The importance of being human


Professor Zakes Mda is the author of award-winning plays such We Shall Sing for the Fatherland and The Hill and novels The Heart of Redness, Ways of Dying and The Madonna of Excelsior. His newest book, Rachel’s Blue, is set in his adopted state of Ohio where he teaches at Ohio University, and centres on a situation in which the father of a baby conceived in a rape files for paternity rights.

What prompted you to tackle this topic?

I was listening to the radio when I heard this story – in some states in America there are no laws that would protect a woman if a situation like this arose. And situations like this have arisen. In some states there are laws that state that you forfeit your rights as a father if the child is a result of rape but in South Africa I doubt that there are laws that would prevent that. So when I heard of this incident it just fascinated me and I thought this would make an interesting novel. As writers we thrive on conflict and this is an interesting conflict.

What path did you take to becoming a writer?

I’ve been a writer since a kid – I’ve always been a writer. I started writing very early. I wrote stories from the age of six or so. The first thing I got published was a Xhosa short story when I was 13 years old. I knew I would be a writer before that – that’s why I wrote that story and sent it off to be published.

You have written widely in several genres. Why did you decide to focus on the novel?

I used to write short stories but then I moved to play writing and I never wrote short stories again. For me, a short story is the most difficult thing to write. I still write plays for the stage – I enjoy writing plays. I moved to novels much later in life so I discovered the novel very late. I say I “discovered” it because I never thought I could write a novel. I never thought I had the talent or ability to write a novel. After writing so many plays I knew myself as a dialogue person. I never thought I could write sustained prose and be descriptive. I wrote Ways of Dying in 1990 when I was working at Yale University – I was a research fellow and it just happened when I bought a computer for the first time.

All my writing before then was longhand and I would take it to a typist or type it myself with two fingers. But I thought it was time I got into the technological age and I bought an old computer from a student. One day I was playing with the computer, trying to figure out how it worked and the first words I typed were “There are many ways of dying” and from there the next sentence and the next… and then after some time I had written a whole page of sustained prose and thought “Ah! But there it is – my first page of sustained prose!” And that was my first novel. That whole process was so pleasurable and the discovery itself that it is possible to write a novel when I thought it would be impossible sparked a new interest in novel writing, which is why I focused on it.

With a novel it’s just you. It’s your gig and it’s your gig alone. A play is only half yours because it is not actualised. You write only the play script and it is not a play yet until somebody else such as the directors and the actors make it one – it is creation by committee. You still need many other people to participate in order to make it a living entity.

I don’t really have a favourite novel. Well, maybe I am lying. Often it’s the latest but when I look back eliminate the latest I would say the Whale Caller and The Madonna of Excelsior.

You’ve written in Xhosa, Sotho and English. What prompted you to write your novels in English?

It just so happens that it is the language in which I have more tools – I’m more competent in it to write a novel. If I wrote a novel in Sesotho it would be lousy because I’m not very competent in that language. If I wrote a novel in Xhosa I would fail, because I’m not very competent at this point. I left the Xhosa language because of exile, when I was very young and then went to live in Lesotho, so my Xhosa skills are not at the level of writing a novel.

You’re very active on social media. Why did you decide interact with your readers on Twitter?

I didn’t really choose – it just happened. They tweeted and told me “I like your book” and I would respond. It was not something that I planned, I was just on Twitter like everybody else and then the readers seized that opportunity to talk to me about my books and of course I always respond. It is important to be human – when a person talks to you, you respond, don’t you? Just like any human being, when someone talks to me I must respond. If someone takes the trouble to address me it would be rude just to keep quiet. I don’t want to be rude to people.

Is it difficult to live in Ohio instead of in South Africa?

It’s not difficult to live overseas. I just enjoy the life there with my family and the fact that I am able to have all the time I need to write – it is an easygoing life without many demands. I teach at a university, which does not demand too much from me – only two days a week for a few hours each day and the other days are mine. I can stay in my house and write and paint and I am paid to do that. So the university supports my art and my work.

 Rachel’s Blue is published by Kwela Books.

Trouble in Paradise


Paradise is the second novel by husband-and-wife literary duo Greg Fried and Lisa Lazarus, publishing under the pen name Greg Lazarus. While the couple is perhaps best known for their explorations of early parenthood in The Book of Jacob: A Journey into Parenthood, their first novel under the moniker was the psychological thriller When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes.

Paradise features a revolving cast of characters; each with their own chapters. Hershel Bloch, a middle-aged man soon to be divorced, finds himself disillusioned with the real estate business, realising that he has spent his adult years living a mediocre and unfulfilled life, and thus confirming his family’s low expectations of him. Hope is restored when he meets Kaat de Groot (aka Maja Jellema), a mysterious Dutch woman, who expresses interest in renting a property from Bloch as a cover for more sinister plans. Jellema proceeds to track down Bloch’s ‘illegitimate’ daughter from his deceased first love – Surita, a feisty young judo champion with a confused sexual identity and a dark past.

