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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Zakes Mda Zakes Mda is a South African writer of plays, novels, poems, and articles for academic journals and newspapers. His creative work also includes painting works of art, theatre and film productions. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the 2005 Notable Books Award of the American Library Association and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Africa Region and the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award.
Mike Nicol Mike Nicol is a journalist and writer.

Zakes Mda in conversation with Mike Nicol

  1. Most of our highly engaging and productive writers come from (or have spent a significant part of their writing lives in) Cape Town. What makes the Cape Town literary scene so vibrant? Is it something in the water? Would you say there is a Cape Town literature? What are its defining characteristics?

    Definitely something in the water, like sharks. Seriously, though, in the 1970s Johannesburg was the literary capital of the country: it had the most vibrant literary magazines, Staffrider being the most notable, and two of the publishers in Ravan Press and AD Donker. Contrast was being published from Onrus - which is not really Cape Town - but for the rest it just wasn't happening here. Sometime in the 1980s it seems to me Jo'burg lost its edge and Cape Town started coming alive. Upstream magazine was publishing new writing, much of it from local writers, and then Contrast became New Contrast and tried, not entirely successfully, to widen the pool. On the poetry front Gus Ferguson's Carapace gave plenty of room to new talent and then he started Snail Press, which saved poetry from an unnoticed demise. Without Gus Ferguson so many of the best poets in this country would never have got their books on to the shelves of what these days pass for bookshops.

    But none of this is to say that there is a Cape Town literature, or even that it has defining characteristics. I think if anything the city has suddenly become a character in many of the works set here, be they poems, novels or short stories. Fancifully, I like to think this is because the city has reached its puberty, and because this is the most complex city in the country. Originally it was a summer pasturage; then the white settlers arrived to make it a port and imported slaves (people torn from their families and landscapes) who, with this anger and sadness, had to build a place that their descendants would call home; then came groups of people seeking better lives; right up to the latest immigration (in terms of significant numbers) from the Eastern Cape. A city given to such emotional trauma - as you know, it is widely regarded today as the most racist in the country, an indication of its trauma - and to such dangerous beauty - the sharks in the glorious blue sea - how can a literature not start to find expression?

  2. Although I now teach creative writing I never really had any formal training in writing fiction. And this is the case with many South African writers I know (although I believe writing programmes at UCT and Wits are beginning to change that). I remember thirteen years ago I was in a train with you from Paris to either Strasbourg or Grenoble. I noticed that you were bored and gave you the first few pages of my novel, Ways of Dying, that I was trying to write at the time. You were kind enough to read them on that journey and advised me to use fewer adjectives and more adverbs. That constitutes all the creative writing training (at least for fiction, for I have been trained in playwriting and screenwriting) I have received in my life. What is your view of creative writing programmes, especially at institutions of higher learning? Nadine Gordimer, for instance, pooh-poohs the whole idea. Do you think writing fiction can (and should) be taught?

    That I had the temerity to offer advice seems to have been a moment of weakness, but given your success over recent years, clearly nothing was lost. Like you I had no training in writing fiction. Except that an English lecturer at Wits, Jean Marquard, once told me, "Don't state, demonstrate." Which really says it all as far as teaching fiction writing is concerned.

    From a selfish point of view I am very grateful for the Centre for Creative Writing at UCT, as I get to give a course there which I enjoy doing and which is useful financially. Apart from that it provides new writers with a forum where they can discuss writing problems, problems which seem to be always the same. Problems we all have but which I'm not necessarily sure ever get any easier.

    I have come to think that writing fiction can't be taught, but what one can do is explain - or rather point out - the elements of which novels are comprised. Apart from that the students get a sort of fellowship which we never had. For instance, when did we meet for the first time? I think over the telephone when I commissioned a piece from you for Leadership magazine sometime in the 1980s. OK, you were in exile in Swaziland and, as in so many instances, apartheid kept writers apart. That trip to France in 1992 was the first time we met. And how many times have we bumped into each other since then? Once, if I recall correctly, at Grahamstown three years ago now. So there's not much of a community of writers here and maybe, given certainly my antisocial tendencies, I wouldn't choose to belong if there were one. But for others who need to talk to fellow writers, creative writing programmes can be useful, I would imagine.

