Tiah caught up with Tendai Huchu to discuss dividing time, philosophy, clichés and stories; long and short.
TIAH: Your latest novel, The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician, has three separate narratives that are independent, yet not. Did you use any special software or organising technique to keep them straight? Or did their storylines gradually reveal themselves to you chapter by chapter?
TENDAI: I tried to have the novellas that make the novel function like the three hands of a clock. So, the Maestro is your hour hand, very slow, little happens on the surface. The Magistrate is the minute hand and holds the whole thing together with a little more going on. Then the Mathematician, in present tense, is the second hand going tick, tick, tick, tick, at a relentless pace. I have to confess this was a rather inelegant solution to the problem of how to bring these narratives together, because I think each one could have carried a novel on its own. I started with the Magistrate, you find throughout the story, you always return to him before you’re shunted elsewhere, so he’s your docking port to the other universes. I then had to retrofit the other two narratives to work around his story and, abracadabra, there you are. It was a bit tricky because some sections had to be redone if and when they jarred the overall working of the timepiece, because independent as they seem, the hands are all headed towards 12 o’clock. Does this make any sense? I guess what I’m trying to say is that doing the thing was a pain in several different orifices simultaneously.
TIAH: It has been said that Boethius is one of your favourite philosophers. What about him sparks your interest?
TENDAI: I suppose I have a romantic connection with the story of Boethius. The very idea that he could produce The Consolation of Philosophy in extraordinary circumstances, in jail, essentially knowing his own life was about to end, is remarkable. It has been said that this book kept classical philosophy alive in the Middle Ages, and, as a layman from a non academicky background, I find it a beautiful and highly accessible work which covers an astounding range of thought in a slim volume. Boethius battles with problems that are no less important today; he really does speak to you directly like an ice pick to the heart. The idea itself, a conversation between the dude and Lady Philosophy who answers his queries is very innovative for its time (and any era for that matter). I find reading him both comforting and stimulating. I really do wish philosophy as a discipline was made compulsory in our schools, because it’s like downloading a software upgrade into your mind that enables you to “think different”, to question everything and not take anything for granted. It’s the antidote to our modern solipsism and some of our more destructive impulses. I should stop now.
"I think the core cliché lies in the idea that African writers can be told what to/not to write, or that they are victims of ulterior motives and/or influences outside of the practice of their art which writers elsewhere are somehow immune to."
TIAH: You have been quoted as saying, "I write whatever the fuck I want, whatever matters to me." What cliché of African writing frustrates you the most?
TENDAI: I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m ‘frustrated’, rather benignly baffled. Maybe I come across as reactionary here, but I think the core cliché lies in the idea that African writers can be told what to/not to write, or that they are victims of ulterior motives and/or influences outside of the practice of their art which writers elsewhere are somehow immune to. They have no autonomy, no agency and are ultimately at the mercy of western publishers or whoever else we choose to blame. So, we find ourselves in a position where this sort of bullshit is thrown around, but no one really interrogates what it actually means and/or whether it has any real merit. Example: folks writing about poverty – well, how many of us are actually rich/well off? I’m not and have never been. Oh and by the way, we want ordinary Africans to read prose, presumably that means poor people too, but Yahweh forbid their lives should be represented in the very same fiction. There’s also a slightly annoying lumping together that irons out the incredible diversity in the works African writers produce. I mean, if you read contemporary writers like Maaza Mengiste, Teju Cole, Nnedi Okorafor, Mukoma Wa Ngugi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Zukiswa Wanner, Lauren Beukes (I could go on and on here) you find this incredible diversity of thought and so many mind-blowing ideas which deserve serious interrogation, which you can engage with via other modes of thought and literary criticism, yielding great intellectual rewards, without resorting to some of the default, overly simplistic modes of interpretation we so readily employ (often revolving around, but not limited to, some imagined audience these works are supposedly written for). I suppose in a way the cliché itself actually wins out as meme, because we talk about it over and over; we’re talking about it right now, which probably nullifies everything I’m saying, because pretty soon we’ll be having this same conversation all over again.
TIAH: We sometimes hear people complain that they don't read short stories because they fall in love with a character and then it is done, like a summer fling. They want the long romance of a novel. You have written a number of short stories, including the 2014 Caine Prize shortlisted 'The Intervention'. You are also one of this year's Writivism short story judges. What about the short story appeals to you, as a reader?
TENDAI: The short form and the novel are very different beasts. I couldn’t blame a reader for preferring one over the other any more than it would bother me if someone preferred sonnets to haiku. Courses for horses and all that. I do think, though, that in this digital age, the short story may well gain an edge, and it is thriving online. There’s probably more digital literary magazines out there than there are readers (yes, this is an exaggeration, bite me). I don’t buy into the myth that short stories are a training ground for the novel, or that they are supposed to carry ideas which wouldn’t last the marathon of a novel. It’s simply not true. They can be ambitious, epic in scope even, and I think they burn with a greater intensity, simply because the brevity demands a different method of storytelling. As for the fling thing, I’m not too sure, in both forms (novels and short stories) some will stay with you longer than others, some demand rereading whilst others don’t. I am thoroughly enjoying the pool of Writivism stories because of how daring the writers are (most of them are new writers with nothing to lose, so they just go for it) and the range of ideas I’m encountering is both intriguing and heart-warming.
TIAH: Lastly, what question do you wish I'd asked? Please answer it.
TENDAI: I’m just relieved to be done with it to be honest. Thanks for having me… “I’m going to a pretty place now where the flowers grow.”
On Tendai's Bedside Table
I’ve been reading The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster and I also dip in and out of online magazines for my SF and Crime fix. There’s so much great material out there and so little time. I have 43 books on my bedside waiting to be read. (Don’t believe me – see pic attached). Note to self – DON’T BUY ANY MORE BOOKS.
Tendai Huchu’s first novel, The Hairdresser of Harare, was released in 2010 to critical acclaim, and has been translated into German, French, Italian and Spanish. His multigenre short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Manchester Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Gutter, Interzone, AfroSF, Wasafiri, Warscapes, The Africa Report and elsewhere. His new novel is The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician.