For Books’ Sake Talks To: Novuyu Rosa Tshuma

14th Nov 2012


Her novella, Shadows, will be out as a new edition with Kwela Press in South Africa in early 2013.

FBS: Your début novella, Shadows, is set in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and details a very personal story against a backdrop of political upheaval. How do you think the two themes impact one another?

NRT: The political in sensitive landscapes such as Zimbabwe tends to interfere with the business of living. Invariably it’s tied to the economic and social elements, so that you wake up one day to find there is no food in the shops.

If you’re a civil servant, you discover that your monthly salary can only buy two kilograms of chicken, you pray not to get sick because the public hospitals have a shortage of medicine and the basic things, which in a society such as South Africa, for example, one may take for granted, are unavailable.

It also has its moments of humour, perhaps caustic in nature: laughter during squabbles in mealie-meal queues, for example. I wanted to capture this without necessarily making it the foreground, but articulating the heightened impact of its interference with everyday living, and how it comes to inform some of the choices the characters make.

FBS: Your choice of a male protagonist is an interesting one for a female author. How did you go about choosing and developing Mpho as your lead character? As a woman, did you have any difficulty writing in a male voice?

NRT: I needed a character who could best negotiate the setting, and be rebellious, with the greatest authenticity. I found that Mpho could best do this.

The setting I chose, a township setting with a character of a rebellious disposition, has a patriarchal nature. I could not use a rebellious female voice without, naturally, having to address this. This was not what I needed this particular story to reflect.

In terms of writing in the male voice: I think gender roles as understood in terms of the mental constitute of a character, particularly in this day and age where we have more recognised aspects of individuality, have become largely a social construct. So, I did not have trouble writing in Mpho in the first person in terms of his mental construct, because I took him to be first and foremost an individual.

The manipulation of character comes into play in terms of the vessel that houses the voice; in this sense, in a bid to make the character blend in believably with his environment, I would have to stop and think: how would he express his anger as a boiling male in a patriarchal society with predetermined triggers for his masculinity?

And so, for example, in an instance of anger, he strikes Nomsa after she verbally insults him, because in his environment, this is a common masculine response to anger.

FBS: Your book pulls no punches when it comes to difficult issues like abuse, HIV/AIDS and the difficulties facing Zimbabwe’s democracy. Many other authors would choose to encase similar issues in humour or bury them under mountains of metaphors to make them more palatable for readers. Did you feel that raising these issues directly would be more effective or was there another rationale behind your approach to the topics?

NRT: I think stories, ultimately, are about people and not issues. So, in capturing this in sensitive landscapes, where these things interfere with basic acts of living, and come to affect the basic choices we make, the quest is for a balance between the ‘truth of it’, which is not to run away from the things that happened, and also the humanity of it, which is to say that these things that happened are not bigger than the people to whom they were happening.

So, for instance, it is not AIDs I write about, but Mpho’s mother: the ageing and spirited HIV positive prostitute, who still clutches at illusions of prostitution grandeur, yearns for love, and is desperate to hold on to life because she is afraid of death. I think she has her satiric moments.

And then of course, there are the issues facing Zimbabwe’s democracy; the contention of its packaging becomes the source of conflict and violence; this heightened, crazy thing which everybody is squabbling about, which you see in the queues, in the forex deals, the fuel sold in two litre bottles by the corner.

So this becomes the quilt upon which the tale is woven, and I wanted to translate this conflict, which everybody is wearing on their faces, carelessly dressing up with their lips, into something that can be seen walking down the street trying to cobble an identity.

FBS: You cover some distinctly menacing issues impacting today’s Zimbabwe, most notably the notorious Central Intelligence Organisation, who are known for their dislike of literature deemed critical of the ruling party. When you were writing Shadows, did you have any concerns about its reception in Zimbabwe, and what it would mean for your personal safety?

NRT: A little; but the idea was too delicious not to weave for the telling. In sewing this story together, I was asking myself, how can you as a writer writing about this era in your country, trying to capture the atmosphere the humanity, ignore this aspect?

Ultimately, you do not want to whittle down the story to a political wrestling match, it is about people, but you want to feel that you are being honest about it.

