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.