“My mission is to tell a good story. If I don’t make my characters human – the story will fail,” said Zakes Mda.
Mda is currently Artist-in-Residence at STIAS where he is finalising his latest work The Zulus of New York, a historical novel set in KwaZulu, the Cape of Good Hope, London, New York and at a Jieng village in South Sudan between 1878 and 1895. Celebrated author Mda, who is Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio University, outlined the plot of the novel, the historical events underlying it, analysed the role of historical fiction and explained some of his writing process to STIAS fellows. He also treated them to a reading from the novel.
He aimed to answer the question of why we need historical fiction when history has already told us the story.
“I write about the past to discuss the present,” he said. “I write historical fiction to tame the past and foist order on it.”
He described historical fiction is an effective tool for interrogating and challenging historical narrative, and moving those previously marginalised from the periphery to the centre.
“I try to make history relatable – to humanise it,” he said. “The historical record states but fiction demonstrates. History tells us what happened while historical fiction demonstrates what it was like to be in what happened. It takes us inside history into the interiorities of the players – both historical and fictional. We can only sympathise with those whose story we know.”
He pointed out that neither journalism nor the historical record is completely objective about contemporary events. “It’s one perspective. And it brings baggage and values in selection. History represents the dominant discourse and creates a narrative that legitimises the ruling elite. I try to use my fiction to address this situation.”
“There are two possible approaches – to rewrite the past or to reinvent the past,” he added.
“I like to make it clear what is history and what is imagination. My novels are set in a historical period but are driven by fictional characters whose fate is not necessarily determined by history. They have agency and psychological motivation but are influenced by events in the historical record. I place characters in the context of history but their actions are their own.”
In The Zulus of New York Mda tells the story of a group of Zulus who were imported to England and later the United States in the 1880S by William Leonard Hunt, also known as The Great Farini, to perform as ‘human curiosities’ or ‘freak shows’ in his popular circus.
It was at the height of Zulu popularity, after their victory over the British at the Battle of Isandlwana, and the Zulus performed at some major venues including Madison Square Gardens in New York.
“This novel is centred on the life of one of these Zulu performers, tracing it from Ondini in KwaZulu where he was one of the two highly-esteemed warriors who ritually bathed King Cetshwayo in his sacred Inkatha hut, to his escape after a botched tryst with one of the harem women, to his sojourn in Cape Town where he is recruited by The Great Farini, to his performances in London, and finally to New York where he falls into unrequited love with a Dinka woman, another caged exhibit.”
Although based on actual events, Mda pointed out that “We don’t know who the Zulus were – not even their names. I’m aiming to restore their humanity in my novel – to give them a name, life and perspective. These characters were created for me by history but in history they didn’t have names and lives.”
“I am trying to teach my people about their past,” he added. “I’m writing about a culture I know and have researched but I’m also approximating terms which I think would be relevant to a Zulu of that time. But my characters must have psychological motivation and justification. They are products of their own experience.”
“I write fiction not history but I localise my fiction in historical events,” he continued. “I create fictional characters to interact with those events, to interact with history. It’s as accurate as history can ever purport to be.”
“After all, history started with oral tradition – story telling, poetry, songs and conversation.”
“I try to capture the period but it is a twenty first century narrator telling a story of the past. A lot of it is ‘what if?’”.
Mda was also keen to emphasise the need for a feminine perspective on historical events. “History is ‘Her-story’ too,” he said.
For example, he pointed out that he can trace his family lineage back 600 years but it’s only the male line “Women only featured when they ‘didn’t behave’, when they defied laws and culture”.
“I’m actually more interested in ‘her-story’ than his-story,” he added.
Speaking more generally of his writing process, Mda described himself as being “excited by life” and a self-taught writer who developed his own method. He keeps notebooks in which he jots down story ideas and these serve as the rough draft of his novels.
“I don’t invite ideas, they just come,” he said.
“I don’t struggle once I know this is a story I want to tell,” he added. “I tell the story.”
“As a novelist I am in the God business. I am God of what I create. The creator is always part of the creation. There are autobiographical elements whether I like it or not.”
“I inject my own biases and don’t try to hide them, they must be there.”
“I always have the ending I want although readers sometimes write to me because they are not happy with my ending,” he said.
When asked about the overall message of his work, Mda was quick to point out. “I don’t think in terms of a message. I refuse to have a message to deliver. I don’t impose a message, I tell a story.”
“My personal values do come through and people get a message despite me. Different readers receive different messages. They bring their own baggage and the message they receive is determined by their biography and values.”
Mda will spend his time at STIAS completing and fine-tuning the novel and, if time permits, working on a film script of another of his novels, The Madonna of Excelsior.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw