Outside, back in the bright sun obscured by a thin film of toxic brown haze, he paused on the pavement. Around him were men in suits carrying briefcases. Men from around the world. Businessmen, the only type of men still allowed freedom to come to the centre of the city like this. The apparat worn on a chain around his neck bleeped a warning that his visa-pass had one hour left. Up above drones flew watching, recording everything. The businessman walked past him as if he did not exist. He made his way to the ticketdrome, walking on the spotless streets, failing to avoid looking at the electronic advertisement boards that surrounded them.
In many ways the city was cleaner. It had water and electricity, but it'd lost its soul, or so his father had told him during the great sell-out. He was too young then to understand but now he did. Third World nations heavily under debt were sold off piecemeal to Corporations or voluntarily placed in caretakership as Zimbabwe was. They were the lucky ones. Some countries had to sell people to make up the difference that kept rising with the interest rates. The sign at the ticketdrome read:
:)The Natives are Happy and Prosperous (:
:) The Future Must Be Magnificent (:
—From "The Sale," published in AfroSF edited by Ivor Hartmann
Tendai Huchu is a name to be reckoned with not only in the world of science fiction.
Africa.com lists him as one of ten top African contemporary writers. Interestingly enough, three of the top ten writers—Tendai, Lauren Beukes, and Shadreck Chikoti—have notably written speculative fiction.
His story "The Intervention," published in the Asian journal The Open Road Review, is a strongly voiced story set in the UK among Zimbabweans on the day of the national elections. It was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize. You can read it here.
He has also published in literary journals like Wasafiri and in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
Like many new African writers, Tendai wants to be thought of as a storyteller, someone who reaches an audience. His first novel The Hairdresser of Harare was published in both Zimbabwe and the UK, a story about being a woman and making money in a glamorous industry, swimming alongside the regime, but then discovering your perfect boyfriend is having it off with another man, someone with dangerous government connections. You can get him hurt, badly.
Since the novel was published in 2010, there has been a minor vogue for hairdresser-set videos in Zimbabwe. You can see the pilot episode of the drama Salon and the comedy Salon.com here. The 2012 90-minute performance movie Big Announcement, starring Zimbabwean comic Carl Joshua Ncube, starts with a joke credit to "Hairdressers of Mbare Inc."
Tendai's second novel, The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician is a diaspora comedy of Zimbabweans living a sociable life in Scottish exile, unaware that one of their number is reporting back to his agency in Zimbabwe.
Tendai: "Alfonso's affiliation is to the country and his agency NOT MUGABE." The novel was, he says, "about microshifts in personality, differences about who you are in what circumstances. I thought it was almost plotless, but it turned out to have a very strong plot."
Tendai Huchu contributed "The Sale" to AfroSF, the first-published anthology of African speculative fiction, edited by Ivor Hartmann. The anthology established beyond doubt that African speculative fiction had arrived—that Africans did indeed write and read science fiction.
Tendai has also published a delightful fantasy in Interzone, "The Worshipful Company of Milliners," "Chikwambo" in African Monsters, edited by Margrét Helgadóttir, and "Ghostalker" in Electric Spec.
So to what extent is he a science fiction writer?
"As and when necessary as work demands it. Genre means little to most African writers. It wasn't what I was thinking about when I wrote, I just go with the story."
"The Sale" is about a man trying to protest the sale of the Great Zimbabwe to China and a new joint US-China colonialism that keeps the population drugged and tame—and decides who can reproduce. Security inserts hormonal anal suppostitories into men to feminize them.
"It is about neo-colonialism, the theft of artefacts, and about how neo-colonialism is being literally emasculating."
Tendai is long-haired, has progressive views and has written with sympathy about the situation of Zimbabwean homosexuals. Is he comfortable equating feminization with political ineffectiveness?
"I would probably have done it that way in any circumstances with a Shona main character as from a Shona cultural perspective, masculinity is power itself. I'm less happy with the alliance of China and the USA in the story, but the centre of power has always resided somewhere else."
His story for Interzone has a lovely central conceit. Rather feline creatures in Harare make a new hat whenever a writer has an idea, and deliver those hats … but only certain people can see them. It's a dream story, in which an atmosphere solidifies, a dream of Harare made worldwide, and of the helplessness of writers waiting for ideas. The muse is something gorgeous but sometimes unseeable, though gratuitously bestowed.
