What does it mean to understand who we are as individuals and as citizens caught in the flux of nation-making? For Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, her debut novel, House of Stone, was a means of gaining a fuller understanding of her home country, Zimbabwe. In an essay for Literary Hub, Tshuma discusses how the idea of Zimbabwe—past and present—has shaped her life, even as it has remained hidden. The research process for House of Stone tasked Tshuma with untangling the story of Zimbabwe from the knot of sanctioned histories, lost archives, and Facebook speculation. Research also meant asking difficult questions of her own family about their experiences during Zimbabwe’s bloody fight for independence from a colonial regime.
House of Stone is an unflinching portrait of a nation, its visible victories, and its buried shames. It is also a novel about storytelling itself. Narrated by a young man named Zamani, the novel follows his efforts to extract oral histories from his “surrogate” parents—Abednego and Agnes—as well as his tendency to twist those histories to suit his personal fantasies. For his hosts, Zamani spins stories of his own about the fate of their missing son, Bukhosi. Ultimately, House of Stone demonstrates the slipperiness of pursuing truth while simultaneously upholding fictions—a worthy subject for individuals and nations alike.
At the time of this interview, House of Stone had garnered the 2019 Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award for Fiction with a Sense of Place, and had been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Folio Prize. Tshuma is also the author of a story collection, Shadows, which received the 2014 Herman Charles Bosman Prize. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Houston.
We spoke recently about the writing process, the impact of place, and truth in fiction.
The Rumpus: House of Stone has a wide tonal range. The novel is at once erudite and erotic, violent and tender. It’s also very funny. Could you talk about using humor while addressing complicated and often painful subjects?
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma: I enjoy the surprise and pleasure of coming across something quite unexpected in serious subject matter. A friend was telling me of a particular image in the novel that follows a rather grave scene that made them laugh and that they couldn’t get out of their head—I won’t dare mention it here—but this speaks to the very private act of reading, and how it can engender spontaneous emotions or reactions we wouldn’t dare express when we become aware of a “public.” And this, for me, the surprise of encountering something like humor where one has pre-determined gravity or soberness or horror, becomes the best kind of reading experience, which has the capacity to expand and trouble those reflexes we have about our worlds. To do so with delight and a flare for playfulness.
This comes up against interesting tensions given the very public and self-conscious act of reading today, which resembles a performance, yes, and reduces the range of responses or reactions capable by the human psyche—a self-policing as it were. So, for me, humor is most potent on that very first, unadulterated encounter between reader and page, laughter erupting spontaneously from deep in the belly, horrified laughter, disgusted laughter, pained laughter. Laughter making life a little more bearable.
Rumpus: Could you talk a little bit about your decision to use a subjective first-person narrator, rather than an objective omniscient narrator, in this novel? Especially since it is a novel so invested in uncovering truth? Zamani has such a distinctive—at times, disturbing—way of interpreting the world around him.
Tshuma: The first few drafts of the novel were written in the third-person voice, but with so obvious a narrating consciousness that fellow writers kept asking me, “Who is telling the story? Who keeps interjecting?” When that consciousness was made flesh, as it were, it became far more interesting. Zamani made flesh became this high-octane consciousness that was both disturbing and delightful to explore, because he kept unfolding layer after layer, and was a source of such perplexing discovery, about the world, about many things. Suddenly, we have a novel not about truth, but about what truth is. Now, we are interrogating truth. Now we have this guy who’s trapped in history and trapped in his own mind, and is trying, so very desperately, to find a way out of it all. He’s interacting with the world, in Zimbabwe, acting out and pushing against it and its ideas and its philosophies. He’s trying to usurp history and make his own world. And what is this world, indeed, that he “creates”?
Rumpus: “I’m a man on a mission,” says Zamani at the outset of the novel. “A vocation, call it, to remake the past, and a wish to fashion all that has been into being and becoming.” Zamani is speaking about his surrogate family here, but I wondered, upon returning to this opening, whether you were at all an author on a mission. Does House of Stone seek to “remake the past” in an effort to “fashion” the future?
