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.