Sept. 14, 2005
By Elizabeth Weinstein
Zakes Mda's first drafts are always his final drafts. A man of great confidence and conviction, Mda is not one to over-analyze or rethink his own words -- he leaves that task to the critics. While many a writer might find it hard to fathom Mda's decidedly uncomplicated approach, it works for him. The prolific writer and professor of creative writing at Ohio University has written six critically lauded novels, some 30 plays, one collection of poetry and an academic book.
"I don't rewrite. All of my novels are first drafts," he says while seated in his compact but comfortable office in Ellis Hall. Mda's confidence, however, is hard won. The native South African, who through the years has come to call Athens, Ohio, his home away from home, has emerged at the forefront of a movement of South African novelists who use their art to grapple with and move beyond their country's dark past.
The One Who Brings the Rain
The writer was born Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni ("The One Who Brings the Rain") Mda, in 1948 in the Hesrchel District of the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. He spent his early childhood in Soweto and finished his secondary education in Lesotho, where his father lived.
He found his calling at a young age. "I've been writing my whole life. I started writing at the age of six or so. I was first published at 16 -- a short story," he says.
Fate brought Mda to Ohio University, and America, for the first time in 1981. At the time, he was working in Lesotho as a cultural affairs specialist for the United States Information Agency. One day, he came across a theater journal with an advertisement for a Master of Fine Arts program in playwriting through Ohio University's School of Theater.
He was already a published playwright when he moved to Athens to study for three years. In fact, Mda spent much of his life in South Africa and Lesotho writing for the theater, most of the time on commission; writing novels is a relatively new pursuit for him.
"I've only been writing novels in the last ten years or so, so I'm still very excited about writing novels," he explains. "Right from the first sentence I am quite excited. I look forward to the next day when I can sit down at the computer and interact with the characters one more time."
According to Mda, it was uncommon for black South Africans to write novels in the days of apartheid. With the end of apartheid in 1994, however, that is changing, and Mda is often cited -- including recently in Newsweek magazine -- as being amongst a prominent group of emerging Black South African novelists.
"In South Africa, during apartheid, the situation put a lot of pressure on us to write works that were more immediate. Works such as poetry...works such as theater, plays, ...we didn't have the luxury of the time to sit and focus on a work that would take us many months or years. There were immediate demands that your work should go out there and do something for the struggle against apartheid," Mda says.
Today, however, many writers are turning to novels, he explains. "Now, in the post-apartheid years, we are free," he says. "We have all the luxury now to sit down and focus on one single piece of work that will take you 12 months or two years to write. We don't have the pressure that was put upon us by the situation at the time."
Mda is enjoying the freedom to experiment with narrative styles and techniques. And like many writers, he has fallen into a ritual over the years. Whenever he begins a new novel, he must start it on Christmas Day.
"It started with my first novel, 'Ways of Dying' (in 1991)," he says. "It happened by chance that it was on Christmas Day. ...I was home alone with my little four-month-old son. My wife had gone to church. I thought, well, what am I going to do now, now that I am home with my little boy and he is not giving me any problems? I had never written a novel before. I had just bought a computer for the first time. All my previous work had been written longhand. So I thought it was high time now I got into the technological age." He started typing, and has not slowed down since.
Much of his work employs magical realism. Mda considers this his mode of writing, he says, elaborating on the term: "In magical realism, you'll find that the supernatural or the strange or the unusual exist in the same context as objective reality, and you'll find that it will be taken for granted by the characters, and therefore by the readers, as if it did not contradict our laws of reality. The characters just take it in a deadpan manner."
Magical realism is a concept Mda often teaches to his literature students. Mda returned to his alma mater in the fall of 2002 to teach African literature. He intended to stay only one year -- the duration of the position -- but when another position opened up in creative writing, he decided to make Athens his home "indefinitely."
"I'm quite happy here," he says with his usual confidence and an easy smile.
Locale Inspiration: From South Africa to Kilvert, Ohio
Mda is inspired to write, he says, by locales -- he finds stories wherever life happens to take him. "A lot of my fiction first begins with a place," he says. "I see a place and I think, 'This is a beautiful setting for a story.' And then from there I create characters who interact with that place, and of course interact among themselves."
When his advising appointments are done for the day, Mda opens up a document on his computer -- it is the first chapter of his upcoming novel, "Cion," a title he chose early on. As with the rest of his work, once Mda settles on a title, it is final. "I don't have 'working titles,'" he says casually. He's written seven pages and already knows exactly what will happen in the novel, and when and how it will happen.
