Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Good Book Appreciation Society

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Zimbabwe’ Category

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 .

» read article

Jeanne-Marie Jackson interviews Petina Gappah on GBAS


Welcome to Cocktail Hour at The Good Book Appreciation Society, today at 5pm, Jeanne-Marie Jackson spent an hour interviewing Petina Gappah on her highly anticipated novel, The Book of Memory. Here’s an excerpt of that interview:

[To join The Good Book Appreciation society, simply friend Bea Reader on Facebook, or email]

Jeanne-Marie Jackson: Hi Petina, nice to “see” you here. (And I don’t plan to grill you, don’t worry.) Since I know some people haven’t had a chance to read the novel yet, I’ll try to avoid plot spoilers as nimbly as I can. But, let me offer just a bit of background to make sure our conversation is intelligible: the theme of memory that the title of your novel announces refers to both the narrator, whose name is Memory, and to the contents of her narration. She is trying to piece her life story together from her present-day imprisonment at Chikurubi, a maximum security prison in Harare where she waits on death row after being convicted of murder. Memory is an albino woman who is raised first by her Shona parents, and then by a white Rhodesian liberal named Lloyd – a sympathetic character who fought on the side of Zimbabwean independence. In many ways, the novel is also a reconstruction of how Zimbabwe as a whole remembers its past (I’ll go back to this topic later). I want to kick things off by posing a more explicitly literary question, though: what makes memory such an attractive concept to the novelist?

Petina Gappah: Memory is attractive precisely because it is so uncertain. We remember imperfectly, but at the same time we are quite certain about what we remember. I wanted to write a novel rooted in an imperfect memory of one particular event in this person’s life. So certain is she that her memory of it is accurate that she explains her entire life by that ultimately untrue memory.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson Yes,and as we’ve briefly discussed here before, you’ve writing yourself into a long and venerable tradition of “memory novelists.” It seems to me that this is most evident in the way you construct Memory’s voice: she brings together two “versions” of the unreliable narrator, each with their own literary heritage. On the one hand, there is the highly educated, canny, even manipulative adult narrator that many people associate with Modernism (your Vladimor Nabokov reference brings him to mind, but Virginia Woolf might be the best known example), and on the other hand, there is the child narrator whose memory is naturally subject to gaps in understanding. Memory occupies both of these roles, at different points in the novel. Can you speak a bit to the relation between these two narrating personas? What are some of the practical challenges of moving so frequently between Memory’s childhood and adulthood?

Petina Gappah It is a tough one: behind Memory obviously was I as the teller of the story. I manipulated quite deliberately the information that you as the reader receive. She could have told her story in one chapter. “My parents sold me, and I grew up with Lloyd, then Lloyd died and this is how he died and oh no, I was wrong about them selling me and this is why.” The story, like all stories, could have been told in one paragraph. To stretch it out over 90 000 words or so required some manipulation. So moving between Memory the adult and Memory the child was a necessary part of that manipulation.

Petina Gappah Yikes, sorry for all the typos, I will edit while I wait for more. The questions are coming from an echo chamber beneath the earth’s surface, so I have time.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson Ah yes, the magic number of 90,000 words! (Have just spent a lot of time cutting — I hear you.) It’s interesting that you use the word manipulation there, which is obviously technical, but it strikes me that there’s also an audience dimension. The adult, highly educated Memory who kicks off the novel is a self-consciously “literary” figure, but then the childhood Memory is so very, vibrantly Shona, and local. Do you feel like you had to be conscious, as you were writing, of reaching a Zimbabwean audience and a broader one in different ways? What I loved about the book is that it truly does do both.

Petina Gappah I write (so far anyway!) stories about Zimbabwean characters, and so I want them to feel true to Zimbabwean readers. But I am published around the world and I would like the specificity of my Zimbabwean characters to find an echo in readers everywhere. But it is an easy thing to pull off, I think, if I write what feels true. Because pain is pain, love is love, it does not have a national character. What we eat may have that character, how we live may have it too, and the names we choose for our children may be specific to our location, history, education and so on, but ultimately, I write about human concerns.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson It’s a refreshing change of pace for many readers, I think, from seeming to be caught in a tug-of-war between endorsing the “African writer” label and then refuting it. What you’re doing is, as you say, much more specific: it’s the old idea of the very big connecting to the very small, or the specific and local being the surest path to the “universal,” if we can call it that. I have to confess here that I’m a bit of a Shona nerd, and on that note I really loved how you brought such playful, musical Shona into the text through childhood games, songs, proverbs, etc. It got me wondering about the question of literary influence in again, a really local-but-literary way. I felt like I could hear some of those classic Shona novels that you must have grown up with in the background (Pafunge, Mungoshi’s Shona novels, etc)! What are some of the Zimbabwean sources that loom largest for you as you produce such ambitious work?

Petina Gappah The Shona novels were the first thing I read as a kid at a school in Rhodesia. We also used to listen to the serialisation show Kuverengwa Kwemabhuku, a sort of book at bedtime show. It was agony to wait from wine week to the next for the story to continue. And one of my earliest memories as a kid was steeling a dollar from my mom to buy for 25cent novels from the Literature Bureau van outside our school in Glen Norah. Then I moved to Alfred Beit and just went crazy. All the books! There were books everywhere!

So for me, reading has always been about pure story. You are compelled to find out what happened next.

I love books that grab you, hook you, draw you in, and will not let you go.
That is the kind of book I want to write the books I read as a child.
You see how deftly I am evading the “African writer” question

Jeanne-Marie Jackson It’s an incredibly influential canon, in Zimbabwe, don’t you think? I’m always amazed by how hard those books from the 80s in particular are to find, because people just remember them so vividly. On that issue of “hook,” though, why Memory in particular? I don’t mean the concept, I mean the woman, and then the girl. What about her demanded to be written?

(Haha, no “African writer question” here, I assure you.)

Petina Gappah I loved your earlier reference to Nabokov because along with the Shona novelists, he played a huge role in getting me to write this novel. It started off, if you will believe it, as Lolita in reverse. It was supposed to be a sort of Zim Lolita writing her story about the man she lived with and seduced etc etc. It was HIDEOUS! Oh it was terrible! I had to tell myself, lady, you are no Nabokov. Stop this nonsense.

So several drafts later, I wrote what felt like a more honest book. But she was always called Memory, she was always an albino woman, and she was always in prison, that part never changed. What changed was that I started with a very very unlikeable, very cocky character, and I hope I ended up with someone much more sensitive, fragile, and uncertain……….

To read the rest of this fascinating interview, join The Good Book Appreciation Society by friending Bea Reader on Facebook, or emailing

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.”

Petina Gappah is a lawyer and writer from Zimbabwe. She lives in Geneva, where she works as an international trade lawyer. Her work has been published in more than a dozen languages. From 2007 until 2014 she wrote the blog The World According to Gappah. She shut it down after it topped 160 000 words and she realised that no one needed to read, or write, that many words about basically nothing.

You can pick up Petina’s novel here, or in any decent book store.

GBAS logo

» read article