T. L. Huchu is a writer whose short fiction has appeared in publications such as Lightspeed, Interzone, AfroSF and elsewhere. He is the winner of a Nommo Award for African SF/F, and has been shortlisted for the Caine Prize and the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire. Between projects, he translates fiction from Shona into English and the reverse. The Library of the Dead is the first in his “Edinburgh Nights series.”
You live in Edinburgh, Scotland. How far did this geographical reality influence the setting of your latest work, The Library of the Dead?
The setting is an integral component, not only in terms of the geographic coordinates, but also the culture, language and history depicted within the text. You could pretty much have a version of the same plot and characters set anywhere else in the world, but the cost would be stripping out many of the vital elements that are specific to Edinburgh and no place else. That alone would fundamentally alter the texture of the narrative, so you’d end up with something completely different even though you set off under, roughly, the same sort of preconditions.
The Library of the Dead (or LotD), going by its stylistic texture, seems to be something of a more modernist, Diasporic version of Sello Duiker’s The Hidden Star, and perhaps with a blend of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude. Does the work owe any debt to any previously published magical realism texts?
I suppose it feels like that to some extent due to the very casual way elements of the supernatural are integrated into and accepted by the society depicted in the text. But magical realism isn’t particularly an area of interest for me. LotD borrows a lot from urban fantasy, the paranormal, genre thriller, mystery, and a sprinkling of horror thrown in the mix. The reader engages with the work using whatever frame of reference appeals more to their taste, so I am not too surprised if others see things in there which I didn’t have in my schema while crafting the novel.
Stephanie Cohen-Perez in her review of The Library of the Dead, qualified your work as, “a kaleidoscopic adventure that melds the phantasmagoric with the mundane.” What do you have to say of this?
That is a very interesting and generous take, one any writer would embrace. My approach when I was worldbuilding was to think very seriously about what our world would look like if magic was thrown in the mix. My conclusion was that it wouldn’t be a big deal; we already have multiple, differing systems, processes and ideologies existing simultaneously, adding something else wouldn’t fundamentally alter our work. For example, we have radio, TV, the Internet, existing alongside theatre, spoken word and other more “traditional” arts; we also have great scientific developments existing alongside ancient religions. In my home country of Zimbabwe, you have people living in very modern houses with electric power and indoor plumbing in the cities, but drive 20-30 kilometres out into the rural areas, and you see other people who live in mud huts. So I thought if magic exists, the one guaranteed thing that would happen is we would monetize it, because everything is turned into a commercial venture in our capitalist system. I suspect this is the sort of thing Cohen-Perez alludes to with more succinctness than I am capable of.
In a 2016 interview with Anselm Ngutsav, you mentioned that speculative fiction seemed to be one of the most interesting genres in today’s African literature. You also predicted a “new African genre.” That was five years ago. What would you say now about that prediction?
Don’t you just love it when your own words come back to bite you in the arse? My prediction is, as of today, unfulfilled because all you have is African takes and/or variations on pre-existing genres. This is not a bad thing. It’s perfectly legitimate to work with these forms; in fact, one can still come up with stuff that’s new, original, even insightful. But I haven’t yet seen anything that breaks the mold of what has already been available.
Today, queerness is becoming the norm in African art, with many queer voices coming up and gaining good success. Akwaeke Emezi is a point to note here with their novel, The Death of Vivek Oji. Your 2010 novel, The Hairdresser of Harare, a fantastic book in my opinion, explores gay themes. What do you have to say of this trend?
We have to be careful here when we use the word “trend,” because in today’s climate I’m certain there are folks out there who will take offense in its usage in this particular context. Good faith interpretations are in short supply, but I understand what you are talking about here. Thank you for your kind words on my novel. If literature is supposed to be a reflection of people and their societies, then it’s a no-brainer that LGBTQIA members of those societies are depicted in art. I think the reason you are seeing more of this representation is because of really difficult, meaningful work that’s been done over the years to nudge the publishing industry in this direction. The success of these works critically and commercially is also an indication that there was suppressed demand. I think our art, in its drive to understand the human condition, is richer for it.
The Library of the Dead can be termed “Diasporic fiction.” Perhaps that could even be an answer to your 2016 prophecy of the emerging “new African genre.” Many African Writers, like you, are emigrating from their homes in Africa, to Europe and America. You moved from Zimbabwe to Edinburgh. Do you feel emigration is an inevitable process for the African writer?
Diasporic fiction has a long history, and a lot of contemporary African works fit into this mold, and there’s a strong cross-pollination there with what’s been termed the “global novel.” I don’t quite think it qualifies as a new genre entirely, but one can say there are a number of novels fitting this mold that have enjoyed visibility. Emigration from the continent happens for a number of reasons, but I sincerely doubt the production of literature is a key driver. One must also realise that there are a number of important, highly regarded authors still living and working in Africa, and the catalogues of independent publishers on the continent like Cassava Republic, Farafina, Ouida, Weaver Press, amaBooks, etc., are reflective of this. There are undeniable perks to living and writing in the west: better access to books and material resources that aid writing, courses, networking opportunities and, of course, a much larger and wealthier publishing industry. This doesn’t mean that writers abroad are necessarily better than those on the continent, but it does mean they/we have an outsized visibility. I feel this is even more of a reason to support and buy books from local publishers who are producing quality works and operating in a more constrained economy.
