Tshuma speaks about "African writing," complex consciousness, embracing messiness, and the best breakfast in Houston

“Novuyo Rosa Tshuma has written a towering and multilayered gem. House of Stone is one of the greatest-ever novels about Zimbabwe. What a timely, resonant gift.” — NoViolet Bulawayo, author of We Need New Names

 

Lone Star Literary Life: Ms. Tshuma, The Guardian called you “wily, perhaps as wily as [your] main character.” Please tell us about your character Zamani and your new novel, House of Stone.

 

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma: There’s this review titled “The Changeling of Zimbabwe” that focuses on Zamani and the recurring doppelgängers in House of Stone that I’m grateful for because it gives interesting insight into his character, taking him seriously as a complex consciousness in the novel—something frustratingly rare with “African writing” where characters are usually passed over as tropes to illustrate some larger point! It describes him as an “intelligent, manipulative outsider seeking entrance into a social sphere they are naturally excluded from.” Zamani, charming and amoral, is also very much an iconoclast—he’s bent on derailing the current patriarchal order, but only so as to build his own Zamanesque shrine. I like to think of him as my little dark-hearted gem.

 

LSLL: House of Stone is your debut novel; it’s been longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize, won the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Prize, featured by Oprah, kept Kirkus up at night, earned a starred review from Library Journal, earned a Bellagio Literary Arts Residency Award, and Publisher’s Weekly named you as a writer-to-watch in 2019. Wow. How do you process this sort of success with a first novel? What has been the biggest surprise? The best thing? The worst thing?

 

NRT: All of this has been a delightful and truly amazing start. I was always worried no one would “get” the novel because it strays from easily identifiable conventions. Helon Habila described it in his Guardian review as a novel that’s “not easy to describe; to call it clever or ambitious is to do it a disservice—it is both, but also more than that.” The Edward Stanford Award judges called it “highly unusual.” I feel both these descriptions to be true. So, I was always aware of the aesthetic and other experiments the work was taking, and I wondered how that would go. I remember it took us a while to find a publisher for House of Stone, and when we finally did, my first editor at Norton, the amazing Maria Guarnaschelli, wrote me, “You are an incredibly ambitious writer, and you are anything but conventional. Don’t ever change that.” And I always think of her words whenever I feel the pressures of literary trends or conventions. So, grateful for all the positive things that have happened so far.

 

I love and am attracted to the peculiar in fiction and enjoy translated works or multi-lingual works because there you encounter English used in irregular ways, and in this irregularity is a slice of the world as I haven’t quite seen or thought of it in that way before, and this is the kind of book I was trying to write here.

 

LSLL: Your short fiction has been included in journals such as McSweeney’s and anthologies such as The Displaced, which was edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Pulitzer winner, and has won Zimbabwe’s short-fiction prize, the Yvonne Vera Award.  Your debut collection, Shadows (Kwela, 2013), was longlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Literature and won the 2014 Herman Charles Bosman Prize for best literary work in English. The Houston Chronicle says that you found your voice somewhere between the first and seventeenth drafts of House of Stone. Please tell us a little about craft, the differences in approach, process, and mindset, between short stories and a novel. Why did you decide to publish a novel this time?

 

NRT: The short stories in Shadows were, for me, exercises in snapshots of life. I was also training my hand and experimenting with craft, different voices, different points of view, language. I had great fun with those.

 

House of Stone was more excruciating to write because, I suppose, more daunting. I went through seventeen drafts because the act of writing the novel was a very exploratory process for me; what shape or structure could best capture the House of Stone, Zimbabwe? How could I bend such a shape or structure to suit the kind of book I was trying to write? The novel even had footnotes at one point in time. So, I was very free, and messy, and willing and happy to wallow in this messiness. And this is a process I garnered from some books I love because of their peculiarity --  works like Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, Carlo Emilio Gadda’s That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana and Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, among others. The first two are translations from German and Italian. I loved how peculiar they felt to me and how playful they were.

 

LSLL: You are a fiction editor at The Bare Life Review, which is a journal of refugee and immigrant literature. What do you look for in a new piece of fiction to publish? What makes the cut and why? What advice would you give to the writers trying to break through submitting to journals?

 

NRT: As an editor, the first thing I look for in a piece is whether it grips me in some way, be it through language, characterization or even story. Then I look to see how the story is working as a whole, whether the thing that grips me is working with the other elements in the story, and importantly, whether the story feels ready for editing. Editing is also about personal taste, so it’s important to emphasize that, and it’s nice that we have various editors at The Bare Life Review, each with their own editorial eye. 

 

I would advise writers to research the journals they intend to submit to and to read the kind of work a journal publishes. I can’t stress enough the importance of presentation; sloppy work hardly gets read. More important than rushing to publish a story, though, is giving it the time and attention it needs to become its best possible self. This increases its chances of publication.

 

LSLL: Your character Zamani says that when Zimbabwe won independence from Britain in 1980, it felt like “the release of breaths long held.” Please tell us about growing up in Zimbabwe. What should we know about your native country? How has House of Stone been received there? How did your family react to the novel?

 

NRT: I wasn’t yet born in 1980 [when Zimbabwe won independence]. My childhood is filled with memories of the nkente nkente bell of the Lyons Maid ice-cream man (he wore a red and white uniform with a red cap, and I can see him clearly in my mind even now) every day at 4 p.m. Trips to the Bulawayo Drive-In. Weekends spent at my grandfather’s sprawling house in Queenspark East. Family parties and weddings—we are a big family; my mother has twelve siblings. I suppose this comes to mind because it contrasts with the food and money shortages of my teens, when the ice-cream man stopped coming, the shops became empty, and the family broke up as aunts and cousins moved overseas to the UK and Australia. That was a very different era. 

