A diamond in the making

2009-12-04 00:00

Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni (Zakes) Mda is one of the big names of South African literature whose novels include Ways of Dying, The Heart of Redness and The Madonna of Excelsior. However, recently we haven’t been seeing much of him in his home country. He used to spend around seven months of the year teaching at Ohio University in the United States and then five months back in South Africa, where, among other things, he runs a beekeeping project in the Eastern Cape. However, last year he only managed to come home for one month to the land that he still calls home.

But he is here now, promoting his latest book, Black Diamond. It is a lively read and more accessible than much of his work. Asked about this, Mda explains that Black Diamond was originally written as a film script for a young Johannesburg film maker who had asked him for a story.

“I got the opportunity to work on it while on a book tour in the United States, but then the film maker disappeared, so I thought I would adapt it into a novel. He has reappeared now — he was filming somewhere in Africa — and I’m hoping that he’ll still take it on.

“The story comes first for me. I never think about communicating ideas or raising issues. In the process of telling the story, the characters interact and the issues emerge organically. And the story tells me what kind of novel I will write. If I were to write Black Diamond as I wrote The Heart of Redness or Ways of Dying, it wouldn’t work.”

Let’s hope the elusive film maker grabs his opportunity; Black Diamond, with its humour and absurdities and its insight into many of the problems facing our strange society, should make a great movie.

Mda’s recent absence from South Africa is due to the success in the U.S. of his previous novel, Cion. In it Toloki, the hero of Ways of Dying, settles in the U.S. and discovers the history of two runaway slaves and the two stories, contemporary and historical, mesh together. Mda attributes the popularity of Cion to the fact that he, as an outsider, can bring a new perspective to the U.S.’s past. “I see things that the insider takes for granted. I don’t share their fears — it’s a different experience, a different country, different culture, a different environment. I came with a fresh eye, and when you tell the stories like that, they become new to the insider. In Njabulo Ndebele’s words, you ‘rediscover the ordinary’.”

This rediscovery has meant that Americans want to see more of the discoverer, and so South Africa has seen less.

But it is still home. So, in due course, will he retire here? The idea horrifies Mda.

“Retire from what? Life? Retirement to me would be retirement to the grave. My day job is writing — I only give two lectures a week. The rest of the time I write wherever I am. I don’t see myself retiring from that. I’ll still divide my time between here and there. My children are settled there.” And children are a big tie to a place. One thing Mda’s family shares is music. He is a composer and he plays the flute. His wife is a pianist, his daughters play guitar and saxophone and his son is learning the flute. So if he needs a break from writing, music is an obvious release. He also paints, although travelling inhibits that.

Last year, Mda’s name hit the headlines when he was accused of plagiarism by a Yale Phd student, Andrew Offenburger, who claimed that The Heart of Redness plagiarised J. B. Peires’s account of the Xhosa cattle killing of the 1850s, The Dead Will Arise.

The accusation was gleefully picked up in South Africa by Stephen Gray, and became something of a seven-day wonder in the literary world. Tentatively — plagiarism is an explosive topic for writers — I ask Mda about it. Had Offenburger contacted him before he published? And had the row been hurtful?

“I had never heard of Offenburger before. And he hadn’t contacted me. It was hurtful at first, but no one took it seriously. I had a lot of support from people who understood what I was doing in the book.” In the novel’s dedication Mda acknowledges his debt to Peires’s work, but his critics complained about a number of direct quotations. Mda refers to these as intertextuality, academic-speak for writing that relates to other writing.

“It hasn’t damaged my career. Plagiarism­ is a serious issue, and there’s no way I would be teaching as a full professor or taken seriously as a scholar if people had believed the accusations.” So, for Mda, it is a non-issue. Certainly not something that he is going to lose any of his precious writing time over.

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