Sam Raditlhalo hails Cion as Zakes Mda's finest artistic achievement.

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Click to buy this bookZakes Mda
Johannesburg, Penguin, 2007
ISBN: 978–0–02542–9
386 pages


The South African novelist Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni "Zakes" Mda continues to ride the wave of novelistic fortune that began in 1995 with the publication of two of his novels, She Plays with Darkness and Ways of Dying (Oxford). His fifth novel, The Whale Caller (Penguin, 2006), is an accomplished artistic tour de force that has been described as "his finest artistic achievement". That qualifier needs a reconsideration because the same is, for me, the case with Cion.

It is not possible to discuss Cion without reference to Ways of Dying, because the main character in the former text is the narrator of Cion. While the organising narrative focaliser is Toloki the Professional Mourner, whom we first meet in Ways of Dying, this novel is a commentary on the ways in which the inhabitants of Kilvert, a tiny hamlet located 15 miles north-east of Athens,[1] come to terms with their contemporary marginalisation in the United States, in which historical events impinge on the present and provide meaning to their lives. By providing Toloki with an opportunity to discover newer and more creative ways of mourning, Mda pronounces on his ability to engage with any place in which he may find himself – witness the settings of The Madonna of Excelsior and Heart of Redness, for instance - and allows Toloki to be the first-person narrator of this novel. Although this affords Toloki a limited perspective, the interesting element here is that, as in Ways of Dying, he is a catalyst for change. This time he effects change with his skills in a family which has atrophied and coasts on the legacy of its past. It is an interesting innovation, as much as when the author writes himself into his text and is seen to interact with his own creation. By making Toloki the narrator, Mda solves two seemingly intractable problems: how to account for the character’s presence in the United States, and how to allow for his constant authorial interventions, which, it turns out, enrich rather than enervate the text! I will return to this point later.

All of Mda’s five previous novels are set in South Africa. In this novel he changes tack and explores a different setting and its stories. He is keen to explore how such stories survive in the present day and provide meaning to the lives of people in Kilvert, formerly known as Tabler Town, a hamlet in the state of Ohio with a unique population. The locals are unique descendants of African, Caucasian and Native American peoples. It is into this unique community that Mda drags Toloki, "whose shoulders are wide enough to comfortably bear the woes of bereavement" (Ways of Dying, 11), to witness and ameliorate a debilitating legacy of slavery, itinerant migrants and the sorry history that befell the Native Americans.

While stuck in Athens, Ohio, during the Halloween revels, Toloki befriends the Quigley family. Initially he helps prevent their son, Obed, from being incarcerated after he had impersonated the ghost of an escaped and murdered slave, Nicodemus, which is known to haunt a sorority house and fondle the ladies. The ladies themselves enjoy the attentions of Nicodemus and deliberately go out of their way to attract such attention. In this case Obed fondles Beth Eddy, the sorority head of judicial matters, and is jailed. Toloki comes to his rescue and bails him out and is then invited to live with the family for a while.

From this mildly hilarious beginning unfolds a narrative of great depth and pathos. Obed is the layabout son of Mahlon and Ruth Quigley and brother to Orpah, a woman of about forty years who suffers from arrested development. Ruth, a Bible-quoting, insistent Republican infatuated with President George Bush, is the centre of this family. Her daily routine involves quilting. She bullies her children to be something in life, but spoils them with smothering affection. Mahlon is the silent father who is forever smiling as he sits on a swing in all kinds of weather watching his garden gnomes and occasionally comforting Orpah when Ruth discovers and tears up her drawings. In describing Orpah, Toloki sees a kindred spirit whose creativity should be encouraged rather than destroyed: "She is very brilliant and her hands know how to create beautiful things", but now "sees herself as a tortured soul that will one day be released by the return of a stranger" (78-9). Orpah spends her days in limbo, not quilting like her mom, but given to playing the sitar that she bought on credit. Her battles with Ruth stem from her insistence on breaking with the traditional patterns of the quilts, which Ruth insists would be sacrilegious to do. The quilts are a major part of the narrative as metaphor and symbol, and it is here that the text connects with the (distant) past that accounts for the present. And this past provides their lives with depth and meaning, even if it is obvious that "the present [is] reshaping the past in its image" (228).

Quilts are as old as the history of the United States and tell a sad tale of both poverty and the courage to brave the unknown.[2] The quilts originated out of dire necessity in which everyday scraps, discarded clothing and feed sacks were used to create them, and what is now called string quilts were made out of strips of various fabrics sewn together. From these beginnings before and during the American Civil War, appliqué quilts had stories to tell: patterns such as Flying Geese, Crossroads, North Star, Monkey Wrench, Sailboat, Drunkard’s Path (Cion, 48) and others spoke of directions and danger and advised appropriate behaviour in specific areas. For example, the Britches pattern is a symbol indicating that the escaping slave needed to dress as a free person in the area in which this was displayed.[3] These signals along the way were, therefore, of great assistance to the slaves as they escaped the South for the northern states and into Canada under the guide of the Underground Railroad and its intrepid conductors. Toloki, on learning of these quilts patterns, reminds himself that "Even if the codes did not give the fugitives specific directions to safety they functioned very much like the slogans and songs we chanted and sang during apartheid" (143), in the same manner that spirituals made the African Americans endure.

