The Zakes Mda session at the Edinburgh Book Festival, ‘No artist is subject to the state’, unfolded in all the best senses of the term. Chaired by Zoë Wicomb – who is succinctly described in The Scotsman as “a writer of rare brilliance” and brings to the Ed Book Fest session her formidable intelligence to match – Mda is warm and open, thanking the audience for coming, turning to take in each of us, it seems, as he responds to Wicomb’s incisive comment and questions, and the conversation between these two foremost South African authors is a privilege to watch: a lively, often frank, mutual exchange.
Mda, often cited as the ‘godfather‘ of the generation of writers who helped to dismantle apartheid and as a driving inspiration for younger writers in South Africa today, is a painter, composer and film maker, as well as a prolific writer of poetry and plays, and since 1995, novels, who has won a string of major international literary awards. He is a founding member and on the advisory board of the African Writers Trust – a collective that aims to bring together African writers – and is patron of the Etisilat Prize for Literature.
Mda is a professor of creative writing in the English Department at Ohio University, a beekeeper in the Eastern Cape, a patron of the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, and a director of the Southern African Multimedia AIDS Trust in Sophiatown, Johannesburg: on a question about his critical distance from South Africa at the Edinburgh Book Fest he describes himself as a “long distance commuter”, with a life in both South Africa and the United States.
When he is asked to read, which refreshingly comes towards the end of the session and so can refer back to the contexts that the earlier discussion has highlighted, he spends some time preparing, taking out the most ingenious fold-up glasses I have ever seen, displaying his famously wide smile, before turning to the opening of his latest novel, The Sculptors of Mapungubwe (Kwela/Seagull, 2013):
“…It was the year of the mirror.”
Then I was a playwright – I had written many plays but never a novel. So, I was experimenting with Ways of Dying, using a mode of written storytelling that I didn’t know existed at the time. The set works that we read – at schools and so on – were definitely in a realist mode. The stories that we were told – that our grandmothers told us – that were in the oral tradition – were not of that mode. In the stories they told us, the supernatural as well as what you might call objective reality existed side by side, were in the same world. And that did not seem to be disconcerting. I thought I could experiment, using the very same mode that my grandmother used. At the time, of course, I had not read the South American writers who used a similar mode of telling – I did not know there were writers working in that mode and that it had a name – it was called ‘magical realism’ – so I wrote a story in that mode precisely because I was tired of reading…
Wicomb interjects: “We all were”
Yes! These set, realist works. I was informed more by the oral tradition, of our own storytelling, rather than by magical realism, which I came across later – this is a storytelling mode that informs my worldview.
Wicomb finds it somewhat ironic that the source of Ways of Dying comes from tradition, identifying instead its innovation, focus on newness, and the ways in which its central character, Toloki, is a departure, choosing otherwise, undermining: Toloki is a radical self-creator, “an exotic creature, really, trying to survive against the odds”; homeless, he self-invents as a ‘Professional Mourner’, he makes-up sounds to make everybody weep, top-hatted, he chooses a costume for himself, he eats green onions with Swiss roll. With a formal narrator in the plural, who speaks both for the community and offers an often politically divergent narrative point of view that is Toloki’s, Ways of Dying opens out and contravenes social realism and was, as Wicomb points out, a welcome departure from the demands of the South African liberation struggle: “We must write in solidarity with the movement and that the movement is about recovering tradition.”
Discussing Mda’s latest, The Sculptors of Mapungubwe (Kwela/Seagull – 2013), Wicomb takes us into the book production –
W: It seems to me you deliberately chose a title to inscribe its Africanness. Did your publisher not complain that you had a title that was unpronounceable to the Western ear?
Well, it wasn’t really possible to call it anything else: it is a pre-colonial novel is set in an ancient kingdom of Mapungubwe. It is a reconstruction, set in a kingdom that existed in what is northern South Africa today, the present day Limpopo province. The kingdom had an ancient civilization. In fact, ancient Zimbabwe was built by some of the people who left the old kingdom of Mapungubwe when it failed. Mapungubwe was a precursor to Great Zimbabwe.
