BY SARAH LAURENCE
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.