This is the first semester at Emerson College for Novuyo Tshuma, assistant professor of fiction in Writing, Literature & Publishing. She spoke about her path to Emerson, from growing up in Zimbabwe to living in South Africa, with stops in Iowa and Houston. She was recently awarded a 2020 Lannan Literary Fellowship.
Q: What are your goals for writing? Some writers need to do at least an hour a day.
Tshuma: I try to write two to three times a week. I have my teaching duties as well. On the weekends I write more. About two to three hours in the morning is a good routine. It has to be the very first thing I do. My mind gets scattered during the day.
Q: You were recently awarded a 2020 Lannan Literary Fellowship. Recipients are anonymously nominated. Do you know who nominated you?
Tshuma: I have no idea. I got an email asking for my phone number and a phone call right after, informing me I had been awarded the fellowship.
It’s a six-figure sum, which is meant to aid you in your future work. Beyond that, recipients of the Lannan Awards include many writers whose work I admire so very much, and have taught in my classes, and so, it’s wonderful to be counted among them. It boosts your confidence. For me, it’s been a massive boost. It’s the kind of support that reenergizes one. As a writer I will always write regardless, but support is always needed, and appreciated.
Q: What will you do with the money?
Tshuma: It’s going to go towards my writing .
I’m working on my second novel, which is set in the Midwest, in Iowa City. It takes place during the same time in 2016 when [outgoing] President Trump was making his rounds. It’s really about the tensions of the time. It’s a look at Africans and African-Americans. It asks what America is in this climate, and for a newcomer what it can be, and it deals with mental health.
I spent three years at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and wrote a rough draft in my third year. I would walk around the city and document [what I saw], it was the first American city I [lived in]. For the New Yorkers and people from Los Angeles [who] are quite snobbish — they would tell me that it was a boring city. But I found it very fascinating.
Q: What was fascinating about Iowa City?
Tshuma: Call it the quintessential Midwestern cheer. Wherever you go everybody greets you. People are very helpful. The same cheer can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to it, like New Yorkers. It’s a college town. There’s a big Kenyan population. As a college town, it’s diverse during the semester. It was my first taste of winter. I remember my first snow. I had seen it on TV. I wanted to go out and build a snowman. A mere month later, it was really cold and freezing, and I thought, “What is happening?”
I grew up in a city in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo. It’s the second largest city. People are very friendly there, and very communal. I was fascinated to note that there are no fences in Iowa. I could walk at night, at 1:00 am, and that was perfectly safe.
And of course, the Workshop. I enjoyed my time there. It’s a very vibrant, creative space. I had applied to the Workshop from South Africa. When I went to open a bank account, [and they weren’t the friendliest and] they asked me why was here. I told the bank teller that I was a writer at the Workshop. [They then smiled.] There’s a sense of pride in people who are at the Workshop. It was fascinating.
Q: Why did you want to teach at Emerson?
Tshuma: First of all, I love Boston as a space. Its history of civil rights. It’s a very vibrant space. As a liberal arts college, it has a unique approach to the arts. I love that arts is the center, and that you can have robust conversations. It’s not a traditional curriculum. You’re able to design a class that is able to reflect upon and think creatively about a rapidly changing world. In my literature courses, I can shape questions about COVID, race, identity, all these social elements in America. The curriculum is innovative. More traditional programs struggle with that kind of thing.
Q: How has teaching been at Emerson during your first semester?
Tshuma: It hasn’t been as challenging as I thought it would be with COVID. One thing that was impressive was how Emerson managed to keep COVID rates low, that has been phenomenal. The students are eager to be here and eager to learn. (I’ve been teaching a mixture of in-person and online classes.)
Q: You’ve had an impressive and wide array of professional experiences. You’ve been a visiting assistant professor of fiction at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, you are on the editorial advisory board and an editor at The Bare Life Review, you’ve taught community fiction workshops globally. Which professional experience has been the greatest experience for you?
Tshuma: I would mention teaching at Awka in Nigeria at Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop. Being on the continent and teaching the craft of writing in Nigeria was a precious experience. I loved and cherished it… And teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop — I enjoyed my time there immensely as a student; that’s where I completed my novel, House of Stone. I was delighted to come back and teach alongside some of my wonderful mentors — Charles D’Ambrosio and Lan Samantha Chang.
Q: How would you describe your writing?
Tshuma: My current project and House of Stone — they’re very different books. My writing is driven by voice. The book set in Iowa City is very different from House of Stone, which is narrated by a male sociopath. The novel in Iowa City is narrated by a young woman, not unlike myself. Character for me is what propels language in writing. If you don’t have the character grounded in the story, you can’t apprehend the world since you aren’t grounded in the consciousness taking in that world.
Q: Why do you think House of Stone has been so critically acclaimed?
Tshuma: That is an interesting question to ask the writer. I think the novel’s ambition may have something to do with it, the scope of the history that it’s trying to tackle and how it tries to tackle that history, merging various forms and genres. Fifty years of Zimbabwean and world history.
With the sociopathic narrator, Zamani, the novel has been termed both a psychological thriller and a historical novel, and even as a historical novel, not in the conventional sense. It is, rather, a novel about history, that interrogates what history is, and how our understanding of the past continuously changes depending on where we are in the present, depending on what matters to us. In writing this book, I was trying to bend form around the history and space and idea that is Zimbabwe, to find a container that could capture things for which I did not then have sufficient language. I was as surprised as any new writer to see the kind of critical acclaim the work got. One may dream of it, but never expects it.
Q: How has living in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and the USA influenced you and your writing?
Tshuma: I feel what you could call perennial discomfort, which is comforting. I never feel at home. I’ve lived away from home for the past 12 years. I’ve been haunted by questions of home and what home means.
I encountered a lot of hostility in South Africa because I was Zimbabwean, and that was traumatizing for me. It was my first time seeing myself as “Zimbabwean,” and it was never meant in flattering ways, but in derogatory terms. That was my first taste of being “an immigrant.” I wanted to go back home but couldn’t; Zimbabwe has been in crisis for the past 20 years.
[My life] in the U.S. is unique, I think, for an immigrant, as I came as a student on a fellowship. I came through a privileged channel. It’s not the quintessential immigrant story. But what I really appreciate about being here is that I’ve been able to find a space in the U.S. as a writer and a thinker. The very fact that I’m teaching fiction at Emerson, the fact of the Lannan Fellowship, attests to that. The ability of the U.S., despite its challenges and contradictions, to make space for new people somehow. That’s my experience here. Here, I’m able to work on things that matter to me, to try and understand the world and work for a better one, which is a privilege. This is not to discount the hardships that others face, the disparities and inequalities in this society, the status of the U.S as an empire. But it has been my experience.
Q: If you were interviewing yourself, what would you ask?
Tshuma: I would ask about my literary influences. Gunter Grass, an infamous German writer. His novel, The Tin Drum, is phenomenal. It does things with language that are just so delightful, so innovative. Yvonne Vera, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Patricia Highsmith, Salman Rushdie, Alice Walker, among others.
Q: Anything else you’d like to talk about?
Tshuma: I’m really excited to be at Emerson at this time. I have great colleagues here. It’s been a great semester and the Lannan Fellowship is the cherry on top. I look forward to my time here.