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“I try to make history relatable – to humanise it”: Zakes Mda on his writing

By Michelle Gouws, for STIAS

Zakes Mda during his seminar presentation on 1 February 2018. ©Christoff Pauw

“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.

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