As promised, I am posting transcripts of my interviews with Zimbabwean writers and publishers as the Caine Prize for African Writing workshop happens this month in Zimbabwe. Below is an interview I conducted with Tendai Huchu, author of ‘The Hairdresser of Harare’. I reviewed this book a few years ago and you can find the review here. You can find the other interviews that I have conducted here (interview with Caine Prize Director, Lizzy Attree) and here (interview with writer, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma). A full article can be found on the Voices of Africa website.
Fungai Machirori (FM): As a writer whose book was first published in Zimbabwe and is now being republished internationally, would you say there is a difference in sales/ professionalism/ marketing between Zimbabwe and the international space? If so, please explain.
Tendai Huchu (TH): That is a difficult question because each market is different and so the sales reflect that. My book is a local novel in the Zimbabwean context, which is different from marketing it, say, in the UK where it is a foreign title. Western markets are more affluent and the novel is an established art form there, so you are not comparing like with like. In terms of professionalism, the two publishing houses you have in Zimbabwe that do fiction, Weaver Press and amaBooks, are working in very difficult circumstances but there can be no criticism of their standards, you only need to read through their catalogue to see that. More power to them for what they’ve achieved.
FM: In the post-2000s, you are one of the few Zimbabwean writers who has managed to write a novel that does not pay too much attention to the political situation in Zimbabwe. Do you think there is a market for that sort of writing locally and internationally? Why?
TH: I don’t think in terms of “the market” when I write. In my work, I’m trying to engage with ideas and concepts that interest me, but I do think there is room out there for all sorts of literature from vampire erotica to literary political fiction and everything in between. Ultimately all we are doing is peddling stories, and storytelling is an ancient art form, one that still exists because it answers an intrinsic human need.
FM: Has there been any local resistance to your book for tackling homosexuality which remains a highly divisive issue across the continent?
TH: Certainly none that I’m aware of. The text is open to the reader’s interpretation, so while some people obsess about the fact it has a gay character, other people realise that there is a lot more going on in the book. One also has to think about the kind of person who would go into a book store and spend their hard earned cash buying my work. I keep repeating the fact that books are an art form, and so my audience is probably just as limited as the audience you’d get if you put on opera or a yodelling performance. If a Sungura artist tackled that, then I’m sure they would reach a wider audience, and as a consequence enjoy much more interesting feedback from the public.
FM: The Caine Prize has constantly come under pressure for ‘pigeon-holing’ Africa across a handful of reductive themes. Do you think this is true? Can you explain why or why not?
TH: The Caine Prize comes under a bit of criticism which should be expected for a successful, high profile institution. But the Caine does not and cannot control the work writers across the continent choose to produce. They have different judges from different backgrounds each year, which means you have people with different tastes participating. But judging a literary prize is all about aesthetics; I would like to believe the judges are independent and the Caine doesn’t give them a tick list for what to look for. I confess that I’ve not followed it closely over the last fifteen years, but I’m sure the dynamic is the other way round, that is to say, the prize itself is influenced by what writers on the continent are interested in, because they provide the raw material that enables it to exist.
FM: Do you think the workshop being held in Zimbabwe will herald literary ‘re-engagement’ with Zimbabwe, or has this always been happening?
TH: Literature is about ideas and so I don’t believe it is possible for the world to disengage or re-engage with us, rather you have natural cycles, peaks and troughs, depending on whether the ideas being produced in one canon appeal to readers in another and vice versa. Zimbabwe is just one of many players jostling in the global literary market, and a single workshop is nothing in the grand scheme of things. What I believe though, with no empirical proof, is that, because it has a disproportionately sized diaspora, Zimbabwean literature reaps the benefits of having practitioners who interact with ideas from all across the world and that can only be enriching.