Over his long and prolific career, South African writer Zakes Mda has produced plays, novels and stories that explore very different characters, eras and landscapes. In Ways of Dying, two childhood friends from a small village in South Africa reconnect decades later in an unnamed city, their relationship fulfilled only when they reconcile with their painful past. In The Heart of Redness, villagers in the Eastern Cape fight over whether to celebrate or denigrate the legacy of a nineteenth-century teenager who prophesied that if the Xhosa people killed their cattle and burned their crops, the ancestors would be resurrected to defeat the British colonizers. The Madonna of Excelsior chronicles the coming of age of a South African woman whose mother and father were tried in 1971 under the Immorality Act for having interracial sex. Mda’s latest book, Cion, is set in a small town in Ohio that once provided refuge for runaway slaves. It features a cast of characters who struggle with how to fit this important historical fact into their lives, their relationships and even their art. The connecting thread in all these novels seems to be the unresolved presence of the past. It hovers like a ghost, at once forbidding and inviting, seductive and terrifying, depressing and inspiring.

Mda is deeply concerned with how people remember the past, how they use it to shape the present, how they call upon it to fashion modern selves, modern identities–and how in the process they run the risk of exploiting or sentimentalizing it. Given Mda’s life story, which is marked by all the major events of his country, one can see why he has such a keen interest in history. Born Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni (“The One Who Brings Rain”) Mda in 1948 in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, Zakes Mda spent his childhood in Soweto, the township just southwest of Johannesburg that would later become the locus of popular resistance against the apartheid regime. His father was president of the ANC Youth League, and in this capacity he met regularly with fellow founders Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo. (At one point, the young Mda lived in Mandela’s home.) When Mda was 15, his father went into exile in Lesotho to avoid the risk of being imprisoned. Mda joined him there two years later, then left Lesotho to study theater and communications in Ohio and Cape Town. During the long years of apartheid, he lived outside South Africa but produced a great number of plays (thirty-two in all) that dramatized the struggle for equality. Among these were We Shall Sing for the Fatherland and The Hill, both of which won him awards. In 1995, just a year after the country held its first democratic elections, Mda published his first novel, the critically acclaimed Ways of Dying. Four other novels, all set in South Africa, were to follow. Cion is set in Ohio–where Mda lives for part of the year and where he is a professor of creative writing at Ohio University–and thus marks a departure for him.

In Cion Toloki, a self-styled itinerant professional mourner from South Africa (calling himself an “angel of death,” he wails and moans at funerals in exchange for payment), arrives in the college town of Athens, Ohio, on Halloween night in 2004. At a street party, he meets a young man named Obed Quigley, who is later arrested for breaking into a sorority house and impersonating Nicodemus, a slave who was murdered during his escape along the Underground Railroad and whose ghost is known to haunt the house’s basement. While the case is investigated, Toloki moves in with Obed’s family in the nearby town of Kilvert, renting a room from them. Toloki meets and befriends Obed’s mother, Ruth, a passionate supporter of George W. Bush (she says that “he got his messages direct from God” and that “he gives lotsa money to Africa”). Toloki also meets Obed’s brooding and taciturn father, Mahlon Quigley, who occupies himself by cultivating gnomes in his garden, because gnomes, unlike plants, will not die. And then there is Obed’s sister, Orpah, who, though in her 40s, spends days locked in her bedroom sketching childlike drawings and playing a sitar she bought on credit from an Indian woman. Ruth is the family’s sole breadwinner; she makes traditional quilts that she sells at the market, although these days customers prefer more whimsical designs and Ruth rarely manages to make any sales. Toloki becomes intensely interested in quilting and especially Ruth’s claim that the quilts were used to escape slavery.

This setup allows for a journey into the past, and the reader is transported, in alternating chapters, to nineteenth-century Virginia. There, we meet the Quigleys’ ancestor, a woman known as the Abyssinian Queen, “even though none of her forebears ever set foot in Abyssinia.” The Queen is a house slave for David Fairfield, who runs a slave-breeding farm. The abolition of the foreign slave trade in 1818 resulted in higher prices for slaves, making them “a more profitable crop than tobacco or cotton or corn,” and Fairfield is determined to make as much money from the slaves as he can.