"The writer receives the hat and can reject it or work on it, but success is not guaranteed. The milliner's story goes forward, but the writer goes backward. The story he creates is far less perfect than the idea he was given. It's playing with the idea of being a writer, a metaphor for it."
"Chikwambo" from African Monsters "is about wanting to be wealthy so you go to a witch (varoyi) to make a creature who will work for you—but it needs to feed on your family's blood. The Chikwambo comes from Shona cosmology. It's a fetish of animal remains that feeds on your relatives. In the story, it's both human and animal, and goes rogue, devouring just anybody."
Another story, "Sea of Photons," is set at the end of the universe. Post-humans are trying to find a way out of this universe and into another. The speculation is that what we call dark matter is the effect of the multiverse on ours. An AI archivist wants information itself to survive. "Sea of Photons" can be read at Kasma Magazine online.
"My earliest SF goes way back to primary school, old American books, a lot Greek mythology, Men and Gods retold by Rex Warner, and a book of American legends that had native American tales and the story of John Henry. Back in those days, I didn't care for the author or the title; I just got it out of the high school library, read it and took it back. I remember Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan. There were lots of those choose your own adventure books, zooming around space. There was no new material in that library, it was all old stuff.
"Crime and Punishment made me want to be a writer. I went through a Russian phase. I loved The Devils by Dostoyevsky. My first attempt at a novel was a plagiarism of The Devils reset in Zimbabwe. The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician grew out of that first MS. I wrote it when I was 23.
"Right now I'm in a Paul Auster phase. I also really like Ben Lerner now. Really into Jim Thompson, a noir author. I used to hate American writers, didn't like what they wrote, but not now.
"Being a writer is an individual sport. I had some degree of awareness of African literature, but I only got involved with it once I was published. I like Tade Thompson's Making Wolf; it takes me back to golden age noir. I dig that. Zimbabwean writers I rate include Shimmer Chinodya (author of Harvest of Thorns), Charles Mungoshi (who writes in both Shona and English), and Yvonne Vera. I also really dig Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi."
Tendai wrote a short story impersonating the great Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera, "The Second Coming of Dambudzo Marechera" for onethrone.com.
I read Tendai's story as a satire on the hippie-black-consciousness style that has made Marechera the Jimi Hendrix of African letters. The story also has a reference to China Miéville, and if I'm not mistaken, to Miéville's The City and the City, using the same sense of cross-hatched realities to describe Harare. Tendai skewers Marechera's waywardness and pretensions, but for me, it was fun seeing Tendai writing with something of Marechera's wildness and freedom.
"I think on Marechera, my view is more that in the general public, he is more known for his wacky antics than the literature that he produced. What I am against is this foregrounding of the dodgy biography over the work that he produced, which, for me, is a worrying aspect of his legacy.
"I would avoid joining a movement or collective as I don't have any particular ideology. I want to be free to move around as I choose. People expect a certain consistency of content or point of view. Me, I'm completely against that. One of the things that motivates me is writng books that are very different from each other.
"I would love to be able to write Mills & Boon. Nora Roberts published over 100 romances. Literature is a house with many rooms. If I have the tools to write something, then I will. There are some things I'm holding off writing till I have the tools. There is an epic war novel I'd like to do, also a graphic novel."
Tendai lives in Scotland. When asked if he had considered living in England, he said that he would rather not, that he found Scotland a much more convivial nation.
He was born in Bindura in the 1980s, and came to the UK in 2002, "for opportunities. The economy in Zimbabwe had tanked and you have stuff here you don't in Zimbabwe. In 2002 you could fly over on tourist visa, then a student visa, then get a degree to work in the UK. The political structure is difficult now (May 2016), immigration is the issue; they are talking of leaving the EU because of it.
"I got a degree in Podiatry and lasted half a semester doing a degree in Mining Engineering because my Dad forced me to get a practical degree. I stumbled into literature. I didn't do it in high school after O levels; I never thought I would be the guy writing the books. This is what I love doing now. Will I always love doing it? I don't know.
