Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is an award-winning short fiction writer from Zimbabwe. She was the winner of the Intwasa Short Story Competition 2009. Currently, she is pursuing her studies at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. She is actively involved in literary events as she has attended important workshops like the Farafina Summer Writing Workshop, the Caine Prize African Writing Workshop 2010 (in Kenya) among others. Her musings may be found at www.novuyorosa.blogspot.com and www.writerdelic.blogspot.com.
Geosi Reads interviews Novuyo Rosa Tshuma:
GEOSI READS: It appears you have attended some important writing workshops. To what extent have these workshops influenced your writings?
NOVUYO ROSA TSHUMA: What they provided was a platform to discuss and critique works with other writers, which is an invaluable experience for any young writer; you balloon as a writer, learn to receive and to give, learn to write with that critical eye, and in the process form vital friendships. As a result, I have become bolder in my writing experiments, in that quest to ‘find my writing-self’ as it were, an elusive quest as one is ever enlarging one’s writing’s sphere, be it with new writing feats or the reading of work that expands the writing horizon.
GR: How did you end up writing fiction? At what point in your life did you start to write stories?
NRT: I ended up writing fiction because I read so much of it. I just used to read and read and read; I loved books and one day I just started writing. I fell in love with stories, the worlds that they transported me to, the friends I made in these worlds. I was a book crazy kid and I come from a family that encouraged this love for reading. Wow. Let’s see. I wrote my first detective story, Kimberly Draft, based on the Nancy Drew novels I read, when I was in grade 5, that is 10 years old. It was 9 pages of child scribblings, all American bravado, with blond haired and blue eyed characters who sported the American twang and took part in high speed chases down LA boulevards. I have never been to America, but thanks to fiction, I have certainly travelled there in my mind.
GR: Define your voice as a writer? What do you often write about? How and where do you get your stories from?
NRT: Hmmm. I write literary fiction. That’s what I love writing; it suits my muse well. I write about the things I see around me, the things I imagine are around me. Inspiration comes from different sources; my story ‘Big Pieces Little Pieces’, which is about domestic violence, was born from an advertisement I saw on television a few years back during the 16 days of activism against abuse of women and children; my story ‘You In Paradise’ about a Zimbabwean illegal immigrant living in South Africa was born from a scene I saw whilst standing on a street corner in Johannesburg, when a police truck drove slowly past and people began to scramble for cover; I will never forget the vendor next to me, who grabbed her baby and her wares and ran for cover, her breasts jiggling wildly as she ran; she was shouting in Shona and I thought; wow, this is how it is to be Zimbabwean and illegal in this place. I was shocked to the core. And so all it takes is to be affected by a little piece of something that sticks long after it has touched you, and then you fill in the gaps with your imagination, you create a story and let your mind run away with it, and see if something worthwhile comes out of it. But you know writing is more than just the story; it is also the style of writing that you employ, and that is garnered from reading and reading and reading, and experimenting with different styles, until you find something that is you.
GR: When do you write? What is your writing schedule like?
NRT: I have been free during the past year and so writing has been a totally free experience. That is soon to change as I will be resuming my university studies this year. I have been writing in blocks; that is to say, I will get a muse and obsess over it for several days. I will wake up in the morning, sit with my laptop and just write. Take breaks during the day, but never leave the flat, just me and writing, and beautiful silence. My friends know to stay away from me during this time. Then I will take a break from the work for several days, go out and get on with living. Come back to it; work on it for several days. And on it goes. There are moments of writer’s block, and they are frustrating indeed; moments when I am stuck in a piece of work; usually that’s an indication that there is something wrong in the work that I need to fix; I fix my work as I write, I cannot work with jumbled work. And then there are periods of reading, when I do not write but lose myself in reading, for a week or two. But now obviously, with university this year, this luxury is about to change; back to jostling for writing time late in the night.
GR: Zimbabwe has some important writers like Doris Lessing, Shimmer Chinodya among others. Do you think Zimbabwe as a country has produced enough writers in your generation?
NRT: I would say many Zimbabwean writers in my generation are in the process of being ‘produced’, as it were, not necessarily by Zimbabwe as a country, sometimes in other countries and other spaces. One cannot say enough, really, it is all a work in progress and the more the merrier, a jarring of many voices to offer us differing perspectives of the world and our circumstances in it. Anthologies such as Weaver Press’ Writing Still and Women Writing and ’amaBooks’ Long Time Coming and Echoes of Young Voices among others, provide the platform to interact with different Zimbabwean voices, some new voices, and from this one appreciates that it is a blooming industry of writers, as it were.
GR: What is the literary scene in Zimbabwe like? Do Zimbabweans read?
