In Conversation: Zakes Mda on No Story Being too Taboo or Sacred to Tell
The legendary South African writer on storytelling, losing Bra Hugh Masekela and his hopes for South Africa
Zakes Mda, endearingly referred to as Bra Zakes, is a South African literary giant. He is the exemplar "jack of all trades, master of all"—a professional 'dabbler' as he refers to it. An accomplished novelist, playwright, poet and painter, he has written close to two dozen novels thus far, including the beloved Little Suns, Ways of Dying and The Heart of Redness. He is extremely hilarious as an individual and never afraid to speak his glorious mind. Case in point:
"Some random guy claims he has lost all respect for me because I hold a different view from his on a specific issue. I'm trying hard to recall what his respect has done for me lately or ever did."
Bra Zakes hails from the dusty streets of Orlando East, a suburb in the township of Soweto. As a child, the oral tradition of storytelling nurtured him, he recited the Shakespeare that his father taught and his name, was actually that of a fictional character in a book. None of this was hardly coincidental.
Zakes Mda is now a full Professor of English at Ohio University but still frequents South Africa on occasion.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your full name is Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda. Explain to us how 'Zakes' came about?
That's my pen name. But then it's been my nickname even before I became a writer. Being Zanemvula Kizito and therefore ZK became Zakes. And during those days there used to be a great saxophonist in Alexandra Township called Zakes Nkosi. And of course, I was Zakes the artist. That's what I was called.
I think it's not often that an artist is so diversified like you are. You're a novelist, you've written plays, poetry and you're a painter as well. Is it all the same to you?
Well, to me art is art is art is art. This so called "diversified in art" is something that I only learnt when I got here in America. I wake up one morning—If I feel like a play, then I write a play. I wake up one morning—I'm working on this animation cartoon, if I'm creating a certain scene and then a song comes, I say, "This is what this character sings here." Then, I compose that song.
Do you think being an artist is a calling or just another job?
It's quite possible that being an artist is a calling although I don't know who's calling you. But it is a calling in that if you have to resist and refuse then you run mad. You cannot say no. As a writer, the story tells you to tell it. And if you say, "No. I'm not going to do that," you will certainly run mad.
On the subject of South African artists especially, do you think South Africa loses a lot of them because it doesn't sufficiently value them?
Well, the world is a stage. There's a bigger stage out there. You cannot ask why Trevor Noah should work in America for Comedy Central when there's the SABC here. He's an artist. It's the same with Pretty Yende who's one of the greatest sopranos in the world. She could have stayed in Mpumalanga where she comes from but she went to La Scala in Italy. If you have a provincial mind, you'll go, "Why doesn't she sing in the State Theater?" She still does. But she's there on the bigger stage.
I have to ask you about The Zulus of New York that you're releasing this year. Do you think the theme of Black people as human spectacles has been explored enough?
There are academic papers which have been written about human circuses. In fact, even my writing this novel, it came from first reading an academic paper which was about these human circuses. I think I need to share this with the broader readership out there because we're trying to regain our dignity and many of us are afraid of exploring that kind of a story because it brings back the shame of the past. But you cannot regain your dignity when you do not know how you lost it in the first place.
And this especially for stories of oppression?
Yes. But you get flack from both sides. The oppressed and the oppressor. The oppressed because of the embarrassment and shame, and the oppressor did that for himself. Whereas the oppressed should not be embarrassed. This was done to him. And the oppressed did resist. It's not like the oppressed folded his or her arms and said, "Okay, oppress me." Right from day one, there was resistance.
Do you think that there are certain stories that are too sacred or too taboo to tell?
No. Even before you finish that question. There's no story which is taboo or too sacred., I tell any story I want to tell. Actually, sometimes, it's not even that I want to tell it. The story tells me to tell it. The story nags me. It nags me and says, "Hey, I'm a story, I need to be out there and you are the only one who can channel me out." If I don't do that, I will run mad, as I told you before.
One of the arguments by Xhosa people, after the release of the film Inxeba: The Wound, was that of sacrosanct practices. What would you say to that, as a Xhosa man yourself?
I actually like that movie. I just didn't like the abrupt and brutal ending. The movie showed the superficial parts that, in a Xhosa initiation school, are seen even by women because they sometimes take food there. It showed the day-to-day life they have and then of course the romantic relationships between homosexuals. They are not manufactured by the initiation. They are gay and of course they continue their gay relationships there. I didn't see anything wrong with that.
The other day you tweeted a photo of you and Bra Hugh Masekela. When he passed last year, how did you feel?
I felt very sad because even when he was sick for some time. His very last public performance was with me and he looked quite sick already at that time, although he was trying very hard to be strong. So when he died, I was almost already resigned to the fact that he was going to die. I was not shocked; I was just sad. I'm still sad now because he was a friend of mine.
Tell me about the Market Theater performance.
We had planned a tour together, not of music but just talking about culture, heritage, which was what our last performance was at the Market Theater when he appeared in public for the last time. There was no saxophone in sight. It was just me and him and a moderator and an audience, discussing issues pertaining to culture and heritage.
He was one of our greatest musicians. Would you say that his own artistry influenced yours in some way, if at all?
I would think so. You know, what? Sometimes, you don't consciously try to be influenced by anybody but invariably you are. Hugh and I were working on a movie project together with some people here in New York. And that project continues. Hopefully, after some time, we're going to see that film that we were doing together.
You're quite critical of politics, here and abroad. You speak about an intellectualism that used to be so characteristic of the ANC. Do you think under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa, that may return?
There's this sentiment whereby you try to suppress the intellectual and intellectualism so as to appear as part of the populist. But we are in a better place than we were a year ago in South Africa. Philosophically and ideologically I believe in the ANC, all things being equal. This leaves people like me in a limbo. I know that things become very bad and are bad in many places.
But there's always hope. You always see some glimmer of hope somewhere.