Gambit (The Art of Creating) No. 1 - Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

Interview Literature Writing

 

The following conversation took place via email. Between Novuyo and myself, we exchanged about 35 emails, in which I was greatly moved by her dedication (as you would see) to her writing, her understanding of her craft, and her willingness to engage. I have never met Novuyo in person, but it feels as though I have known her for a long time. Indeed, there are few of the writers scheduled in this series that I can recognize from a distance. I am yet to fully come to terms with what this means, suggests.

 

Novuyo says about herself: “When not going about the nuisance of living, I am writing.” She is currently pursuing a degree in Economics and Finance at the University of Witwatersrand. In 2009, she won the Intwasa Short Story Competition for ‘You in Paradise.’ Her short stories have been featured in anthologies, including The Bed Book of Short Stories (Modjaji Books, 2010); A Life In Full and Other Stories: Caine Prize Anthology 2010 (New Internationalist, 2010) and Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe (amaBooks, 2011). I have provided links to her stories below.

 

Both Novuyo and I have expressed a wish to meet in person.

 

*

 

EMMANUEL IDUMA: Describe your writing table. Do you keep a strict schedule, working on this table?

 

NOVUYO ROSA TSHUMA: My writing space is where I live, an apartment. I will write anywhere in this space—on my student’s desk, on the floor, on the couch, in bed, with my laptop perched on my lap. I write in bouts—spurts, I would call them—something about that elusive thing called a muse, but really it is more about taking advantage of your free time. I have studies with which to juggle my writing, living, and getting work that needs to be done, done. 

 

 

EI: Was there a point when writing became a decision, or part of a decision?

 

NT: Indeed there was. At the point when I discovered the contemporary African writers, I became overwhelmed by the realization that the culmination of my writing into something meaningful would require a conscious cultivation on my part. This was at the end of August 2007. I had always been writing but had never consciously thought of it. Probed by a deep, jagged sense of writing and career crisis, I dropped out of my architecture program at the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe and ventured into a year of soul searching, some fumbling, as it were, in the dark.

 

 

EI: Did you feel at the time that dropping out of the architecture program was necessary for your writing? The conscious cultivation you refer to, does it also include sacrifice, the choosing of an alternative career? 

 

NT: Architecture is a field that requires dedication and a great level of passion. This dedication and passion was not something I could ever sacrifice willingly to architecture. While we were learning about great and inspiring architects I was busy daydreaming about great and inspiring writers. It became evident that architecture was not for me. 

 

A conscious cultivation is to say: I shall dedicate time to honing my craft, to nurturing writing, to seeking opportunities that foster growth in my writing. This automatically reduces time for other opportunities and informs the paths you take.

 

 

EI: To get on with his day’s work, Hemingway sharpened up to seven pencils. Do you also sharpen pencils? 

 

NT: Mine is work done on the computer. Rather, I sharpen my writing momentum.

 

 

EI: A sense of dislocation surrounds your stories, the kind that is replete with the familiarity of an itinerant’s disorientation. Do you think that because you are out of Zimbabwe, you write about Zimbabwe? The kind of thing that happens to a writer in the diaspora, in exile? 

 

NT: Hmmm. I am out of Zimbabwe, indeed, but I am so close to it—South Africa is a close neighbor—as to be in it without really being in it. Perhaps it is this intimate distance that allows me a perspective I may not possess were I totally immersed in Zimbabwe. The relationship between Zimbabwe and South Africa is a very interesting and complex one, you see, and here I speak of the social dynamics. Zimbabweans, like many foreigners here, have permeated the South African culture. We are, literally, everywhere. Our interaction with this environment, though—which is sometimes hostile—has something of a corrupt cadence to it. For some, there is a need to belong, to find seams of familiarity in terms of tribe and culture, in which to embed themselves and reap the many benefits of a country as advanced—in structural terms—as South Africa. For others, there is a visceral reaction against this environment. I am fascinated by the contradictions of this love-hate relationship.