In the text David Fairfield, the owner of a slave-breeding farm, is adamant that by age fifteen his properties should go to the auction block. He is a ruthless breeder who knows the value of mulatto slaves and thus enslaves poor white girls and allows them to be mercilessly ravished by his studs, often with himself as an active participant. And it is from this that Nicodemus, the son of the Abyssinian Queen, originates with Fairfield as sire. When the Abyssinian Queen declines a marriage that she knew was meant to separate her from her son, and compounds matters by falling pregnant with the child of another slave, she loses her special place in Fairfield's household and is forced to live with the other slaves, and her main occupation henceforth is "to sew and mend clothes for the whole slave community" (43). And we are made to see how the Abyssinian Queen worked herself to a standstill in teaching her two sons, Nicodemus and Abednego, the patterns on the quilts she had sewn and hidden in the heart of a sycamore tree. It was imperative to tell them stories since they were young and slaves were forbidden to read and write. So quilting is a way out of the morass for her sons, even though she knows she will pay a heavy price for it:

She became better by the day, and was voracious in learning new patterns. Soon the matriarchs taught her that the quilts her people made carried secret messages. Beauty that spoke a silent language, they called it. Openly it was there for all to admire, yet its meaning rested only with those who knew the code hidden in the colours and the designs (44).

She "taught the boys the code every night, until they mastered it" (49). When the boys witness Madame Fairfield in the slave quarter after being equally enamoured by an African slave in the absence of her husband, this seals their fate and they escape in the dead of winter (87), taking with them the quilt and sampler that serve as their map. Crucially, the quilt and sampler retained "her peculiar life-affirming scent … it was as if their mother was with them throughout the journey" (93). The Abyssinian Queen is cowhided under a hickory tree to such an extent that she later dies from her wounds.

And it is here, really, that Mda connects with African American literature such as Beloved (Picador, 1987), for instance. As can be witnessed in that text and this one, most of the characters have relationships with trees, specifically sycamores. In the former, Sethe, the main character, is cowhided so much that she grows a tree on her back![4] She can never think of Sweet Home without thinking of the trees from which slaves were often lynched:

Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her – remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that (Beloved, 6).

In the latter novel the sycamore is a repository of memory where the sampler and quilt, together with everything the boys need in their escape, are stored.

When Toloki rescues the witless Obed from a possible jail sentence, he helps to resurrect the stories of Nicodemus and Abednego, for it is the same Nicodemus who now haunts the sorority house and whose brother is ancestor to the Quigley family and nearly every resident of Kilvert. Together with Harry Corbett, a Powhatan gentleman with vast orchards, and Niall Quigley, Abednego found this rainbow WIN (White, Indian and Black) people because "Many of these Africans, all former slaves, intermarried with the native Americans and with Irish immigrants who had also received sanctuary in Tabler Town. A new race of people was founded" (62; 113).

Tired from mourning at funerals that lacked the fiery resonances of resistance, Toloki comes to Athens in search of more intricate ways of mourning and finds a community in stasis, bound by a history in which stories told and retold do not offer succour from the present and with a past that was never mourned or atoned. His task, then, is to deepen this community’s understanding of itself, and help it mourn its dead.

The Quigley family in particular needs to mourn their ancestors Niall Quigley and Margaret Tobias. Margaret Tobias happened to be Mahlon Quigley’s Caucasian mother who had committed the error of falling in love with a coloured man. She was then summarily institutionalised till she died and was buried in a numbered grave without even the dignity of a headstone (203; 260-1).

Mahlon’s nocturnal activities involve telling stories of daring escapes to Orpah who draws beautiful but wintry patterns under his inspired performances in period attire (146). These visits to her room are initially interpreted by Toloki as incestuous, in a striking overlap with the relationship between Jwara and Noriah in Ways of Dying. When Toloki therefore undertakes this mission, it is to release Quigley from his paralysis and unleash the creativity of Orpah so that she may make better and more inspired quilt patterns free from the tyranny of her mother, nicknamed Taliban by Toloki and her children! Orpah’s initiation of newer ways of quilting that actively reinvent and reinvigorate this tradition are, therefore, as much an important aspect of memorialisation and mourning as Toloki’s extension of his ways of mourning, signalling an engagement within the interchange of past and present. Having found the grave, the family sceptically comes together to mourn Margaret Tobias. At the gravesite Toloki delivers the "Mother of all Mourning" (263):

Ruth asks Obed to lead us in prayer. It is at this stage that I begin my mourning routine. I do not sit on the mound as I usually do. There is no mound to sit on. But also I wan to perform the mourning. For the first time in my mourning career I want to perform. I wan to dance to my wails. And I wail my laments so loud that the trees begin to shake and shed more leaves. I howl and growl and cry like the wind. Tears run from my eyes like the waters of Hocking River. I incorporate some of the movements I saw Mahlon perform through the window. My whole performance routine, except for the sounds, is informed by his routine. Mahlon recognizes himself in my movements and breaks out laughing. Everybody looks at him in astonishment. Mahlon has not laughed for ages. I screech like an animal in pain … This is the crowning glory of my mourning since I arrived in this country. I continue for about an hour. Then I fall down in utter exhaustion.