Tshuma: Ah. If I had a mission with House of Stone, it was to explore this idea called “Zimbabwe” and try and see what it’s about. I was living it and my loved ones were living it and it was quite perplexing, and I wanted to take a closer look. In this way, discarding what I thought I knew in favor of the pleasures of discovery, the wonder brought about by the “fresh eye.” This act was an ode to and a gesture of faith in the creative process—not just as a writer, but in all facets of life and the many innovations it has been known to engender. I love play, I love playfulness, play is fun and extremely serious. Unexpected discoveries pop up when we play, which is the whole point of it all—play as pleasure and surprise. As devastation. As havoc. As pain. As love.
Rumpus: Did you have a particular reader in mind when writing the novel?
Tshuma: You know, the question of the reader first came up in the writing of this novel when I learned of this peculiar but important species called the “American reader,” and the things I might expect they should know and the things that would perplex them and how they apparently needed hand-holding through every single unfamiliar word or terrain in the novel. This was a strange notion for me, because I grew up reading a lot of fiction from elsewhere—since that’s how the world is arranged—and I became very comfortable with that sense of “foreignness” in a book, if you will. Foreignness not as a fetish, but as something to sit with and see what new things can emerge from such an experience. Thus, I resisted the impulse to hand-hold this special reader, and decided I was the kind of reader I imagined for the novel. Instead, I focused on the integrity of craft elements in the novel—characterization, storyline, etc., those things that make good fiction. And I think it worked out pretty okay.
Rumpus: What was the most challenging part of writing this novel? Also, what came easiest?
Tshuma: We had to cut twenty thousand words from the final manuscript and I tell you, that was something painful. But necessary! I wouldn’t say anything came easy, but one of the things I had most fun with was writing the love relationship between the feisty Thandi and the rather naive but besotted Abednego.
Rumpus: You started writing this novel while at university in South Africa, correct? Much of the book was written, however, during your MFA at University of Iowa. Did Iowa have any impact on the book?
Tshuma: Iowa provided precious writing time and fellow writers with whom to share the travails and tribulations of the writing life. I’d been working on the novel in South Africa and then suddenly here I was in this place with these off-kilter, writerly folk—doing what writers do which is a whole lot of craziness—having my writing taken super seriously, and I loved it. I loved the care and attention my writing received, I loved the seriousness, the madness. I loved that it mattered, that so much was at stake. I got shit done. And what I came out with at the end of that whole process was House of Stone.
Rumpus: “Who can escape his patrilineage?” asks Zamani, near the end of the novel. In that spirit, as a writer, is there a lineage—literary or otherwise—that you are looking to escape?
Tshuma: I hope to escape the tropes and burdens associated with what is called, in the Western imagination, “the African writer.” This trope is tied inextricably to the stereotypes associated with “Africa,” and the voyeuristic gaze that accompanies it. You find yourself either relegated to this as a writer or seen as trying to “write against it.” Either way, you are tethered to it. And I can’t bear that. Writing is my space of freedom, where I neither want to fall into nor have the burden of writing against someone else’s poor dream of the world, of my world and my place in it. As an artist, I pick and steal from every and any literary tradition—that’s the kind of freedom I’m interested in. Why confine writers and their imagination, and the things they are capable of, to geography? You know, the demarcation of the world as it was born from imperial ambition, and confining writers to this way of doing things feeds into and realizes such an ambition. As though the mind does not, cannot, travel. In House of Stone, we already see this, in the way Zamani borrows from Wittgenstein in one instance, from Nkrumah in yet another. Mao, Wordsworth, Alice Walker. Queen Lozikeyi. Introducing and then subverting or complicating images, ideas, values. Introducing a fraught experience of the world.
Rumpus: The prose in House of Stone is sinewy and surprising; sentences uncoil, spring-loaded, launching readers to unexpected places. Could you talk a little more about your writing and revision process?
Tshuma: I guess my sentences mirror my writing process as a whole. It’s a process of investigation, to see what images or ideas can yield. I wrote seventeen drafts of the novel partly because of this playful disposition.
Rumpus: Has your writing process changed at all, over time?
Tshuma: It’s become more free, more creative, I’d say. I’m thinking of the shift from my collection, Shadows, for instance, to how I wrote House of Stone. I’m just more willing to be messy during the creative process now than I used to be, and perhaps this is partly due to gradually becoming a more experienced writer. You feel more in control of your messiness—rather than “creating a mess,” as it were, you are channeling it towards your craft, if that makes sense.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Tshuma: I’m working on a novel. It’s set in Iowa City, some of it in a psych ward.
Photograph of Novuyo Rosa Tshuma by Tribute Nyoni.