the devil is in the details." Huchu thus seems willing to try and capture -- and play with -- the widespread cynicism of our moment, in a literary field that sometimes prefers sanguine praise. This rare intermingling of wry humor and broad vision makes him a great interlocutor and friend, as my exchange with him below attests.
One of the first things I noted about The Hairdresser of Harare is that it's not very "diasporic" in its themes. But you wrote it in Edinburgh, and I have to imagine that a transnational novel would also have been easier to sell. Why move to Scotland, then, to write such a local book about Zimbabwe?
My favorite books are often very local in their scope and concerns, yet, somehow, they manage to capture something universal about the human condition. I remember watching the last James Bond movie; as the hero zooms from country to country -- often, I couldn't even tell where the hell he was -- I kept thinking, what a load of bollocks. Of course, the whole thing was designed to capture as wide an international audience as possible, so to hell with anything vaguely resembling logical coherence. It takes an exceptional storyteller to pull off a transnational narrative without sacrificing authenticity and diluting their content in some attempt to please everyone. When I moved to Edinburgh, I already had novelistic ambitions, but everything I'd written before that was a dud. I had a lot to learn about the craft then, as I do now. For me, the most important thing was to tell the story I wanted to tell without diluting it in an attempt to "sell." I'm a fan of nineteenth-century Russian literature, but I'd be a fool to claim any of that shit was written for me. The geographic location of where I write from probably has more to do with the material comforts it affords me than anything else. The main thing for me is that I am able to write the work that I want, as I see fit.
You know I have to ask: what's your favorite nineteenth-century Russian novel, and why?
It has to be Dostoevsky's Demons. I reread it every two or three years and I come out with something new every time. This might even be a literal "new," because I first read it as The Devils, and I believe it has been called The Possessed before, so we may just be at the mercy of the translators here! Time to learn Russian. I think it's his best novel, both complex and dense, with that tele-microscopic vision of his major novels, which manage to show the individual alongside and in interaction with larger sociopolitical forces. I've always been tempted to see novels as simulations of real live and I have no idea how many zettabytes Demons is running on.
The weird thing is that when I read it, I feel I am reading the Great Zimbabwean Novel. I mean, this thing speaks to the Zimbabwean experience so directly -- the battles against western influence that have defined the last twenty or so years of our existence, and the dominance of ideology over rational thought, compassion and virtue playing out with disastrous consequences. At a more puerile level I keep seeing these parallels between the two societies depicted, the social stratification, swap consumption for AIDS and you have another dynamic going on there, and there is an urgency in Demons I often find in novels from the Global South but never in the contemporary western novel. I remember my first attempt at writing a novel in my early twenties was a goddamned awful piece of plagiarism (I thought it was a work of monumental genius at the time), riffing off Demons and just putting the whole damn thing in a Zimbabwean context. (I would like to thank everyone who rejected that novel.) The point is that this book speaks to me on so many levels and while we can dissect this and that, we can't also neglect the dark humor, the incredible cast of wacky characters and awesome set pieces. It's a rollicking read.
I want to stick with this idea of the Great National Novel, for a moment. We are frequently told that we're past the era in which writing one is possible, or even relevant. You know the drill: the nation is insidious as a form, and slippery/obsolete as a political construct. And yet, as you suggest, there is something both alluring and impressive about this sort of project. Consider the widely heralded case of Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, for example, in contrast to the more mixed reception of Americanah. What's going on, here? Are national epics with us to stay?
If you're ever lucky enough or just talented enough to write a phenomenal book like Half of a Yellow Sun, you're gonna have one hell of a time with your next work. You've raised the bar and now you have to jump over it again. Adichie isn't James Patterson, so she was never going to try to hit us with more of the same. I don't think one should try to compare the two books (hard as that may seem); rather take Americanah on its own terms, and I am sure most people will agree it is a really good book. Adichie is coming into that really important phase between 40 and 50, where it is said novelists tend to peak. I'll bet a kidney and a testicle that what she produces in the next decade will be even more astounding than the great stuff she has already given us. (Did I just say don't compare her books and then suggest that we do that with her future works? You figure that one out -- may I suggest some form of doublethink here? No pressure, Chimamanda.)
