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?!
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Now let’s turn around and scrutinize the foreign media assets of Mother Russia’s not-so-poor: some of them promoters of the Global Russian concept, some — literary-minded Russians around the corner from our London-based readers.
And again the lines of loyalty, the stresses are quite blurred, as far as media agendas of Russia-backed enterprises in the EU and US are concerned.
Are the Western-operating companies we will now talk about pro-Kremlin or pro-poor?
Self-confessed avid reader of high-quality literature in Russian and English, Russian billionaire Alexander Leonidovich Mamut shelled out £53 million to acquire London-headquartered book retailer Waterstones in May 2011.
Number two in our list of global Russians with a penchant for media investments abroad is Alexander Yevgenievich Lebedev, former KGB staff and currently publisher of four UK newspapers, including the one that has called his book chain-owning namesake “an oligarch with close links to the Kremlin.” Alexander Yevgenievich reportedly stated that during his time as a spy in London, he used the Evening Standard to find information.
Lebedev used to own the Moskovski Korrespondent, but closed it down “for political reasons after it published a spurious article about Vladimir Putin having an affair with an Olympic gymnast half his age”
On 25 March 2010, Alexander Lebedev bought the loss-making The Independent and Independent on Sunday for £1.
Accompanying two Sashas on the Olympus of Russians with preference for foreign media assets is Sergei Polonsky @Spolonium, himself an Olympus-builder.
Alexander Yevgenievich knocked Russia’s real estate developer Sergei Yurievitch Polonsky from his chair as both men were appearing as guests on a show about the global financial crisis that was being recorded in Moscow for the Gazprom-owned NTV channel in September 2011.
A blow that did not connect cleanly was prompted by a dispute over Sergei Yurievitch’s project named Башня Федерация.
Expected to be completed in 2015, the Federation Tower is said to be able to withstand a direct hit of an aircraft [as you guessed what they meant here]. The building is a hit with extreme sports people, as well as film and TV people.
Notorious for his stance and public pronouncements, Sergei Polonsky has often introduced creativity-laden ideas into Russia’s otherwise parvenu post-Soviet elites.
In November 2011 his international investment and development company Potok∞ launched a reality project named Большой дом. Using Youtube, Twitter and Alexander Mamut-owned blogging service Livejournal, Polonsky’s team boosted business by revealing to the rest of us the behind-the-scenes of the Federation Tower construction process, including brain storming sessions, corporate parties, desicions on hiring and firing.
Polonsky has set a goal of earning not less than USD1bn through his jungle-based business education venture.
From New York magazine:
Another set of projects invariably bears the hallmark of his older sister, Irina, a patron of arts and literature. In private life, Mikhail and Irina form an unusual, closed-off unit. Until recently, they lived together in a relatively small Moscow apartment, well after Mikhail had become a billionaire. Most likely at Irina’s urging, Mikhail has endowed a lavish literary award, a publishing house, an arts festival, and, finally, Snob [a magazine for the “Global Russian”].
The Mikhail in question is Mikhail Dmitrievitch Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire, politician, and owner of the ONEXIM Group and the US basketball team the Brooklyn Nets.
With an initial distribution of 20,000 in NYC, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco and some 700,000 Russian speakers living in the United States (as of 2010), Snoboriginally launched in Russia in 2008 with a USD150 million investment from Mikhail Dmitrievitch. In London, “the magazine bought up billboards in the Underground and elsewhere and slapped Russian-language ads on them, perplexing Brits and embarrassing local Russians.” For New York, they imagined “something that speaks to Snob’s globalist brand, and something that shows that the Russians actually understand contemporary New York.”
Yuri Milner has described his time at the World Bank as his “lost years”, due to watching from afar the privatization of government holdings during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin
Yuri Borisovich (Bentsionovich) Milner wraps up our overview of Global Russians on a shopping spree for media assets, with his investments in Facebook, Zynga, Twitter, Flipkart, Spotify, Groupon, Alibaba, and Planet Labs via the Mail.ru Group and Digital Sky Technologies (DST Global).
At one point in the 1990s, Yuri Borisovich worked for Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now an émigré. A meeting through mutual friends resulted in Alisher Usmanov, Russia’s richest person, becoming a shareholder of Mail.ru Group in 2008. In January 2007, 30% of shares of Mail.ru were bought by Cape Town, South Africa-headquartered Naspers, an e-commerce and pay TV company, with assets like MultiChoice, DStv, MWEB and M-net.
Milner envisages that the advent of the Internet of things and ever increasing use of social media and participatory systems will increase our collective intelligence
An acronym of sostoyavshiisya, nezavisimyi, obrazovannyi, blagopoluchnyi (accomplished, independent, educated, thriving), Snob magazine under deputy editor Maria Alexandrovna Gessen @mashagessen some years back “made a turn toward social activism, battling, for instance, the Putin administration’s revisionist sugarcoating of Joseph Stalin.”
She was dismissed from her position as the chief editor of Russia’s oldest magazine, Vokrug sveta, a popular-science journal, in 2012 after she refused to send a reporter to cover a Russian Geographical Society event about nature conservation featuring President Putin, because she considered it political exploitation of environmental concerns
So if the Global Russian “aggressively adopts traits of other cultures without betraying his own” — he ‘cooks like a Frenchman, entertains like an American, and forms friendships like a Russian’ in American nonfiction author Masha Gessen’s words — and if he/she is not 100% pro-Kremlin how many percentage points is he/she pro-poor? What do you think?