Zakes Mda's latest novel could be his last, and you won't believe what's next
South African literary legend Zakes Mda lives in the US, but was in Joburg recently, where he spoke to Jennifer Platt about his latest book, the next surprising chapter of his life, and the several places he calls home
Not long into a conversation with Zakes Mda, a devastating blow comes out of nowhere. "The Zulus of New York is my last novel," he says.
He adds ". hopefully" to this sentence, which is not much comfort for an avid fan of his fiction.
Mda is one of SA's most important writers. We are chatting in a Johannesburg guesthouse, where he is staying while on tour to promote The Zulus of New York, his latest book, before returning to his home in Ohio, US.
Mda is as composed as always when he makes this shocking announcement, showing all the assurance and warmth that draws people to him. He has the same compassion for the characters in his books.
His protagonist in The Zulus of New York, which is set in the 1800s, is Em-pee (anglicised for Western audiences from Mpi, short for Mpiyezintombi).
Mpi goes back home to KwaZulu-Natal after having performed Zulu dances with shield and assegai in freak circus shows in London and New York. He returns to a place colonised by the British after the battle of Isandlwana while Mpi was overseas.
Although he is likable and friendly, with a deep belly laugh, Mda can also be fierce, as he demonstrates in a mild hypothetical disagreement about whether Mpi should have returned to SA.
"He has the choice to go home and fight. He can now do the dances where he was meant to," he insists.
We move on from this debate when he drops the bombshell about this being his last novel. But, he says reassuringly, he has not stopped writing. This does not mean retirement for the man of so many talents.
He is co-producing the film version of his fourth book, The Madonna of Excelsior, written in 2005 and set in the Free State in 1971. It focuses on the relationship of a mixed-race couple during apartheid, when this was illegal.
The book is told by Niki, the fallen madonna, and has all the hallmarks of a great Mda work - a deep exploration of characters, their motives and their complicated relationships, with the politics of the time hanging over them.
With 12 novels under his belt, Mda now wants to tell tales for children with his son Neo, a graphic and animation artist. Mda becomes animated himself, laughing and full of glee when he talks about this. "We're working on a fantasy feature film for the big screen about some little creatures who live in a volcano. Have you ever heard of them?"
Mda is also stretching his talents in another direction by working on the libretto for an opera about his great-great-great-great-grandmother Mamani (he writes briefly about her in his previous book, Little Suns), who lived in the 1700s and was one of the first people to live openly as a homosexual.
When her father died in the middle of the 18th century, she took the throne, even though she was a woman. She became king (not queen) and sent emissaries to get her a bride. Mda is writing this part of his history for South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza, who is now in Stuttgart, Germany.
I am not getting much help from my own elders as they are very angry with her. It's not something they want to talk about
"Pumeza is a gay activist so this is a story that she found very attractive and she is busy putting it all together. It's a bit difficult to write the libretto as I have a lot of research to do. I only have the thin story of Mamani's gay marriage, which was the first to be recognised in the community in SA.
"I am not getting much help from my own elders as they are very angry with her. It's not something they want to talk about. They were actually disappointed that I heard about this story. Fortunately, the white man wrote it down, and then I asked the elders. I asked, 'Why do we leave it out when we recite our genealogy? She belongs in our history.'"
Feature film, graphic animation, opera . and that's not all, folks. This 71-year-old paints too. "That's my day job," he says. "My studio is in Ohio and the galleries I work with are there as well."
One thing he has mostly left behind is poetry. "I'm a lousy poet, you know. I don't like poetry that much. Once in a while something that poses as poetry comes into my head and I write it down."
RICHNESS COMES FROM WRITING
For Mda, everything is about story. "I'm always driven by the story. It's not about the theme, the so-called message, political agenda or the moral of the story . Those happen organically in the process of telling the story. A story just happens. An idea strikes you because you have seen something and it demands to be written. It tells you: 'Hey, I'm a story. Write me!' The story tells you how you should tell it."
Mda says The Zulus of New York was easy to write. "It was a very simple book. It has no complexities and things like that." In fact, none of Mda's novels are difficult to understand. Their richness comes from the writing and his ability to pull the reader right into the world of the characters.
His most famous bestseller, The Heart of Redness, still reverberates today, with its exploration of the difficulties and disappointments experienced by an exile who leaves America to return to his home country, SA.
The Zulus of New York contains similar themes. It is a story of homecoming, pride and embracing your country. Mda says: "I wanted to write a story which was really about dignity. Which is why I had to look at other sources of African philosophy. I came across the Dinka people - who actually call themselves the Jieng people - whose core value is dignity. Their lives are centred on dignity. Dignity has its own aesthetic and it is a lifelong goal to attain it. Dignity and memory are the two values of the Dinka people."
