'Mine is to tell the story' – Zakes Mda on his latest novel, Wayfarers’ Hymns

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Zakes Mda. (Photo: Gallo Images / Tammy Booyzen)
Zakes Mda. (Photo: Gallo Images / Tammy Booyzen)

Zakes Mda has become one of South Africa’s most beloved writers. After decades as a successful playwright, he launched his career as a novelist with Ways of Dying in 1995.

His other works include The Heart of Redness, Black Diamond, Cion, She Plays with the Darkness and the memoir Sometimes There Is a Void. Mda has won many awards, including the Sunday Times Fiction prize (twice), the M-Net Book Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

His latest novel, Wayfarers’ Hymns (Penguin), focuses on famo music, born in the drinking dens of migrant mineworkers in Lesotho, tracing the story of Kheleke, a wandering musician, and his sister Moliehi. Toloki, the professional mourner from Ways of Dying, reappears in this book, which also dals with the famo gangs and the battle for control of the illegal mines.

Here he answers some questions about his work.

How would you describe your writing style?

Like most writers I have many writing styles, depending on the form and content of what I am writing. The genre also counts. However, I do not describe my writing style. I leave that to the readers, critics, and scholars. Mine is to tell the story, theirs is to analyse and critique it, which will include discussion of style.

What would your day-to-day writing routine look like?

I don’t have a routine. I do what comes naturally each day. I wake up one morning and there is a song in my heart, I write a song. Or I wake up and feel like painting a picture, I do so. Same applies to writing a novel or a play or a film script. It just depends what I feel on any given day.

You were a student at Ohio University in the United States, and then returned as a professor of creative writing; a full circle. What are some of your fondest memories of being a South African student in America? How has your experience changed being a professor on the other side of the lecture?

The experience of being a student was much more pleasant than that of being a professor. For one thing, when I was a student at Ohio University, there were many other students from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and other African countries. We were a community and had lots of fun, getting drunk and being wild. As a professor, of course, it is a different world. One has to behave in a decent manner and have some modicum of dignity.

Wayfarers’ Hymns by Zakes Mda
Wayfarers’ Hymns by Zakes Mda.

Covid-19 presented a golden time for many authors to sit down and write. Was it like that for you?

Yes, Covid-19 presented me with many opportunities, even though it destroyed others. At least two movies I was involved in and were scheduled to be shot in 2020 had to be cancelled, or, hopefully, postponed. Production companies that had optioned my novel The Zulus of New York both for TV series and musical stage play also cancelled. My overseas tours were cancelled as well. So, I lost a lot of livelihood. But Covid-19 presented other opportunities. For instances during that lockdown period I could not travel. I therefore painted a lot, composed a lot of music and wrote a lot of fiction. I completed two books; namely a novel titled Wayfarers’ Hymns, and a historical fiction book for young adults titled Arola: A Journey into 10 Ancient African Civilizations. I also completed a libretto titled King Mamani, which I am currently negotiating to have produced in Cape Town.

How and what do you think we are going to be reading post-pandemic?

There’ll always be stories to tell and to read. I hope not all of them are about the pandemic. 

This interview is taken from Season’s Readings, the Exclusive Books list of the bookseller’s recommendations for the holidays. Season’s Readings is available at branches of Exclusive Books, or can be seen online. Books on this list offer double points for Fanatics Members if bought between now and 31 December.

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