Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying and Cion

My review of Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying and Cion appears in the November 12 issue of The Nation, but the piece is already available online. I wrote this back in August, but my editor at the magazine left to join the LRB, so it took a little while to get the piece through with the transition. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

More here.