Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider

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9781250023988: Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider
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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

"Moving, funny... Here is a man looking back on his life and country with joy and sorrow."―John Freeman, The Boston Globe

The most acclaimed South African writer of his generation, Zakes Mda eight novels venture far beyond the conventional narratives of a people's struggle against apartheid. In this memoir, he tells of a life that intersects with the politics of his country―a story that is, at its heart, the classic adventure of an artist, lover, and bon vivant. Living in exile with his father in Basutoland (now Lesotho) during the first pangs of his country's independence, a series of brutal and poignant initiations ushered him toward the life of a writer―and that of a perpetual outsider. Through the indignity of Boer racism, the turmoil of the Soweto uprisings, not to mention three marriages and his eventual immigration to America, Mda struggled to remain his own man. With Sometimes There Is a Void, he shows that independence opened the way for the stories of individual South Africans in all their variety.

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About the Author:

Zakes Mda is a professor of creative writing at Ohio University. He has been a visiting professor at both Yale and the University of Vermont. Among his novels, The Heart of Redness (FSG, 2002) won the Richard Wright Zora Neale Hurston Legacy Award. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Athens, Ohio.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Sometimes There Is a Void
CHAPTER ONETHE SMELL OF LIFE is back on the pink mountain. Human life, that is, for other forms have always thrived here even after we had left. Before our return shrubs and bushes flourished, but their fused aromas highlighted an absence. The air was too crisp. Too clean and fresh. In spring aloes bloomed - hence the pinkness - and wild bees busied themselves with the task of collecting pollen for some hive that would invariably be located in a cleft of a dangerous-looking sandstone cliff. Now we have tamed the bees, and are keeping them in supers that dot the landscape. Bees have brought us back to the mountain.Decades ago my grandfather's estate sprawled out on this mountainside.He, Charles Gxumekelana Zenzile Mda, was the headman of Qoboshane Village in the Lower Telle area, named for the Telle River that separated Lesotho from the Herschel District of the Cape Province in the Union of South Africa. A headman was the chief of a small village, and my grandfather was given that position by his brother-in-law, Edwin Mei, the original headman who pursued a better career as an interpreter at the magistrate's court in Sterkspruit. Edwin also gave Charles a huge chunk of Dyarhom Mountain where he planted vast orchards and built houses for his wife, Mildred Millicent Mda, who never forgot to remind everyone of her true royal breeding by repeating at the slightest provocation: Undijonge kakuhle, ndiyintombi kaMei mna. Don't mess with me, I am Mei's daughter.Soon other families built their homesteads on the mountain, and my grandfather named the settlement Goodwell.The elite of Qoboshane lived in Goodwell. Across the gravel road, just below my grandfather's estate, lived Mr Nyangintsimbi who, as the principal of Qoboshane Bantu Community School, taught me and my father before me. As a spindly boy of twelve I used to play with his son Christopher, though I was in awe of him because his father was the school principal. My own grandmother used to teach at that school. Her mantra, as she twisted your ear for not performing your tasks properly, was: 'One thing at a time, things done by halves never done right'. She said these words in English. Grandma always spoke in English when she was mad at us, whereas on all other occasions she spoke in her native isiXhosa. We came to regard English as a language of anger.There were other homesteads on that mountain, but because the houses and kraals blended with the rocky terrain in perfect camouflage you knew of their presence only by the smoke that spiralled from each of them every morning and evening.That was in 1960.Today I am walking with Gugu on the ruins. I call them ruins, though nothing is left of the buildings. The stones long since became part of the landscape. Yet I remember where each house used to be. I show Gugu where the main house, ixande, stood. It was built of stone and roofedwith corrugated iron. It was pure joy to sleep in that house when it rained because the sound of the raindrops created ear-shattering music on the roof. But when it thundered it got really scary; the rafters shook and we imagined all sorts of fire-breathing ogres dancing in the rain, creating all the mayhem.As we walk the length of what used to be our yard surrounded by gigantic aloes, I point out to her where each house used to be: the grass-thatched rondavels, one used as a kitchen, another one as a pantry, the big four-walled thatched house with decorative patterns on the red mud walls. You had to climb many stone steps before you got to the mud stoep and the door. This house also served as our living room, except when there were important visitors: they would be welcomed on the sofas in the ixande.We all slept in the thatched four-walled house. There weren't enough beds to go round; some of us slept on mats on the floor. In seasons of scarcity sleeping on the floor became a source of hilarity, like when we woke up one morning and discovered that Cousin Ethel's toes had been nibbled by rats and were caked in red. She had slept through it all.The kitchen rondavel was the centre of our social life in the evenings. Not only did grandmother cook our food in a three-legged cast-iron pot in the hearth that was in the middle of the hut as fifteen or so