In order to raise the value of his “property,” he also employs indentured workers–white girls, mostly Irish, whose papers have been falsified to show that they have some black blood–in the production of the highly prized mulatto slaves. The Abyssinian Queen has a child by Fairfield, whom she names Abednego, but she falls out of favor when she refuses to be married off to a slave on another plantation and, furthermore, is found to be pregnant by a field slave. She is beaten and moved to the cabins, where her task is to sew clothes for the slave community. She begins to make quilts, whose designs carry secret messages. It was “beauty that spoke a silent language.” When her second child, Nicodemus, is born, she arranges for him to meet and get to know his older brother, Abednego. The Queen tells her children stories every night, especially tales about the Promised Land. Eventually, Nicodemus and Abednego escape along the Underground Railroad, relying on the quilt and a sampler their mother made for them in order to orient themselves. Like other escaped slaves from Virginia, Abednego finds refuge with an Indian tribe and Irish immigrants in Tabler Town, in southeastern Ohio. Over the next 150 years, their descendants intermarry, creating a multiracial community now known as WIN (White, Indian, Negro) or, more academically, “tri-racial isolates.”

In form and structure, Cion bears striking similarities to Mda’s earlier novels. It interweaves a modern story with an older one, the latter based on a little-remembered historical fact, which is then laced with a good dose of magic realism. Although the characters of the Abyssinian Queen, Abednego and Nicodemus are fictional, it appears there really was a slave named Nicodemus who escaped to Ohio and was murdered in the basement of what is now an Ohio University sorority house (Alpha Omicron Pi, for the curious). The paths Nicodemus and Abednego follow, and the multiracial community they help establish in Kilvert, are very real. At the same time, there is a fantastical element at play, as when the Abyssinian Queen metamorphoses into characters from the stories she tells the children at night–turning into a hawk or a spider–or when a blue fly appears to Nicodemus and Abednego at different milestones on their flight to freedom, guides them and reports back to the Abyssinian Queen.

Mda uses the two stories, old and new, to highlight the fraught relationship his characters have with the past. Obed wants to reconnect with his Native American ancestry, but not out of a desire to learn more about his heritage and his identity. Rather, he wants to be able to cash in on the casino money that will come his way if he can prove he is Shawnee. His mother tells him that their ancestor Harry Corbett was in fact Cherokee, but Obed is undeterred. He takes up hand-trembling, hoping to foretell the future and make a lot of money in the process, until someone points out to him that the practice is a “Navajo thing.” On yet another occasion, he tries to revive mystical African traditions, which Toloki does not recognize:

I have observed that people of African descent in America often create African heritages that no one in Africa knows about. There are some who are descendants of kings and queens who existed only in the collective imagination of their oppressed progenitors. I also know that there are many rituals and traditions long dead on the mother continent, that were preserved and transformed and enriched by the slaves to suit their new lives in America. I therefore cannot claim that just because I have no idea of Obed’s mysticisms that they are not drawn from practices that once existed in Africa.

Mahlon has his own vexing issues with the past. Mahlon’s mother, a white woman, was sent to a mental asylum in the 1940s when she was found to be pregnant by a black man. She died shortly after delivering her baby, and Mahlon does not know where exactly she is interred, so he cannot properly mourn on her tomb. Instead, he spends his days taking care of his garden full of gnomes, until Toloki endeavors to help him locate the grave and offers his services as a professional mourner. The moody Orpah wants to make quilts that are wholly her own and does not want to use the traditional patterns Ruth so painstakingly re-creates. Ruth, on the other hand, refuses to modernize her work or even to use newer tools like rotary cutters. For Ruth the past must be respected and followed wholesale, even in politics. She votes for Bush in the 2004 election because “the GOP freed them slaves!”

It’s quite clear in Cion that the main characters’ relationships with the past are almost entirely nostalgic and evasive. For instance, Obed wants to exploit the past for monetary gain, though it proves somewhat recalcitrant. Mahlon seeks to neutralize the past by cultivating gnomes, which do not run any risk of dying or being taken away from him. Orpah prefers to forget the past altogether and create art that bears no relationship to her heritage. Ruth clings to the political past of the Republican Party because of its role in emancipation, yet she refuses to recognize that modern Republican policies have been harmful to her community and to minorities in general. The characters in Cion find redemption only when they reconcile with the complexity of the past: learning about it, understanding it and dynamically interpreting it to create one part (certainly not all parts) of their present selves. Toloki plays a role in all of this by encouraging the characters to have both a sentimental and intellectual relationship with their history.

As a work of fiction, Cion itself bears a strong connection to the past–to Mda’s first novel. The character of Toloki previously appeared in Ways of Dying, a melancholy, mesmerizing tale set in South Africa in the last years of apartheid. On Christmas Day, Toloki runs into Noria, an old village acquaintance, as she is on her way to bury her son, the victim of violence perpetrated by antiapartheid revolutionaries. Over the next few days, Toloki reminisces about his past; his abusive artisan father, Jwara; his friendship with Noria; the strange and possibly predatory relationship between Jwara and Noria; and all the events that came to shape Toloki’s life. With few opportunities available to him in his village, Toloki leaves for “the city” (perhaps Johannesburg), where he hopes to find work with a friend of his father’s, the carpenter Nefolovhodwe. The man made a fortune after inventing the Nefolovhodwe Collapsible Coffin, which can be “carried by one person, like a suitcase, and it could be put together in easy steps even by a child.”

