Much-loved and ever-prolific author Zakes Mda tells Charl Blignaut his next book will be for children
“This pizza is jolly good,” says Zakes Mda over lunch at Piza e Vino in Melville. “I wish they made pizza this good in America.”
Mda, with his quiet wit, twinkling eyes and forthright politics, is on a break from his job as a professor of creative writing at Ohio University. He is in town for a week or two.
As lunch winds down, I ask him what he’s working on.
His answer is not what I expect. Last time I interviewed him, he was researching another historical epic based on the true story of the amaMpondomise people and their king, Mhlontlo, who killed a British magistrate in the 1800s.
The book is long since finished and will be published soon, following the allegorical, precolonial Sculptors of Mapungubwe, and Rachel’s Blue, a devastating contemporary tale of rape.
“I’m working on a children’s book now,” says the nation’s most loved author. “I’m actually done with the text itself. I’ll be starting the illustrations as soon as I get back.”
Unless you follow him on Twitter, you probably don’t know Mda is as prolific a visual artist as he is a writer, and he loves a challenge. At the moment, he is helping to produce the film of his novel The Whale Caller, directed by Zola Maseko, and is also about to sign for a major original film script.
But it’s children’s books I want to know more about. His new one is the first he’s written on his own, though not the first of his career.
“I’ve done one called Penny and Puffy, which was published in Iceland [Aeskan, 1999] but was co-written with a friend of mine from Bloemfontein [Mpapa Mokhoane].”
It was the result of a Scandinavian-South African exchange programme organised by Mda 15 years ago that has – to his pleasant surprise – yielded numerous children’s books from the writers he selected.
(His biggest seller, by the way, is not the monumental Ways of Dying, but the young adult fiction Melville 67, which is prescribed in schools.)
“I have always been an advocate of children’s literature, even before I wrote a book for children myself,” says Mda.
When I ask what it’s called, he replies: “It’s easier if I write it down.”
On my notepad, in his broad, illustrative handwriting, are the words The Prels of Magmaland.
“Are you playing with African mythology?” I ask.
“No man! It’s a fantasy,” he exclaims. “It’s a book from my imagination. It’s about a tribe that lives inside a volcano.”
And that’s as much as he wants to say about it.
The conversation wanders into the past, about how he was raised on Shakespeare, courtesy of his teacher-turned-lawyer father. I’ve read that traditional stories were left to his grandmother – also a teacher – to tell the children gathered around her. I’ve also read that Mda gorged himself on comics, as well as isiXhosa and Sesotho novels, as a child.
He tells me he used to read fastidiously to his own children.
“We read what was available. There was quite a lot of black American literature for children, even though it’s about their own history and legacy. It’s true there was very little they could identify with ... But that’s changing now.”
He will be back at the Jozi Book Fair in September, promoting the event’s township-literacy agenda.
“In fact, I have donated Penny and Puffy to the Jozi Book Fair. I will make new illustrations, because the original ones are in black and white. They will republish it themselves, and keep the royalties for their work.”
Then he gives me as stern a look as one can get from the jovial Mda. “Last year you guys hardly covered the fair. I hope you’ll do better this year. Their theme is children’s literature.”