Storyteller turns pen to own tales

31 May 2011 - 01:03 By Andrea Nagel

'It was time to tell my own story," says Zakes Mda, the prolific and critically acclaimed South African author whose latest book, Sometimes there is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider, is an autobiography.

"I think that I've lived a life people would like to read about."

The son of AP Mda, political activist, teacher, lawyer and co-founder of the ANC Youth League as well as its president in 1947, Mda's life has been saturated with the politics of his country.

"Whether I like it or not, my father has been an enormous influence in my life. I grew up surrounded by his books and stories. He filled the house with Dickens, Shakespeare and the Bronte sisters, to name a few," he says.

"Father haunts me like a song that persistently rings in my head," Mda writes on the penultimate page of the book.

"Like a jazz number that wriggles itself in and out of my consciousness."

The autobiography is full of Mda's intimate recollections that flow in and out of his relationship with his father and his deep connection with the man.

"I wrote the story for a readership, but more than that I wrote it for myself," he says.

"I thought I needed to make sense of the events of my life, the history that I have lived through, in the process of writing.

"To some extent I wanted to address the demons in my life."

Like demons, the characters in Mda's autobiography haunt him, both filling the "void" of the title and making it wider.

"Each artistic product lessens the 'void' a little, allowing us to come to terms with aspects of ourselves through examination," says Mda.

"The void is what we all have as human beings, what we don't know about ourselves or about those with whom we share our lives."

In his novels, Mda fills this void with his imagination.

"I write my imaginary characters based on memories that I have which I paint with my imagination. The process of writing an autobiography relies on memory too, but with less imagination involved.

"In this book I am the main character, but I still use the narrative tools as I would in a work of fiction; constructing the narrative, including some memories in the story of my life and leaving out others. It's a process of my own selection."

Mda has not, however, shied away from the intimate and personal and, to me, it is this that makes the work so intriguing.

"There are a lot of skeletons in my cupboard," he says with a mischievous grin that suggests the rebellious nature of the man.

"As I've said, I was very influenced by my father, although I resisted what he stood for. His life had a great impact on me and moulded me into who I have become. I tell my creative writing students: from the characters the story emerges. It's the same with life: the characters have defined the story of my life."

Although Mda lays his life before the reader in all its intimate detail, he still feels alienated, and it is this quality of Mda that the reader is most profoundly left with.

"My life is filled with characters and I'm constantly writing. I have hardly any solitude, and yet I still feel a deep sense of alienation. It's my human condition and one that I've accepted," he says, signing the inner sleeve of my copy of the book as we prepare to part ways.