The seasoned scribe listens intently, absorbing the questions while affording his acolyte the respect and courtesy of referring to him by his clan name. The interviewer is no slouch with the pen either, being an author of some repute, but on this occasion his personal achievements must take a backseat to the narrative of the old man.
This scenario played out at the Market Theatre recently when playwright and novelist Zakes Mda sat in conversation with Fred Khumalo. Mda the renowned scholar and writer; Khumalo the younger novelist and columnist.
Mda has just released his latest book, The Sculptors Of Mapungubwe, the launch of which was the reason for this gathering, but Khumalo used the occasion to pick Mda’s brain about his writing. Khumalo was particularly interested in how Mda makes the shift from writing plays to non-fiction and then fiction.
“Well for me, storytelling is storytelling,” Mda explains.
“I discovered the novel very late in life because I never thought I could be descriptive or write sustained prose. I wrote all my plays longhand, and one day I got a computer and decided to give it a try. I sat down one Sunday afternoon after reading the manual and my first line was, ‘There are many ways of dying’. I then looked at this line and thought about what would come next. The lines just kept on coming and the next thing, I had two pages of sustained prose and what would later become my first novel. At the time I did not even know where the story was going. But I took a character I had created and wrote from that starting point. My writing is planned and once I know what story I am telling I then determine how many chapters the story should be told in.”
Khumalo also spoke about a time around the demise of apartheid when some questioned what writers would write about after the oppressive system was abolished. All of Mda’s novels were written after 1994, giving him an interesting perspective on the issue.
“During apartheid, that was all we wrote about,” Mda continues.
“We wrote about apartheid because apartheid was the dominant discourse in society and it touched every aspect of your life as a black person. You could not even write a love story without mentioning apartheid. But as writers we write about people. Apartheid died, but human beings are still here, and in fact for many of us, the demise of apartheid freed the imagination. And the fact remains that whenever or wherever you have human beings you will have conflict, and of course conflict is the stuff of storytellers. We thrive on conflict, so we continue to write because we are still here and conflict is sure to follow.”
Contrasts and battling ideas is central to Mda’s latest novel. The narrative takes place in the kingdom of Mapungubwe, where the royal sculptor has two heirs, Chata and Rendani. As they grow older, so does their rivalry – and their extraordinary talents. But while Rendani becomes a master sculptor of the animals that run in the wild hills and lush valleys of the land, Chata learns to carve fantastic beings from his dreams, creatures never before seen on Earth. From this natural rivalry between brothers, Zakes Mda crafts an irresistibly rich fable of love and family. What makes the better art, perfect mimicry or inspiration? Who makes the better wife, a princess or a mysterious dancer?
“I have always been fascinated by history,” Mda says of the decision to set this novel in 1223.
“In my novels, I always try to show that the past has a strong presence in our present. But sometimes I also want to show that the past is a creation of our present, because we always look back at our past and then we reshape it in many instances to palliate the present. That is my interest with history. I am trying to map out our country because I am fascinated by where we come from and were we are going.”