Observing that “Nefolovhodwe had attained all his wealth through death,” Toloki decides that he should have a similar occupation. He does not have any practical skills, but he is known to have “the saddest eyes,” hence his decision to offer his services to families. Toloki’s work gives him an intimate knowledge of ways of dying in South Africa: a boy is shot by unnamed revolutionaries, a laborer is burned alive by a white colleague, a child is killed and eaten by wild dogs, five people are murdered after a dispute with a shopkeeper over chicken pieces, a patriarch is killed by his two sons after allowing his mistress’s children to shave first in preparation for a funeral. “Our ways of dying are our ways of living,” he observes.

Toloki’s move to Ohio is explained in Cion‘s opening page: “The sciolist has delusions of Godness.” The sciolist in question is, of course, Zakes Mda himself, who jumps at the idea, suggested by Sam Crowl, his colleague at Ohio University, to transplant Toloki to another culture. Toloki, who is creating his own story, describes Mda as having “a belly that hangs out like an apron” and tries to avoid the author at all times, except at crucial points in the story, when the plot warrants a move that Toloki cannot bring about. Explaining his reasons for accepting the move to the United States, Toloki says that although death was plentiful in South Africa, “it lacked the drama of the violent deaths that I used to mourn during the upheavals of the political transition in that country.” Despite talk of the AIDS pandemic “stalking the homesteads,” Toloki says he spends most of his time mourning deaths caused by “diseases that never used to kill anyone before–diseases such as TB and pneumonia that used to be cured with ease not so long ago.”

The mention of AIDS here is particularly interesting. In January 2003, the novelist and critic Norman Rush wrote a scathing piece in The New York Review of Books in which he accused Mda of committing a sin of omission by not mentioning AIDS in Ways of Dying or The Heart of Redness. Toloki’s statement in Cion may well be a pointed answer to Rush’s criticism. In any case, it’s very difficult to understand why Mda should be singled out and accused of silence on AIDS. After all, Mda’s compatriot J.M. Coetzee had not written about AIDS in his fiction at the time that Rush’s article appeared, and yet Rush did not find it relevant to talk about a “sin of omission” in Coetzee’s work. A novelist is under no obligation to talk about every single issue facing his society, or those that have greater resonance in the West. South Africa has the highest rate of rape in the world. Should one accuse Mda of a sin of omission for not writing a novel about rape, too?

Cion stands out from Ways of Dying in one notable way, however. In Ways of Dying, Mda uses the first-person plural point of view, adapting and extending the oral storytelling tradition of South Africa:

It is not different, really, here in the city. Just like back in the village, we live our lives together as one. We know everything about everybody. We even know things that happen when we are not there; things that happen behind people’s closed doors deep in the middle of the night. We are the all-seeing eye of the village gossip. When in our orature the storyteller begins the story, ‘They say it once happened…’ we are the ‘they’. No individual owns any story. The community is the owner of the story, and it can tell it the way it deems it fit. We would not be needing to justify the communal voice that tells this story if you had not wondered how we became so omniscient in the affairs of Toloki and Noria.

But in Cion, Toloki takes matters into his own hands, wrestling the storytelling mantle from the community and the novelist and speaking for himself. The oral tradition is still present in Cion, though, as in all Mda’s work. It can be seen in the stories the Abyssinian Queen tells the children at night, to the chagrin of Mrs. Fairfield, who complains that they are “voodoo stories.”

Although Cion is an engaging novel, it suffers from occasional didactic lapses. Mda’s fascination with history and politics directs the story, and the characters struggle to find their own motivation, their own psychological life. When Orpah does not appear at dinner or play the sitar, Toloki comments that “the silence leaves a hole in me. Don’t ask me why.” Exploring the reasons is precisely what the story should do. In addition, Toloki is at once befuddled by Halloween celebrations and savvy enough to arrange for legal mediation between Obed and the sorority girl he fondled. Such inconsistencies make for an occasionally jarring narrative, in which Toloki does not so much act out of his own volition as service the plot. By contrast, the characters and story line set in nineteenth-century Virginia are much more fully realized, and one can only speculate that it might be because Mda is more interested in the historical story he wove than in the modern one.

Throughout his work, Mda has explored the appeal and the danger of constructing a modern self that is untethered to history and tradition. The cion of the title could be Toloki, who has been transplanted to America to become an itinerant mourner; but a more likely interpretation is that it refers to the African-American community, cut off from one continent and grafted onto another. Learning about its roots, Mda seems to say, is the community’s only chance at the success and prosperity that everyone, from evangelists to politicians, seems fond of promising.