 

Now, I believe the sense of dislocation you speak about represents a broad unplugging that plagues one when one is in foreign lands. The feeling of not really belonging is a very stark, if not disorienting, one. And one feels this no more than in the complicated landscape that is South Africa. There is ignorance within the formal halls of South Africa of the foreigner and his place here outside the cliché views of “illegal immigrant.” This only serves to further alienate the foreigner, so that he skulks about as something not wanted, per se, but rather tolerated, within this space.

 

 

EI: Has the friction of South African politics affected you in any way? Do you, by studying in South Africa and by being a witness to xenophobia, Jacob Zuma, crime, etc., long for home? Perhaps a feeling of melancholic homesickness?

 

NT: South African politics affect me in a personal sense, insofar as they affect my quality of life as a Zimbabwean living here. I am randomly stopped on the street and asked to produce identification. I’m ever aware that I “do not belong.”

 

Do I suffer from homesickness? No. I love home without wanting to be in it. What I am more interested in is a geography that may act as a buoy for my sense as a writer. In this sense, I may claim a melancholic homesickness in terms of my writing. Which is in itself a shadowy concept, as my writing is not purely a culmination of geography, but may lay claim to abstract homes. I can say that my coming to South Africa provided fertile soil for my roots as a writer—perhaps in a way home may never have—in terms of opportunity, in terms of “opening my eyes,” in terms of crushing my naiveté. And yet, home becomes the manure which I use to fertilize these roots. So, it is all inter-connected.

 

Do I share a certain romanticism with South Africa? Certainly not. I am not disillusioned by my relationship with her. We are ambivalent about one another. But the social dynamics of this place are so broad and so complex as to be fascinating.

 

So, perhaps I may go so far as to say I do not want to necessarily commit myself to geography. It is not helpful to myself as a writer to do so. New spaces provide new, fascinating interactions; you find that geography exposes different dimensions of yourself. Is the me in Zimbabwe the same me that is in South Africa? Not entirely; the rules of each space provide different opportunities for self-illumination. What this does, though, is cultivate an internal sense of vagrancy.

 

 

EI: The literary theorist Gayatri Spivak said, “I fall into a place and I become of that place.” It’s like having roots in the air, so that you become familiar and okay with your disorientation. And this, as you have noted, affects your writing. More or less, your writing appears as a trans-African response to your asymmetry, so that you take up the challenge of intersecting Zimbabwe with Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria. There’s the conscious attempt in your stories “The King and I” and “In Bed with Ikeji” to affirm that you are not afraid of your fluidity, that you are at home everywhere, and not at home anywhere. Is this even plausible?

 

NT: Intersecting ourselves with different cultures and nationalities is not at all a challenging thing in today’s multicultural environment. The writing of it becomes, really, a reflection of our cross-cultural interactions. Venture the streets of Johannesburg and you will hear the laden tones of the Shona, the heavy intonations lugged about by Nigerian pidgin, the staccato English uttered by the French-speaking Congolese, the chopping up of syllables by the Chinese. India in the shops—the distinct smell of a curry. Leonard Zhakata blares from a radio on the street, across the road some Sam Mangwana. All of this in addition to the rich mesh that is South African culture. The melting pot stews.

 

 

EI: Was leaving Zimbabwe important for your writing life or did you leave only as a person and not as a writer? Or both? Do these lines even exist for you?

 

NT: Cognizant of the importance of education, I left Zimbabwe to attend university in South Africa. This move proved to be fertile to my growth as a writer; South Africa has a lush writing environment.

 

In retrospect, I may say it is important to seek opportunities that will make you a better writer, that will allow you the opportunity to hone your craft, expose you to an expansive range of reading, and so on. 

 

Now, as to the person and the writer, hmmm. I would rather put it this way: the writer and his writing need not always converge to a personal point. There are the manipulations of fiction to consider. 

 

 

EI: Speaking about reading, which African and non-African writers have moved you  recently? And which books?

 

NT: I enjoyed how Dambudzo Marechera bullied and battered the English language in his famous The House of Hunger, bruising it into something unique and beautiful. The authentic characterization in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Turkish delights in Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. The eloquent depression in James Baldwin’s Another Country. The detailed meanderings in Teju Cole’s Open City. The disarming use of language in Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place. The illumination of the mundane into something gripping in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Intepreter of Maladies. The comic, sometimes tragic feminism in Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes.

