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| | |-+  interview w/ S.A. writer Zakes Mda
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Author Topic: interview w/ S.A. writer Zakes Mda  (Read 34016 times)
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« on: August 24, 2004, 01:15:59 PM »

An Interview with Zakes Mda
By John B. Kachuba

Zakes Mda is a novelist and playwright who has won numerous international awards and
has received every major South African literary prize, including the African Region
Commonwealth Prize for Literature. He was recently awarded the Hurston/Wright
Legacy Award. Mda's works deal with the realities of post-apartheid South Africa and
are often about forgiveness and reconciliation, both of which he sees as essential for
the future of South Africa.

He has taught at Yale University, and is writer in residence at the Market Theatre in
Johannesburg. Mda has recently joined the creative-writing faculty at Ohio University.
The Madonna of Excelsior was published in the U.S. in spring 2004. His next novel,
The Whale Caller, will be published in South Africa in October 2004 and in the U.S.
the following spring. Mda is also working on another novel, which will be set in the
United States, his first novel set outside his native South Africa. Some of his other
novels are: The Heart of Redness, Ways of Dying, and She Plays with the Darkness.
Mda is also a painter, composer, musician, and beekeeper.

JK: You once said that the only way to reconciliation among South Africans is through
memory so that we can ensure terrible things don't occur again. How do you see
memory working toward reconciliation in your latest novel, The Madonna of Excelsior?
ZM: In this particular novel, I really can't say. I can only explain this question of memory.
You see, since 1995, when apartheid was abolished in South Africa, there has been a very
big reluctance among South Africans, especially white South Africans, to talk about the
past. You find that every time there is mention of the apartheid past. There will be a lot
of noise from all over-radio talk shows, call-in programs, and so on, you know, people
complaining-about this talk of this past. "You said that you are forgiving of this past, so
why do you keep on mentioning it, going back to it again and again?" people will say. I've
even heard critics complain that South African writers are obsessed with the past
because a lot of the work that comes from South Africa addresses the past. To a large
extent, The Madonna of Excelsior actually addresses the past as well.

JK: What's wrong in writing about the past?
ZM: Nothing. Writers generally do write about the past. In fact, I think all great literature,
especially in recent years, is about the past. I do not see why South Africans should be
afraid of the past. You see, for me to forget about the past it would mean I must erase
my history. I have no history. I just emerged today. I don't have a father that died in the
struggle, I must forget his existence. How can I do that? So I think that memory is very
important. My compatriots, of course, look at memory as something that works against
reconciliation. I am an advocate of reconciliation itself and have written extensively
about reconciliation because I believe it is very important to forgive the past.

JK: How does a person forget the terrible things done to him and ultimately forgive the
perpetrators and move on?
ZM: It is not easy, but we must forgive the past. But at the same time I think it is crucial
not to forget the past. It is important that we do not forget the past-you have heard this
from the Jews, for instance, when they say that what happened to them should never
happen again. That's one important reason, you see, but in my case, there is even a
greater reason, and that is so that we, who are now the new rulers of South Africa, should
not do to others what was done to us. In other words, we should not be the new oppressors.
Only history can teach us that, only memory, providing of course we are capable of
learning from history. In many instances we tend to forget those lessons that history gives
us and we repeat the same mistakes over and over again. But it is our hope that by
remembering what happened we will not be the new perpetrators, which is very possible.
I won't say likely, but very possible.

JK: Power corrupts.
ZM: Yes. One can already see the arrogance of power beginning to assert itself. Power
does corrupt in many instances and one can already see some of that arrogance that,
yes, now we are in power now, you can go to hell. So it is very important that there
should be writers like us, you see, who are always looking out for such traces of that
arrogance and exposing it from time to time. That's what I think memory does.

JK: How did you unearth the stories about the miscegenation trials in Excelsior that are
at the heart of The Madonna of Excelsior? I would imagine it wasn't a story people
wanted to talk about.
ZM: When I am in South Africa, I do not teach. I work as a full-time writer, so when I feel
like it I just get in my car and drive without any destination. I enjoy that country so much.
South Africa is a very beautiful country. I'll drive for that whole day until at night in some
small town somewhere I'll book into some country hotel or bed and breakfast. I go to the
bar and I talk with some people and invariably you find that every little town has its own
dirty secret. In one of these drives I went to Excelsior and it had the kind of scandal I
wanted. It had its own beautiful elements. The case was withdrawn because the
government was embarrassed and so on and so forth. So I wanted all that.

JK: The scandal being the trial of several black women accused of having sexual relations
with white men, a crime under apartheid.
ZM: Yes. I went back to Johannesburg to research in old magazines and newspapers about
the scandal, then went back to the town trying to find these people, if they were still alive.
I went to the hotel. People didn't want to talk about this, of course, the white people
particularly. The hotel owner directed me next door where I found the store owner there.
I tell him straight out I am writing the story of this town and I need some information,
particularly of these events. Now there are some other customers there, some guys
overheard me and one of them jumped up and said, "Yes, I know about that story." Well,
this is a young fellow, he was born after these events, but he told me that his mother was
one of those women. That's how I linked up with these women, you see, and then the
lawyer and the men and some of the guys, those who failed to commit suicide, like the
one who shot himself but failed to kill himself, and the daughter of the butcher who did
manage to kill himself and so on. The people of Excelsior, especially the Afrikaners, were
not pleased with the newspaper article I wrote because they felt that now I was opening
old wounds. So memory can do that also. But I was of a different view myself. Sometimes
it is necessary to open those old wounds so that they can heal properly.

