On Realism and Characterization

Zakes Mda has written a lovely piece for the Boston Review about his writing process, specifically his approach to realism and characterization. He discusses J.M. Coetzee’s incredible novel Waiting for the Barbarians, placing it in the context of apartheid-era South African fiction, which was often starkly realistic:

What others saw as a failure to represent lived experience appeared to me—I was then living in exile—as a refreshing way to re-imagine South Africa and transcend the repetition of the horrors reported every day in newspapers. Waiting for the Barbarians addressed the brutality of colonialism in a timeless manner and extended the borders of “empire” far beyond those of South Africa: to the rest of Africa, Asia, Europe, Australasia, and the Americas. Springing from the particular circumstances of South Africa, it spoke to a universe in which the state became increasingly terroristic in its defense of imperial values. The timelessness was rendered all the more striking to me when one of my students at Ohio University asked if the novel was written after 9/11.

He also describes how Coetzee’s attention to characterization helped him to see the need to create emotionally and intellectually complex South African characters:

In 1984 my play, The Road, won the Christina Crawford Award of what was then called the American Theater Association and was read on stage at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco. Theater educators and scouts gathered and offered their critiques. I was taken aback by one particular comment: according to one critic, the Afrikaner character was a thorough scoundrel without a single redeeming feature. (…)The play is highly allegorical, for allegory is the mode of oral literature and folklore in that part of the world. South African theater was allegorical long before Coetzee. Its humor was in its absurdity, which was largely the absurdity of the Afrikaner character and everything he stood for. So, what more did the San Francisco critic want from it? What redeeming attribute could an Afrikaner character possibly have, especially after oppressing me for more than three hundred years?

Of course, real people are never as sharply contrasted as some heroes and villains in fiction, and Mda had to learn to create more complex Afrikaner characters.

Related: On Zakes Mda’s novel Cion for The Nation .