Somewhere between the first and 17th draft of her novel, “House of Stone,” Novuyo Rosa Tshuma found a voice.
She started the story about her native Zimbabwe written from an omniscient point of view but slowly found more riches in the voice of a wily narrator named Zamani, a manipulative and cunning storyteller and person, who frames her epic tale with the panache of literature’s great unreliable narrators. Which is to say, he treats history like a shattered platter, and pulls together the pieces and glues them together as he sees fit. It’s no longer a platter, but it ends up a work of art.
Tshuma’s “House of Stone” is a devastating and inviting piece of fiction that is earning its raves as a beyond notable first novel. Tshuma, who is working on a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature at the University of Houston, has created a story that doesn’t need the “debut” modifier. Her book slips like sand through fingers through time and voice, masterfully condensing the history of Zimbabwe to the point where the back story is informative and provocative but not cumbersome.
So early in the story one character asks another, “What is truth?” before interrupting the answer and then stating, “There’s no such thing as truth. Truth is optics. And there are so many options there, these days it’s all about choosing your flavor.”
Tshuma’s characters are the war debt when there is no truth. Theirs are lives with empty spaces about which they obsess, the paths their lives didn’t take.
Not surprisingly, Tshuma says she was reading George Orwell, an essay he wrote about literature and history.
“It says in authoritarian spaces, history is never learned,” she says. “It’s something to be created. Whether it’s individuals who are government figures or belief figures, it feels like they can defy facts. So I was interested in how people come to believe a thing that’s incorrect.”
She points out the early-1980s genocide in Zimbabwe as her portal. And it plays significantly into “House of Stone,” motivating some characters into action and leading others into an existence of passive defeat. Others flit between the two, with spells of inaction broken by moments of violence.
The tale is told by Zamani, a tenant in the home of Abednego and Agnes Mlambo. He found his way into their home and becomes a confidant when their son Bukhosi goes missing after attending a political rally.
His intentions are questionable from the beginning, as he plies the recovering alcoholic Abednego with drink and endears himself to Agnes. Yet he’s a charming storyteller, disarming with his wit, seemingly a dim youth looking to fill a familial void with two parents similarly seeking to fill the absence of their son.
Tshuma likens Zamani and his story to “a psychological study. About how much of our truths are constructed.”
He’s a bold choice of narrator that required numerous rewrites, as Tshuma went from a third-person omniscient story with some Zamani influence into a full first-person account either seen through his eyes or filtered through his mind.
The effect creates a stirring amount of tension as the story unfolds. And a dark story it is, as Tshuma gently threads the colonization of the African region by Cecil Rhodes into her story, and then Zimbabwe’s fight for independence, and the internal strife that followed. Her balance between the tightest and broadest focus is admirable and efficient.
In some ways, she sees Abednego as a metaphor for Zimbabwe. He’s capable of both tenderness and horrific violence.
“Those moments of violence are there for a reason,” Tshuma says. “For me, it gets to the question of what it is to love a nation, right? I love Zimbabwe. I was there in December, and I left nostalgic. There’s always an emotional attachment having grown up there. You smell the air, hear the voices.
“I’m glad I stuck with that character. Because I think he helps with presenting Zimbabwe and this fine line between victim and victimizer,” she continues. “And it’s such a fraught history. These ideas of guilt and shame and how to deal with that. After the genocide, there was this talk about forgiving each other. But to me, it wasn’t genuine. It was too much, ‘Let’s move on.’ And that isn’t dealing with what happened. So dormant things erupt.”
She says even in her own family, pleasantly flowing conversations shut down at the mention of the genocide, the Gukurahundi, that started in 1983 and left thousands — possibly tens of thousands — dead. The Zimbabwe National Army wiped out a sizable population of Ndebele civilians. And as Tshuma points out in the book, “Gukurahundi” — a single word — has a devastating loose translation, referring to “the rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rain.”
Our narrator was conceived during this event, connecting him closely to the nation’s original sin. And the flashes to moments from the Gukurahundi in the book are not for the faint of heart.
At times, Tshuma thought the dark moments might be too much. Working through parts of the book at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop years ago persuaded her to take an unflinching approach.
“I always felt like I needed to rush through the genocide section,” she says. “To push through these moments. But I was encouraged to stay in the moment. It was difficult to rewrite and work through.”
From Zimbabwe to Iowa
Tshuma originally left Zimbabwe with her mother, a teacher, living in South Africa, where she went to college and studied economics and finance. But fiction called to her, and she found her way to Iowa, where she got her MFA.
“I remembered the first snow,” she says. “I’d never seen anything like that. A friend said, ‘Just wait …’”
She left Iowa in 2015 and then moved to Houston to get her Ph.D. at the University of Houston. Here she continued working on the book.
It published in Europe late last year and comes out in the States this month. She reads Tuesday at Brazos Bookstore. The reading should be something akin to a dance, so light and deft is Tshuma’s prose. Hers is a novel without a wasted sentence, radiant with its descriptions of people and spaces and moments.
Beauty in repetition
Yet her dialog pulls back from the poetry to mimic a realistic sound. I ask Tshuma about one line of dialog, and she doesn’t even recognize the wonder in the repetition she used as a writer.
The line was about Blooma: “Blooma bread is the most tasteless tasting bread I have ever tasted,” one character says.
The repetition is tantalizing yet, asked about it, Tshuma sidesteps any credit for the repetition and minimalism. Her face puckers up just a moment. “Blooma,” she says. “You think tasteless wouldn’t be bad. But it is.”
The riches of “House of Stone” come in all sorts of packages, both flowery and, well, bready.
But mostly the book is a testament to love: of interconnectivity and how things can be tragic when connections are mad. But also how an absence of those connections can create spaces we seek to fill. That can apply to family as well as nation. Tshuma sees history as a circulatory system rather than a timeline, with interconnected parts reliant upon one another.
“I wrote this book to try to understand our history,” she says. “We grew up in Zimbabwe knowing some of it, knowing there was this genocide. But it was not something we spoke about.”
She started thinking about it in 2011, when she and her mother were living in South Africa.
“Originally I studied the history and worked with it in this novel, that was chronological,” she says.
But as one of her characters says, “Always you must be looking over your shoulder to see what history is plotting for your future.”
Mention of that line prompts her to mention Gunter Grass’ 1959 novel “The Tin Drum,” which she read and reread and cites as an influence. Without mimicking Grass’ work, she wanted to similarly parse Zimbabwe’s history the way Grass did Germany’s.
“History very much is living,” Tshuma says, noting her family was more than happy to talk about Zimbabwe’s liberation from the enduring colonization of the Rhodesian government.
But the genocide brought conversations to a halt. Her hope is the book falls closer to reconciliation than retribution, but only by being honest about the past and narrowing the narratives.
“There’s something in there about nature and nurture,” she says. “And there’s a lot about an older generation having its story. But I’ve heard from people who tell me that conflict represents their family. Different generations dealing with different sides of the same thing.”