But, I think you're onto something when you speak about the appeal of the national epic. It is easy for the affluent, the winners in the global capitalist game, who move freely with capital, to think that nations are slippery and obsolete as they hop from airport to airport unimpeded. Why would they not? But for the guy with a Third World passport, the guy with the long beard, the guy who doesn't speak with the right accent, the guy whose bank account has one zero or he doesn't have a bank account at all, the nation is very much alive. Look at the rhetoric in Europe and in America today and try to tell me we are in some post-national phase. Look at the xenophobia that flares up in South Africa from time to time, and you quickly see that this is stuff for the elites, not for the rest of us, the great unwashed masses at the bottom of the food chain, who feel its (the nation's) boot on our face. The nation is still an important construct (real or imagined) by which we order the world around us and, more importantly, by which power interacts with her subjects, and, as such, the novel will continue to respond to its continued existence/influence.
Are you surprised by the The Hairdresser of Harare's success? And has its reception differed from what you might have anticipated, or hoped?
The Hairdresser of Harare succeeds and fails by how embedded our narrator Vimbai is in the quotidian reality of her local situation. I now understand that how a work is received is often very different from the author's original conception of it. The Zimbabwean reader automatically "gets" what I'm doing in the novel; elsewhere, though, I fear, it is a matter of "ticking" those boxes you alluded to earlier. Look, I am a novelist, right, an artist, I make shit up, that's in the job description, but I am often surprised how, in certain minds, my novel is not enough: it must allude to my sexuality, I must be an activist, it must be autobiographical. Frankly, I find these anthropological interpretations of my work to be dumb to the nth degree. I'd gladly give any reader their money back if they told me their enjoyment of the work was derived from something external to the novelistic quality of the work. (Rant over.)
Was I expecting the book to have several translations and a film option, when I wrote it? No. Am I grateful for that? Yeah. But, in many ways, the book is independent of its author now, it has a life of its own, and if that constitutes success, good luck to it. Does the author feel successful? No. I'm looking at the next work thinking, can I stretch myself, can I write something better? And so, in many ways, The Hairdresser of Harare is one of those annoying motherfuckers who tailgate you on an empty highway, so the only thing to do is stop looking in the rearview mirror and put the pedal to the metal.
You're right, of course, that writers from the Global South are often anthropologized. They're read through the twin constructs of culture and identity, which many people see as related. At the same time, though, as writers like you resist such readymade filters, conversation about them continues to drive the boom in "global" writing. There is huge interest in what we might call "soft" historical texts, books that use individual stories to give life to recognized social and political issues. Can you suggest some alternative frames for engaging with contemporary fiction? If you, as a so-called global novelist, could design an ideal critic, what other optics for reading might he or she suggest?
I hesitate to make any such suggestion because the house of literature has so many rooms and criticism itself comes from different traditions and so forth. What I fear, though, is the type of criticism that denies the existence of formal innovation and ideas in literature from the South, treating it as some sort of journalistic appendage meant to confirm stereotypes already in Western media and/or discourse. In my personal experience, the results for the authors can then range from downright bizarre to damned insulting.
I am speaking from personal experience here when I say I've done events where I go to place X thinking I am an author here to talk about my book and then I have to spend an hour or more fielding worn questions about Africa (including places and cultures on the continent I know nothing about) from a well-meaning liberal audience that has paid for the privilege. You know something is pretty damned wrong with the show when you do a string of literary events and not one member of the audience bothers to ask you that most clichéd of questions any writer must field: "Where do you get your ideas from?" Now, I'm not a critic and that field is pretty alien to me -- like most writers, I put my faith in the reader instead. But, I am on very shaky ground here, I would suggest that the ideal critic start by dealing with these novels as works of art and evaluating them as such, before attaching any other bullshit to them.
Where do you position The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician -- which strikes me as much more playful than The Hairdresser of Harare -- in terms of its ultimate ambition? Do you see it as an experiment in form, or genre, or perhaps in social design?
