Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What Tendai Huchu Can Teach Us

The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician is the second novel from Zimbabwean author Tendai Huchu. His first novel, The Hairdresser of Harare was a big success, but his new book is something all together different. 

It is set in Edinburgh Scotland and revolves around the lives of three Zimbabwean men trying to make a new life there as immigrants. The Magistrate is an older man who left his position in Zimbabwe as a respected magistrate to live in Scotland where his wife works as a nurse. At the beginning of the book he is unemployed, spending his days keeping their house clean and caring for their teenage daughter. Later he is forced to take a job as a temporary nursing assistant in a care home for the elderly. Both positions leave him feeling useless and lost. 

The Maestro works in a grocery store, at least at the beginning of the book, but then slowly he loses touch with reality. He stops going to work, deciding he wants to spend his time at home reading his books. But eventually even that is too much and he leaves his home and moves about as a homeless person in Edinburgh lost in his thoughts. 

The Mathematician is perhaps the most well-adjusted of the three, likely because he comes from a wealthy family that cushions his life in Scotland. He is working on his PhD in economics and spends most of his time with his girlfriend and his flat mates. 

The three storylines might work well alone, but are made more by being woven expertly into and through each other. The writing is beautiful, in places stunning. The descriptions of Edinburgh are from the pen of someone who loves that city and it can’t help but show through his words. There are many books about Africans in the diaspora, many books that appear similar after a while, but not this one. This one stands apart. 

Within the circle of African writers there is often the discussion about who do you write for. There is the feeling that the authors who are most successful in Europe and the United States are authors who write books not well suited to people in their home countries and the reverse-  books that are accepted in their home countries are often not the type wanted by overseas readers and publishers. This discussion and the resulting angst it causes African writers is not to be taken lightly. Is it okay to write a book for overseas eyes that discounts the local readers? And why must these issues weigh heavier on African writers? 

This book gets the balance spot on in my opinion. Huchu’s Magistrate has a love for Zimbabwean music and musicians. The writer does not stop and explain what would be readily known by Zimbabwean readers, insulting their intelligence along the way. He uses Shona freely throughout the novel, but does not weigh the narrative down with clunky explanations. He seamlessly integrates these aspects of his character and plot into the story with no apologies. The foreign reader will find their way, just as the Zimbabwean reader will navigate the unknown landmarks of Edinburgh. There is a respect for all readers here that I think is the way that it should be. Huchu stands his ground in this debate. He will write as he wants and I beg African writers to learn from him and do the same. 

The other thing that I appreciate about The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician is that it is published by the independent Zimbabwean based ‘ama Books. Huchu’s first book was critically acclaimed and translated into many languages, published all over the world. He easily might have been grabbed up by overseas publishers, but what that does is make them stronger at the expense of publishers on the continent. Of course, many publishers on the continent do not approach the publishing business with a global eye and concentrate on a very limited parochial point-of-view that makes authors unwilling to stick with them as their careers take off since it becomes difficult to make a proper living.  

Some big name authors can be published overseas but then withhold rights in certain areas around the continent to allow local publishers to distribute the book. This can assist the local publishing house. 

But that is not what’s happening here. ‘ama Books published this book. Now they will be the ones selling the rights to foreign publishers to distribute the book in those countries. This is how local publishers grow as trade publishers and begin to play real roles in the global industry. ‘ama Books and Huchu must be congratulated for this. They both took risks. Again they are showing us the new way of doing business in this harsh publishing game on the continent. 

(This column first appeared in the 3 July, 2015 issue of Mmegi in my column It's All Write)


Joyful said...

Great review. It gives me insight into the challenges of African writers living in the "west". Perhaps I can get my hands on this book.

Lauri said...

Joyful you'd be surprised, it's often more difficult for me to get books from Zimbabwe living in Botswana than it is for someone in UK. Luckily this book is available as an ebook, so if you have a Kindle you should be able to find it.

Joyful said...

Yes, after reading your review I managed to get a Kindle copy on Amazon. I don't have a Kindle, only a Kobo (Canadian ereader) but no worries because Amazon has a free app one can download for Kindle books. Now I just have to make time to read at my computer. I still prefer paper books :-)