Cover image for The heart of redness
The heart of redness
Mda, Zakes.
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First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

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277 pages : genealogical table ; 24 cm
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A startling novel by the leading writer of the new South Africa In The Heart of Redness-- shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Writers Prize -- Zakes Mda sets a story of South African village life against a notorious episode from the country's past. The result is a novel of great scope and deep human feeling, of passion and reconciliation. As the novel opens Camugu, who left for America during apartheid, has returned to Johannesburg. Disillusioned by the problems of the new democracy, he follows his "famous lust" to Qolorha on the remote Eastern Cape. There in the nineteenth century a teenage prophetess named Nonqawuse commanded the Xhosa people to kill their cattle and burn their crops, promising that once they did so the spirits of their ancestors would rise and drive the occupying English into the ocean. The failed prophecy split the Xhosa into Believers and Unbelievers, dividing brother from brother, wife from husband, with devastating consequences. One hundred fifty years later, the two groups' decendants are at odds over plans to build a vast casino and tourist resort in the village, and Camugu is soon drawn into their heritage and their future -- and into a bizarre love triangle as well. The Heart of Rednessis a seamless weave of history, myth, and realist fiction. It is, arguably, the first great novel of the new South Africa -- a triumph of imaginative and historical writing.

Author Notes

Born Zakes Mda in 1948 in South Africa in the Eastern Cape, Mda spent his early childhood in Soweto, and finished his school education in Lesotho, where he had joined his father in exile. As a poet, he published in magazines such as Staffrider, The Voice, and Oduma, and in the anthologies New South African Writing in 1977, Summer Fires in 1982 and Soho Square in 1992. His first volume of poems, Bits of Debris, came out in 1986.

In 1978 Mda's play We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, written in 1973, won the first Amstel Playwright of the Year Award. The following year he won this award again with The Hill, a play written in 1978. The publication of We Shall Sing for the Fatherland and Other Plays in 1980 enabled him to gain admission to Ohio University for a three-year Master's degree in theatre. His play The Road, written in 1982, won the Christina Crawford Award of American Theatre Association in 1984, by which time his plays were being performed in the USSR, the USA, and Scotland as well as in various parts of southern Africa.

Mda returned from the USA in 1984, joining the University of Lesotho as lecturer in the Department of English in 1985. In 1989 he was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Cape Town and his dissertation was later published as When People Play People in 1993, the same year as a collection of four plays, And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses.

In 1991 Mda was writer-in-residence at the University of Durham, where he wrote The Nun's Romantic Story; in 1992 as research fellow at Yale University he wrote The Dying Screams of the Moon, another play, and his first novel, Ways of Dying in 1995. By 1994 he was back in South Africa from exile in America, as visiting professor at the University of the Witwatersrand. He has since given up teaching African literature to write novels.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Writing from the heart of the new South Africa, Mda tells his country's stories through beautifully realized characters whose search for love and connection takes you up close to the black experience, past and present. In Heart of Redness, protagonist Camagu (like the author) had left South Africa during the apartheid years, but now he's back. Camagu has trouble finding his place in the new system until he lands in a coastal village in the eastern Cape, where a "black empowerment" company wants to develop a tourist heaven with casinos and theme parks. The villagers are split between those who welcome "progress" and those who fear it. With the present conflict, Mda weaves in the infamous history of this place, where the savage white conquerors came with "civilization" and a Xhosa prophetess told the people to resist by destroying their cattle and crops. Then, as now, the community was split, and the questions remain. The constant weaving together of past and present slows the narrative, but Mda does a great job of subverting the heart-of-darkness stereotypes, and he does it without romanticizing the "primitive." Today's