Novuyo Rosa Tshuma grew up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and has lived in South Africa and the USA. In 2009, she won the Yvonne Vera Award for Short Fiction. Her book, Shadows, was awarded the 2014 Herman Charles Bosman Prize for the best literary work in English. Her short story, Telepresence, was published in GAMBIT: Newer African Writing, an anthology by The Mantle Books. Novuyo is currently at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Here is her interview with African Book Reviews . . .
ABR: What inspires your writing?
TSHUMA: A variety of things; life, ideas, people, spaces, lies, truths, truthful lies, fictional truths, perhaps a little compulsive graphomania . . .
ABR: Do modern African writers have a duty to fill in the spaces omitted, under-written or misrepresented by Western media? Or is the African writer’s duty solely to represent his/her work as a manifestation of his/herself and not society?
TSHUMA: I don’t know who created this duty. The moment I hear ‘duty’ and ‘writer’ in the same sentence, I become hostile. To impose duties on a writer that she has not imposed on herself is to invite her to shackle herself, her art, her creativity.
I have also developed some aversion to the terms ‘Africa’ and ‘West’; to me they are convenient ways of dehumanising, and therefore putting distance between people and compassion, utilising the ‘faceless’.
They to pit people against one another instead of the systems that oppress us all; they are about systems and less about people, about power, its consolidation, or its acquisition.
And writing is exactly the opposite of that, isn’t it? It is about discovering the humanity in people, crying or laughing with a character, seeing them in all their beauty and ugliness, or understanding their humanness even in the most socially strenuous circumstances.
But, for the sake of ideological and political argument, let us go with these two terms for a moment.
I now find Africa’s obsession with the West to be frankly cumbersome, less a positive self-realisation by Africa of itself than a negative space of constant negations, like a bottomless hole that keeps emptying itself.
I am more interested in how Africa can independently relate to literature, irrespective of its origins, give weight to its own interactions and interpretations of the world in and of itself, without the West as a constant foil or a necessitated negative other.
And then, there is the question of how to do this; whose history, where, how much of the visceral inner conflicts to include? There is constant emptying but not enough filling-up. And empty holes quickly fill up with whatever winking debris may be borne by the wind.
This cannot become a political tool that the writer is expected to ‘represent’; writers represent nothing but life, messy-life, complicated-life, with no patriotism to any party save for their writing and their craft.
If a writer follows her natural sway, what she reads, what she grows up reading, what she sees around her, what her eye loves, what her pen inclines towards naturally, that is to say, the freedom that comes particularly when one is a child, before one is cursed with ‘knowing’ and those boxes that say ‘do this and not that, no you are an African writer therefore, here is your cross’, there would be no need for classifications, for encumbering something as freeing, dynamic and imaginative as writing with all these politics.
Frankly, if we had strong inter-ties within the continent, robust systems, institutions, inter-economic relations, inter-literary relations, there would be no need to be so obsessed with the West. To me, this obsession with the West is more a reflection of the other side of the coin, what is happening on the continent.
So, we cannot cry for independence and yet long so much for the nod of approval from the West.
We need our own acceptance, our own approval, a positive, freeing thing, not a negative, accusatory, reactionary thing. To me, it is therefore not about the art, about the writing.
It seems to me to be much more political, more an issue of power and access to power, less about the quality of writing, about the nuance in the African writer’s art.
In this sense, I am almost tempted to say the term ‘Africa’ is a fallacy, there is very little or no unity, Zimbabwe or South Africa as ‘African’ spaces would sooner be more concerned with the West’s representation or opinions of them than say with those of Namibia or Libya, fellow ‘African’ countries.
Because the work has not been done. In this sense, for me, ‘African’ writer is a political term rather than an artistic one, or even an accurate one, one that I am fine with so long as it does not seek to define, condemn, or prescribe what I may and may not write; in which case I’d sooner be done away with it, and seek other, liberating forms of reinvention.
ABR: A theme in your story in Gambit, Telepresence, is the disconnect between digital relationships and physical ones. Could you talk about this? Is it becoming harder to effectively translate who we are across a screen? Or perhaps, is the problem that it’s getting much easier to do that, than to do so in person?
TSHUMA: I don’t think it is more a case of it becoming harder, rather than it is more of a transition into a virtual age where the nature and the way we interact has changed. Facebook started when, in 2004, Twitter in 2006. For those born post this, this form of interaction is normal, yes, for those born before, it may take a bit of habitual, conceptual and, for all of us on a biological level, evolutionary adjustment.
ABR: What do you think the future of Zimbabwean writing will be? What ideally do you want it to be?
TSHUMA: I think the future of Zimbabwean writing is bright. People are writing out there, I believe, there are so many different and dynamic stories to tell, and many eager, talented writers.
ABR: Do you have any favourite African novelists or writers? And have any influenced your works?
TSHUMA: I believe that most of what I have read, particularly those works that are to me memorable and that I go back to over and over again, have influenced me as a writer somehow, and more importantly, as a human being.
I have spent the last year delighting over Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust, which is unlike anything I have ever read before, delightful, inventive, and just gorgeous.
Songeziwe Mahlangu’s Penumbra is a great book, lovely read, enjoyable. NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names has this distinct Ndebele sensibility and aesthetic that blew me away.
I am currently reading Tendai Huchu’s The Magistrate, the Maestro and the Mathematician and EC Osondu’s This House is Not For Sale.
Some of my favourite books are not by African novelists; 10:04 by Ben Lerner, Waterland by Graham Swift, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, Shame by Salman Rushdie, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil.
They all expand my experience of humanity.
ABR: Are you working on new projects, could you talk about them?
TSHUMA: I am working on something, I am a superstitious writer so I cannot talk about it; if I do, I shall be struck by lightning before the day’s end.