You are correct in your assessment that that novel is very playful. I tried to embed an intra-textual dialectic within the three novellas of the novel in which any position taken is undermined by an equal and opposite truth. The book masquerades as a literary novel, and that is how it is presented to you, but at the end you realize it is actually a genre novel of a very specific kind: a spy novel. I also tried to subvert the convention of having the main character center of the text, so the real hero of this novel is actually a secondary figure who has far less screen time than the titular characters.
I am very interested in contradiction, ambiguity, inconsistency, both as an inescapable function of individual human nature and how those elements shape events at a wider, societal level. In my initial conception of the novel, I thought I was going to try to do a work that dealt with micro-identity shifts within the same characters, but it turned out the end product was more unwieldy than I initially envisioned, and so, even that central consideration ended up being a subcomponent of something larger. I would like to claim this was an experiment with form and genre, but the structure of the novel was arrived at through trial and error, the form exists to support the idea that becomes the story. I am already finding through the failures I am grinding through while working on my next novel that, unless I find the correct form for that book too, the damn thing won't work. So I am thinking through my pre-existing toolkit and if I can't find something that works, I'll have to make something new. You just muddle along and hope. What else can you do?
It's interesting that your writing starts with a driving set of concepts, from which you then work to find their most natural expression. (This is one of my favorite things about you as a writer.) A lot of writers say the opposite, that they're just "telling stories," with the specifics of character or setting paramount to any underlying motivation. Why is it important to you that the big idea, so to speak, gives birth to the details, rather than the other way around?
When it comes to method, I think it's pretty much a case of to each their own. We're all striving to find an approach to the art that best suits us. In my case, it seems to be a journey of constant discovery and reinvention, because unless I find the right methodology, things just don't work out. In this, I draw inspiration from the concept of mathematical beauty in which I substitute the proof for a novel, and so that novel should be the most succinct expression of an idea, and/or it must be surprising, and/or provide new, or original, insights. That is what I strive for, whether or not I succeed is a different matter altogether, but it means that each time I have an idea, I must figure out how to express it before I put pen to paper. I would never try to reinvent the wheel, if there is already an efficient way to express something in the canon, then I'll riff off that, else I must try something new. It's a messy method and I don't have everything figured out, I just make it up as I go along.
Going back to the issue of locality, there's a strong Shona influence on your writing in English. For most Bookslut readers, Shona -- the indigenous language spoken by the majority of Zimbabweans -- won't mean much. Can you expound a bit on the particularities of its role in your work, its rhythms, subcultures, etc.?
I suppose when you think about language as a system of signs, and with English and Shona I essentially have two very different software running simultaneously in my mind, the broader your linguistic range, the more options you have when trying to comprehend things around you. In trying to capture the world as a novelist, in a sense I'm speaking of a wider reality here, I unconsciously toggle between the two. Where I'm from, English is the language of power, commerce, it confers a certain status, but brings with it a brutal baggage, a savage history of domination and exploitation (we were caned in primary school by our teachers to force us to speak English). Because of the brute force it imposes, it misses some of the nuances and refinement that one can only find in Shona, particularly when I think of social relationships/ human interactions, which is why I switch between the two as and when I need to.
Shona is a playful language, too, one signifier can point to multiple concepts, which can only be deciphered contextually -- I was laughing with a friend recently about the peculiarity of the word mambaira, "sweet potato," which, with the added prefix "chi" forms chimbambaira, which means "landmine" and yet can still refer to a sweet potato depending on the context. I know which one I'd rather eat. If my memory isn't playing tricks on me, Oliver Mtukudzi may have done a song in the early '90s playing with that, too. I think having both in my toolkit is a very powerful thing to have.
You've used this word "toolkit" a few times, so let's end there. What would your "dream kit" of literary tools look like, using those of any other writer working today? Let's go with three writers, so three tools, that you most admire.
You know how Shang Tsung used to absorb his opponents' souls to get their knowledge and fighting skills in Mortal Kombat? Give me David Mitchell's breadth of imagination and formal innovation, Jon McGregor's ear for language, and the brute thermobaric power of China Mieville's ideas, and I'd have no reason to complain ever again... Bollocks, that would never be enough -- let's call it a good starting point, shall we?