The scene re the CIO becomes for me the case of two simultaneous masks; one perhaps rather subtle, woven in as a dangling string blending in – a case of searching for the humanity in brutality and tingeing the brutality in a perceived humanity – it is no coincidence that the CIO officer who interrogates Mpho is called Sam.

FBS: You’re active on social media – you even did a virtual launch of Shadows via Skype. What was the best and worst of the virtual launch? In what ways do you feel social media has impacted your writing and, in turn, the wider literary world?

NRT: I enjoyed interacting with people from different parts of the world; the access was an enjoyable opportunity and an interesting experimentation re the uses of technology.

Challenges included technicalities; Skype does not fare well re a large group conversation and, of course, some of the intimacy is lost as there are no face-to-face interactions.

Social media has had a large impact on my writing; it has made the world invariably smaller, so that geographical location need not be a barrier to communication, and enabling access to a wide and varied range of people.

This fosters platforms for ideas exchange, debate and an appreciation of different ideologies and different lives. This impact can be translated to the larger literary world.

FBS: In 2009, you won the Intwasa Short Story Competition and, to date, most of your work has been short stories. What attracted you to the arguably more difficult short format, rather than the traditional novel? What made you decide to write a longer story such as Shadows?

NRT: The short story was my initial exposure to this thing called ‘African Writing’, and so I tried my hand at it. Shadows grew long out of a persistent story that refused to end.

FBS: In the acknowledgments of your book, you thank 2011 Caine Prize Winner NoViolet Bulawayo, otherwise known as Elizabeth Tshele and on your blog you speak a lot about your father, the late and respected lawyer, intellectual and author, Dr Lawrence Tshuma. In what way have these two people inspired your writing? Are there any others who you count as important literary or personal influences?

NRT: NoViolet Bulawayo has had a generous mentor-spirit; among many things, it has been super interacting with one who is so completely a writer, because you also learn, as a young fumbling writer in an environment that views being a writer as an eccentric thing, not to be apologetic about it.

My father becomes a more complicated matter; it is more a search for the self, the self both as a person and as a writer, and taking great delight in the many similarities.

FBS: By invitation, you attended some important writing workshops. Is it essential for new authors to attend workshops? What is the best writing advice you gained from a workshop? What should authors who, because of financial or distance constraints, are unable to attend writing workshops do to learn the craft of writing instead?

NRT: I think any opportunity to write and improve craft is a valuable opportunity. The best lesson from a writing workshop for me was in the art of assessing and using criticism and feedback during the draft stage of a work. I also got to be work-shopped by wonderful authors whose work I had read and admired, and that is an experience that impacted me.

I’d advise authors who would like to improve craft to read extensively and relentlessly – workshops are valuable, but they are usually just for several days, and compliment, not make up, one’s writing life; nothing beats reading in improving the craft of writing.

FBS: You’re a creative writer with a bright future ahead of you. Why study a B.Com in Economics rather than a degree in the creative arts or the humanities?

NRT: I have no good reason as to why I studied a Bcom. There was just so much pressure, it was well-meaning I know, but it was terrible, and it led to an internal struggle of whether or not who I am and my inclinations, can be an acceptable thing.

It would not have been my first choice degree; however, we are working with what we have and attempting to help it blend in with the path we are taking.

FBS: Now that you are based in Johannesburg, South Africa, do you find your subject matter changing or is your focus still on your home country?

NRT: South Africa is a simmering and fascinating country; the atmosphere is electric. As an immigrant, I’m fascinated about what ‘South African-ness’ really is.

I meet people who say, ‘I am from Nigeria, but we moved to South Africa when I was three’, people who therefore by default carry South African Identities, both as a document and as a level of cultural assimilation, but do not fall within the formally defined roles of ‘South African-ness’.

And then of course, there is this ‘close’ relationship between South Africa and Zimbabwe. It’s estimated that there are between three to eight million Zimbabweans living here. So, every holiday the South Africa-Zimbabwe border is clogged like a bloated drain with people bursting to get home. And then they come back.

So there is this umbilical cord, forced into creation by adverse means. So that is what is preoccupying me now.

FBS: What do you have lined up next?

NRT: A fiction narrative about that odd soul on whom has been thrust that rag-tag name ‘immigrant’, silhouetted against the dazzling palette that is South Africa.

(Author photo by Extra-BlessingsKuchera)