His favourite children
"There are novels that I like for different reasons. I like 'Little Suns' because it's about my family.
I like 'The Whale Caller' because for me it's emotionally wrenching.
I think I'm going to like 'The Zulus of New York' if it becomes successful.
Even though Mda delves deeply into history for his backgrounds, he never alienates the reader with tedious historical exposition or florid, period-style writing.
"A lot of writers of historical fiction try to give their narration gravitas - grand historical gravitas - with very formal, heavy language," he says. "I always want to write in the present voice, even when I'm writing in the past. Because I don't want to pretend. I want it to be known that I am writing now. And, incidentally, writing in the now means I'm dealing with the issues of today in this historical novel."
Mda is fascinated by the telling of our past in ways that do not rely on the dominant narratives in textbooks. "That's my key goal," he says. "To tell history from a different perspective. This happened as I was growing up.
"I was always told stories of my ancestry, the various characters in the life of my family and clan. I can recite my genealogy for the past 500 years. I can tell you from the beginning when my elder left the great lakes to come down. His name was Sibiside. He begot that son, who begot that son, and so on until we get to my grandfather and my father and me."
HISTORY: A MERGING OF STORIES
"With some, we remember only their names. But there are those ancestors who did things and we will remember them for a specific event. We are able to take this oral tradition and then compare it with history that is recorded by historians. We look at when this event could have happened. Then we are able to marry the two. In some instances not; in some instances the oral stories have become mythologised. There is magic and there are legends.
"You have to sift through that, compare legends with historical records and then go to primary sources, the letters that people wrote and the newspapers of that time and so on. And you bring this all together and recreate that world."
Mda's own history, in terms of his lifetime, is just as fascinating. He was born in Herschel, in the Eastern Cape, in 1948. His mother was a nurse; his father a stern disciplinarian who was a teacher before he became a lawyer. His father was a founding member of the ANC Youth League in 1947 and a co-founder of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania.
In the 1960s, the family went into exile in Lesotho.
Mda's favourite childhood memory is from when he and his family were still living in the Eastern Cape.
"I remember vividly when my father was a high-school teacher at St Teresa's, a Catholic school. He would walk around and read from Shakespeare, because he taught literature. I would follow him, carrying a newspaper under my arm. There was a photograph of this, which is maybe why it is stuck in my mind."
Mda recites from Macbeth the lines that live on in his mind since his father used to declaim them with little Zakes toddling along behind him:
I'm a lousy poet, you know. I don't like poetry that much. Once in a while something that poses as poetry comes into my head and I write it down
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Mda has three brothers but remains in close touch with only one, who works as a magistrate in Kokstad. "His twin went to America about 30 years ago and never came back - we live in the same state there [Ohio] but we haven't seen each other for 10 years or so. He keeps to himself.
"My other brother is a legislator in Lesotho. When we came back to SA after living in exile, he decided to stay there. And then there was my sister, who died from Aids-related complications. My only sister. She was a fashion designer."
Mda says there are multiple places that he thinks of as home.
"Lesotho is still home for me as well. We all lived in the Eastern Cape, we all lived in Lesotho, we all lived in Soweto. Well, I lived in Soweto mostly. I have memories of all those places."
His idea of family is a much wider and broader one, taking in generations of ancestors.
"I have tried to write my family's stories as much as I can. There is a book called The Tongue is Fire [by Harold Scheub, a professor of African languages and literature and a scholar of the Xhosa oral tradition], which contains a lot of stories about my own family.
"So there are other people who will continue to write and rewrite and correct these stories. The scholarship continues. People will continue to search. Oral tradition will continue to be interrogated."
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Mda's full name is Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda. "I've been Zakes for many years," he says. "It's a name I got here in Johannesburg when I was growing up in Orlando East, in Dobsonville. It was a short form of my initials - ZK - Zanemvula Kizito, so Zakes, you know, and then it becomes that.
"It also helped that there was a famous jazz musician at the time called Zakes Nkosi who played the saxophone. So I became Zakes. Because of those initials and because of the jazz musician."
THE ONE-FINGER WONDER
"My favourite part of writing is actually the writing itself. I know many people who hate the actual process. For me, the process itself is joy. I actually look forward to waking up in the morning and sitting in front of my computer.
"I only use one finger [his index finger]. I've never learnt to type. That's the only way I know how to type. And I finish my book in about three months. For many years I wrote in longhand, when I was a playwright."