JK: Writing in the Natal Witness, critic Margaret Von Klemperer said your work is "the
kind of South African writing that the country needs." It sounds as though she advocates
what you are trying to do in uncovering the past and bringing it forward. Does that seem
like a fair assessment of your writing?
ZM: That is what I am trying to do, but I try to look at both sides. I try to understand both
sides, you see. I'm from the new oppressed, that is my side. But I can't just condemn the
other side. I need to understand the other side as well, to understand their perspective. I
think that is what that critic is talking about.

JK: Still, you are the writer and you can take whatever position you wish, can't you?
ZM: Of course, I'm biased. I am the writer and my own values will come through. I cannot
divorce myself from this work. I cannot be objective. I do not try to be objective. In fact,
I don't believe in that kind of thing, objectivity and all that, but I can do my best to try
and understand the other side so that I reflect their perspective as well, to understand
their fears, some of which are true fears. I tried to do that here when I depicted these
Afrikaners. I poke a little fun at them here and there, but at the same time I tried to be
more compassionate, to treat them with compassion and not to say they were bad people
because they did bad things. They had certain fears, which they played out. Unfortunately,
they went overboard.

So that's what this critic is talking about. It's a balanced kind of portrayal of the situation
in South Africa today, because when my side becomes corrupt here, I say so. When they
are elected to serve the poor and they start giving houses to themselves, I point that out.
When they become buffoons and they become ridiculous, I point that out as well, you see.
I do not say, "The poor people, they were oppressed, so let me go easy on them."

JK: I know that you appreciate the work of J. M. Coetzee, who recently won the Nobel
Prize. There are thematic similarities in terms of race, power, and gender relations
between his novel Disgrace and The Madonna of Excelsior. Has his work been an
influence on your own work?
ZM: No, I don't think so. I read many writers and there are many I particularly like.
Coetzee is one of them and I can tell you that, for a long time, he was not one of the
most popular writers in South Africa because, even during the days of apartheid, he
never really addressed the apartheid situation directly. I discovered him quite late,
actually, toward the end of apartheid. His mode has always been very vague and that
of an allegory, and so on. He relied a lot on intertextuality from Western canons, some
of which were very remote and far removed from the immediate situation in South
Africa. During apartheid there was the demand that, as an artist, your art must be a
weapon against the oppression, and his did not really become that weapon.

JK: What other writers have influenced your work?
ZM: There is a writer from Zimbabwe called Yvonne Vera, who I think has in fact been
more of an influence than Coetzee, especially as far as being lyrical is concerned.
Coetzee is not lyrical. He is stark, not lush or decorative. I don't want to be stark like
Coetzee. I want to be expressive and lyrical and so on. You might not see that in The
Madonna of Excelsior because this novel went out of its way to try to be naïve because
the story flows from the naïve paintings of Father Frans Claerhout. So the writing had
to be naïve as well, you see. I tried very hard, for example, not to go into the psychology
of the characters in this book, because that would contradict the naiveté of the mode I
was using. So, here I'm not as lush as I was in, say, Ways of Dying or The Heart of
Redness, because I was consciously using a naive style, influenced by those paintings.

Another writer who has possibly influenced me is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose work
draws very strongly from the oral tradition of African slaves. Mine also draws from that
oral tradition. It draws from it very strongly. My work will always have that intertextuality,
unlike Coetzee's with the Western canon, but with "orature," as it is called, in other
words, oral literature.

JK: Many critics have pointed to elements of magical realism in your work, similar to
Garcia Marquez. It seems to appear in The Madonna of Excelsior and in your novel in
progress, The Whale Caller, especially in the love relationship between the whale caller
and Sharisha the whale. Do you consider yourself to be a writer of magic realism?
ZM: I have never said that my work is not magical realism. I've merely said that I do not
categorize my work. I do not set out to write magical realism but if critics see it as such,
good luck to them, that's fine. I don't quarrel with that because I am sure they see some
element in it that reminds them of magical realism. I draw from the same sources as the
creators of magical realism hence the "magic." I say "magic" in quotes, you see, because
the world from which my fiction draws hasn't got that line of demarcation between the
supernatural on one hand and what you would call objective reality on the other hand.
The two merge and live side by side. Those who live in that world can't separate the two.
In fact, that's how they live their lives. What in the Western world you consider as magic
is part of their day-to-day lives, you see, and it is part of their real world. It is part of
their realism. When I write about those characters who live in a world like that, obviously
to the Western reader it will seem magical. But those people don't consider that as magic
at all, it is just a part of their real world.