Not much else happens in the novel. There are plot twists but these are underwhelming and often predictable. While they sometimes demonstrate a semblance of humanity (and at others venture tentatively into the realm of the existential), the personalities on the pages lack imagination. These are stock characters: The middle-aged white man in crisis; the mysteriously attractive yet dangerous women he thinks will save him, but who actually clubs him on the head with a chair; the estranged daughter suffering a crisis of her own.

Although fairly bland, their personalities do at times interact in interesting ways, resulting in some entertaining moments. In one of these moments, Herschel, high on ecstasy, is naked in a swimming pool with a stranger. His daughter arrives and throws him over her shoulder in what is their first meeting. These episodes redeem the novel to a degree, offering a little of what Sarah Lotz calls the novel’s “perfectly pitched black humour” in her cover shout.

The book’s greatest shortcoming, though, is that it offers no real continuity. Each chapter contains a single event, made to be comedic and absurd, all leading up to a disappointing non-climax lacking any kind of plot resolution. The ending appears rushed, moving swiftly to a plot cul-de-sac.

While there is no doubt that the Greg Lazarus partnership has potential ­– their grasp of language and prodding at character relationships and comedic situations at times inspired – the novel still feels like the work of two separate minds.

Paradise is published by Kwela and is available from

EXTRACT: London – Cape Town – Joburg by Zukiswa Wanner

Zuko Spencer-O’Malley is dead. Dead via suicide. At the tender age of thirteen.

My son is dead.

And I failed to notice he was troubled. For three days I was too self-absorbed, so intent on changing the world that I couldn’t see the pain my child was going through. What’s more, he left the most hurtful message to me in his suicide note. Which was nothing. He said nothing to me. A testament perhaps to how insignificant I had become in his life? The letter, left on his bedside table was addressed to Dear Papa. Papa. I hadn’t heard him call Martin that since he was four. Martin. His dad. My husband.

Dear Papa, it starts. By the time you read this letter . . .

No reference to me in the address and yet I loved him. No Dear Mummy and Daddy. Nothing.

I know they had a special bond but it was me who carried him for nine months. It was me who woke up to check his cot and see whether he was still breathing when he had a cold. It was me who woke up and got him ready for school every morning while Martin slept. Granted, Martin’s schedule did not permit him to and I was willing and more flexible but still. It was me. All me. And when he hurt himself, it was me he used to come crying to when his father and stupid uncle told him that boys don’t cry.

And remembering this tosh well, even in Martin’s absence, when he would fall and hurt himself or get in a fight with a playmate he would walk “bravely” into the house. Crunched face, lower lip between his teeth, he would pull my hand to take me to his bedroom and only when we were safe there, let out the tears. After he had calmed down I would ask him what was wrong. “It’s Mike/Tyrone/Sally/Ibraheim. He hurt my feelings?” Always stated like a question.

Me (trying hard not to laugh at this child who took himself so seriously): “And how did he/she hurt your feelings, darling?”

He: “He/she called me a baby.”

Me: “But are you a baby?”

He: “No, I’m not a baby. Sally/Mike/Tyrone/Ibraheim is younger than me. She/he is a baby.”

Then I would tickle him and he would start laughing and he would say,“Sally/Mike/Tyrone/Ibraheim is just jealous of me, neh, Mummy? Because my nana is on television, neh, Mummy?”

I would nod. We would both smile, and then laugh. And it would be all right with the world.

So where did I go wrong? Where did I lose my son? Was it not me who asked Gladness to teach me how to braid so I could cornrow his hair when he went through that hair-braiding phase? So why his bloody goddamn, Dear Papa? Why not me? Why did he not talk to me before he did this dastardly, pathetic, yet oh-so-brave act? And yes, I said brave. I’ve always believed it takes a brave person to end it all. To decide there are no more options in life except to finish oneself.

Why did he not say something to me? It’s through his bloody Comrade Daddy that this has happened. Oh, maybe I should not apportion blame, because I know Martin hurts as much as I do, but dammit!

I never understood it before, when people said love leaves one feeling vulnerable. I understand it now.

If only Zuko had talked to me, I would have gone to the ends of the earth to help him but no, he chose this route. He chose this route and did not even bother to say goodbye to me, his mummy. I look at the first line again and I feel so angry, so unloved, so powerless.