Cion takes it title from the grafting of peoples, reminiscent of Harry Corbett and his vast orchard and wonderful daughters who gave shelter to fugitives, who allowed for the peaceful coexistence of peoples in a time of madness and who is a revered ancestor in this community. It is a community that partakes in the daily discourse of its history.

Some readers may not find the text as moving as Ways of Dying in the sense of the sheer hilarity that accompanies Toloki and later Noria. Although Noria is mentioned all of seven times in the text, we read that she met her demise and has not been mourned by Toloki, since, as he mentions, "my people have a saying that a doctor cannot heal himself. Likewise a professional mourner cannot mourn his own loss" (217). There is no mention of Jwara, That Mountain Woman, Xesibe, Nefolovhodwe and his Collapsible Coffins. Toloki has grown, and now understands that "our ways of dying are our ways of living" (Ways of Dying, 98) and now appreciates cleanliness (Cion, 7)! He left South Africa, he claims, because of the sameness of the deaths he had to mourn on a daily basis, which are deaths of lies:

At the funerals I mourned the dreaded four letters were never mentioned, only TB and pneumonia and diarrhea. People died of silence. Of shame. Of denial (3).

This contaminates the professional mourner, for "my mere presence even as a paid mourner made me part of the conspiracy" (3).

So he has to grow and become less austere. His love affair with Orpah illustrates his integration into the community. And he must, like his creator, find time to poke fun at Mda, interact with him even as he seeks his freedom from Mda, whom he laconically calls the "sciolist", "a wannabe saint with a hanging belly" (8; 276)! This is a love-hate relationship that endures.

I wish to end by returning to my earlier observation of the interaction between author-as-character and the character of Toloki. The answer may well lie in Mda’s conception of the uses of fiction: in answering the question regarding the purposes of fiction, he is adamant that it ought to entertain. He notes, in particular, that:

It depends on the reader – on how the reader uses fiction - even more than on the intentions of the writer. The most important thing is that for fiction to be any good it must entertain. For some readers it may set the agenda on issues, it may be spiritually uplifting, it may shed new insights on political, social and cultural problems, it may celebrate life, it may examine the human condition, it may even rally people around a cause. But once more, for it to have any impact it must entertain, otherwise one may as well just write a political treatise or a pamphlet.[5]

Through casting himself in the text, Mda heightens the entertainment value of his novel and contributes a peculiar sense of hilarity that resonates with Ways of Dying. His signal register, the laconic mingled with the realistic, is an important aspect of the narrative strategies in Cion. And as in The Whale Caller, where the real-life whale crier of Hermanus, Wilson Salukazi, is not only named and acknowledged as inspiration but doubles as a character in the novel, Mda once again pushes the boundaries of fiction by acknowledging and creating characters out of his ethnographic informants, Barbara Parsons and Irene Flowers. These ladies run the Kilvert Community Centre and taught Mda to quilt, just as they teach the fictional Toloki! And the on-going Iraqi war is ruthlessly satirised, and the "Christian ayatollahs" of the United States are made part of the daily but misguided political discourse that allows Ruth to make sense of the world. The role of the media, the war lobby and Christian fundamentalism are all issues that Toloki confronts and tries to make sense of as Ruth attempts to convert him to the American view of the world.

As Harry Garuba observes, in novel after novel Zakes Mda seems to have cultivated a mode of writing in which historical events and real-life (verifiable) people are used as a springboard from which he evokes an enchanted world in which the realistic and the magical coexist with effortless ease.[6]

[1] Date Accessed: May 28, 2007.

[2] I acknowledge the effective and timely research done on my behalf by Ms Britanni Nivens of Trinity College (Hartford Connecticut), who was part of the Study Abroad students in the first semester of 2007 and part of the seminar on Post-Apartheid Black Writing.

[3] "Quilt Codes". Date Accessed: June 11, 2007.

[4] Harry Garuba observes in the essay "Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture and Society" in relation to this tree episode that: "It is tempting to see this as an extended metaphor, but we need to pay attention to the concentration on the animistic aspect of its realization and note the careful rendering of the 'material' details. Let us take, for example, the earlier instance in the novel of the 'chokeberry tree' inscribed on Sethe’s back by the cowhide whip with which she had been beaten at Sweet Home. In its description, the conventional, perhaps clichéd expression 'roots of sorrow' suddenly takes animate form when Paul D 'rubbed his cheek on her back and learned that way her sorrow, the roots to it: its wide trunk and intricate branches.'” (Public Culture, 2003. 15.2: 274)

[6] Harry Garuba, "Songs in the sea of solitude". The Independent, London: 19 August 2005.

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