Tendai Huchu (www.tendaihuchu.com), author of The Hairdresser of Harare and An Untimely Love, was born in Bindura, Zimbabwe. He attended Churchill High School in Harare and from there went to the University of Zimbabwe to study a degree in Mining Engineering. He dropped out in the middle of the first semester, found work briefly in a casino and from there drifted from one job to the next. Four years later he returned to university and is now a Podiatrist living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Huchu has a great love of literature, and currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. In this interview with the Africa Book Club, he talks about life growing up in Zimbabwe, and his own development as a writer.
What was it like growing up in post-independence Zimbabwe?
It was great for the few of us whose parents climbed into the middle class. We went to great schools, took holidays, had maids and gardeners, essentially enjoyed the perks of our former colonial rulers and pretended this was normal. People like to say how great post-independence Zimbabwe was, that’s nonsense, it depends on which side of the fence you found yourself on. Whilst the lucky few enjoyed these advantages, we were surrounded by a sea of poverty, so essentially were Rhodesia-lite. Those advantages however were not passed down to the next generation, thank God for that, and we now find ourselves worse off than our parents were. I won’t bore you with the politics of it all which is well known.
At what point did you catch the writing bug?
I’ve always dabbled in a bit of writing but only seriously started when I lived in Reading, Berkshire. An aptly named place for a writer to start on his trade, don’t you think?
Absolutely! So where do you draw inspiration for your writing?
I draw inspiration from real life. I think great writing manages to capture ordinary moments in day to day life, and proves how special or utterly extraordinary they are. I also read a lot, and that helps because ultimately a writer is just a slightly different type of reader.
Tell us about your first book, The Hairdresser of Harare?
Oh, God, do I have to… Okay, I’ll meet you half way, here’s the blurb that appears on the jacket:
“Vimbai is a hairdresser, the best in Mrs Khumalo’s salon, and she knows she is the queen on whom they all depend. Her situation is reversed when the good-looking, smooth-talking Dumisani joins them. However, his charm and desire to please slowly erode Vimbai’s rancour and when he needs somewhere to live, Vimbai becomes his landlady.
So, when Dumisani needs someone to accompany him to his brother’s wedding to help smooth over a family upset, Vimbai obliges. Startled to find that this smart hairdresser is the scion of one of the wealthiest families in Harare, she is equally surprised by the warmth of their welcome; and it is their subsequent generosity which appears to foster the relationship between the two young people.
The ambiguity of this deepening friendship – used or embraced by Dumisani and Vimbai with different futures in mind – collapses in unexpected brutality when secrets and jealousies are exposed.”
Outside Zimbabwe, the book was celebrated by many for daring to write about homosexuality, given President Mugabe’s position on the subject. Did you set out to challenge the establishment with this book?
If one wants to challenge the establishment, then a novel is the wrong way to go about it. No one cares about fiction in Zimbabwe, and while some people may celebrate the book (good for them) the truth is, it doesn’t matter one iota. No, I did not set out to challenge the establishment, I’m a craven, I live all the way in Scotland, key moments in our history are playing out, and I watch them on HDTV growing fat on Coca-Cola and eating Mars bars. No, I just wrote a story that captured a snapshot of day to day life. Vonnegut often said he was the only person to benefit from the firebombing of Dresden to the tune of a dollar for every dead person in the city – if that’s the case, then I’ve made a penny for every gay person in Zimbabwe. You have to understand that while homosexuality is an important theme in the book, it is one strand out of many that make up the overall social commentary which drives the novel.
What was your journey to getting published the first time?
It was tough. I had to deal with rejection like any novice. You know the 10000 hour rule, right? To be really good at anything, you have to put in at least 10000 hours worth of practice. I was writing for a good while before I wrote something worth publishing. I’m still learning, still trying to be a better craftsman. There is very little mystical about the writing process, you simply have to read a lot, keep practicing, and eventually you get there. I worked with Irene Staunton, my editor from Weaver Press, and in the time we spent editing the book I learnt more than I had ever before. They are a small press who were willing to take a chance on a novice, and I am grateful to them for that opportunity.
Your most recent book, An Untimely Love takes a different direction.What drew you to writing this book about a terrorist torn between duty and love?
I was experimenting with Hugo’s technique in The Last Day of a Condemned Man, and I wrote my own homage, The Last Day of a Suicide Bomber. I put it up on bibliotastic.com and had a lot of great feedback from readers, all of whom were interested in finding out about how the story ends. I then came across a talk by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden on the biological origins of human aggression, and in it they mentioned something about the Black September group implicated in the Munich Olympics Massacre, and one argument about how the group was disbanded says, the young men in it were offered a flat and an income, but only if they got married and renounced violence. As they became family men, a tipping point was reached and the group collapsed. This of course is a very simplistic and concise explanation of what happened, but it served as a template for the trajectory my anti-hero would have to take in An Untimely Love.
What book(s) by African authors (other than your own) would you recommend to readers out there?
There are only two types of people in this world. Those who have read Open City by Teju Cole, and those who haven’t.
Aside from reading, what else are you into? Do you read a lot? What do you enjoy reading?
I play a fair bit of chess, and am irredeemably mediocre at it. I do a fair bit of walking as well. To answer the second part of your question, yes, I do read a lot. Buying books is my most expensive indulgence. I read a fair bit of non-fiction, essays, biographies, history, politics, and I am just as eclectic in my tastes for fiction. The worst thing you can ever do as a writer is limit yourself to a specific genre. I read widely and pick up little tricks that I can use in my own work. When I see how different The Hairdresser is to An Untimely Love which is very different to what I am working on now, I feel I’m genre hopping, and reading widely helps me find structural solutions to each novel I’m working on.