The people of Mapungubwe used to trade with the people of Arabia, of India, and of China via the Swahili people, of what is Tanzania today, and of Somalia. What I am doing is reconstructing those times from the work of ethno-archaeologists, but creating a fictional story, using the oral traditions of the people today, who still have the folklore that has been passed from generation to generation, and also using the writings of the Arab traders and travellers who traded with the inhabitants of Mapungubwe at that time.
The Sculptors of Mapungubwe returns to what Wicomb identifies as “the Toloki theme” – the notion of art, the role of the artist, the freedom of the artist. The book’s titular sculptors are two half-brothers – Chata and Redani –both artists of the king.
W: Between them, there is a struggle between modes of production – more innovative work, abstraction, and more realist work, the mimetic – but you also include the struggle of the integrity of art because one of the brothers is co-opted, he becomes an official artist. Why did you return to the theme of art? Was there something you wanted to do here that Ways of Dying didn’t do?
You know, I don’t know. Somebody once told me that we are always writing the same novel. Maybe it’s true because when I look at all my novels, there is always something somewhere about the plight of the artist. It may not be the major theme or the primary storyline, but it has always to be about the artist.
Besides being a writer I am an artist – I am a painter myself – so I’m also always struggling with that issue with myself, as a creator of art and as an interpreter of art. My characters, therefore, are involved in that constant struggle.
W: Sculptors is set in the 13th century: you’ve written about history before in Heart of Redness (2003) – [a novel that moves between the contemporary and the history of Nongqawuse, a Xhosa prophetess whose self-destructive prophecies propelled the Cattle Killing of 1856-1857, a devastating event causing mass starvation and which ruptured Xhosa culture between Believers and Unbelievers]. Why hark back? Is there something you want to say here that resonates with the contemporary?
The past is always a strong presence in our present. It is never ever the past for its own sake. When you look at the The Sculptors of Mapungubwe – and I am looking at issues of censorship, for instance, I am looking at issues of official art, where the ruling class want these artists to create art that glorifies the state instead of creating art for themselves, and the rulers feeling that this is being self-indulgent. These are issues that we are grappling with even today. They may take other names today: today they may say, “let’s talk about nation-building”, “let’s talk about social cohesion”, which is what they are saying in South Africa: we are going to fund art but what are we going to look at when we are dispersing this art? Will this art that we are building contribute to nation-building, contribute to social cohesion? You find that by these means, official art is already creeping in; censorship by another name is creeping in; the artist is being restricted in other ways. It’s not overt censorship but the artist is being restricted.
Mda and Wicomb go on to discuss the contemporary treatment of female artists at the ‘Innovative Women’ exhibition in Johannesburg. Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana stormed out of the exhibition before making her scheduled opening speech apparently after seeing the work of artist Zanele Muholi, dubbing Muholi’s work pornographic and as promoting lesbianism. Muholi has since called the Minister’s reaction unconstitutional and homophobic, and as an artist-activist has pointed out that people are at risk in a society that is fighting ongoing hate crimes that include at its extreme ‘corrective’ rape in violence against lesbians (see the Mail & Guardian’s coverage).
What gives [Xingwana] the right to call anything pornography? Thankfully Muholi does not need the state’s blessing – she is a wonderful wonderful artist.
It is this incident that Mda later cites in his invention of a term he uses in Sculptors, a word that describes what Wicomb calls “a pathological condition”. The word is ‘mbisili’, invented by the co-opted sculptor Rendani ‘to describe any work of art that was both abominable and strange, and that worked against social cohesion and nation-building’ (The Sculptors of Mapungubwe). Wicomb’s recognition of it as pathological involves a keen understanding of Mda’s satirical explorations in mbisili, that if anything is transgressive, you give a name to it and so domesticate it:
That came from the very minister who declared the photos pornographic. If you give it a name, it becomes that, and can be attacked on the basis.
In all Mda’s explorations of the aesthetic, there is always an ethical dimension. In a great example of their exchange, Wicomb asks why Mda’s central artist characters tend to asceticism –
W: Why are your characters self-negating? They have to refrain from all sorts of things…
M: like what?
W: Well, there’s a sexual prohibition, for instance – Toloki holds back from a girl who he clearly loves and who loves him in Ways of Dying, because he believes he shouldn’t have sex; and similarly with Chata [the creative genius sculptor brother of Sculptors] – he, too, doesn’t go for the girl – he believes he has to keep himself pure. They’re both ascetic. Have you not noticed this?
