For quite a few years, more people found my website searching for “Zakes Mda” than for any other term; this interview with him, originally published on the now-defunct Africana.com, has been cited in a number of scholarly works about Mda.
I first picked up Zakes Mda’s novel She Plays With Darkness at the Grahamstown Arts Festival in South Africa in 1995. It captivated me, and a few months later I set out to visit Lesotho, the tiny, land-locked country where it is set.
I traveled via mini-bus taxi, which is cheap and communal, but you have to wait around until there are enough passengers to justify the gas. This wasn’t a big deal when leaving Cape Town, but I lost more than 24 hours waiting for a connection in Bloemfontein. If you think you are one of those people who never gets bored, try spending a Sunday in Bloem.
After a night or two in Maseru, the capital city with some international nonprofits and embassies, but dirt roads not far from the main drag, I headed out to the hills. I was bent on riding a Basuto pony up in the remote mountains, and I did, in the farthest reaches I’ve ever been from “town life.”
About a decade later, working in Washington, DC, I learned that two of Mda’s books were finally being published in the US, so I suggested an interview with him. Getting to him involved more mountains, including a late-night breakdown in the hills of West Virginia.
Here’s the original piece:
When Zakes Mda was just thirteen, he published his first short story in his mother tongue, Xhosa. Soon afterward his family fled South Africa in exile to Lesotho, and he began writing in English. After penning some thirty plays in as many years, he started to write enormously popular novels about the politics of race, sex, and place after the collapse of apartheid. During the first decade of his country’s democracy, Mda won all the major literary prizes there, such as the M-Net and CNA awards. Two of his novels, The Madonna of Excelsior and She Plays With the Darkness, have just been released in the United States.
Africana.com met with Mda recently at Ohio University in Athens — he earned a degree there in the early ’70s — where he is teaching creative writing and African literature for the year.
You had a long career as a successful playwright. What motivated your change to fiction?
I’ve always wanted to write a novel. But I never thought that it was possible for me to write sustained prose. I’m really a dialogue man.
I completed my PhD at the University of Cape Town where I wrote a thesis. I said, yeah, maybe, I can write sustained prose. Then I bought a computer for the first time. I had never used a computer before. I wrote longhand and gave it to a typist or typed it myself with my two fingers. I was a visiting residence fellow at Yale at the time and I bought this old IBM computer from a student. And I thought, well, now that I had a computer, what would I do with it? I thought well, I might as well write a novel.
It happened on Christmas day in 1992, when my wife had gone to church. I was at home with my little boy, who was four months old at the time. I sat at the computer and I was just playing around with things trying to figure out how it worked. And the first lines that I typed were, ‘There are many ways of dying.’ This was just, you know, practicing how to use the darn thing. And I was struck by these lines. I thought, well, let me proceed. Let me just go on. Then I continued to write. By the time my wife came back from church, I had one page — one whole page — of what later became my novel, Ways of Dying. That’s how it came into being, you see.
Another factor, that of course on looking back, I now realize that — ah! — the end of apartheid played a role also in that transition.
You see, during apartheid we really didn’t have the luxury to sit down and focus on one piece of work that would take months and months on end to complete. Novel writing is a very solitary activity. It demands patience and all that. During apartheid, generally, with black writers, we focused on short stories. We focused on plays, and on poems. You see, those are much more immediate. You write a poem because you are going to perform it that afternoon at a funeral or at a street rally.
Our poetry is performance poetry, it’s not poetry that you write just to read. It is not art for its own sake. You write a play because there are issues that must be put on the table. Our work was highly political and it was used as a weapon against apartheid, as a weapon for destroying apartheid.
So during this period of transition things were more relaxed. There were no longer any demands on us — demands that were imposed by ourselves, you know, as oppressed citizens of South Africa — there were no longer those demands that were imposed on ourselves for those immediate works. We could afford now to sit back and write our novels. Today, for the first time in the history of literature in South Africa, you will find more novels than ever before. We’ve never had a period as we’re having now.
Do you prefer the process of writing novels?
The experience itself of writing a novel was so enjoyable that I decided that this would be the main thing that I focus on. I enjoyed the process itself of interacting with my characters, but I never really enjoyed writing when I was focused on plays. Writing was an agony, you know, the process itself. Of course there would be that joy with the fulfillment of the finished product. But with novels, the joy begins with the very first word. You know, I actually look forward to waking up in the morning and sitting at the computer to interact with my characters. And just having a ball. Yes.
The character that I used in that novel [Ways of Dying] was a character that I’d created a year before. When I was creating this character there was no story for that character. I don’t create a character because there is a story. I create a character because I think it would be interesting to have a person like that, you see. I take time, brick by brick, to build a character, down to the smallest detail. Some of these things you’ll never see in the novel itself.
In addition to the focus on characters in your novels, there’s also a very solid grounding in the physical space.
Place is key. To me place is not just background for my cast of characters. The place in fact is so important that many of my novels are suggested by the place. I ask, what kind of character would be in a place like this? And what would they be doing here? What happens is determined by who that character is and what that place is all about.
So with The Madonna of Excelsior, was it the physical town Excelsior that inspired the novel? Or did you create the character Popi first?
