This Monday, South African playwright, author, and poet Zakes Mda flew into Minneapolis from the University of Ohio on the heels of the flurries.
Mda arrived at Gustavus on Tuesday morning and spent a large portion of the day answering students’ questions in English Professor Elizabeth Baer’s Senior Seminar and African Literature & Film courses. Both classes recently finished reading Mda’s Ways of Dying (1995) about a Professional Mourner named Toloki who finds himself reunited with an old friend (Noria) on the day of her son’s funeral. In these classes, Mda talked about everything from his writing process to the materials he uses to paint; from his inspiration for various characters to his opinions regarding the political climate in South Africa.
That same evening, Gusties across disciplines came to Confer 127 to watch Mda give a talk entitled, “Write What You Don’t Know: Readings from the Novels of Zakes Mda.”
Mda’s talk attempted to refute the traditional advice given to writers to “write what you know.”
“When I look back at my own writing, I’ve always written what I do not know,” Mda said.
He explained that the best way to do this is to find something you are interested in, learn about it, and write about it. When you get the final period of the novel, that topic will have transformed into something “you know.”
“I really just appreciate Mda’s challenging of this unquestioned pillar, this creed, in creative writing, ‘Write what you know about.’ It is a direct challenge to that phrase. He is saying, that in a creative world, how can you have boxes, categories, rules, how can all of those things exist in a creative world? For that I appreciate it,” Senior English and Spanish Major Trevor Oestenstad said.
In order to demonstrate this concept, Mda read excerpts from The Whale Caller (2005) and Cion (2007). The former is a book set in Hermanus, South Africa about a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a whale. Mda shared the story of the book’s origin, explaining to the audience how he was inspired to write the story one night when he watched a program about a whale crier. When he went to see this whale crier, he was disappointed to find that he was not the magical figure the program had made him out to be, and Mda soon found himself researching callosities and creating a whale caller of his own. Mda also shared the trailer from the upcoming film adaptation, filmed in Hermanus.
“By pushing and reforming our ideas and perceptions, Mda strives to write about things less familiar to the realm of his life, and by reaching out to this unknown it creates this magical meaning. It’s a meaning so overwhelming and exciting in its attempt to grasp the unknown, that the journey becomes a product of itself,” Senior English Major Rotta Yong said.
The latter, Cion, is one of Mda’s most recent works. In this novel, Mda transports Toloki the Professional Mourner from his nameless city in South Africa to Mda’s current place of residence: Athens, Ohio. More specifically, Toloki spends his time in the nearby hamlet of Kilvet. Mda explained that he was inspired to write Cion because he was fascinated by Kilvet, by the history and the memories stored in the hearts of its people. He described evenings learning to sew quilts with the women of Kilvet in exchange for permission to write about them in Cion. The result was a rich piece of fiction that has been adopted by Kilvet as “their story.” Cion helped the community in Kilvet to recognize the value of things which come to seem boring.
“I thought “Ways of Dying” was a very interesting way of showing the violence and death of the transitional period in South Africa. Its magical realism and quirky elements provide enough distance from the death to make it an enjoyable read, but still provides great depth in horrible detail of the tragedies that occur. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the culture of South Africa,” Senior English Majr Eric Larson said.
Mda’s novels—including his most recently published autobiography, Sometimes There is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider (2012)—are available for purchase in the Book Mark.