Interview with Zakes Mda, by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa (South Africa)

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Zakes, French readers don’t know much about you yet. Could you tell us more about your professional path and your literary tastes?
I’ve been a teacher over many years starting teaching at high school and then being a university professor in Southern Africa and in the U.S.A in Vermont University. You see, I lived outside South Africa almost 22 years, being in exile. I left South Africa in 1963 for political reasons with my family. I lived those 22 years in Africa, America, and Great Britain as a refugee. I also worked doing arts, as a painter, a musical composer, a scriptwriter, and of course a dramaturgist. I write plays. Many of them have been performed in South Africa and elsewhere, in the U.S.A as well. So generally, that is my artistic background.
Now, I went back to South Africa in 1995, after our first election, our liberation and I’ve been staying there ever since, working full time as a writer. I write mostly novels and scripts for television as well, but I’ve also produced and I’ve made a production company. I produced films for television.
Did you have any influences in your writings ?
It is difficult to say because they come from many authors. They come for instance from South African writers, many of them. They come from a number of West African writers, of different types, Wole Soyinka, Sino Atchewe in East Africa, but also from writers from the West. There are many of them whom, I can say, my contact with them and with their work had influence on me as well. So it is difficult to pinpoint any particular influence. My work is rather generally connected to them.
I noticed two major types of writing in your novels. One coming from a classical form and the other coming from a popular one, closer to the oral mode of an African expression. Would you agree with that ?
I wouldn’t disagree because it is true that a lot of my writings is informed by our oral tradition, our oral literature in South Africa, in the way that I tell the stories, the mode that I use in telling the story, but also the kind of story I tell. The choice of the voice that I use, it is a voice that comes from our oral literature. So, basically, I agree with that part.
Now, about the classical style, I only agree with my influences of classical African literature rather than classical western literature. In the western mode, I’m more familiar with contemporary western literature which would not be called classical as such. But in a foreign classical African literature, I’m concerned even with the written or the oral one because we have a lot of classical oral literature in Africa, you see, which also influenced me a lot.
You also seem to have two different references to the oral expression. The first one concerns the dialogues so lively and full of sense of humour. The second comes from the indirect designation of several characters, called according to their situations or qualities and not simply by their names. Do you use those two characteristics as tools in order to increase the link with an oral expression ?
To me , that just came naturally, without my thinking very hard about it. Not thinking : let me do this or that. It came naturally because it is how our grandmothers tell their stories to us. Because in my culture, storytelling is in the hands of the grandmothers. They are the custodians of our stories, the way the stories are told, and the way, in many cases, people are named. You know, they’re named because of their characteristics, of the things that they do. A whole village decides to name a woman  » the Mountain Woman  » and everyone knows who that is. So all I really did was to transfer what happens in that real world I’m living in onto the page. Even in the way stories are told, it is not told in the western form, where the narrator is the one who tells the story. Here, the story is told by a communal voice. Because , as I tried to explain some way yet – I had to explain that because many readers from the West would not understand – this we is the plural that tells the story. No one owns a story in my culture, a story belongs to everyone and anyone can tell it. It is our story : we saw this, we did this, and so on, as a community. But I wouldn’t explain that if the reader belonged to those people, to the culture from which I come. They would not understand exactly what I’m trying to explain, as they would just recognise a story that our grandmothers use to tell us by the fireplace. So, even the names of the characters, it’s just like that, you see.
I pointed out a specific role of women in the novel. They often have a very strong individuality so that their figures lead the reader through the whole story. According to your intentions, were they just made up or do they reveal a South African reality ?