villagers want electricity, running water, literacy. But they also want to conserve their Xhosa culture and the natural beauty of their place, not as tourist fodder, but as a dynamic contemporary community. Can Camagu help find a way? The parallels with the Native American experience will grab readers, as will the personal search for home. Ways of Dying is set in the transitional years before the first democratic elections. Toloki has invented his job as professional mourner in a shantytown, and he finds plenty of work. The violence is horrific--by soldiers and police as well as migrant tribal groups and locals--but even after the worst massacre, where children are "necklaced" with burning tires, Toloki finds love, tenderness, and laughter with a woman from his childhood home and they build a shack together in the urban wasteland. In both books, it's the strong women characters--bereft, wild, funny, nurturing--who make the stories ring with excitement and hope. Like Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun (1997) and Sindiwe Magona's Mother to Mother (1999), Mda's novels tell it from the inside. --Hazel Rochman

Publisher's Weekly Review

In Mda's richly suggestive novel, a Westernized African, Camagu, becomes embroiled in a village dispute that has its roots in the 19th century. The war between the amaXhosa and the British in South Africa (known to Westerners as the Zulu Wars) was interrupted by a strange, messianic interlude in which the amaXhosa followed the self-destructive commands of the prophet Nongqawuse and were split between followers of Nongqawuse (Believers) and their opponents (Unbelievers). In the village of Qolorha-by-Sea in the late 20th century, the Believers still flourish. They put the onus for the distressing failure of Nongqawuse's visions on the Unbelievers' unbelief. The chief Believer is Zim; his rival, the chief Unbeliever, is Bhonco. The white store owner, Dalton, whose ancestor killed Zim and Bhonco's forefather, Xikixa, is on the Believers' side in the village's current controversy over whether or not to allow a casino in the village. The Believers oppose the changes they foresee coming to the village's traditions. The Unbelievers want economic development. Camagu originally comes to Qolorha looking for a woman whose memory haunts him. He ends up being associated with the cold, beautiful Xoliswa Ximiya, Bhonco's daughter, whose scorn for tradition eventually drives her from the village. Secretly, however, Camagu lusts for Qukezwa, the squat but sexy daughter of Zim. Mda's sympathies are with the Believers, but his eminent fairness forbids mere didacticism, and his joy in the back and forth of village politics beautifully communicates itself to the reader through poetic language enlivened by humor and irony. (Aug. 7) Forecast: Championed by Nadine Gordimer, Mda represents a new, postapartheid generation of South African writers. The publication of this novel (accompanied by the release of the paperback original of Mda's first novel, Ways of Dying [Picador]) might prompt general overviews of the African literary scene. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Excerpt from The Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda. Copyright (c) 2002 by Zakes Mda. To be published in August, 2002 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. "Tears are very close to my eyes," says Bhonco, son of Ximiya. "Not for pain . . . no . . . I do not cry because of pain. I cry only because of beautiful things." And he cries often. Sometimes just a sniffle. Or a single tear down his cheek. As a result he carries a white handkerchief all the time, especially these days when peace has returned to the land and there is enough happiness to go around. It is shared like pinches of snuff. Rivers of salt. They furrow the aged face. Bhonco is different from the other Unbelievers in his family, for Unbelievers are reputed to be such somber people that they do not believe even in those things that can bring happiness to their lives. They spend most of their time moaning about past injustices and bleeding for the world that would have been had the folly of belief not seized the nation a century and a half ago and spun it around until it was in a woozy stupor that is felt to this day. They also mourn the sufferings of the Middle Generations. That, however, is only whispered. Bhonco does not believe in grieving. He has long accepted that what has happened has happened. It is cast in cold iron that does not entertain rust. His forebears bore the pain with stoicism. They lived with it until they passed on to the world of the ancestors. Then came the Middle Generations. In between the forebears and this new world. And the Middle Generations fleeted by like a dream. Often like a nightmare. But now even the sufferings of the Middle