5 Questions for Zakes Mda

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Zakes Mda © Goethe-Institut/Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi

Zakes Mda is most famous for his novels and plays. But his body of works stretches further than that, to include musical composition and painting. Juggling his professorship in Creative Writing at the University of Ohio, his regular engagements and a creative career encompassing several different media can be challenging. The challenges do little to curb Mda’s need to create, he says that it is best for him to produce work prolifically ‘I have to,’ he says ‘otherwise I would run mad.’

How do you balance your work, travel and writing schedules?
ZM: I create every day, whether it be continuing with the novel, the work in progress; sometimes I don’t feel like touching that work in progress. And I’m doing other things, I’m writing film scripts, that’s one of my mainstays, my livelihood really. So I do all that; if I feel like composing a song, I write a song.

You have been living outside of South Africa for a while now. How do you manage to keep your work so steeped in South Africa and its landscapes?
ZM: It is because that land lives in me, South Africa lives in me. I carry South Africa with me everywhere I go. I don’t have to be in South Africa to write about South Africa. Most of my novels are written all over the place. Madonna of Excelsior, for example, there are big chunks of it that were written in France, some big chunks in Switzerland. So my work is created everywhere I go.

Whether I am here or elsewhere is the same. Sometimes it is even better when I am elsewhere, when I am able to distance myself from what is happening here. Although, these days, with all kinds of media, you are interacting with this place all the time wherever you are. So it is always with you.

There is not much difference really. There used to be a time when you could say ‘I’m in America, South Africa is so distant away.’ You mail a letter to South Africa, it’s going to take about two, three weeks to get there and then another two,  three weeks to get a response. So it was some distant place but now it’s there, it’s instant, it’s with you all the time. You even know more than many people who are here what is happening here.

Has the contested nature of land in South Africa influenced the way in which you write about it?
ZM: I don’t write about issues. I don’t say ‘OK, now let me write about the environment.’ I write about characters. I am a storyteller and what happens of course is that characters interact among themselves in the process of storytelling, they interact with their environment as well and it does happen that some of that environment will be political. And that is how it will then veer towards political issues. If then those characters are in an environment that demands that land be an issue to be discussed then it will come in that way. Issues come in only because the story demands that. In other words, it is not the beginning. That is not where I begin. I begin as a storyteller who tells a story and the story takes me to land if there’s going to be land or to other issues, some of which will be political or social economic issues and so on only because they affect my characters in one way or another.

You are a prolific author, painter and playwright. Are there certain stories that you prefer to use one medium to express as opposed to the other two?
ZM: No, the story tells you how it should be told, you are not the decider of such things. The story tells you ‘I am the kind of a story that must be a novel.I am the kind of a story that can only be a play and not a novel. I am the kind of a story that should be a painting notbe a novel. I am the kind of a story that can only be a poem.’ The story tells you how it should be told. The story knows, it knows how it wants to be told, just listen to it when it tells you. Don’t force it to be what it does not want to be.

I learnt right from the beginning that if the story tells you ‘Paint me!’ paint it. For instance, I can’t tell the Marikana story in any other way except painting. Even if there is so much material in it that there can be a play, and many people have made plays on it, there is so much material that there can be a novel, and people will write novels about it, but for me it says ‘Paint me!’. And therefore, I have a series of paintings which are based on that Marikana incident, it’s a series called The Man in the Green Blanket. The paintings all have the same title.

What is the one place that you try to visit every time that you come to South Africa?
ZM: I don’t get to do it, but I would like to visit. It’s a place in the Eastern Cape called Herschel where I have a bee keeping project with the rural women. It would be nice if it was possible for me to go there from time to time. But I don’t get to do that a lot. Sometimes I would go there maybe after a year or two or so. I come to South Africa every two months actually. The last time I was here was only a month. I come here frequently but I don’t get the opportunity to go to the Eastern Cape all the time when I am here. The exact village is called Lower Telle.