 

I wasn’t able to find a local publisher for House of Stone, unfortunately, because of some stuff in the novel, but I was determined to launch the book at home and hold a conversation there, which I did. It was amazing. It felt like a communion and at my launch in my hometown of Bulawayo, we got to really talking about the Gukurahundi Genocide, and I kept being asked, “Are you not afraid, speaking so freely, why are you not afraid?” And I laughed and said, “No, I’ve alerted some organizations that I’m here.” And the audience laughed and said, “How will that help you?” And we all laughed together, this sort of worried, surprised laughter that also somehow brought relief. And I don’t know if it’s that I was not afraid as much as being so incensed by our history and feeling humiliated by the fact that one should be afraid.

 

LSLL: What was it like to leave Zimbabwe for South Africa with your family, then to leave South Africa for the United States, where you attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?

 

NRT: Moving to South Africa was both a relief and also quite uncomfortable. My parents were able to get jobs there and there was food in shops and everything. But then we became “Zimbabwean,” in South Africa—at home you never stop and think, “I am Zimbabwean”—but in South Africa I thought about that a lot because it was constantly in my face, and not in a good way. Many times, I pretended to be South African—because my Ndebele ethnicity shares many similarities with South Africa’s Zulu.

 

I was so delighted to move to America because I thought I had an intimate relationship with it thanks to music and television. American culture is everywhere, so you start feeling an affinity to this place from an early age, and then you get here and realize it’s all been an illusion and the Americans themselves don’t watch these soapies of theirs you watch at home, and it’s only the Indians and other folk from elsewhere, like you, who watch them! So, you discover that America has been exporting their cheap cultural stuff to the rest of the world, this illusion you have bought into.

 

I find America perplexing and mysterious, troubling and exciting. It’s an important place for me because this is where my writing matured—I wrote much of House of Stone here, I’m a writer here—and so, important aspects of my growth as a writer are tied to America. And my family at home claims I’m developing some “Americanisms.” LMAO.

 

LSLL: You are teaching and working on your Ph.D. at the University of Houston. What has the journey for your doctorate been like for you? You’ve said that your spirit rebels against the strictures and the required hoop-jumping. Do you intend to continue to teach after you are Dr. Tshuma?

 

NRT: I have found the doctorate at times frustrating. I am pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature. To be a writer actively participating in the academic environment is interesting. For me, it brings to bear questions of my place in the academy as a so-called “African writer”—we can expand that to other identities—producing art i.e. creative knowledge, versus the kind of literature curriculum I must take for a PhD, which is meant to complement my creative work, but in much of which I cannot see myself, in which I feel displaced, peripheral. In some respects, this is a positive thing since scholarly work is meant to trouble readily accepted conventions about the world and get you asking questions, and that’s a great thing because it has certainly disoriented me and gotten me asking questions.

 

One can be “in the academy but not of the academy,” and that is how I feel because although the stuff I may desire to engage with may not be in the classroom, it can certainly be found in the university—in the library, for instance, or in the work of a particular professor. But it’s not mainstream, where you spend most of your time and energy, and what do you do with that as a creative writer? In my writing, my world and my characters are certainly not peripheral or interested in being peripheral. No one is. Peripheral is a terrible position.

 

The academy is also about influence, and sometimes, as a critical and creative position, one as an artist needs to resist certain influences taught in literature, in search of influences that are not recognized in the academy, as a way to create a different kind of art.

 

I do expect I will teach after I become Dr Tshuma; I enjoy teaching creative writing very much!

 

LSLL: Would you share your favorite parts of Houston with us? Favorite diners, bookstores, parks, museums, that sort of thing? Do you think Houston, or Texas more generally, has had an effect on your work?

 

NRT: Barnaby’s has the best breakfast! The ambiance at Campesino Cafe is great for writing, as is Agora. Another place I love to go and write because of its sheer aesthetic beauty is the Julia Ideson Building in Downtown Houston. It has the most spectacular Reading Room, with these long, arched windows, and gorgeous furniture. Brazos Bookstore is a favorite haunt, as is Half Price Books along Westheimer Road in Montrose. I was recently at the Hook-Epstein Galleries for a wondrous art exhibition titled “Shadows of Time” by Houston artist Kingsley Onyeiwu.

 

Houston definitely has had an effect on my work; this will probably manifest itself in my future work. For instance, the novel I’m currently working on, while in Houston, is set in Iowa City, where I lived previously.

 

LSLL: Please tell us what you can about what’s next for you.

 

NRT: I’m grateful for the interesting year I have ahead thanks to House of Stone; I’ll be spending the months of April and May in Germany, Sweden, and Britain for some wonderful festivals and events, including a talk  about House of Stone at Oxford University, which I’m very excited about. I will get a chance to visit Kenya and Indonesia later on in the year, which is amazing.

 

Also working on a new novel. It’s set in Iowa City. 

 

LSLL: What’s on your nightstand?

 

NRT: Let’s Tell This Story Properly by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. A Cosmology, Poems by Destiny Hemphill. Writing Death by Jeremy Fernando. And Toni Morrison’s new collection of essays, The Source of Self-Regard.

 

 

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma grew up in Zimbabwe and lives in Houston, Texas. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Displaced, edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Her short story collection, Shadows, won the 2014 Herman Charles Bosman Prize and was longlisted for the 2014 Etisalat Prize for Literature. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and serves on the editorial advisory board and is a fiction editor at the Bare Life Review, a journal of refugee and immigrant literature based San Francisco. Her first novel is House of Stone.