Ways of imagining

2009-08-05 00:00

THE University of KwaZulu-Natal Press has just published Ways of Writing, the first critical study of the work of novelist and ­playwright ­Zakes Mda.

MARGARET VON KLEMPERER went to talk to Professor Johan Jacobs of the English department on the Durban campus of the university, who is one of the editors of the book.

The reason for a critical study of Zakes Mda, says Johan Jacobs, is simply because he is the most prolific and important of post-1994 black writers in South Africa. Since the early nineties, he has published novels including Ways of Dying, The Heart of Redness, The Madonna of Excelsior and, most ­recently, Cion.

Before that, he was best known as a playwright, working in the heady days of theatre of resistance, and then in a theatre of development where he workshopped with actors and asked for audience responses to his work.

“Mda has spoken about how, with the demise of apartheid, came the freeing of the imagination of the writer in South Africa,” says Jacobs. “Before that, writers had to deal with overwhelming issues such as racial oppression. That led to the kind of writing that Njabulo Ndebele called the ‘loss of the ordinary’. It became a literature of nasty oppressors and poor black victims — as reductive and binary as the apartheid mind ­itself.”

Not all writers have managed to slip out of the shackles of the past, but Mda has done so, hence the critical interest in his work. There are essays in the book that are not flattering: there are criticisms to be made. But its appearance is a tribute to his importance.

Recently, there has been controversy about whether or not Mda ­plagiarised historian J. B. Peires’s book on the Xhosa cattle killings of 1857 and 1858, The Dead will Arise, in The Heart of Redness. Asked about the allegations, Jacobs explains Mda’s writing method.

“Mda has said that when he writes he doesn’t begin with the characters or the plot. He goes to a specific place, in this case Qolorha in the Eastern Cape, and then he tries to find out what the stories of the place are. He sets great store by research, and takes his source material, and mines it — Peires in this case. He quotes from it and acknowledges it.

“Plagiarism can be complex. If a student plagiarises [a growing problem in universities with the ease of access to material on the Internet], it’s an offence. If a creative writer does it, it’s genius.”

As Jacobs says, the difference is between straight copying, and using and understanding acknowledged sources to further one’s own narrative. “After all, Moby Dick, one of the greatest novels in the world, owes a great deal to Two Years Before the Mast. Mda does it again in The ­Madonna of Excelsior, using the ­archives of the Friend newspaper to find the story of the Excelsior Immorality Act case.

“I don’t know who raised it in the first place. You can be academic and call it intertextuality — a fancy word for writing a novel with reference to other works. The Tempest, Jane Eyre and Heart of Darkness have all been reworked by post-colonial writers.” And Mda does acknowledge his sources in his books.

According to Jacobs, Mda is writing for ordinary South Africans, both black and white, who are living in a changing society, and trying to come to terms with a past that is overwhelming, but at the same time are not being overwhelmed by it.

He is not writing for the so-called “popular” end of the market, but his work is accessible, entertaining and very readable. “And he has a huge willingness to experiment: he takes chances that other novelists won’t. Sometimes it doesn’t come off, but he’s prepared to take the risk. He’s the sort of novelist you wonder where he is going to go next.

“He’s also a painter, a lecturer and a social activist — he has set up ­beekeeping projects in the Eastern Cape which he visits when he is here. [Mda lives and works in the United States for six months of each year.] If he was as single-minded about his writing as someone like J. M. Coetzee, who knows what he might have done.”

Mda’s work has an immense ­richness, and that is what Ways of Writing explores.


• Ways of Writing , edited by David Bell and J. U. Jacobs, is published by the UKZN Press.

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