 

 

EI: Both of your stories “Waiting” and “You in Paradise” convey what Rushdie, in reference to Dickens, called “a pitiless realism” and “a naturalistic exactitude.” Do you seek to do this, to spark off a feeling that your reader can take hold of your scenes, your characters’ souls, their bedraggled existence?  

 

NT: Well, in retrospect I may be able to say I seek to do this. But really, the process of writing is something of a subconscious one  and more intimate. To make writing exact may actually rob the tale of the natural flow of the very elements with which one seeks to imbue it. More importantly, it may take out that innate pleasure the writer derives from the process of creating his or her work.

 

 

EI: You speak, interestingly, of tales with political infusion, which raises, again, the debates on the social function of literature, as well as the question of stereotyping Africa. It is perhaps useful that your writing speaks to afro-modernity and afro-cosmopolitanism, as much as it does to matters such as xenophobia, immigration, and even Westernization. So do you think there’s a foreground-background approach to handling your themes—that a family’s story can serve as a foreground to an overarching tale about, say, xenophobia?

 

NT: I am not at all interested in stereotyping or de-stereotyping Africa. Let a story be a story first and foremost. Attempting to fight the politics of writing, such as stereotyping or de-stereotyping, may lead to didactic veins in a story, perhaps even killing the commitment to story one needs. What does this mean? It means that the political infusions that you speak about, as well as the afro-modernity you refer to, are simply products of the reality that I inhabit. My stories are set in Zimbabwe and South Africa, societies in which I have negotiated existence. I write, perhaps not what I see, in the literal sense of the word, but what I experience, in an emotional sense, an intellectual sense, a subconscious sense, what I may choose to experience for others through the page.

 

Zimbabwe—I will tell you now, as I have experienced it—has been a highly political society, with politics informing daily existence, particularly during the years of severe food and fuel shortages. Existence became politicized simply because of the extreme political imbalances that rocked the country, seeping into economic and social existence, remapping our interactions with one another. A neighbor was a neighbor on the street; in a mielie-meal queue he became an adversary.

 

What may help move Africa away from this “stereotype writing”?  One way is reading and reading widely. That certainly has opened up the dimensions of writing for me. For example, I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s two short story anthologies, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, and I was taken by her electrifying illumination of the mundane. Here, for example, one can learn that melodrama—with reference to Africa, things such as famine, war, political tension—need not necessarily fuel a story, but that mundane existence may be fueled by the emotional pull of a story, by the manipulation of language.

 

Now, does this mean that one cannot write about war, famine, or political tension? Certainly not. Allow the writer the freedom to write as he chooses; many are impassioned by such experiences and the rendering of such experiences cannot be dismissed as obsolete simply because so much has been written about them. They are relevant insofar as they continue to exist. As such, political tension may be a fresh angle for me, insofar as it is that it is my experience, what I choose to experience for others. The issue, I would say, is never really about the experience itself, about war or famine or hunger, but about our different comprehensions and internalizations and handling of such experience, and the differing geographies these experiences inhabit. To broadly dismiss a piece of writing as “another tale on hunger or war or famine” is to, sadly, miss the finer points of a tale, to miss the characterization, to miss the setting of a particular space, to miss the interaction of language with emotion. Let a story fail only because it misses what it aims to do.

 

The idea of stereotyping Africa in literature may actually lie not with the writer primarily, but with those critical halls that put a beam on a particular spectrum of writing. Must the writer now suffer for this?

 

 

EI: The writer has the freedom to write as she chooses, of that everyone agrees. But the African writer often faces a different accusation, which is that the freedom she expresses is misplaced, owing to a craving for Western praise, accreditation, prizes. It is a dangerous and preposterous accusation. But the imagination, as Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ  writes, cannot be moved by ideology, otherwise it gives the ideology a different form. Can you reinforce your opinion, speaking less of freedom, but more about the compulsiveness we often face when we want to tell a story?

 

NT: I speak of a freedom because that is precisely what it is. In our eagerness to de-stereotype the stereotype, we risk creating new stereotypes. I have already spoken about how primary interest needs to lie with the ingredients of the story and how they come together to do what they do.