"One of the problems here is representationalism. I am almost constantly asked to represent particular part or parts of the world. It matters more than the literature I generate.
"One of the difficulties is talking about African writing, when for most people, the ideal model is a Western mode. African markets are radically different. Ideally, I would write in my mother tongue, Shona. But I was educated in English. I only had Shona for one lesson a week in primary school. In high school, the only subject taught in Shona was Shona itself. No other subject is in Shona. Your thinking is in English, not Shona; it's what the system was designed for. There is only one journal that will take fiction in Shona, Munyori.
"When I was growing up, Radio 2 was the only Shona station. It had a programme that would tell stories about domestic issues. There was a lot of Shona music on radio, and on TV there was one traditional storyteller for kids. You didn't get Shona in the media, which functioned in English. The idea for any novelist in Shona was to get onto the school curriculum. Otherwise, who's going to buy it?"
The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation broadcasts some content in Shona. To live stream ZBC, click here. For an article on local-language radio in Zimbabwe by a South African scholar, click here.
"People called Hairdresser a bestseller in Zimbabwe but it sold 500 copies the first year there. You are lucky to sell 60 to 100 copies of a book. The commercial imperative, there are bills to pay, man. If it doesn't generate revenue, you can't do it. If no one buys it, no one reads it, what is the point?"
Tendai was one of the translators who worked on the Jalada language project discussed by Richard Oduor Oduku and Moses Kilolo in part one. For that project, Tendai translated an Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o story into Shona.
He recently had an interesting experience being paid by a German university to translate a Shona novel into English. "The people in the novel are speaking good, everyday, educated Shona. They weren't being exotic or colourful, so I translated what they were saying into the equivalent English. The publishers were very unhappy. They wanted the characters to talk pidgin and slang. Essentially they thought a well-spoken African language translates into something grotesque or unusual in English. That is to say Africans even in their own language are not fluent.
So what kind of things are available in Shona in Zimbabwe?
"There are comedians who do Shona video clips that are really popular. Sometimes they get other comic characters to work with them. They are three minutes long and they spread virally.
"Zimbabwe dancehall kids do interesting things with language. Killer T does a lot of crime fiction and noir in his songs. Both comedians and musicians use slang, new expressions, fresh and interesting. When it comes to Shona novels, thing are a lot more conservative. If you are aiming at a school market, they won't teach slang.
"It's cool to say I'm a novelist, but how many people read me? Hairdresser is thought of as a big popular 'woman's novel.' I didn't know it would create perceptions. I didn't go to literary festivals. I just bought books and consumed them and didn't know about the literary world. Would I be able to write the novel now? I would think twice about writing from the female point of view, with all the problems.
"You get stuff about 'can a man actually represent women, and should they?' Now I would certainly think again before I'd do it. You get people asking would a woman do this or that?
"Zimbabweans are interested in the depictions of Harare and daily life, not the gay stuff, which non-Zimbabweans fixate on. For me at the time, that was just the story. I am surprised that non-Zimbabwe people fixate on that aspect of the story. If I knew what I know now I might have hesitated to go down that route, because it then becomes not about the book itself. It becomes about the author, or the politics. The issues become far more important that the text itself.
"African writing is irrelevant as a label. But possibly publishers realized that other people project their perspectives onto you. I was just a guy writing on his own in his bedroom. But being an 'African writer' is the difference between you being involved in something or not, to talk at events or being interviewed. You get invited to regurgitate positions, never to talk about interesting stuff. African this, Africa that. Nothing else about your work is interesting. Your book is about issues, nothing literary.
"Recently I was invited to a festival to talk about Landscape in Fiction, and I was taken aback that it wasn't about Africa. Right now for me interesting stuff is form, structural stuff about how a novel works."
I asked Tendai if he had any thoughts about life in the diaspora.
Tendai: "I generally have no comments about 'being in the diaspora,' I find it unremarkable and I try to steer away from the usual cliché about how horrible it all is supposed to be—that is usually how these things are framed for the 'African.' The West, love it or hate it, is a pretty cool and exotic place to be: beautiful native women; uninterrupted flows of electricity, alcohol and drugs in abundance; work; money; cultural spaces, etc., etc. I have no profound thoughts about it—there is nothing special here."