Novelist, professor to read from highly acclaimed 'Cion'
Sept. 7, 2007
By Jennifer Krisch
"The story is told that the wizened old woman taught mothers never to love their children."
With such remarkable and shocking declarations, internationally renowned South African author and Ohio University Professor of English Zakes Mda draws us into the world of his latest novel, "Cion."
The acclaimed author will honor colleagues, friends and the local community with a public reading at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12, in the university's Walter Hall Rotunda.
To those unfamiliar with Mda's work, the reading will reveal why certain words appear again and again in respect to Mda and his body of work: stunning, exuberant, vivid, rich, essential, masterpiece. Critics nationally and abroad are singing those same praises for "Cion."
The winner of every South African literary prize, Mda is considered to be the most prominent South African writer of his generation. The New York Times Magazine writes Mda "may have a more central place in South Africa's literary and political spheres than any other novelist today."
Mail and Guardian, a South African magazine, proclaims the novel "a timely paean to the committed artist, 'Cion' is also a spirited meditation on identity, the past, memory and how it is yoked to the present. Ultimately, it is a daring, well-executed attempt by an African to unravel and make sense of the U.S."
In "Cion," Mda revisits Toloki, a professional South African mourner he introduced in his first novel, "Ways of Dying." Toloki comes to America for the first time. Set primarily in the Kilvert community of Athens County, the story tells how he becomes enraptured with his American host family, in particular its slave ancestry, told through generations of handcrafted quilts.
Mda intertwines Toloki's story with the tale of Nicodemus and Abednego, two young boys who escaped from a Virginia slave-breeding farm in the 1830s and made their way to freedom in Ohio, settling in Kilvert. Guiding them on their dangerous journey were two intricately woven quilts, sewn in codes that provide a map for the boys to the Ohio River and freedom beyond.
Set in 2004, the novel brings to light the unique heritage found in Kilvert, where the past and the community's multicultural heritage continue to thrive 200 years after the settling of the escaped slaves.
"I chose Kilvert because of the rich history of the place, with escaping African slaves and Irish settlers finding refuge there among the Native Americans," Mda said.
The area's quilting heritage was another draw.
Women continue to gather weekly for quilting bees at the Kilvert Community Center, the site of what is considered by Mda to be the book's official launch at 10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 14. Proceeds from book sales during the launch will be donated to the center.
"The novel is partly set in Kilvert," Mda said. "It is only fitting that the launch should be there."
Mda came to the United States to attend Ohio University, where he earned his undergraduate and master's degrees before returning South Africa, where he completed his doctorate at the University of Cape Town. Afterward, he returned to his Athens alma mater to teach creative writing in the English department. Mda also is an accomplished and published playwright and a painter.
Mda will spend the fall touring the country for book signings. But the major highlight of the season will be his stop in Philadelphia for the National Constitution Center's Liberty Medal Ceremony, this year honoring Irish singer Bono, of the popular band U2, for his activism in Africa. Mda has the distinction of being named the ceremony's official poet and will recite his work between a musical and dance portion of the ceremony and video about Bono.
"I will be reading a poem I wrote for the event," Mda said. "That is part of my brief as the featured poet there -- to compose a poem especially for the occasion."
Mda is the author of six novels, among them "Ways of Dying" (winner of the M-Net Award for best novel and the Olive Schreiner Prize), "The Heart of Redness" (winner of the Hurston/Wright LEGACY Award for Fiction; a New York Times Notable Book; Best Book, Africa Regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize; winner of the Sunday Times Fiction Award), "She Plays with the Darkness" (winner of the Sanlam Literary Award for Best Unpublished Novel), "The Madonna of Excelsior" (a New York Times Book Review Summer Reading Selection and an American Library Association Notable Book), "The Whale Caller" and, most recently, "Cion," already Essence Magazine's Book Club Pick for September 2007.
This story was updated at 4:03 p.m. Monday, Sept. 10, to note that Bono was being honored for his activism on the continent of Africa.