 

Let us not be unfair by being dishonest in our honesty. Praise is a natural human desire. Writing motives are a tricky thing. Writing for prizes must be a difficult, sad—if not disappointing—thing because literature cannot be made precise like mathematics. But prizes themselves expose a writer and may elevate his career. You yourself say this: that “the art of writing fiction thrives on validation.”

 

But let us not be so condescending toward the writer; his creative process cannot just be a fickle thing—fickle motives alone may be cause for a fickle pen. I will say this: as a writer, I welcome the opportunity to better my craft, the opportunity to better my writing.

 

Let’s agree that the writer cannot exist, survive, and flourish merely upon fickle motives for his writing, because writing really is hard work and writing excellence requires, primarily and above all motives, that dedication and personal commitment to the creative process in and of itself. We may then be honest about the relationship between the African writer and the West. Let us not fault the West for her excellent writing schools, her rich literary industry, her well-cultivated readership. The significance of her literary prizes, how they have the power to, literarily, like a magic wand, transform a writer’s career. All of this has benefited the African writer: many of the African writers who flourish are based in the West. This is perhaps a reflection on our hostile literary industry in Africa, how it is difficult to survive as a writer in Africa. Yes?

 

But let us not be so sullen about the West in terms of the African writer, because opportunity is indeed a generous thing, trickling down, invariably, to the source: the African writer goes to the West, is afforded the opportunity and resources to hone his or her craft, produces some stunning work, wins some accolades, becomes a writing beacon. And then look—something like a Farafina Trust is born in Africa, something like a Kwani?, affording space, opportunities, and resources for the writer within Africa, remapping Africa’s interactions with her own literature. Nadine Gordimer refers to it in her compilation Telling Times, how the writer in Africa faces the extra burden of concerning herself with the quality of education, with cultivating readership.

 

 

EI: Let’s return to your earlier response on critics, and the story being a story first, before anything else. Have you received reviews you considered under-representative of what you tried to do? Do you think of those reviews? What do you suppose is a useful way to deal with this?

 

NT: There is no need to worry about dealing with reviews. Enjoy the positive reviews; they may well keep a young writer going in a hostile industry where rejection is the norm. You may pick up a useful element in the constructive ones. And well, the shattering ones, I don’t see the point in allowing yourself to become a shattered writer. It does nothing for your writing stamina. Keep your eye on your writing and how you may improve it. 

 

 

EI: And is it true for you what Hemingway said, “Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading”?

 

NT: Well, for a writer, I would say finding pleasure in your own writing is natural. Maybe there’s a dose of writer's vanity in it. Reading becomes an interactive process between the reader and the writing; hence, although the writer may judge the measure of his own work by his enjoyment of it—tricky thing as one is so close to one's own work—at some point he needs to apply ruthless honesty in the assessment of his material. We write so others may read, and if we agree on the significance of this, then we may agree on our responsibility to present our work in its best form. 

 

 

EI: It is easy to suspect that when you use words like “self-examination,” “self-consciousness,” and “self-depiction” you give in to a pleasure symptomatic to the writing process. Do writers spend too much time trying to understand who they are, their place in the world, and how best to express that relationship?

 

NT: Hmmm. Perhaps. In memoir writing, indeed one undergoes a direct, intimate, introspective and retrospective view of oneself. In fiction work, perhaps it does not matter so much. It is the jagged pieces of existence that make it interesting, and not the pieces that fit together.

 

 

EI: If we agree on this, then you may also agree that it is equally necessary for a writer to be burdened with divesting herself from a work? There are bits of yourself, it is proposed, in every story you have written; that your characters are not entirely fictitious.

 

NT: Not necessarily. But it is an element that is ever there; one cannot run away from it. It is an unnecessary burden, for it will invariably be there, this element of “oneself” at different levels.

 

 

EI: Your constant foreground is family life—the disorientation, mostly, that surrounds it. In this you are not alone; other contemporary African writers have explored the subject. What is this attraction to family? Is this reminiscent of clichéd references to “African family life” or “African traditional life,” or is there a striking modern connotation?