NRT: Zimbabweans read. There are establishments such as the Book Café which promote the literary scene, and book launches and the like. And then there have been projects such as the British Council’s Identity and Diversity project which involved young people and produced two anthologies, Echoes of Young Voices and Silent Cry. The problem is that the majority of Zimbabweans do not, generally, buy books. As one publisher put it, Zimbabweans seem to think that books should be given out for free. They may attend book launches and applaud a job well done, but purchasing a book is another matter. This was understandable when there were more pressing matters such as food and fuel shortages and inflation and what not, and people could not afford to buy books, but now things are improving somewhat in the country, people are able to afford things they could not afford before, and hence now it becomes a question of a culture of book buying, book appreciation. Again, this notion that Zimbabweans do not buy books is limited generally to the black Zimbabwean. White Zimbabweans are more prone to book buying; perhaps, besides the purchasing power, it is a question of a book culture, the ability to see the value in a book. It is now a matter of infusing a culture of appreciation for the book. If a book costs almost the same price as a pizza, and pizza parlours are always full, it can no longer be a matter of affordability; the question becomes, how much do Zimbabweans value their literature?
GR: Reading, I know, is important in the writer’s life. Can you share with us about your reading life?
NRT: Indeed, one cannot maximize on one’s writing potential if one does not read. Reading compliments writing. I do not follow a particular reading schedule; reading for me is a pleasurable thing and not a strict adherence. Because I have always been reading, for as long as I can remember, reading is a part of me; it will always come to me, I will miss it and search for a book. During the periods when I am not writing, I am reading. If I fall in love with a book my world must halt until I am through with it. If a book is ok I will read it along with another book. If it is unreadable, I will simply not read it.
GR: Share with us some of the books you’ve read and which still linger on in your mind?
NRT: I have just finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life; I loved it, in spite of the fact that it had some magical realism infused in it and that is not really my thing. More than anything, I was taken by the writer’s style, beautiful, detailed description of bleak surroundings, even the people are bleak; he just meanders through description in a way that binds the story and hence does not create excess weight in the story, that is a beautiful skill. I went out in search of another Orhan Pamuk book and am currently reading Snow; I am enjoying it more; it seems the author has a knack for bleakness! More than anything, it is his writing style that attracts me to his work; he is my latest reading obsession.
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things seduced my writer’s heart, as it has done many others, as did Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. Sembene Ousmane’s Black Docker is another all time favourite of mine, as is Aminatta Forna’s Memory of Love. I enjoyed the reflections of Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans in Petina Gappahs’s An Elegy For Easterly. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is absolutely lovely; a beautiful book. I’m also currently reading and enjoying the ’amaBooks anthology Long Time Coming.
GR: You have been blogging about everything books for some time now. How does the world of blogging affect your life as a writer?
NRT: I have met writers while blogging, as well as made friends in blogland; this, no doubt, is one of the most worthwhile things about blogging. You get to interact with writers and people from all over the globe; that has expanded writing for me. However, one has to strike a balance between one’s public writing – thus – blogging and one’s private writing – thus – works in progress. At one point I discovered I was blogging more than I was writing, and I did not like this. Ultimately, the act of writing is one that needs to be done in solitude, just you and your pen, for long periods, if one hopes to put together something worth getting out there. But blogging is a beautiful way to just interact with the world, it can be intimate at times, letting pieces of yourself fall into the world. A balance needs to be struck between one’s writing agendas and one’s blogging sphere.
GR: Where do you get your inspiration to write? Which particular people have influenced your life as a writer?
NRT: Inspiration, that fickle thing, that word we as writers like to bandy about! Frankly, I now find inspiration to be over rated. I have simply decided to be a disciplined writer, which is simply to say I have come to write much especially this year (most of it jumbled pieces I am still trying to mould into coherent tales) as to have made it a sort of addiction. The very act of writing, that act of sitting down and getting words down, is one that can become addictive; you get used to it and the issue no longer becomes writing but what to write.