M: No! Now that you say it…
W: I was wondering if it had something to do with the AIDS epidemic, for instance…
W: So why do they restrain themselves in this way?
M: I don’t know! They shouldn’t…
W: Well, of course, you do arrive at this at the end, where both characters have worked through their self-rationing and allow themselves love. But I thought that that asceticism was part of a kind of purity that is involved in an aesthetic purity as well – that they won’t be contaminated by the state and the state’s prescriptions and expectations. The discipline helps them to remain independent…
M: The state does contaminate, but I don’t think that woman contaminates…
W: No, no – I didn’t think that’s the case…
M: No… But Toloki does call himself a monk – he sees himself in that light.
W: And Chata has to learn to incorporate love into his work- but he refuses it initially – in a sense it’s part of his journey of self-discovery
M: I don’t know where this comes from, you know? Because it’s not even informed by my own experience. My own creativity comes from a lot of love and a lot of loving. I’m actually inspired by being loved, and loving. In my view my characters would learn from me –
W: Well, characters can be very difficult, very resistant… [laughs]
M: It’s a very interesting observation you are making with that novel, but I can’t answer that one…
In response to questions from the floor, Mda is, again, thoughtful, generously expansive.
On the significance of place in his work:
…I was driving through the Eastern Cape and I thought, this place is so beautiful that it deserves a novel – and that was Heart of Redness – in other words, the place told me that the story must be set here and it must be about this place. And it has happened like this with all my novels. The place told me that there has got to be a story set in this place. Yes, you are right about the importance of place in my novels.
Lately I have observed that I am mapping South Africa with my novels, and I think that’s my mission now. Sometimes it is the character – it shapes the story for me. The story could not have happened anywhere else but there – it couldn’t have been anywhere else but at that place.
His move to Ohio, he says, was “by chance”, an opportunity afforded by access to an MA in Creative Writing: “Oh, you can study that. I did not know these things were available at that time”. When asked about his switch from playwright to novelist, Mda enters a full storytelling mode – the Edinburgh rain is hammering on the roof of the Book Festival tent and Mda responds, drawing us in almost conspiratorially to the images and experiments around the origins of his prose fiction as the session draws to a close:
It was also by chance – because as you say I started as a playwright and I was writing plays for many many years – I never thought I could write a novel. I was a dialogue person, I thought, and that’s all I could do. Now it happened one day when I was teaching at Yale – it was in the 90s/91, I think, during that period of transition in South Africa. Plays are very immediate – drama speaks immediately to the audience and we were using plays during the struggle to communicate issues directly and immediately; during that period of transition – one day, I decided – it is high time that I learnt to use a computer. When I was writing the plays, I was writing them all longhand. I would write the play and type it up later or give it to someone to type up for me. Then I bought a computer from a student. One Xmas day when my wife had gone to church, I was at home with my 4 month old, and I sat at this computer with my 4 month old baby on my lap, and as I sat at this computer trying to figure out how it works, I wrote the sentence, “there are many ways of dying”. I fell in love with that sentence. Then I wrote the next sentence, and the next. And then I remembered a character I had created a year before, when I was writer in residence at the Durham Cathedral, a professional mourner called Doroke that I was going to use in a play. By the time my wife came back from church, I had written the first page of prose – remember that I thought I could never write prose and be descriptive and so on – but I had written the first page of my novel, Ways of Dying, thanks to that computer, you see?
Zakes Mda appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2014 as part of the ‘Voices from South Africa’ theme.
AiW has further coverage of these events here.
Zoë Wicomb is a South African writer living in Glasgow, Scotland, where she is emeritus professor at the University of Strathclyde. Her fiction work includes David’s Story (Kwela, 2000), Playing in the Light (Umuzi/The New Press, 2006) and You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town (The New Press, 2000). Her latest novel, October (Umuzi, New Press) was published this year. Along with James Salter and Tom McCarthy she was an inaugural winner of Yale’s Windham Campbell Prize for Lifetime achievement in fiction writing in 2013: “Zoë Wicomb’s subtle, lively language and beautifully crafted narratives explore the complex entanglements of home, and the continuing challenges of being in the world.”. Wicomb’s fiction is taught at many universities in the UK.