 

NT: African family life is a rich mosaic. Africanism has always rooted itself in community and has always put community above the individual; the family becomes a miniature view of community. African family life continues to flourish even in the face of modernization. The cliché lies only in the reference of the term; the experience is a relevant and fascinating phenomenon.

 

 

EI: How did you feel when you were shortlisted for the Intwasa Short Story Competition in 2009? And did you feel differently when you won the competition? And afterward did you say, “I am a writer now”? What did you say to yourself afterward?

 

NT: I was excited and green, clinging onto wispy strings to form something of a progression in my novice writing steps; it was super-cool. Winning was, of course, a nice thing. Afterward I looked at myself in the mirror, scratched my chin, nodded and said, “Yeah, we aren’t too bad, this thing called writing and me.”

 

 

EI: What difference do you strive for in your writing? Wit? Stylistic dissidence? Inventiveness? Or are you intent at striking a familiar chord in a reader’s heart, making a character look familiar to lived experience?

 

NT: I may look for something different in different pieces of writing. The fun lies in the experimentation. Difference cannot, for me, be a conscious thing; it becomes a futile thing. Rather, I simply seek to “utilize my writing voice,” that voice that is “me.”

 

 

EI: You’ve termed your genre “realist fiction”—what hat did you mean?

 

NT: By realist fiction I mean fiction based on the spaces we inhabit and our interaction with our environment.

 

 

EI: Hemingway said that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardness in first trying to make something that has not previously been made. Have you experienced awkwardness in any form, especially because you say you are not conscious of attempting a “difference”? Is this conception of an unavoidable awkwardness altogether misplaced?

 

NT: That is how we learn; like the first wobbly baby steps, we learn to trust our own feet by trying, stumbling, and at times falling. But there is that thing called writing personality.

 

 

EI: Having described writing as a “state”—even a “constant” one—will you have a lifelong career as a novelist, a storyteller? Are you often shaken by the suspicion that no one out there is listening, and that your talent will not necessarily contribute differently to an understanding of who we are?

 

NT: Self-doubt is a writer’s inseparable companion. When you stop doubting, you stop striving, stop growing, stop learning. Do not make self-doubt your closest counsel, though; it may well cripple you with its wicked whispers, its creeping laughter. Adopt determination, even a little dose of obsession once in a while, and let them fuel your pen.

 

It is useful to inhabit the inner state first—the private sphere of you and your story. Then, having written something, and wishing to share it with others, you may lay it bare for public inspection. You need to be, as a writer, your greatest critic and your greatest motivator, and you need to know when to interchange these roles. Having faced rejection, you may mope at the pain of it and swear never to write again; but after a while, you find you are at it, and you are enjoying it so much that not even the possibility of more rejection can derail you. You want to take this thing called writing and master it, and do it until you “have it.”

 

I enjoy writing. I get lost in it. Such enjoyment becomes addictive. Write; let the readers read.

 

 

EI: What do you find yourself doing when not writing? How does this affect your writing?

 

NT: Oh, I like to think I am a normal person. I do all those living things, those people things, those socializing things, those eating and sleeping things. Those reading things. Those must-go-to-the-grocery-store things. Those need-to-read-for-a-test things. Affect my writing? Oh, sometimes you see things and experience things as you go about these living things, and one day, boom! They are scribbled on paper. If writing is an obsession, let us at least agree that it is sweet.

 

 

 

Read More:

Anthologies/Print Journals:

'Crossroads', in Where To Now Anthology, amaBooks Publishers, 2011, Parthian Books, 2012

'The King and I' in A Life in Full and Other Stories, Caine Anthology, New Internationalist 2010

'In Bed with Ikeji' in Bed Book of Short Stories Anthology, Modjaji Books, 2010

'Big Pieces, Little Pieces' in StoryTime African Roar Anthology, 2010

Links to Online Works:

'You in Paradise' winning story of the Intwasa Short Story Competition (African Writing Online) 

'Waiting' (Munyori Literary Journal)

'Still Life' (Oracles d' Afrique) 

Interviews:

Reading 2010 - Wealth of Ideas 

Geosi Reads

Conversations with Writers 

Essays/Contributions/ Articles:

'My Visa Nightmare at the Nigerian Embassy' 