This is the only novel where a memory of the events was the starting point. This is how it happened. I love to drive around in South Africa. It’s open country there, and I enjoy the freedom. Sometimes I just get into my car and I just drive. Without any destination. I just go. But usually, the car takes me to the province of the Free State. I drive through the Free State and then I go toward some of the small towns there. The sky is so big, that’s what affected me the most. The big sky you see.
This is an interesting area. It was a very racist province during the days of apartheid. You have your Afrikaners, you have your black people — Basotho people, in some regions the Batswana people. Various cultures. They interact in these very racist towns.
I said to myself, this is an interesting place for a novel. I asked myself, but what would this novel be about? Then I remembered the events of this trial, a scandal, the talk of the day.
These Afrikaners were sleeping around with black women. Stories like that were everyday stories. Every day there would be a trial somewhere in South Africa that a white man was sleeping with a black woman, either by consent or by force or coercion. But what was unique was that it was a whole gang, and then many black women had children as a result. And then there was this trial that was embarrassing the government. And then some of the men tried to kill themselves. It was a scandal to the extent that the government had to put pressure on the prosecutors to withdraw the case. That also became another scandal, you see that.
I only went there [to Excelsior] when I knew the story I wanted to write. But the place actually did suggest the story as well. Not Excelsior itself per se, but the Free State and the other small towns in it, Excelsior being one of them. They all look the same.
During the trial, some of the women had babies. My main interest in the story was, what happened to those children? What are they doing today in the new South Africa? And when I went there of course, people didn’t want to talk about this.
Fortunately I went to a bar. Somebody said there was a man there who might have information. As we were discussing this, there were some black guys drinking bottles there on the floor. One of them stood up and said, ‘Hey, I can help you. In fact, my mother was one of those women. I have a sister as a result of these events.’ He took me around. They are my very close friends now.
Is he similar in character to Viliki in the book, or do they just share the life experience of having a sister borne from this affair?
Well, I stole many things from his life. The politics that I’m talking about in that book are the politics of Excelsior. But then of course I add my own magic. His mother is not a beekeeper; she’s just an ordinary woman living in a shack somewhere. It’s just an ordinary South African life. They can be very dull sometimes. I recreated them.
Of course, he goes around Excelsior now calling himself Viliki — boasting that it was him in the book!
You’ve been very successful as a novelist, but you’ve decided to take this post teaching university students for a year.
I do enjoy the very act of teaching. Even when I was working as a full-time writer in South Africa, I was a drama teacher at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. I held regular workshops for young writers there. It is that whole idea of exchanging ideas with the younger generation that I find fascinating. It’s a symbiotic relationship, you gain a lot.
For seven years, I was not teaching, I was a full-time writer and it was wonderful time. Why have I come now to punish myself and make my writing suffer? I ask myself that sometimes.
The creative writing courses, like the one you’re teaching to undergrads, are offered in most English programs here. They’re still not common in South Africa, are they?
When I was back in South Africa in December, I was talking with my good friend Nadine Gordimer. She said to me, ‘I’m surprised that you’re teaching such a course. Because you and I know that writing cannot be taught.’
We didn’t go to formal writing programs, as they do now. In America today it’s been years since such programs have been offered. In fact, you’d be hard put to find a contemporary writer who hasn’t taught.
Do you believe in this American pedagogy? Can you teach somebody to write?
You can’t teach talent — but perhaps you can teach the craft, techniques. But I read, I learned how to write from what I read.
Which books did you learn the most from?
When I was a kid I read comic books. DC comics, Marvel. Not so much the superheroes, though I read these too. Richie Rich, Spooky, Little Lotta, Casper the Friendly Ghost. It’s from these comic books that I got a sense of narrative.
I still read comics, now mostly European ones. I have a whole collection [he raises his hand to his torso to indicate a tall stack] of Asterix. One of the pair, the writer, died. The artist continues, he tries to create stories. They look the same, but now the stories are lousy.
Why did you decide to come back to Athens, Ohio, instead of teaching at home?
My wife wanted to come to America and do her PhD. I resisted for a long time. If it was Yale or Harvard, I would not have gone.
When I was here there were places that left an impression on me. I thought it would be interesting to read a story that was set here. That was more than thirty years ago. I could not really talk in terms of writing a novel then. It was just a wish: if somebody — not me — if somebody would write a novel set here, it would be an interesting novel.
So when this opportunity came, I thought, maybe that novel that I thought somebody should write — maybe I can actually write it now.
I’m already jotting down notes for the Athens novel. My process is always like that. As I’m writing the current novel, I’m jotting down notes for the next one. I go from time to time to the place where this novel is set, just a few miles outside this town in a small village. I meet the people from time to time. I’ll go to the archives. Like The Heart of Redness, it’s set in the historical past, in the 1800s. During the days of slavery, when there are slaves escaping. It’s also set today, looking at the generations of the WIN people, as they are called.
What does that mean, WIN?
WIN stands for White-Indian-Negro. In sociology they call them tri-racial isolates. It’s a community that got isolated and evolved on its own, with its own culture and dialect. They came from merging and mixing amongst those different cultures and merged as a new community a hundred and something years ago. You do have those pockets of communities around this part of Appalachia. They have a very, very strong oral tradition. So that’s what I’m writing about.