Generations have passed. This is a new life, and it must be celebrated. Bhonco, son of Ximiya, celebrates it with tears. NoPetticoat, his placable wife, is on the verge of losing patience with his tears. Whenever someone does a beautiful thing in the presence of her husband she screams, "Stop! Please stop! Of you'll make Bhonco cry!" She dotes on him though, poor thing. People say it is nice to see such an aged couple--who would be having grandchildren it their daughter, Xoliswa Ximiya, had not chosen to remain an old maid--so much in love. 0 It is a wonderful sight to watch the couple walking side by side from a feast. He, tall and wiry with a deep chocolate face grooved with gullies; and she, a stout matron whose comparatively smooth face makes her look younger than her age. Sometimes they are seen staggering a bit, humming the remnants of a song, their muscles obviously savoring the memory of the final dance of a feast. The custom is that men walk in front and women follow. But Bhonco and NoPetticoat walk side by side. Sometimes holding hands! A constant source of embarrassment to Xoliswa Ximiya: old people have no right to love. And if they happen to be foolish enough to harbor the slightest affection for each other, they must not display it in public. "Tears are close to my eyes, NoPetticoat," snivels the man of the house, dabbing his eyes with the handkerchief. "A big man like you shouldn't be bawling like a spoiled baby, Bhonco," says the woman of the house, nevertheless putting her arm around his shoulders. A beautiful thing has happened. They have just received the news that Xoliswa Ximiya, their beloved and only child, has been promoted at work. She is now the principal of Qolorha-by-Sea Secondary School. Xoliswa Ximiya is not called just Xoliswa. People use both her name and surname when they talk about her, because she is an important person in the community. A celebrity, so to speak. She is highly learned too, with a B.A. in education from the University of Fort Hare, and a certificate in teaching English as a second language from some college in America. "They will not accept her," laments NoPetticoat, as if to herself. "But she is a child of this community," says Bhonco adamantly. "She grew up in front of their eyes. She became educated while others laughed and said I was mad to send a girl to school." "They will say she is a woman. Remember the teacher who left? He was a man, yet they didn't accept him. They made life very difficult for him. How much more for a woman?" "They made life difficult for him because he was uncircumcised. He was not a man. How could he teach our children with a dangling foreskin?" "I tell you, Bhonco, they won't accept her. They will give my baby problems at that school!" "She is not a baby. She is thirty-six years old. And if they don't accept her it will be the work of the Believers. They are jealous because they don't have a daughter who is as educated" says Bhonco, making it clear that the discussion is terminated. It had to come back to the war between the Believers and Unbelievers. They are in competition in everything. The early manifestation of this competition happened a few years ago when the Ximiyas bought a pine dining table with four chairs. The family became the talk of the community, since no one else in the village had a dining table those days. But Zim, of the family of Believers, had to burst the Ximiya bubble by buying exactly the same dining table, but with six chairs. That really irked the son of Ximiya and his supporters. Since then the war between the two families has become a public one. Their good neighbors await with bated breath the next skulduggery they will do against each other. The Cult of the Unbelievers began with Twin-Twin, Bhonco Ximiya's ancestor, in the days of Prophetess Nongqawuse almost one hundred and fifty years ago. The revered Twin-Twin had elevated unbelieving to the heights of a religion. The cult died during the Middle Generations, for people then were more concerned with surviving and overcoming their oppression. They did not have the time to fight about the perils of belief and unbelief. But even before the sufferings of the Middle Generations had passed--when it was obvious to everyone that the end was near--Bhonco, son of Ximiya, resurrected the cult. He does not care that only his close relatives and himself subscribe to it. Nor does it matter to him that people have long forgotten the conflicts of generations ago. He holds to them dearly, for they have shaped his present, and the present of the nation. His role in life is to teach people not to believe. He tells them that even the Middle Generations wouldn't have suffered if it had not been for the scourge of belief. Beautiful things are celebrated not only with tears. So Bhonco tells his wife that he will go to