Review of Petina Gappah's 'An Elegy for Easterly' 

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma - Big Pieces, Little Pieces (reviewed by Damian Kelleher) 

Intwasa Competition Unveils Writing Talent (The Zimababwean, 2009) 

Chimamanda, Pamuk, My Choice always - Tshuma 

Anthologies/Print Journals:

'Crossroads', in Where To Now Anthology, amaBooks Publishers, 2011, Parthian Books, 2012

'The King and I' in A Life in Full and Other Stories, Caine Anthology, New Internationalist 2010

'In Bed with Ikeji' in Bed Book of Short Stories Anthology, Modjaji Books, 2010

'Big Pieces, Little Pieces' in StoryTime African Roar Anthology, 2010

Links to Online Works:

'You in Paradise' winning story of the Intwasa Short Story Competition (African Writing Online) - http://www.african-writing.com/eight/novuyotshuma.htm

'Waiting' (Munyori Literary Journal) - http://www.munyori.com/novuyorosatshuma.html

'Still Life' (Oracles d' Afrique) - http://en.oracles-afrique.com/2011/06/11/still-life/#comment-25

 Interviews:

Reading 2010 - Wealth of Ideas - http://vasigauke.blogspot.com/2010/12/reading-2010-novuyo-rosa-tshuma.h…

Geosi Reads - http://geosireads.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/in-an-interview-with-zimbabw…

Conversations with Writers - http://conversationswithwriters.blogspot.com/2011/09/interview-novuyo-r…

Essays/Contributions/ Articles:

'My Visa Nightmare at the Nigerian Embassy' - http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/ArtsandCulture/Books/5576661-147/…

Review of Petina Gappah's 'An Elegy for Easterly' - http://criticalliteraturereview.blogspot.com/2009/12/from-elegising-to-…

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma - Big Pieces, Little Pieces (reviewed by Damian Kelleher) - http://www.damiankelleher.com/drupal/review/novuyo-rosa-tshuma-big-piec…

Intwasa Competition Unveils Writing Talent (The Zimababwean, 2009) - http://www.thezimbabwean.co.uk/articles/25266

Chimamanda, Pamuk, My Choice always - Tshuma - http://allafrica.com/stories/201106061187.html

Follow Emmanuel on Twitter @emmaiduma

'The King and I' in A Life in Full and Other Stories, Caine Anthology, New Internationalist 2010

'In Bed with Ikeji' in Bed Book of Short Stories Anthology, Modjaji Books, 2010

'Big Pieces, Little Pieces' in StoryTime African Roar Anthology, 2010

Links to Online Works:

'You in Paradise' winning story of the Intwasa Short Story Competition (African Writing Online) - http://www.african-writing.com/eight/novuyotshuma.htm

'Waiting' (Munyori Literary Journal) - http://www.munyori.com/novuyorosatshuma.html

'Still Life' (Oracles d' Afrique) - http://en.oracles-afrique.com/2011/06/11/still-life/#comment-25

 Interviews:

Reading 2010 - Wealth of Ideas - http://vasigauke.blogspot.com/2010/12/reading-2010-novuyo-rosa-tshuma.h…

Geosi Reads - http://geosireads.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/in-an-interview-with-zimbabw…

Conversations with Writers - http://conversationswithwriters.blogspot.com/2011/09/interview-novuyo-r…

Essays/Contributions/ Articles:

'My Visa Nightmare at the Nigerian Embassy' - http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/ArtsandCulture/Books/5576661-147/…

Review of Petina Gappah's 'An Elegy for Easterly' - http://criticalliteraturereview.blogspot.com/2009/12/from-elegising-to-…

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma - Big Pieces, Little Pieces (reviewed by Damian Kelleher) - http://www.damiankelleher.com/drupal/review/novuyo-rosa-tshuma-big-piec…

Intwasa Competition Unveils Writing Talent (The Zimababwean, 2009) - http://www.thezimbabwean.co.uk/articles/25266

Chimamanda, Pamuk, My Choice always - Tshuma - http://allafrica.com/stories/201106061187.html

 

 

Gambit, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, Orhan Pamuk, South Africa, Zimbabwe