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 optimistic.
JK: You know the old adage, “Write what you know.” In The Madonna of Excelsior we read about a painter and a beekeeper, two vocations with which you are experienced. How much of the novel reflects your life?
ZM: This novel does not reflect my life at all, although of course, having said that, you know that everything a writer experiences, there’s part of you there. It does not overtly reflect my life, you see. The part of my life which might be in the novel is really an accident. But the book does reflect the lives of people that I know, people that I got to know. I didn’t begin by knowing these things. No. I don’t believe in writing about what you know. I believe in writing about what you don’t know and then your writing will be a finding out about it, and then knowing about it. That’s how you get to know about it. I didn’t know about any of these things before, but then through research and talking to people I got to know about these things, the people there, and the political situation. I wouldn’t have really known about it had I not started to write about it in the first place.
I told you I’m writing a novel set here in Athens, Ohio. I know nothing about-well, I know a little bit about some things, but I don’t know a damned thing now, at this stage, about the history of this town, for instance. But I can tell you that my novel will touch on the history of this town because I like to look back in order to talk about the present. My novel will be about the present and the past because in all the work that I write I like to examine how the past has informed the present. I believe that’s why you will find this is about the present but then I go to the past to tell how we got here.
JK: Can you tell me what it is about Athens that has attracted your attention? After all, this will be your first novel set outside South Africa.
ZM: I know zilch, really, about the history of this place. I know that there was a mental hospital and that fascinates me. There is a cemetery there and that fascinates me. Then, the next thing I know is that a friend of mine, a retired professor from the School of Theater at Ohio University, tells me his aunt is buried there. That’s another fascinating thing. So, that is enough for me to say I’ll write about this. I do not know anything about the history of this town completely but, in a year’s time, I will know about it because I will be having a novel. I won’t say I may have a novel. No, no, no. I will have a novel set in Athens in a year’s time from now. It will touch on the history and so on, you see. It will have a lot to do with the past at the mental hospital, but it will be about today. That’s one example of writing about what you don’t know. I like that. I write about what I don’t know, but by the time I finish writing I know it.
In a lot of my work, there is no me, consciously. An exception is my novel The Heart of Redness, where I decided consciously that now I am going to base a lot of this novel on my own personal experiences when I returned to South Africa, after thirty years in exile, living in other people’s countries, including here in America. So that fictional character is largely me-except, of course, for the bad things about him. That’s not me.
JK: Of course not. We started talking about reconciliation and I’d like to close by going back to that topic. At the end of The Madonna of Excelsior you talk about the bees “completing the healing work that had been begun by the creations of the Trinity.” What is the difference between healing and reconciliation?
ZM: When one comes to terms with what has happened, and has learned how to deal with it, as this character does, there is some healing there. I think that with reconciliation there will be even more healing. There can still be healing without it, but I think that you need that reconciliation for a greater overall healing.
There are many individuals in South Africa who have come to terms with the things that have happened to them and have money to overcome that, in spite of the fact that there’s not been reconciliation yet. There are many people, actually, who still have not been heard, you see. The hope was that the Truth and Reconciliation process would contribute toward that healing, especially that part of the victims telling their stories. By and large, the fact of telling their stories in reconciliation did heal many people. Without being asked, many people stood up and said, at last, I feel healed now. People who did not know that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was meant as some kind of therapy–who thought we were telling this story, then perhaps after that we’ll get something back, reparations or something-they found in fact that they were spiritually healed and even physically in many instances. And emotionally, psychologically. It’s part of that process.
Now the bees, that’s another thing I did not know anything about. What happened as far as the bees are concerned is that one day I was commissioned by a Dutch theater company in Amsterdam to write a play set in South Africa and the Netherlands. I don’t have anything. I said, What the hell am I going to write about? I had never been in Holland before. I told the guy who had hired me, How the hell do I write this when I don’t even know your country? He said, Okay, come over. I went to that country then and was some kind of writer in residence at the theater there. I went around and visited different little towns and met some people from South Africa who were in exile there and also some Afrikaners who went to the Netherlands to school, especially theology students. Although the Afrikaners, from many decades ago, did not have any ties with Europe whatsoever and they were independently an African tribe, they continued that religious link with the Dutch Reformed Church. That was the only cultural link that they had with Europe, the religious one. The apartheid laws were justified biblically. The Hamitic fable says that we black folks were created in Ethiopia and that God made us so that we should be subjugated by white people because we offended Noah at one stage. When he was drunk and naked, we laughed at him, so now we are paying for that, you see. And the white folks came and they covered his shame and they cursed us, and he said you and your descendants will forever wander and be the way we are now.
JK: There’s a guy without a sense of humor.
ZM: There are people who genuinely believe in that Hamitic myth. It’s in the Bible. It’s the same justification that was used by Afrikaners. As Calvinistic people, they believe in predestination. The black people were predestined to be in that position since Noah’s day. The Afrikaners believe they are doing the “right thing.” They believe it is the will of God that they should oppress blacks because they are cursed. They laughed at that poor old man there who was drunk and naked. So…how did we get off on this?
JK: The bees.