Vulindlela Trading Store to buy a tin of corned beef. NoPetticoat laughs and says he must not use the promotion of her baby as an excuse. He needs something salty because he had a lot to drink at the feast yesterday, and now he is nursing a hangover. Whoever heard of sorghum beer giving one a hangover? Bhonco wonders to himself. "While you are away I'll go to the hotel to see if they have work for me," says NoPetticoat as she adjusts her qhiya turban and puts a shawl over her shoulders. But her husband cannot hear her, for he has already walked out of their pink rondavel. NoPetticoat supplements the income from her old-age pension--or nkamnkam, as the people call it--by working as a babysitter at the Blue Flamingo Hotel. Tourists often come to enjoy the serenity of this place, to admire birds and plants, or to go to the Valley of Nongqawuse to see where the miracles happened. They book in at the Blue Flamingo, and leave their children with part-time nannies while they walk or ride all over the valley, or swim in the rough sea. NoPetticoat is occasionally called by the hotel management when there are babies to look after. However, when many days have passed without anyone calling her, she walks to the hotel to find out if there is any work. She has had to do that since she discovered that the managers call her only as a last resort. Their first choices are the young women whose bodies are still supple enough to make red-blooded male tourists salivate. Almost always when she goes without being called, she finds that indeed there are babies to look after, but a message has been sent to some shameless filly to come for the job. Invariably she fights her way and takes over. Bhonco drags his gumboots up the hillock to the trading store. His brown overalls are almost threadbare at the elbows and at the knees. He wears a green woolen hat that the people call a skullcap. He does not carry a stick as men normally do. Under his breath he curses the trader for building his store on the hill. But the breathtaking view from the top compensates for the arduous climb. Down below, on his right, he can see the wild sea smashing gigantic waves against the rocks, creating mountains of snow-white surf. On his left his eyes feast on the green valleys and the patches of villages with beautiful houses painted pink, powder blue, yellow, and white. Most of the houses are rondavels. But over the years a new architectural style, the hexagon, has developed. On the roofs of these voguish hexagons, corrugated iron appears under the thatch, like a petticoat that is longer than the dress. This is both for aesthetic reasons and to stop the termites. But Bhonco does not believe in this newfangled fashion of building hexagons instead of the tried and tested rondavel. From where he stands he can see the Gxarha River and the Intlambo-ka-Nongqawuse--Nongqawuse's Valley. He can also see Nongqawuse's Pool and the great lagoon that is often covered by a thick blanket of mist. Indeed, Qolorha-by-Sea is a place rich in wonders. The rivers do not cease flowing, even when the rest of the country knells a drought. The cattle are round and fat. Bhonco was born in this village. He grew up in this village. Except for the time he worked in the cities, he has lived in this village all his life. Yet he is always moved to tears by its wistful beauty. A gale of heat grazes his face. The wind always brings heat from the sea. Vulindlela Trading Store is a big stone building with a red corrugated-iron roof crowned by an array of television and radio aerials and a satellite dish. In front of the store is a long concrete stoop with a number of wooden yokes and green plows and planters chained together. Behind the store is the trader's family home, an off-white roughcast modern house with big windows. Between the house and the store, a car and a four-wheel-drive bakkie--both of them Mercedes-Benz recent models--are parked. Bhonco glances at the television that the trader, John Dalton, has put on a shelf against the wall of the store's verandah. It plays videos of old movies, and children are always crowding here, watching "bioscope" as they call it. Some of these children are herdboys who should be looking after cattle in the veld. No wonder there are so many cases these days of parents being sued because their cattle have grazed in other people's fields. Bhonco slowly walks into the store, casting a disinterested look at a big blackboard that announces the latest prices for those who want to sell their wool, maize, skins, and hides to the trader, or those who want to grind their corn at his mill. He demands to see his friend the trader. When Missis Dalton says he is away on business, Bhonco insists that he wants to see him all the same. He knows that he is hiding in his office. Dalton has no choice but to skulk out of