Novuyo Rosa Tshuma refuses to identify herself as an “African author”. The author of House of Stone says the term is used by Western audiences to impose an undue sense of entitlement to the task of doling out validation to African narratives.

When she began writing House of Stone during her studies in South Africa, Zimbabwean born author Novuyo Rosa Tshuma was constructing a way to reclaim a fractured and contested kind of home. Tshuma was in conversation with fellow writer Helon Habila at the third installation of the Abantu Book Festival held between Soweto’s Eyethu Lifestyle centre and the Soweto Theatre.

“This is my love letter to Zimbabwe, even if it’s biting,” Tshuma said of her work.

Tshuma relayed how the novel was narrated by what Habila described as an “untrustworthy narrator”. The writer felt this style was the best way to communicate the complexities of Zimbabwean history. Such complexities involve the contested histories and characterisations attached to her society. “I did not want to portray Zimbabweans as victims but as activists too,” she said.

House of Stone is a mixture of history, storytelling, love and violence weaving together personal narratives and national history, colonisation and decolonisation, and explores the coming of age of Zimbabwe. It tells the story of Zimbabwe through the main character, Zamani, who lives through moments of revolution and turmoil bringing to the fore discussions around identity, politics and what it takes to build a society.

Tshuma described how inasmuch as Zimbabwe’s citizens have been rendered a victim by their economic conditions, political and social battles, they are also enterprising and hopeful.

“Even though there was no petrol, people were driving. Even though the country was experiencing hyperinflation, my mother was able to secure chicken portions with her whole salary, without doing anything illegal,” Tshuma said.

Additionally, Tshuma noted how most of the ethnic tensions within Zimbabwe stemmed from a contested history wherein the Shona-led government attempted to claim the entire narrative of the liberation movement while excluding the exploits of the Ndebele populations.

Tshuma was born in Bulawayo in January 1988. After school she moved to Johannesburg and enrolled at the University of Witswatersrand where she studied economics and finance. In 2009, a short story she had written called “You in Paradise” won the Intwasa Short Story Competition (now the Yvonne Vera Award) for short fiction. Shortly after she released her debut, Shadows (2013), which was nominated at the 2014 Etisalat Prize for Literature and also won the Herman Charles Bosman Prize.

According to Tshuma violent moments in Zimbabwe’s post-colonial archive such as the Gukurahundi massacre, a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1987, stemmed from this sort of contestation. A further illustration of her point is the way in which she felt that born-free Zimbabweans are ostracised from the national identity because they are portrayed as not having fought for the liberation of the country.

“Relaying ordinary narratives was a way to reclaim that space in the national identity for ordinary citizens and born-frees. If I’m going to do Zimbabwean history some justice, I need as many perspectives as possible,” she said.

One such key perspective was that of her mother who, although she had grown up during  the Gukurahundi massacre, had barely spoken about the topic with Tshuma.

House of Stone is not only reclaiming a sense of an individual home but re-defining the collective sense of it too. The novel is written primarily with African audiences in mind. This is why, Tshuma says, she chose to avoid italicising Ndebele words in the novel.  She also refuses to identify herself as an “African author”. According to her, the term is used by Western audiences to impose an undue sense of entitlement to the task of doling out validation to African narratives. “I am not trying to explain my country to [white, Western readers],” she said during her talk.

Although the main thrust of the novel is theoretically historical in nature, there are many linguistic styles, subjects, experiences and literary forms which will readily resonate with contemporary African audiences.

Tshuma said that Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie inspired her to write, and she always felt like a “blurry bundle of dreams in Zimbabwe finding my writing way”.

“Fiction allows me to make up events that happened but feel emotionally true…House of Stone took me six years to write, about 17 drafts. My aim was to fail spectacularly rather than succeed safely,” she said.

ACTIVATE! Change Drivers and The Journalist will continue to keep you posted on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. If you were not able to join the festival this year, there is always next year. In the meantime, stay updated by following us on social media.  Top image courtesy of Mmuso Mafisa and Abantu Book Festival.