What do you think could be the “mission” and purpose of the emigrating African writer? Do they owe us any continental loyalty in their art?
I suspect within the small community that is interested in “African literature” there might be an outsized estimation of its reach and/or influence. The vast majority of my friends are not readers, and some of the debates, controversies, etc. that pop up in the literary scene don’t even register with them. That’s the reality. “African writers” are also very diverse, with a number rejecting that label entirely, so to even attempt to corral them into a single mission or purpose is impossible. There are things that matter dearly to Zimbabweans that are of zero relevance to Nigerians, and split that by 54 countries and innumerable ethnic groups, and you get the picture. I am very anxious about being constrained by an ideological framework. I don’t consciously try to expound any -ism, and I certainly don’t feel I owe an entire continent loyalty — the idea itself is ridiculous. My job is to write and I will attract a certain number of readers that are into my thing — those who aren’t into it are not short of alternative options. And so it should be.
How was growing up in Zimbabwe like in the early years of the 80s? How did your childhood influence your writing?
This is a topic that could fill several volumes of memoir, and I still wouldn’t exhaust it. The key influence my childhood had on my writing and my interest in literature in general is that my parents sent me to good schools with well-stocked libraries, and so I was able to dream and get lost in the pages of books. I recall how in primary school my favourite book was “Men and Gods” by Rex Warner, a fabulous collection of Greek mythology which I borrowed again and again. Fast forward to 2021, my novel LotD has numerous allusions to these myths — they are part of my DNA now. The key foundation for any future writer is access to books, and this is why I think every school should have a good library.
Generally, how do you see African literature today?
I’m glad I live at a time when it is impossible to have any meaningful overview of African literature because so much work is being produced, one can’t keep up. There’s an eclectic mix of writers, at different stages of their careers, working across a range of genres. That can only be salubrious, and I hope we get even more!
What writer has been your biggest motivation?
Asides writing, you’re also a podiatrist and translator, too. What do you think of the process of translation, the flow and switch from one linguistic form to another? Does a translation ever remain the same?
A work in translation is a work of art in its own right. If you look at classic literature, you will often find several editions all by different translators, and each has its own aesthetic. No two translators working on the same text can come up with something identical. It is a game of compromise, so for example, one might have to swap lyricism for exactitude in meaning, that kind of thing. It’s a real challenge, highly stimulating work, and I wish I could do more work translating between the Shona and English languages, but the reality is it’s hard to get gigs, and when you do, they are often poorly paid.
If you had not been an artist or podiatrist, what would have come naturally for you to fall on?
I honestly don’t know.
In a 2016 interview with Nana Fredua-Agyeman, you said that, “…the future of the book industry (in Africa) is intimately linked to the future of the general economy.” What really, then, do you point out as the biggest bane in publishing in Africa today?
A thriving economy with a large middle-class means you have people with disposable income and enough leisure time to engage with art. For example, when I was unemployed, living in Zimbabwe, I couldn’t afford to buy books, but now, because I have the means, I spend a good amount of money buying them. I am sure this situation is true of a lot of book lovers in Zimbabwe today. I’ve seen so many articles and listened to many talks about the state of publishing in Africa, but often this issue is not addressed. So literary folk will moan about how dreadful it is that the public don’t buy books, etc., but seldom do you get any mention of how this is tied to the state of the general economy. Go on social media today, key in any popular African novel, and you will come across young people offering or soliciting a “soft copy” — that is, a pirate digital edition they can download and read on their mobile or computer. I am sure a sizable number of these would like to purchase a legal copy but are unable to. Put money in their pockets, and the narrative changes.
Asides prose fiction, would you be interested in experimenting around drama, or perhaps publish a poetry collection?
I already move across different genres in my fiction, working in the novel and short form. It takes time to master these things, and while I would dearly love to try working in the different media you suggest, I recognise that practitioners in those areas often take years to become good enough to work in them, and this is a commitment I can’t make at this stage in my career.
With the likes of Tsitsi Dangarembga, NoViolet Bulawayo, Brian Chikwava, Petina Gappah, amongst others, how would you rate the ascendancy of Zimbabwean literature today?
I think for a small country with a depressed economy, Zimbabwe punches above its weight when we speak of literary output. The writers you mention are magnificent, and they are just the tip of the iceberg. Any reader interested in contemporary Zimbabwean letters is spoilt for choice.
What book are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently reading Jeanne-Marie Jackson’s “The African Novel of Ideas,” an academic text which, if I am understanding it correctly, posits that sociological or anthropological readings of African literature, while legitimate, often miss the thread of novels purely interested in, well, “ideas.” Jackson is a comparative literature scholar and a Russianist, and so I am not always able to keep up with the theoretical frameworks she uses in dissecting different works, but, from what I am able to comprehend within the text, it is fascinating to see African literature dissected via a lens generally reserved for serious Europe literatures.