Zakes Mda, playwright, poet and godfather of the indigenous South African novel, treads the path that brought him to his latest novel…
Words: Nancy Richards
“I nearly didn’t write any other novels after Ways of Dying. An editor at Heinemann African Writers Series turned it down calling it ‘feminist diatribe’ – so I thought, perhaps I’m not a novelist, perhaps I better stick to plays,” says Mda.
Ironically, some time later the very same editor, then a judge for the prestigious Noma Awards chose Zakes Mda’s first novel (1995) as best in the English language. The much-acclaimed, iconic book is now a classic, having been turned into a play and a jazz opera, and luckily Mda has kept on writing novels. Many, but not all, are historical. “I love history because it speaks about the present – the past is always a strong presence in our present.”
His own history certainly impacts his present writing. “Stories created me – we are all products of stories, all actors in a story.
I grew up in Orlando East and Dobsonville, and during holidays we’d go to the Eastern Cape. My grandfather, a chief in the area, would tell us stories of some of the great heroes, especially his grandfather Mhlontlo, who was then king of amaMpondomise in Qumbu and who assassinated the notoriously cruel British magistrate, Hamilton Hope.” And so the seeds for his latest book Little Suns were sown.
Decades later, with many more books, under his belt, Mda revisited this story.
“It was sparked when I had to put in a research proposal for a residence at Stellenbosch [University]. It was an opportunity, their library is very rich, and because Mhlontlo went into exile in Lesotho for 20 years, was enticed back, arrested and tried in King William’s Town, a trial he won, it was important to get the court records. It was also important for me to get oral traditions – what the people of the area knew. Interesting was that Hope was killed with two of his [white] aides. One of their descendants is still around, and his mother has a lot of material from that period which I had access to via another scholar who was studying this period extensively.”
Research is a never-ending journey. But as committed as Mda is to telling history exactly as it happened, “I don’t subvert, and the characters I make no worse nor better than they were”. In all his novels you’ll find a love story.
Maybe not a conventional one, he says, but (in this case) the fictional love story creates the narrative arc that holds the history together. “The story is the quest by Mhlangana who, following his return from exile with Mhlontlo, sought out his beautiful Mthwakazi, for whom he’d been pining for years. His story interacts with history in the way that those people who lived then might have done.”
He cut his reading teeth at an early age on AC Jordan’s translation of Ingqumbo Yeminyanya (The Wrath of the Ancestors) followed by a slew of comics. His one and only short story Igqira lase Mvubase was published aged 13 in a youth magazine called Wamba.
Mda takes the integrity of writing very seriously. In his autobiography he describes himself as ‘a migrant worker’ – commuting as he does between South Africa and the US where he’s a professor of creative writing at Ohio University – and as an ‘outsider’ which has ‘less to do with geography than a state of mind’.
Ultimately, he says, “The main purpose of my novels, this one in particular, is to teach my children where we come from – so it’s important that I record history as faithfully as possible.”
Little Suns (R230) is published by Umuzi, part of Random House Struik