Hmmm. People and influences. I would not use that word influence as such, I would prefer the word affected; you know ‘we’ writers are creatures who walk on the tight rope of our ‘writing egos’ we don’t like to think under such terms as influence; too many connotations of power play there! (That is a joke – with a grain of truth to it!). But no doubt, a writer is a product of many hands; many hands chip in to add block upon block to one’s writing construct. You get touched by so many different people who are involved in writing in different ways, all of which adds a little more to yourself as a writer. Working with editors, such as Jane Morris and Brian Jones of ’amaBooks, Emmanuel Sigauke and Ivor Hartmann of StoryTime, obviously adds a certain robustness to that lean writing skin. Interacting with different writers at some point or another in your writing journey adds immense value to your writing life; young writers I worked with during the Echoes of Young Voices and Silent Cry publications back home in Zimbabwe (we would meet I think once a week, honed under the wings of Jane and Brian of ’amaBooks and writer Christopher Mlalazi, among other writers; we were like a little family of budding would-be writers, all wide eyed and green-footed!); the writers I had the privilege to interact with at the Caine and Farafina workshops; writers I get to speak to and forge writing friendships with, who are vital for the sanity for any writer. Noviolet Mkha Bulawayo and Petina Gappah have mentored me and helped me to grow, taking time to listen and advise… Ayodele Morocco-Clarke, Hana Njau-Nokolo and Bongani Ncube-Zikhali have been wonderful writing friends who always have an ear to lend at any hour of the day or night…and there are so many others who have been good and helpful…they know themselves, and I thank them tremendously for their advice. And then of course there are family and friends, who are often subjected to your work in its formative stages, always ready to lend that guniea-pig reader’s ear. I have been profoundly affected by books at times, in symbolic ways, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun which I read in 2007. A book can touch you and come to represent many things depending on where you are in your writing journey, perhaps battling with questions about your identity as a writer and so forth. I am now ashamed to admit that Half of a Yellow Sun was the second African book of fiction I ever read in my life, at the age of 19, after so many years of reading and so many books read; the first African work I remember reading was Wilson Katiyo’s Son of the Soil when I was eight, and I was a child then so I did not understand the book much, I read it because it was lying around at home and I was itching for something to read. Let us just say that growing up, I was not really aware of this thing called African Fiction; I did not care much for it and it had actually never crossed my mind, to think about it or care about it, about African characters in books. So Half of a Yellow Sun became a symbolic thing for me; I was excited about it, about my discovery of this wonderful writer, and that became another cornerstone in my writing endeavours. From then on I became somewhat obsessed with African fiction; perhaps as a need to make up for lost time; it really did not seem right to me that I had not paid attention to African writing prior to that book, and you know, as a writer from Africa that is important to me, this writing from Africa.
GR: What are you reading now? Any works in progress?
NRT: Currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow; loving it. Yes there are several works in progress, several short stories and that thing that is eventually called a novel. But it is better to talk about all that after, and not before, it has been completed.
GR: You have been studying at university in South Africa. Any remarks on the literary scene in South Africa?
NRT: South Africa has a pretty rich literary scene compared to Zimbabwe; books from other places are generally more accessible here, stores such as Exclusive Books make book buying such a wow experience here, you just enjoy the whole process. There are great book launches; people buy books at book launches here (again it is mostly the white South African market that buys books). There is also a wider range of writing genres here by South African writers, from Margie Orford’s crime fiction to teen fiction to thrillers to some literary fiction and so forth. So it is a vibrant market compared to the Zimbabwean market.
GR: Do you often have a particular audience in mind when writing?
NRT: Not at all. I have tried it but it does not work for me; it gets in the way of my writing. I write for everyone who loves to read.
GR: What do you hope to achieve with your writings?
NRT: Hmmm. Those grand writerly aspirations! Well I hope to change the world, I hope people will read my work and never ever be the same again, experience the same transformation as that of the protagonist in Orhan Pamuk;s The New Life, whose life is totally transformed after he reads a book! Hahaha. What I really hope to achieve is the humble task of having people enjoy my work, as I enjoy others’ works. I read primarily for pleasure, that perusal through another human mind, via the story medium, an expansion of the imagination, a transportation to another life another culture, losing myself in these lives these cultures, those other worlds, caring about these people on the page and sharing in their joys and their grief for that brief time when I am lost in a beautiful work. Reading is exercise for the mind, a stimulus, it is for a restless mind, and all minds need to be restless, in order to expand the scope and depth of life and its possibilities. The skill of words, their power to translate electric impulses in the brain which trigger emotion, trigger intellect that is just beautiful. All writers dream of having their work appreciated, I do not, after all, write only for myself but for the reader; should the reader and I fail to make some connection through my work, then I have failed myself as a writer. But simply, to have someone read and remember and, ultimately, enjoy what I have written, that is my humble hope. Fiction, after all, is primarily for pleasure, that exploration of everything that makes us human, including our imaginations which transcend the boundaries of logic, to grab a reader and suck him into the page; all other aspirations of grand theories and what not come secondary; if you want to lecture the world or moralise the world, write an essay. To take the trouble to build characters, infuse emotions and intellect, play with words and make them dance like magic across the page, that is art, and art, for all the lessons it may impart, is made primarily to be beautiful. And beauty adds quality and value to life.
GR: Anything you want to share? Your last words?
NRT: I think your blog is absolutely wonderful. Love it.