grandchildren huddled together around the fire in a cold winter, we also told folk tales in this room. I remember that when my siblings and I were newly arrived from Johannesburg sitting here was an ordeal; we would cry streams from the pungent smoke that filled the hut. But after a few months our eyes, like those of the rest of the cousins, were inured to the smoke.We each took turns telling stories that had been passed on to us by older relatives, who had in turn learnt them from those who came before them, from one generation to the next, beginning when time began.We noted whenever Cousin Nobantu came to visit from Johannesburg that her stories would not be quite the same as ours. By that time I had already spent a year or so in this village and thought of myself as one of the villagers as Johannesburg became a receding memory, whereasCousin Nobantu only came to visit during school holidays. Although her stories would have the familiar characters that we had grown to love so much and the plots were no different from the plots we knew so well, her characters acquired Johannesburg slickness. Also, they spoke in isiZulu and in a lot of township slang, whereas our characters spoke in isiXhosa as spoken by the village people. Her characters were therefore more endearing than ours. isiZulu gave them the sophistication that villagers envied in Johannesburgers.And then there was Cousin Nondyebo whose manner of narration transformed even those characters we knew as kind and gentle into bullies, quite reminiscent of her own bullying tendencies. She was older than the rest of us, and had even been to Lady Grey, a town that lay beyond our district headquarters of Sterkspruit. She was therefore the fountain of all wisdom.But the stories that left us in stitches were Cousin Ethel's. Whereas we all told stories as they were passed down to us, Cousin Ethel invented new events and characters in the tried and tested folk tales. She even incorporated the rats that ate her toes in a story about Mamlambo, the water goddess who lives in the Mzintlava River but travels in lightning to visit other rivers, including the river that runs in a narrow valley between our own Dyarhom Mountain and the eSiqikini Mountain. The true Mamlambo is a beautiful goddess with the torso of a horse, the neck of a snake and the lower body of a fish. But Cousin Ethel added other features to this wonderful water creature, such as hair that was flaming red and spellbinding eyes that hypnotised toe-chomping culprits until she swallowed them. Oh, yes, Cousin Ethel's rats got their comeuppance from Mamlambo!Stories continued even as we ate umgqusho - samp cooked with beans - and umfino - wild spinach - from a single basin. As our hands raced to the food and as we stuffed it in our mouths and swallowed without chewing properly so as to fill our stomachs before the basin was empty, storytellers continued unabated. Occasionally grandmother snapped at them, 'Don't talk with your mouth full' or 'If you don't chew your food you will be constipated and I'll have to unblock you with castor oil or an enema'.Outside the kitchen rondavel was the smooth granite stone that was used for grinding maize, wheat and sorghum into flour, and another granite rock with a hole and a pestle for stamping maize into samp. On the clearing below the ixande was the space where the bus that travelled between Qoboshane and Sterkspruit, Dumakude Bus Service, was parked every night. My grandparents rented out the parking space, and a rondavel up the mountain where the driver slept, to the coloured family who owned the bus. The fact that Dumakude slept at our home was a source of pride to the hordes of grandchildren who lived at the estate.And then there were the orchards; my grandfather's own source of pride. People wondered how he had turned the rocky mountain into a Garden of Eden. There were rows and rows of peach, apricot, quince, pear, apple, orange and pomegranate trees. There were also vines that bore both green and purple grapes, and cacti that bore red and green prickly pears. Figs had great prominence in the orchard, and my grandmother said it was in honour of our grandfather's father whose name was Feyiya, which means fig. In summer yellow cling peaches became our bane because we had to eat them as relish for hard porridge during hard times. Sometimes my grandfather's relatives from Lesotho would wade across the Telle River and bring us wild honey, which also helped in our battle with hard porridge.It is hard to believe that I lived here for only two years - from 1960 to 1962 - when at the age of twelve I was banished from Johannesburg by my own parents for engaging in gang activities. My father had moved to Engcobo in the Transkei to serve articles under George Matanzima in order to be admitted as an attorney, while my mother remained in Johannesburg working as a registered nurse and midwife at the Dobsonville Clinic.While she was at work at the clinic, which was just across the street from our four-roomed home, or cycling in the township delivering babies, I was playing truant from school and hanging out on shop verandas where I played the pennywhistle with other delinquent youths. Or I would be fighting in street gangs where I had become famous among my peers as a ducking champion, though my throwing of thestones that we used as weapons of war was reputed to be weak. On the occasions when I did go to school I spent most of the time in class drawing pictures. My talent was recognised when the teacher asked us to illustrate the poetry we were studying with appropriate pictures and I drew the Zulu warrior uPhoshozwayo as an illustration for a poem in his ...

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9780374280949: Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider

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ISBN 10:  0374280940 ISBN 13:  9780374280949
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Penguin, 2011
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