In fact, I was listening to an African writer the other day, Ayi Kweyi Armah, who said
that African oral literature has always been a conversation between the living and the
fourth dimension and by fourth dimension, of course, we are not only talking about the
dead, but we are also talking about the unborn. In other words, that other world of
those who have left us and those who have not joined us yet. It has always been that,
you see. Since my work draws from those sources, the sources that are having this
constant conversation between the living and the fourth dimension, then it would
reflect those elements. I'm not disputing that there is magical realism, because of
course it is the function of scholarship and the academy to categorize things and to
label them and give them a name. Who am I to quarrel with that?

JK: You also use a lot of humor in your work, not necessarily satire, but you do poke fun
at people and institutions. We see that in The Madonna of Excelsior as well, although you
could have written the novel "straight." What were the benefits to the novel of using humor?
ZM: That's another thing that I don't do consciously, write humor. If you were to ask me
how do you write this humor, I would not be able to answer. I do not know, you see. For me,
it is just something that comes naturally. We can't take ourselves too seriously. Ways of
Dying is about death and so on, but it is very humorous. It's only afterward when people
read it and say, "Hey, this is funny," that I say, "Oh, it's funny, is it? Okay."

I do not see myself as a humorous person, as such. I cannot recite a simple joke. I always
miss the punch line or something like that. I'm lousy as far as telling a good joke is
concerned, but when I write I am able to make these characters do that somehow. That is
the only way I can answer your question. I do not go out of my way and say, Well, I'm
dealing with a serious subject here so let me make it lighter by using humor. No, no, no.
It is something that's just there, you see. It is part of the lives of the characters.

JK: But South Africa under apartheid doesn't sound like very much fun.
ZM: Actually, I think I'm helped by the situations I'm writing about. You know, in South
Africa at the height of apartheid, there was a lot of laughter there. We laughed at the
very oppression. I remember there was an exhibition in Johannesburg not too long, ago
at one of the universities there, of newspaper photographs taken during apartheid. In
one of the photographs, there were soldiers in armored trucks chasing a black woman.
There were police dogs attacking her. This photographer managed to catch that moment.
There were some young black people there looking at his picture and they were laughing.
Then, there were some white people, maybe South Africans or tourists from some other
place, who were shocked. Shocked by this picture firstly, but more by the laughter of
these young black South Africans who were laughing at a fellow black woman who was
being violated like that. The white people did not understand the codes that functioned
as part of that culture. This was how blacks dealt with such things. After being chased
by the police and you managed to escape, then you came back home and you told the
story to your siblings and your mother and your father and you laughed about it, about
how you outfoxed them and so on. Then it would be a big joke.

Laughter was part of dealing with that situation. It still is. So this humor comes naturally
in the novel. I'm writing about these characters, the characters who, in their real world
there, manage to deal with their situation through laughter. I'm just telling their story,
you see. The humor just comes.

JK: I'm interested in how you chose to narrate The Madonna of Excelsior, using a
community voice. What were the decisions you made in choosing that particular mode
of narration?
ZM: I started the novel with the line, "All these things flow from the sins of our mothers."
That decided it immediately. "Our mothers," who is this "our"? The reader then becomes
a part of the community. This is something you do find a lot in the oral tradition. We talk
in terms of "we," we the community. The community is everywhere. If I'd not been inside
Niki's head, she has been there and she talks about it to other people. If I'd not been inside
the head of the Afrikaner lawyer, he has been there and he, too, talks about it to other
people. We have a common story to tell. We have experienced this story together.

Like all homodiegetic voices, this is not different from the "I." There's no difference here
really because even when you are using that "I", the first-person narrator, there is no way
that you cannot slip into the third person, because that "I" will talk about other people.
When he or she talks about other people, it's going to be in third person and then there's
going to be that narration in the third person when it talks about other people. So, a
first-person voice is only first person so far. It will invariably use elements of the
third-person voice. That third-person voice will always be there in a story that is told
by "I."

That is the case then here with stories that are told by "we." The whole novel is told
by "we." Everything is told by "we" but it becomes third person, of course, when this
"we" is talking about other people, which is a normal thing in any first-person-narrated
narrative. There will always be a third-person voice because that first person is not
always right there himself throughout the novel. He is also referring to other characters
and he uses the third person when he tells the stories of the other characters.

So this third-person thing is another thing I thought was an innovation of mine, but then
the other day I read again William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" and it's told in that
communal voice "we."

JK: The writer and critic Andre Brink said that he thought the reason for the communal
voice was that it helped to create some distance from the characters and that it helped
the novel from becoming a melodrama. How do you respond to that?
ZM: Well, that's how Andre Brink sees it. I don't normally agree or disagree with critics. I
can only tell you what my intention was. It can only be the intention was to do this or that.
Whether I manage to do that or not is another question, you see. That's where the critic
comes in. So that's how Brink reads it and if he sees that it functions that way, good
luck to him.

JK: Despite some of the terrible things that happen to people in The Madonna of Excelsior,
the novel ends on a hopeful note, hope for the future of South Africa.
ZM: I would like to think so. That is part of the intention. Why? Because I am, myself,
a hopeful person, a very optimistic person about South Africa. I genuinely think that
wonderful things are happening there. I've seen lots of negative things there as well,
but on balance, I think that the country has taken the right direction now. I'm quite

justice for Ayiti!
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