The novel is already sparking interest in the publishing world.
"Publishers are already fighting over this," Mda says, but he is not boasting -- publishers have reason to be excited. "Cion" will follow on the heels of "The Whale Caller," (Penguin Books, South Africa, 2005), published in the United States this September to similar anticipation. "The Whale Caller," which Mda completed in June 2004, was inspired by the whales in Hermanus, on the western coast of South Africa. "Whale watchers, people come from all over the world to look at whales," he says. "I decided that I would create my fiction around that situation."
Further, "The Whale Caller" is a love story, "a very emotionally charged story. The eternal triangle -- man, woman, whale," says Mda with a smile. The Whale Caller blows his horn for one whale in particular, Sharisha, a southern right whale who always answers when he calls. Conflict ensues when a woman, Saluni, enters the life of the Whale Caller, and she must compete with Sharisha for attention.
Mda's five previous novels before "The Whale Caller" -- which include "The Madonna of Excelsior," "The Heart of Redness" and "Ways of Dying" -- were all well-received by critics. "The Madonna of Excelsior" is based on an actual trial that took place in South Africa three decades ago, in which fourteen African women were charged with breaking the Immortality Act, which outlawed sexual relationships between Whites and Blacks. Benjamin Austen of Harper's magazine called the book "among the most profound and revealing portraits of life in post-apartheid South Africa.
Anderson Tepper of The Village Voice called "Ways of Dying," the story of a professional mourner whose job is to comfort grieving families in South Africa, a "rollicking, at times whimsical, tour through the dying days of apartheid." It received the Olive Schreiner and M-Net Book Prizes, and has been adapted into a play and a jazz opera.
Recently, actress Glenn Close inquired about optioning the rights to "Ways of Dying" for a film, but she was too late. A British South African production company already optioned the book years ago, and the film is in pre-production. Mda says he hopes Close will contact the company and discuss joining forces on the project. "The Heart of Redness," also set in South Africa, won the prestigious Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2001.
The Quilts of Kilvert
"Cion" represents a departure for Mda, whose writing to date has mostly been tied to life and history in his homeland -- South Africa. It is set, conveniently, in Athens County, in the village of Kilvert, Ohio. Like much of Mda's work, "Cion" explores events of the past through events of the present.
"The concept is an old concept of mine that I have used in other novels before, whereby I shuttle between the present and the past, with a view of showing how that past has influenced the present. In a lot of my fiction, you'll find that what I'm trying to show is that the past is always a strong presence in our present," he explains.
Mda found prime material for a novel in Kilvert. The town and community, Mda said, came into being during the days of the Underground Railroad, when escaping slaves from the South sought refuge in Southeastern Ohio. They intermarried with the Native Americans and Irish-Americans already settled in the area, and from these marriages a new ethnic group -- referred to by some as the WIN (white, Indian and Negro) people and by sociologists as the "tri-racial isolates" -- emerged.
Mda is particularly interested in the formation of the community, as well as life in the community today. The only tidbit he is willing to divulge about the story is that the main character is "an observer."
Twice a week, Mda travels to Kilvert as part of his research, and since quilting is a major part of the WIN community (and will thus be a major part of his story), he is learning to quilt.
"Quilts play a very big role. The story unfolds through quilts. The quilts become the framing narrative. Quilts become the vehicle for which we are able to go back to the past. These quilts are still there," he says, excitedly. "My characters are based on the things that happened there. The quilts are very important. ...Life itself happened on those quilts. People were made on those quilts. People were born on those quilts. People got sick on those quilts. People died on those quilts. Those quilts contain the whole life cycle. The souls of these people are in their quilts."
The most difficult part of the writing process for Mda is the end. "When I get to the final period...it becomes a very painful experience for me now to say goodbye to those characters," he says. When the final word hits the page, there are often tears of mourning. Nonetheless, what is done is done.
"I don't go back and analyze my work, I never do that," he explains. It's a leap of faith, but for Mda, it never fails.
Mda's latest novel, "The Whale Caller," a magical story of love and madness on the shores of the new South Africa, was published in the United Kingdom (Viking), Canada (Penguin) and South Africa (Penguin) in August 2005.
Elizabeth Weinstein was a graduate student in the office of research communications.