It would be strange if I told you that both. Both of these asserts are true. It is something I invented but it is something that comes from the African reality. Let me explain what I mean when I say both. I come from a country where women traditionally are marginalised and oppressed, both by the system and the patriarchal society. So that is a reality in my culture as well. It’s a culture now, in the modern sense, where there’s a lot of women abuses by men, which also includes a lot of rapes. My country is the rape capital of the world ! So you can see that, in all respect, women are highly marginalised in that. But at the same time, I come from a country where women have traditionally been highly involved in the liberation movement, as leaders of the liberation fight. We’ve had many strong women leaders with men. At grass roots level, you go to such community, you find that people who lead development are women. So you can see that contradiction when I say both. If you go to Parliament, you find that South Africa as the highest percentage of women in Parliament, the highest in Africa definitely, and one of the higher in the world, higher than France for instance. Why ? Because the women, themselves, in South Africa, have been strong enough to fight for that situation. It didn’t come from men’s kindness – let’s allow women to be… – Women fought for that. And this is part of the gain that they have achieved when they fought for their liberation. Because once they fought for the general liberation of the country, they were also fighting their own liberation. They had that double head oppression. You see that ? So it is then that we had strong women who were leaders in their own right, that they had taken, and, at the same time, we had a society which still is the top most model for abusing women, for raping them and for doing all terrible things to them. So that’s why I say it is the truth, both things are true. In the world I’m creating, it is both the reality but also it is the other way around , you see.
I really enjoyed reading your book although I found, in many ways, the story quite violent and horrible, but at the same time full of humour and pleasant games of situations. Is the reader able to support the dramatic intensity of the narration thanks to the short moments of fun that will bring him some relief ? Are you aware of that ?
Yes, it is made like this consciously because every death I wrote about in this book, – I mean every one is a death that actually happened in the real life… exactly as it happened. I don’t invent any of the things. Each death comes from a newspaper, or from people that I knew. The precise death that I talk about, of the girl who was looking for her brother who went to the mortuary, to look at the bodies and so on. I don’t know if you remember of that part. That in fact happened to my own cousin when her brother had disappeared and then was found dead somewhere and all of that. So you find that the deaths I talk about are deaths that happened, that I read about in the newspapers, saw on T.V, or people I know personally, my relatives and so on. So there’s no invention. It was during a very well known period in the history of my country when I wrote this novel. Those were deaths we ourselves were responsible for, you know, like people were killing one another. Of course, the hand of apartheid was there, in the background, you see. But the hands that actually did the matter were our own hands. Those hands are the one who were guilty of doing that. But I wanted to show that, in spite of all that world , there was humanity somewhere, which hopefully was going to triumph at the end, over all that foolishness which was engaged at those times. I wanted to find humanity even in a wasted situation, because indeed, in the midst of death, in my culture, we laugh. Because laughter somehow heels the pain even when we are mostly oppressed. At the higher point of our oppression, we joked about it, we told jokes about our own sufferings. We sat down and joked about it and laughed, you know, about how anyone had been arrested and beaten up. We found humour in that very same pain and laughed about it. It was the only way to deal with the pain. That’s how we survived the pain, through laughter and through humour, you see. So that’s why I see the value of laughter even in the novel that I’m writing now.
In spite of all the aspects we’ve talked about, I realised at the end of my reading that I’d style your novel a love story.
Oh yes, it is a love story. I discovered that later, of course. When writing, I was not writing a love story, but when I read it I realised it was a love story. It is a different kind of love story from the normal one in the way that there’s a strange kind of love and relationship. But it is a love story. And many people realised that because when it was turned into a play lately, two months ago in South Africa. It became a very popular play. They emphasized the love story aspect of it and it came out very clearly a love story.
Another thing which surprised me was the very violent relationships between men., between the father and the son for instance, and between men in general. The character called Toroki has very violent relationship with his father, does it come from real facts ?
It is fiction, of course. But it is based on what also does happen when you find that the men after all the hassles going on outside have to share such a small space that will turn them into enemies. So you do find such a situation in a dysfunctional kind of relationship between the father and the son. Although it is fiction, and purely an invention, it is also from what does happen sometimes.
Could you tell us more about the function of souvenir, present in several passages. First, in the relationship between Noria and Toroki, but also present all along the novel in those specific moments when the narration itself underlines the preponderant role of memory, still refering to the oral traditions. I picked up that passage :  » When in our tradition, the storyteller starts with :  » One says that once, it happened that…  » This one is we . » What consciousness of tradition does it involve? It often happens that the narrator turn into a communal we during the narration.
