Tendai Huchu on the new voices coming out of Africa

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ON Christmas Day 2009 I was hit by an idea, left the party I was at, and started working on a novel.

“I knew there was something not quite right about Dumisani the very first time I ever laid eyes on him” I began, and the next two weeks I did nothing but write, sleeping only for a few hours each night until the first draft was finished. I’d tried and failed to write a novel before, but this was different: my narrator, Vimbai, had a strong and distinct voice, and fear of losing it kept me going.

I only seriously started writing fiction after I moved to the UK from Zimbabwe. When things hit rock bottom there, virtually everyone of my generation began to emigrate. If the economy had not tanked, I sometimes imagine that today I might have been a low-level civil servant; mildly corrupt and lazy, but doing just enough not to get sacked, with a wife, two kids and a home in some medium-density suburb in Harare.

Living in Edinburgh lent me the gift of perspective, the ability to see things from a distance. From Alexander McCall Smith I have tried to pinch a light touch and a bit of magic and humour to fuse into my narrative of contemporary Zimbabwe.

The result is, I hope, an authentic story of two ordinary people doing the best they can in difficult circumstances.

Vimbai’s story became The Hairdresser of Harare, my first published novel, which came out in Zimbabwe and South Africa, spawning French and German translations before it was snapped up by Freight Books in Glasgow. The book follows hairdresser Vimbai, a young single mother trying to create a life for herself and her daughter amidst Zimbabwe’s social, political and economic malaise. As if life is not complicated enough, Vimbai’s world is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of Dumisani, an enigmatic young man who usurps her position as the best stylist in Mrs Khumalo’s salon. Their rivalry soon turns to friendship, but alas, Vimbai does not know that Dumi has a secret that will turn everything she believes in upside down.

I’m amused by the complex, fascinating, theoretical frameworks that are postulated by intellectuals to try and analyse how novels work. To me, it is simple: novels are a relatively new art form but storytelling is ancient, something that meets a human need. So, for me, the “story-ness” of the Hairdresser of Harare is an end in itself. To enable the reader to, for a time, enter Vimbai’s world, to see life through her eyes, to share in her struggles and her triumphs is all I tried to do in writing this work; anything else is superfluous.

Readers may have come across some of my Zimbabweam contemporaries, such as Petina Gappah, Brian Chikwava, Irene Sabatini and NoViolet Bulawayo, winner of the Caine Prize 2011. Bulawayo’s new book, We Need New Names, will also be published this year, adding to the diversity of voices emerging from Africa.

In a talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story”, Chimamanda Nangi Adichie highlighted just why we need voices like these to widen our view of the world. She told the story of a young American who had read her book and told her how sad it was that Nigerian men were abusive towards their wives. Adichie replied that she’d also read American Psycho and was equally saddened that young American men went around killing people. I have no doubt that the Scottish reader is discerning enough to realise my work is fiction and so only represents a minute element of the Zimbabwean reality.

The Hairdresser of Harare has been well received so far. In Zimbabwe, it has a small, enthusiastic readership, but fiction there is something of an alien art form, not much different from ballet, opera or yodelling to the average Zimbabwean. This often means that African writers have a bigger audience outside the continent than within it, leading to the accusation of writing for a western readership. And while it’s tempting to say that I write for myself, writers who genuinely believed this would be happy to keep all their work in the bottom drawer and burn it all before they died. For my own part, I am grateful for whatever readers my work finds.

• The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu is published next week by Freight, price £8.99