In her first year as a PhD student at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program (UH CWP), Novuyo Rosa Tshuma has already accomplished something extraordinary: international major press publication. Novuyo’s novel, The House of Stone, is forthcoming with W.W. Norton in the USA, and Atlantic Books in the United Kingdom. A recipient of the Inprint Fondren Foundation/Michael and Nina Zilkha Fellowship and an Inprint International Fellowship and a native of Zimbabwe, she has an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her first collection, Shadows, was published to critical acclaim in 2013 by Kwela in South Africa, and awarded the 2014 Herman Charles Bosman Prize.
Houston writer and UH CWP faculty member Mat Johnson and fellow UH CWP classmate Melanie Brkich recently sat down with Novuyo.
MAT JOHNSON: This is your first year at UH–what made you interested in the program, and how has the transition been so far?
NOVUYO ROSA TSHUMA: I’m interested in strengthening my intellectual and creative writing interests, and the program has great faculty, an illustrious history and wonderful scholarship, and this was very attractive to me. Transitioning to a new place is always a mixture of excitement and disorientation, but I think it’s going well so far.
MAT: Your novel has just been bought by a USA and UK publisher, what is it about?
NOVUYO: The book has a microcosm of characters, I’m not sure I can summarize everything, but at the centre of the novel is our boisterous, wall-eyed narrator, Zamani, who, desperate to unshackle himself from an unsavory past and become a self-made man, rewrites and inserts himself into the history of a family he has become attached to, the Mlambos. And you know, he’s just obsessed with the past, he’s trying to reconstruct a self, he’s telling histories he has wangled out of others, and he’s an exposer of others’ ugly secrets, though he has secrets of his own he doesn’t want found out.
MAT: When did you start working on this project, and what was the initial concept?
NOVUYO: I started working on it in 2011, while living in South Africa, and consolidated it at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where it formed my MFA thesis. My initial, frustrated question was, what the hell is going on in Zimbabwe? What’s with all the craziness, the food shortages, the hundred trillion dollar bills, the political madness? How and where did it all begin? I was in my early teens when the craziness started and for a long time I was steeped in the experience of it, the immediacy of it and all of that, and it was the distance from home that allowed for reflection. And so, I started reading up on Zim’s history, different texts on our history, and the more I read the farther into the past I went, and the more fascinated I became by the various versions of history, about how the past hinges so much on the narratives we assign ourselves or which are assigned to us, what they omit as much as what they include, how they are told. And it occurred to me that the battle in Zim is in large part over its histories, over who gets to name the past, who gets to say what it is, who gets to control and limit that narrative. And there’s a lot of dark shit too there, in the past. So, I decided I’d try and write Zimbabwe’s modern history and it eventually took the form of a multi-character, multi-history meta-novel.
MELANIE BRKICH: How would you describe the process of writing a novel?
NOVUYO: It feels very much like a marathon endurance kind of thing. Very fun with regards to experimenting with and mixing various techniques, and the creative and intellectual challenges are very invigorating, but also really messy. It’s almost as if you have to feel your way through the material, and you have to be flexible particularly during the first drafts, which are terrifying as they feel like half-formed, unclear things, chunks of writing from which you are only beginning to get a glimpse of what it is, really that the work is trying to grapple with. Structure and content inform one another, and though this facilitates wonderful opportunities for innovation, the tricky thing becomes that if you change one thing in the novel, everything else changes, and so you have to go through the whole thing and instinctively play around with everything else.
MAT: What and who inspired you to write?
NOVUYO: My earliest exposure to jotting things down was through the art of letter writing, my father and I would exchange letters when I was a child – he lived and worked in Rome and I only saw him about once a year during the holidays. So we got into that routine, and waiting by the postbox for the postman became one of my favorite pastimes. I was also a bookish kid and grew up in a family that encouraged reading.
MELANIE: Are there certain themes and issues that you consistently explore in your work? What’s something that’s currently rolling around in your brain?
NOVUYO: I’m not sure, you know, I suppose in retrospect, one can sort of discover an interesting string of interrelated elements in one’s writing. My collection Shadows was preoccupied really with much of the contemporary moment, the immediacy of the dysfunctional moment we have found ourselves in Zimbabwe, which has informed our various migrations. And although my novel grapples with the contemporary moment as well, it’s in a different way, it’s very much about how the past or various pasts interact with, change and are changed by our various understandings of our contemporary moment. It’s almost as if steeping myself in “the contemporary moment” in Shadows opened me up to the longer, more reflective grappling I attempt in the novel. Which is the idea of people immersed in their lives and also grappling with, wittingly or otherwise, the histories that have come to inform those present moments, and thinking of what is going on here in the USA, and in Britain with Brexit as well, reminds me of this, of these contentious interactions with our histories, and how these histories, which sometimes feel so far away, erupt in the present and make themselves felt in very real ways. And this is something Zimbabwe as a space has been grappling with over the past two or so decades.
MAT: How are you feeling, in these first few months after your first major bookseller?
NOVUYO: Incredibly lucky and so very delighted. Still floating.
MELANIE: Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
NOVUYO: Reading widely and voraciously, as well as investing time in sitting down alone to write, have been useful for me. Write no matter your circumstances, and try and find opportunities to improve your craft. And just trust the process.