In this novel, Mda tells the story of a group of Zulus who were sent to England and later the United States in the 1880S to perform as ‘human curiosities’ or ‘freak shows’ in his popular circus.

“My mission is to tell a good story. If I don’t make my characters human – the story will fail,” said Zakes Mda. The legendary South African novelist, poet and playwright, is currently an artist-in-residence at The Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study where he is completing his latest historical novel, The Zulus of New York.

In The Zulus of New York, Mda tells the story of a group of Zulus who were sent 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.

“The novel is centred on the life of one of these Zulu performers, tracing it from Ondini in KwaZulu, where he was one of the two highly-esteemed warriors who ritually bathed King Cetshwayo in his sacred Inkatha hut, to his escape after a botched tryst with one of the harem women, to his sojourn in Cape Town where he is recruited by The Great Farini, to his performances in London, and finally to New York where he falls into unrequited love with a Dinka woman, another caged exhibit,” said Mda.

The historical events are based on an era during the height of Zulu popularity, after their victory over the British at the Battle of Isandlwana (1879). It was during this time that the Zulus performed at some major venues including Madison Square Gardens in New York.

Mda said that although his novels are set in a historical period, they are driven by fictional characters “whose fate is not necessarily determined by history”.

“[My characters] 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,” he said.

Mda moves between historical reality and fiction in order to restore the humanity of the Zulu warriors and ordinary African people who were dispossessed of their land and their history.

“We don’t know who the Zulus were – not even their names. I’m aiming to restore their humanity in my novel – to give them a name, life and perspective. These characters were created for me by history but in history they didn’t have names and lives,” he said.

“I am trying to teach my people about their past,” he added. “I’m writing about a culture I know and have researched but I’m also approximating terms which I think would be relevant to a Zulu of that time. But my characters must have psychological motivation and justification. They are products of their own experience.”

Mda stressed the importance of historical fiction, about using the past to ‘discuss the present’. 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.”

“I write fiction not history but I localise my fiction in historical events. I create fictional characters to interact with those events, to interact with history. It’s as accurate as history can ever purport to be,” he said.

‘Her-story’ too

Mda was also keen to emphasise the need for a feminine perspective on historical events. “History is ‘Her-story’ too,” he said.

He pointed out that he can trace his own family lineage back 600 years but it’s only the male line. “Women only featured when they ‘didn’t behave’, when they defied laws and culture…I’m actually more interested in ‘her-story’ than his-story,” he added.

Speaking more generally of his writing process, Mda described himself as being “excited by life” and a self-taught writer who developed his own method. He keeps notebooks in which he jots down story ideas and these serve as the rough draft of his novels.

“I don’t invite ideas, they just come…As a novelist there are autobiographical elements whether I like it or not,” he said.

“I always have the ending I want although readers sometimes write to me because they are not happy with my ending,” he said. When asked about the overall message of his work, Mda was quick to point out. “I don’t think in terms of a message. I refuse to have a message to deliver. I don’t impose a message, I tell a story.”

“My personal values do come through and people get a message despite me. Different readers receive different messages. They bring their own baggage and the message they receive is determined by their biography and values.”

Zakes Mda was born Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda, in the Eastern Cape in 1948. He spent his early childhood in Soweto, and finished his school education in Lesotho, where he joined his father in exile. His father’s name was Ashbey and his mother’s name, Rose. His father was a school teacher and later became a lawyer. Mda’s father was also one of the founders and president of the ANC Youth League.

Mda has studied and worked in South Africa, Lesotho, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and is a prolific writer of plays, novels, poems, and articles for academic journals and newspapers. His creative work includes paintings, and theatre and film productions.

He has been awarded honorary doctorates in literature by the universities of Cape Town and the Free State, in technology by the Central University of Technology and in art by Dartmouth College.

He has published 22 books, 10 of which are novels. The rest are collections of plays and poetry, and a monograph on the theory and practice of theatre for development.

His works have been translated into 20 languages, including Catalan, Dutch, German, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Serbian, Swedish and Turkish. They have won a number of awards in South Africa, the US and Italy, including the Amstel Playwright of the Year Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa, the M-Net Prize, the Sanlam Prize (twice), The Pringle Award, the Sunday Times Literary Prize, the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award, the Premio Narrativa Sud del Mondo, the University of Johannesburg Literary Prize, the American Library Association Notable Book Prize and the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize. Zakes Mda is a recipient of the Ikhamanga Order in Silver from the South African government.

His novel Cion, set in south-east Ohio, was nominated for the NAACP Image Award. His memoir titled Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and was the New York Times ‘Notable Book’ for 2012. His latest works are a novel set in rural Ohio, titled Rachel’s Blue (Seagull, 2016) which examines what happens when a rapist fights for paternity rights over the rape-conceived child, and Little Suns (Penguin Random House/Umuzi 2016), a historical novel set in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, between 1879 and 1912.

Mda will spend his time at STIAS completing and fine-tuning the novel and, if time permits, working on a film script of another of his novels, The Madonna of Excelsior.