Author: Laila Lalami, Tendai Huchu
Moderator: Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner moderated the book chat on Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s account and Tendai Huchu’s The Mestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician.
Starting with the identity of the Mustafa, the central character in her novel, Laila said “I see identity as something that is fluid.” She spoke of often getting the question “What are you, not who are you.” And how that shows people “trying to figure out what is your actual national origin.”
On being sensitive to names, Laila revealed that the spelling of her last name comes from a French colonial officer who transcribed it wrongly. “There is a connection between our names and our history,” she said. And the interruption of that from the outside was something she had wanted to write about.
Two of the characters (the mathematician and the magistrate) in Tendai’s novel talk about how fiction is irrelevant. Tendai spoke of how, while writing the novel, he was thinking about what it is that fiction does, about how fiction doesn’t always solve material concerns of the world like hunger.
“I have many doubts as to what it is this art form is for or what it does,” he said, “especially when people start talking about how it can transform society and all those things. I’m a bit of a skeptic, and I think it was part of my own personal skepticism appearing through the characters. But I also thought it would be cool to have characters themselves that are saying that this thing that we are in is nonsense.”
To that, Laila said, “What is going to be left after all of us are dead is going to be the stories that we leave behind.”
Tendai pointed to the character of the Magistrate in his novel and how we never get to know his real name. He also tied this to Mustafa’s transition to Estebanico in Laila’s novel and how names can be powerful signifiers, which, inevitably, led to Trump.
Tendai, in closing the chat, spoke about reading Brian Chikwava’s Harare North and, at the time, seeing the language and wondering how they were publishing that and not his work. On returning to it later, he saw what Brian did with language. He paid homage to Brian’s work in his own novel, by writing in parts that were like taking pot shots at a younger arrogant version of him.
IfeOluwa Nihinlola edits and writes essays and short stories. He blogs at ifenihinlola.wordpress.com.