Together we uncover the quintessential quixotic character in African literature and Tendai tries to imagine how his Scotland-set novel would be different if it was set in Zimbabwe, and if he was to publish it at 52 and not 32.
A Character Question
Your Maestro is a quixotic character. Can you think of a quintessential quixotic character in African literature before your novel graced the bookshelves around the world?
No one beats John Eppel’s ultra-ridiculous George J. George from Absent: The English Teacher. Few contemporary writers equal Eppel [who teaches English at Christian Brothers College in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe] in terms of technical skill and comedic ear. In George J. George you have a character who mistakes his white Ford Escort for the moon (think Don Quixote and the windmill) and everything goes downhill from there.
A Setting Question
Many a culture buff considers Scotland’s capital Edinburgh one of the world’s capitals of culture. Epitomising this image: The Edinburgh Festival. By singling out a mathematician over a nurse or a physicist, do you maybe hope that the number of Zimbabwean mathematicians attending the Edinburgh Festival will surge, inspired by the adventures of their colleague in your novel?
You’re taking the piss, right?
An Alternative Setting Question
If the novel was set in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare — an urbs that you have ‘documented’ in your previous magnum opus — how would the maestro, magistrate and mathematician be different? Would they be émigré Scots, for starters?
Every novel is a complex algorithm with numerous variables. You change one factor and the whole thing becomes something else. Remember, this text doesn’t work in a vacuum – there have to be alterations to do with the social, political, environmental, legal, cultural, technological, economic… in fact every aspect of life you can think of has to change, which alters the language, character interactions, etcetera. This is almost an impossible question to answer; because of the scale of transformation the book would have to undergo we might as well be talking of two different novels.
A Medium Question
Zimbabwe like most nations on the African continent is seeing a tremendous rise in mobile internet consumption. Do you have something like an ebook or a novel-dedicated Android app in the pipeline?
There is an online platform called Mazwi which makes Zimbabwean literature available to mobile users. My first novel The Hairdresser of Harare is already available there. [At USD1.99], it is the cheapest novel they sell, because I waived my royalties in order to bring the costs down. Such is my desire for my fellow countrymen to be able to access my work.
A Publisher Question
I know the fabulous amaBooks duo personally — Brian Jones and Jane Morris, are the two directors of amaBooks. But still why did you go with this Bulawayo-based publisher?
I had a lot of starts, stops and false hopes with this novel. It’s an emphatic departure from my earlier work. However, working with my editor Jane Morris from amaBooks has got me turbo charged. She understood the scope of my ambition, and helped me fine tune and hone my craft. In the process, she has given me essential skills to improve my work.
I consider the year I spent editing it with her as the most important period in my writing life. In that same year I sold short fiction in my three favourite genres — literary fiction, crime and sci-fi — to leading journals around the world (The Manchester Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Interzone), which I believe was influenced to a great extent by that apprenticeship. I am extremely grateful for the partnership I’ve had with Jane Morris and Brian Jones at amaBooks.
I wasn’t chased. My publishers put in an application for funding, and, fortunately, the CFoZ deigned to cover part of the printing costs. I think this is more reflective of the fact that sales of fiction in Zimbabwe are so poor publishers need a subsidy to make the production viable. The nature of my work naturally disqualifies me from the school textbook market, meaning it’s highly unlikely my publisher will recoup their investment from the domestic market. That’s the f*cking reality.
A Research Question
How much time did it take you to research for the novel? What were the major unknowns for you as you embarked on the research?
This was a three-year project. Research was ongoing; right up until the editor was like “enough”.
A Lost-in-Translation Question
Judging from previous experience, do you expect any localized creative spins that publishers in Germany will have to come up with to translate The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician to the German-speaking reader and to promote the novel in German content-consuming markets?
The question for the German publisher is: How do I sell this book by a relatively unknown author from Africa, who has won no awards and has no marketable hook/gimmick? Yahweh only knows what the answer to that might be.
Try to imagine: how would your novel be different if you were to publish it at 52 and not 32?
I would hope 52 year old me is more skilled and has less need for tricks and postmodern narrative artifices to mask his deficiencies. He/She (if I have a sex change) would perhaps be better at sentence construction, suspense, scene setting, characterisation, plotting… what I am trying to say is — Insha’Allah — he would be a superior craftsman. Early Huchu vs late Huchu – how pompous does that sound?!