ZM: Ah yes. So Afrikaners continued to go to Holland for higher religious education and they interacted with the Dutch people. The international anti-apartheid movement started in the Netherlands then it spread from there. It probably began there out of embarrassment as the Dutch said those people, the Afrikaners, are our descendants and look what they are doing there.
While I was looking for a story for this play I discovered an old woman who went to Holland from South Africa many years ago and was now living there as a refugee and I got to hear her story. I went back to South Africa and I was interested in researching more on her story with a view of writing a play that would be centered on her and the Dutch people and all that. In doing research I found myself in her place of origin, a rural place somewhere out there in the province known as the Eastern Cape.
I went to this province and I found that it was so beautiful-that is the first thing that attracts me about a place. There was this mountain with aloes in bloom, full bloom at the time. The whole mountain was pink with these aloes and the flowers of these aloes. Then I found that in this area the people are desperately poor, despite the natural beauty because there can’t be any meaningful agriculture there because of the mountains and rocks and so on. They are beautiful in themselves but they don’t yield anything. The men in that area used to depend mostly upon going to work in the mines in Johannesburg, but things had not been going well in the mines so many people went back to the village and they were poor.
I had gone there for the story about this person to write this Dutch play, but then I thought, This place is very beautiful. There’s no reason why these people should be so poor in such a beautiful place. There must be something we can do. This mountain can’t be beautiful for nothing. That beauty has got to yield something for these people. But I didn’t know what. When I was driving back home I noticed the flowers and thought, Bees. Perhaps if I learned more about beekeeping I can go back to that village and talk with the chief and the opinion leaders there and perhaps we can form a beekeeping cooperative there and then the whole village will engage in beekeeping. Honey is in big demand all over. They will make money.
JK: You’ve had experience in beekeeping?
ZM: I didn’t know anything about beekeeping. When I got back to Johannesburg I read farmers’ magazines and journals and found a school for beekeeping. I enrolled and took a course in beekeeping. I got so fascinated with the bees, something I would never have thought I would do. Then I went back to this village, called a meeting, and talked with the chief. Some of them thought that this boy comes all the way from Johannesburg to tell us these stupid things. They didn’t buy the idea but there are about forty of them who are desperate enough to say we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Together with those forty we formed a cooperative society.
Then the next thing was to get some money so we could send these people to the same beekeeping school to be trained, so that they then could come back and train the others. We applied for funds from corporations in South Africa and big businesses. It took many months and some of my forty people began to fall away. But there were about twenty of them who stayed and worked on the mountain there, trying to fence in the whole mountain with the hope that one day they will have some money. Soon enough, we got some money from some businesses and sent some people to school for training. Then we got more money and there were soon hives on the mountain. We received half a million dollars from the Kellogg Foundation here in the United States. Now my village has bought trucks, has buildings now, a whole factory where this honey is bottled and so on. Now there is a whole industry there that was given birth to by literature. I just went there to get a story.
I wrote the play, which is not about bees, of course, but that play took me to that place. Now I’m a member of that beekeeping cooperative. Then I thought, I might as well use those bees in this novel as well. What’s the point of knowing so much about bees and not putting them in your novel? Make them do something for you. So that’s why you see them here in the novel, doing all this healing.
JK: That’s quite a story. It says something about cause and effect, life and art.
ZM: Readers demand causation, you see. If there is no causation they become very uncomfortable. But they don’t need to understand causation as reality. How do the bees heal Niki and Popi? I don’t care. I don’t even ask myself how is it possible for bees to do that and for them to fly and hang around this woman and all that. That’s not of any interest to me. To me, what is important is that I want those bees to do that and since it is my novel and I am writing it, they do it.
When I write a novel I am in the God business. This is my world, I am the creator of this world, and I can make this world do what I want it to do, irrespective of what your so-called objective world does or does not do. I’m not controlled by your so-called objective reality. You can say something can’t really happen, but in my world it does happen.
JK: Your novel in progress, The Whale Caller, is an excellent example of that, I think. A man in love with a whale. Where did you get the idea for that story?
ZM: There is a town in South Africa called Hermanus, a small town really. Its claim to fame are the whales. It has now become the whale-watching capitol of the world. In other places you have to get into boats and all that, but here you have land-based whale watching because the whales come very close there and there are many excellent places to watch them.
There is a whale crier there who is employed by the city. Before I knew anything about whales and whale watching, I was watching television and there he was in all his splendor in his costume, blowing his kelp horn. They referred to him as the whale caller of Hermanus. The news report gave me the impression that he actually called whales, you know; he blew his horn and the whales would come. I was fascinated by that whole notion so I decided to go to that town and see for myself what was the big deal. I was very disappointed to find that the guy didn’t really call whales. All he does is alert whale watchers to the presence of whales and their location. He blows his horn in a particular language, a Morse code of sorts, that matches a description on his sandwich board so watchers know exactly how many whales, where they are, and so on. But he does not actually call the whales, you see, and I was disappointed. I thought, What if he could call them? What then?
JK: A novel born out of disappointment?
ZM: You could say so, but also born out of the real world. If one special person in my life had not been afraid of the dark, and if my daughter, Zenzi, then four years old, had not given me the names Saluni, Sharisha, and Mr. Yodd, then there would have been no story to tell.