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Jeanne-Marie Jackson interviews Tendai Huchu on GBAS


Welcome to Cocktail Hour at The Good Book Appreciation Society. Jeanne-Marie Jackson will be chatting to Tendai Huchu about his highly acclaimed novel; The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician.

Here is an excerpt of this interview, to read the whole thing join The Good Book Appreciation Society by friending Bea Reader on Facebook, or email

Jeanne-Marie Jackson Hi everyone, thanks for joining us. And – mhoro munyori – waswera sei kuEdinburgh? First, let me note that I’ll be using “MMM” to refer to Tendai’s novel more quickly. I also want to start off with a quick plot summary here for anyone who may not have the novel ready to hand. The Maestro, The Magistrate, and the Mathematician is essentially an interweaving of three different Zimbabwean diaspora novellas across the shared terrain of Edinburgh. The Magistrate is, well, a (former) Magistrate; the Maestro is a solitary, serious reader who also works at a grocery store; and the Mathematician is a grad student in economics. The different plotlines don’t cross, at least for the most part, but I’ll stop there at risk of offering too many spoilers (which I’m sure I’ll end up fumbling into anyway).

Tendai Huchu Mhoro JM, taswera maswerawo. Thank you guys for having me here.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson And now for my first question! Tendai’s first novel, as many of you know, took place entirely in Harare. It is very much grounded in ZANU-PF politics and “new Zimbabwean” wealth. MMM, in contrast, takes place completely in the UK, and the only glimpses of life in Zimbabwe are afforded through phone calls, Skype, etc. So I’d like Tendai to speak a bit to the different challenges of depicting Edinburgh vs the challenges of depicting contemporary Harare. It seems too simple just to say that MMM is a “diaspora novel,” without unpacking what that means, especially given its epigraph from Hugh MacDiarmand’s lovely and understated poem ‘Scotland.’

Jeanne-Marie Jackson While Tendai is typing, here’s the first line of ‘Scotland’ for people who don’t know it: “It requires great love of it deeply to read / The configuration of a land…”

Tendai Huchu I suppose the thing I find about most of my writing is it’s set in cities and urban environments, which give you quite a lot to material. I think writing about the countryside is so much more difficult, unless one is well embedded into that culture and way of life.

Tendai Huchu But Edinburgh and Harare are two very different cities, if I can just go on for a bit longer…

Jeanne-Marie Jackson By all means! smile emoticon

Tendai Huchu I sort of try to have the city as a strong background character in its own right, and each city has a vibe of its own, a personality, if I may call it that. Edinburgh is a small city, lower tempo, much slower than Harare. But I think you find that as you write, you just play by ear and go with how you feel about each space and what you think, rather where you think the soul of the place lies.
Please tell me that makes some sense.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson Of course it does. And it seems that on that score, MMM is part of a larger momentum toward depicting the “global” city, instead of focusing on the characters who inhabit it as the primary point of exploration (which isn’t to say you don’t have characters, of course). I’m thinking of Zadie Smith’s NW, Teju Cole’s Open City, a lot of Ivan Vladislavic’s work on Joburg, etc.
One thing that occurs to me here is that moving from Harare to Edinburgh is also a way for you to emphasize “downward mobility,” as opposed to the novel’s traditional domain of upward mobility.
By that I mean that novels have focused mainly on how characters’ develop and better themselves to move through an increasingly stable world: the Bildungsroman in broad strokes, but also in contemporary African lit in particular. Think about Chris Abani, Adichie, or Nervous Conditions in a Zimbabwean context.

Your characters in MMM, though, are former officials and highly educated people who end up working low-wage jobs at nursing homes and grocery stores. So my question for you is: how does this downward mobility figure into the way you actually structure the book? What’s the correspondence of social reality, here, to form?

Tendai Huchu I envisioned the novel as a book of illusions. It is kinda hard to get stuck in without spoilers, but here goes. The title of the novel itself is a misnomer. It is presented as a literary novel but it is actually a genre novel of a very specific kind, The reader will find that though the narrators of all three novellas are reliable, they are still being lied to. So in that sense, looking at the “downward mobility” thing, I suppose most of the novels I read about diasporas are about folks on a sort of upward trajectory and I kind of wanted to go in the opposite direction to those narratives.
The question of form is a little trickier.

The final structure and language in the text were because of the failure of my first drafts of the damn thing which envisioned a more integrated, conventional narrative. When that didn’t work, I riffed off Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and decided to have the three characters in the same city, but inhabiting distinct universes.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson It’s a very revealing failure, don’t you think? The book ends up, as far as I’m concerned, even more reflective of contemporary discontinuity and global mediation than do a lot of more fluid, or even “Afropolitan” novels in which characters seem to glide across oceans and skies with ease.

to read the rest of the interview, join The Good Book Appreciation Society by friending Bea Reader on Facebook, or email

Jeanne-Marie Jackson is an Assistant Professor of English at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale, and also works in Russian, Afrikaans, and Shona. Her first academic book is South African Literature’s Russian Soul: Narrative Forms of Global Isolation (Bloomsbury 2015). She’s now researching a book on Zimbabwean intellectual culture, and also writes for outlets like n+1, Africa in Words, Bookslut, and The Literary Review.”

And Tendai Huchu’s first novel The Hairdresser of Harare was released in 2010 to critical acclaim, and has been translated into German, French, Italian and Spanish. His multi-genre short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the Manchester Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Interzone, Shattered Prism, AfroSF, Wasafiri, Warscapes, the Africa Report and elsewhere. He is a creative writing PhD student at Manchester University. Between projects, he translates fiction between the Shona and English languages. His new novel is The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician. Find him @TendaiHuchu or on .

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