his tiny office to face the stubborn man. "What is it now, old man?" he demands. Dalton is stocky and balding, with hard features and a long rich beard of black and silver-gray streaks. He always wears a khaki safari suit. He looks like a parody of an Afrikaner farmer. But he is neither an Afrikaner nor a farmer. Always been a trader. So was his father before him. And his grandfather was a trader of a different kind. As a missionary he was a merchant of salvation. Dalton is a white man of English stock. Well, let's put it this way: his skin is white like the skins of those who caused the sufferings of the Middle Generations. But his heart is an umXhosa heart. He speaks better isiXhosa than most of the amaXhosa people in the village. In his youth, against his father's wishes, he went to the initiation school and was circumcised in accordance with the customs of the amaXhosa people. He therefore knows the secret of the mountain. He is a man. Often he laughs at the sneering snobbishness of his fellow English-speaking South Africans. He says they have a deep-seated fear and resentment of everything African, and are apt to glorify their blood-soaked colonial history. And he should know. His own family history is as blood-soaked as any ... right from the days of one John Dalton, his great-great-grandfather, who was a soldier and then a magistrate in the days of Prophetess Nongqawuse. "Don't call me old man. I have a name," Bhonco protests. Although he is old, and to be old is an honor among his people, he has always hated to be called old man since his hair started graying in his late twenties and people mockingly called him Xhego--old man. Now at sixty-plus--or perhaps seventy, he does not know his real age--his hair is snow white. "It is well, Bhonco son of Ximiya. We are not at war, are we?" Dalton tries to placate the elder. "I do not fight wars with children. It was your father who was my age-mate. And, ah, the old Dalton looked after me. He was a kind man, your father." "You didn't come here to talk about my father, did you?" "I came to ask for ityala . . . for credit . . . I need a tin of beef. And some tobacco for my pipe." Dalton shakes his head, and takes out a big black book from under the counter. After a few pages he finds Bhonco's name. "You see," he says, "your ityala is already very long. You have taken too many things on credit, and you have not paid yet. You promised that you were going to get your old-age pension soon." Dalton's wife, who is simply known as Missis by the villagers, thinks it is necessary to rescue her husband. She firmly steps forward and says, "He is not getting any more credit, John." Bhonco does not take kindly to this interference. He raises his voice. "Let's leave women out of this!" Fortunately Missis understands no isiXhosa; she is a Free State Afrikaner. Dalton met her when he attended the Cherry Festival in Ficksburg many years ago. She was the Cherry Queen, although it would be hard to believe that now--what with her rotten front teeth and all. The trouble is that she eats too many sweets. Her saving grace is that she hardly ever smiles. She still finds it difficult to understand her husband's cozy relationship with these rustics. Bhonco adopts a new tactic and becomes very pitiful. "Ever since Nongqawuse things were never right," he laments. "Until now. They are becoming dn0 right a bit now, although not for me. They are becoming right for others. Me . . . no . . . I am still waiting for my nkamnkam. "This is my seventh year waiting. My wife came here as a child . . . she is many years younger than me. But she now gets nkanmkam. I am very very old, but the government refuses to give me my pension." Then he goes into a litany of the troubles he has gone through working for this country. He began to work half a century ago at a textile factory in East London, then at a dairy, then at a blanket factory, then . . . He even worked at the docks in Cape Town for more than eight years. He became permanently crippled--although it is impossible to see any sign of that now--when his sister pushed him down a donga, shouting, "When are you going to mourn for your father?" Since then he has never been able to work again. Why won't the government give him nkamnkam like all the old men and women of South Africa who are on old-age pensions today? Is it fair that now, even though ravines of maturity run wild on his face, he should still not receive any nkanmkam? "Maybe it is not fair," says Dalton. "But how are you going to pay me since you get no nkamnkam? Are you going to take your wife's money to pay for your tobacco and luxury items like canned beef?" "Did you not hear? My daughter is now the principal. I'll pay you." Excerpted from The Heart of Redness: A Novel by Zakes Mda All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.