It’s been a week. Every night I go to bed, my Zuko’s bed, I wish I would not wake up. I hold on to the clothes I last saw him wearing, and hope I won’t open my eyes in the morning. I wish it had been me instead of my baby. I would trade my life to see him smile again. I think of his quirky grin and I almost smile. But then I remember he died at my hands. If my doctor had not prescribed those bloody Dormicums, if I had not left them where they could be accessible to a teenager. I mean, I used to be a teenager once. I know how volatile they can be, so how did this slip my mind? I get up, realising that sleep isn’t coming. I walk out and make a phone call to Priya. My oldest friend. The one who preceded everyone else in my current life. The one who has become not just friend and sister but mother and grandmother too in this time of madness. She is the only one I can trust at this moment. Martin, Sindiwe . . . bloody fuckin’ hell, they knew, didn’t they? The twins, Mxolisi of the sad smile. How could they? I read Zuko’s journal. Nothing like that should ever happen to any child. Why didn’t I notice anything? What kind of mother am I, was I?

I call Priya. Always, but always, she is a rock. She talks me through another night. She wasn’t there for the memorial service. She offered to fly down but I told her it was okay. It wasn’t really but I couldn’t tear her from her Vidi and Pashi who are also probably in mourning since they have known Zuko all their lives.

I wish my mummy had made it, though. I know she had her own problems but if there was a time I needed her, now is it.

But I take what I can get and call Priya. Her voice is enough balm for my tortured mind. Having her hold my hand, even figuratively, suffices to make me want to live another day, to make me try to work another day. It is then that I find myself going to bed and having a few hours of peaceful sleep. But then I wake up and when I go into the shower in Zuko’s bathroom, I remember what it was like finding my baby lying in the bathtub next to the shower. I used to love luxuriating in the bath but now I can only shower. The sight of the bathtub makes the memory all fresh again.

Did he not love me? Did I fail him? In telling him that “coloured” was a southern African label that seeks to separate Africans, in adopting the more American label of “black” instead of the British one of “biracial”, did I inadvertently deny him my heritage so that he could not come to me when it mattered most?

I read the letter again, I do not know why. I know each word as if it’s tattooed on my heart. I put it back in my cardigan pocket and mouth the words I know by heart. It is then I decide: today is the day I’ll show Martin. He too needs to hurt like I hurt. He has to doubt himself like I doubt myself. He too needs to know: we failed Zuko.

London – Cape Town – Joburg by Zukiswa Wanner Extracted from London – Cape Town – Joburg, published by Kwela Books and available from Read AERODROME’s review of the book here.

A tale of three cities


Zukiswa Wanner’s absorbing fourth novel,  London – Cape Town – Joburg, started out as an idea for a film about a mixed race couple’s move to South Africa after the end of apartheid. Plans for the movie stalled and Wanner decided to turn the idea into a book.

Set in the three cities that form its title, London – Cape Town – Joburg, is, among many other things, the story of a marriage. Germaine Spencer, a ceramist and an art lecturer, falls in love and gets married to Martin O’Malley, an Irish-South African working his way up the world of high finance in London. Their relationship takes them from London and across the Atlantic to South Africa.

The book opens with the Germaine and Martin’s marriage in crisis after their teenage son, Zuko Spencer-O’Malley, kills himself in their Johannesburg home. “My son is dead,” Germaine says in the prologue, “and I failed to notice he was troubled.” Zuko’s suicide drives a wedge between Martin and Germaine and odds are their marriage will not survive. “A part of me has been ripped apart, stepped on, thrown into the rubbish bin. And just when I think I am almost fine, it starts all over again,” Martin says.

From this point of crisis the novel travels back in time to London in the summer of 1994 when Martin and Germaine first met. Martin is still smarting from a break up when his wife-to-be walks up to him in a bar and delivers one of the most dreadful pick up lines of all time: “What’s a guy like you doing in a place like this?”

They bump into each other again a couple of nights later, coincidentally, and their relationship takes off from there.  They are opposites, almost: Germaine is a headstrong feminist who is not afraid to say what’s on her mind while Martin is more laidback, demure. Nevertheless they get along and they move in together, get married and have a child.

London – Cape Town – Joburg is also the story of a country, South Africa, undergoing change. When Germaine and Martin decide to move to Cape Town in ’98 so that their son can be closer to his grandmother, Sindiwe, and his uncle, Liam, we observe these changes through their eyes — the persistent racism and inequality, the creeping corruption of the ANC, the rise and fall of Thabo Mbeki, and xenophobic violence, among other things.

As the years pass, Martin and Germaine remain committed to each other but we know from the prologue that their picture perfect marriage will get turned upside down and it does. Most readers will be blindsided by the twist at the end. In hindsight, Wanner plants clues all over but the ending is almost unforeseeable.

Zukiswa Wanner has done it again: London – Cape Town – Joburg is a cracking read and it’s near impossible to put down.

London – Cape Town – Joburg is published by Kwela Books and is available from Read an extract from the book here.