The weight of oral tradition to me is that, for my work to have an authenticity, it must use the modes of the literature that are used by the characters I’m writing about. They have their own very rich literature that comes from many generations away, that has come down to us. There are traditional forms of literature that exist amongst them. Those have even reached me from previews generations but, unfortunately, I doubt very much if they could reach my children. If it cuts, it will certainly die. Now, you know, it is even more dead than us, although there are people who’d like to bring it back again. But what is more important is that, this literature was which originally was co-operate but depended on the wear of mouth and needed to be present. It needed to have those entertaining qualities in it, the artistic qualities that will make it possible for it to stay in the memory of the storyteller, so that it can go down to the next person of the future generation intact like that. So the mode that I use in my storytelling comes from that tradition but not the writing itself as an African one. I think that if I take that written form which is writing and then use it for my own purpose, you know, and humanise it in the form of the tradition of my people, it becomes then effective to tell a story in that manner. And when someone gets to read it, at least, he or she is able to get the atmosphere of that environment. Why that is possible, it is because I use the modes of storytelling, of those people who are able to capture this characteristics even more effectively. One of those modes is the communal voice that tells the story. As I said before, a story belongs to the community, it is not like here with the idea of individual property of a story. In my culture, it is our story. Whoever wants to tell it can do it. Art is a common activity. So, we all participate, we produce art and enjoy art communally. That all is our tradition. If you go to the rural areas, in the villages, it is still like that. When you get to the city, it is all different. They left it because of the urban surroundings.
I feel in your novel something like a tribute to small people, I mean those who always have to act resourcefully in order to survive. Did you mean a kind of implicit tribute to these people ?
It’s true that a kind of celebration of our culture is there as well.
Isn’t there a specific mind going on amongst them while helping one another?
This is a fact of life in this community because they create a very strong interdependence. It is unlike in the cities, where I live for myself, you live for yourself and so on. We live for one another. It is a concept known in South Africa as Ubuntu, which nearly means humanity within us, where I’m a person through you because your a person. Without you, I’m depreciated as a person, you know. That’s what Ubuntu means, which is our basic philosophy down there. It does underline an interdependence between us.
I also noticed a strong magical dimension throughout the story and I was wondering if you were influenced by any South American writers. In your world, when a character thinks that he is going to die, it just happens that he dies right away.
Well, I’ve had that question so many times. It’s a very current question. Let me tell you this: even for that one I will say both. I’ll explain that. Long, long before I even heard of those Latin Americans, I was creating works with this magic that you were talking about. But I want you to know that I have reservations about the word magic itself, when it comes for my work. I agree with this magic in my novels and in my plays that I wrote at the times of the high school and so on, not knowing anything about this Latin American literature. I used that magic, and why I used that magic, it is because it is this magic that I find in the society I’m writing about. They live that kind of life, it is their life. The supernatural is their view. That would not contradict what you call the objective reality. It is part of their life which, to them, is the objective reality, that supernatural. All I do yet is to interpret it and make it come to life. It is their believes. So the magic that I create then, it is the magic that comes from the views, from the believes of the society that I’m writing about. When you go to the village, there’s a lot of that magic. When you go to the city, it’s no longer there. Let me give you an example we were talking about with those people who work at Dapper editions. They’ve just come back from Cameroon where, when somebody’s dead, there’s a time when, still in the coffin, they will sit around, steep themselves with palm wine and then do some prayer or whatever. And then, they call this person to rise, to come and be with them. And they believe that this person does rise and become with them. They might not see him but he’s there. If I was writing that story I would make that person rise literally and be with them. And to me that is not magic, I would only let appear their believes. Because this is how they see the world and, to them, genuinely that person does rise. Doesn’t it make sense? I’ve always been writing in that way. But later then, I read the works of those Latin American writers, Marquez, Lorca and so on, and I realised that these people were doing something similar, where they write a magical world as if it was the real world. And then I disagree. Because I was really interpreting the real life of those people, their real believes. But then I was impressed by the works of Garcia Marquez, which I got to know later. He did influence me later as well, but it got me when I was already writing in that style.

///Article N° : 5428


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