  3. After you read that first chapter of my first novel in the train you offered to publish it in a journal you were editing at the time. And you did. Thanks, man. After I completed the manuscript you introduced me to your New York agent. Did I ever tell you that she turned me down on the basis that "African literature does not sell in the USA"? And yet she was representing you, and I thought as a writer living and writing from the southern tip of Africa you were producing African literature. After all, writers like Nadine Gordimer and André Brink are counted among the leading African writers in most of the literature on African literature that I have read. What are your thoughts on this? I know that writers hate to pigeonhole themselves (at least I do), but do you consider your writing as African literature? Now that my work sells so well in the USA and has been translated into so many languages world-wide, is your USA agent not kicking herself?

    Ah! The mischievous glint in the eyes of Zakes Mda! To begin at the beginning: the magazine concerned was New Contrast where, under the editorship of Douglas Reid Skinner, I selected the prose. And how lucky can one get in being able to publish an extract from a novel that was to be well published internationally and become well regarded. I don't recall the New York agent bit and didn't know she'd turned you down. Of course, in her eyes and in the eyes of the US publishing houses at the time, African literature was produced by black writers. If you were white and lived in Africa, you were probably stateless in their terms. Academic critics might have seen Coetzee, Brink and Gordimer as African writers, but in the commercial world of selling manuscripts and books I suspect they were viewed differently.

    Like you, I believe that if one is living in and writing about a specific place (South Africa) then one is a South African writer. By virtue of the geographic position of South Africa one contributes to African literature, but I think that pigeonhole is so broad as to be meaningless. For argument's sake, what does it mean to be a European writer if you are Italian writing about the villages around Lake Garda? Very little, I would imagine. I mean, are there any themes that are uniquely African? I doubt it. The imagery will be different (from a Chinese writer's, for example), the imagination might be slightly different, but aren't those superficial differences in the end? The pigeonholes are about marketing. Surely when someone buys a Zakes Mda novel in New York they are not buying it because it is African literature but because they've been told it's this great story by a writer who happens to live in South Africa.

    As for the agent who couldn't see the changing world order, she's not my agent anymore, so I don't know if she's been kicking herself, but, knowing agents, I doubt it, they're a thick-skinned bunch with memories that don't reach back further than the last lunch.

  4. It seems to me you have been focusing more on non-fiction lately. Is there any specific reason for this? When are we likely to see another Mike Nicol novel?

    Tricky question this. Some years back I decided I wanted to do something completely different in fiction, but changing tack proved to take longer than I'd imagined. It meant learning lots of new things which I'd never considered before. And there was a huge amount of catch-up reading to be done. That sounds kinda vague, but best left that way for the moment. Are you likely to see another novel? Let me put it this way: you are likely to see somewhat of a Mike Nicol novel in March next year. "Somewhat" in that it is a collaboration with a friend and graduate of the Centre for Creative Writing, Joanne Hichens. I'd long wanted to see if it was possible for two people to work on a novel, so for two and a half years we persevered on a crime novel called Out to Score, which is being published by Annari van der Merwe at Umusi, the new imprint at Random House South Africa. An interesting experiment. When you get to read it, let me know if we pulled it off.

  5. To what extent does your non-fiction rely on the techniques of fiction writing? Don't you sometimes find the lines between the two genres blurring? In any event, does it matter at all if the categories are blurred?

    Lots. Yes and no. Yes, it matters in some instances. As you know, fiction teaches one about structure and tension and that oddly democratic right that characters insist they have: the right to speak. So that is something I have tried hard to put into the non-fiction, whether books or articles. Yes, sometimes non-fiction strays towards fiction, particularly as one's memory of an event might be completely different from the memory of someone else who witnessed the event. In those instances I suppose one is striving for a truth that has more to do with what the event felt like than what might really have happened. We live in post-modern times when truth (and conversely falsehoods) are everywhere.

    But no, in the case of coincidences, for example. Coincidences happen all the time in non-fiction because they are an accepted part of how we experience the world, but insert them into fiction and your plot is instantly compromised. The reader slams the book shut, shouting, "This is contrived!" And yes, I think it does matter when the writer too obviously blurs the borders. Non-fiction has a tone that has to win the reader's trust. What is being read has to "ring true". Disbelief is not suspended. The "false note" clangs in the reader's ears. (Ironically, this happens with fiction too, of course.) Ostensibly non-fiction is about what really happened, even though we all know it's a rendition of what happened. I suppose we've got used to reading recreated conversations where the writer was clearly not present, but I feel something has been lost here. Recently, writing a short biography of Nelson Mandela, I was terrifyingly aware of how much imaginative interpretation goes into the writing even when one is sticking to a rigorous chronology and does not have the space to waffle.

    What can I say? The moment we start writing we're not being truthful, are we? But there are a lot worse jobs than being a professional liar.

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LitNet: 02 August 2005

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