The fictional universe of Zakes Mda is no place for the cold rationalist. In six novels, the fifty-eight-yearold writer whom the New York Times recently hailed as “one of the most prominent black novelists in South African history” has demonstrated an abiding attachment to the seemingly ludicrous. In fact, his love of the improbable is so pervasive that some readers have mistaken it for an embrace of superstition. Novelist Norman Rush, perhaps his fiercest critic, castigated him in the New York Review of Books for leaving such realities as AIDS unaddressed, saying that The Heart of Redness (2002) is an “escapist dream, a fable more than a parable.”
The perils and rewards of enshrining the bizarre can be found in Cion, Mda’s new novel. The word cion is a variant of the more familiar scion, though Mda is also playing on the word’s less used definition, “a shoot or twig.” The novel, partly set in present-day rural Ohio, concerns the descendants of a rare intermarrying of white, black, and Native Americans during the heyday of the Underground Railroad, and their use of “ghost trees” and quilts to reach emancipation.
Cion is Mda’s first departure from his native land and his inaugural foray into the American landscape, but it is by no means his initial exploration of the intermingling of past and present. The Madonna of Excelsior (2004) examined the lasting effects on a young black woman of a 1971 South African trial for violations of the Immorality Act, which outlawed sex between races. The Heart of Redness alternated between postapartheid South Africa and the Great Cattle Killing of 1856–57, when a teenage prophet urged wholesale suicide and decimation of livestock to purge white colonialists from the land.
In Cion, Mda also revives a character from his fiction. He is Toloki, a homeless man and “professional mourner” at the center of Ways of Dying, Mda’s first novel, published in the United States in 1995. Created when apartheid was in its death throes, Toloki was a kind of courtly vagrant. The stocky, top hat–wearing man wailed and wept in graveyards over South Africa’s violently slain—as well as those who died of disease and other natural causes. Loved ones were not sure whether to pay him for his services or run him off. He was marginalized in other ways: a country bumpkin in a massive city, a man hated as a child by an abusive father, an ugly suitor in love with a beautiful girl from his blighted boyhood.
In Cion, Toloki has gained financial independence from his self-styled occupation. In a seeming answer to Rush’s acerbic review, he has grown dissatisfied with funerals that have grown, after apartheid, “boringly similar.” “They were deaths of lies. We heard there was the feared AIDS pandemic stalking the homesteads. Yet no one died of it. Or of anything related to it. Instead young men and women in their prime died of diseases that never used to kill anyone before— diseases such as TB and pneumonia that used to be cured with ease not so long ago. 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.”
So the “sciolist” (Toloki’s term for the novelist whom he sometimes addresses) “takes” him to Athens, Ohio. (Mda divides his time between South Africa and Ohio University.) Toloki has decided to study gravestones and become an “itinerant mourner.” An unusual family, the Quigleys, takes him in as a boarder. The matriarch is Ruth, a conservative Republican churchgoer and quilt maker who is estranged from the rest of the town’s black community. Her husband, Mahlon, was a farmer. He is now a silent presence in the household; his chief duty appears to be presiding over a garden of gnome statues. Son Obed and daughter Orpah are also oddities. Obed, still living at home in his early thirties, gets into mischief at a local sorority house from which Toloki extricates him, only to have the young man pursue callings as a fortune-teller and a casino entrepreneur, neither of which impresses his nagging mother. Orpah, who’s over forty, plays the sitar and draws in her bedroom—she is a recluse in her parents’ home. Neither has a job.
These are the scions of the novel’s title. They are an uninspired, squabbling lot, cognizant of their heritage but uncertain of its meaning and confused about its power. “We don’t belong nowhere,” Obed says at one point. “White people hate us because we ain’t white enough. Black people hate us too. They call us high-yella-niggers. They are jealous of our complexion.”
Mda has heretofore created characters of memorable complexity—Popi in The Madonna of Excelsior and the “twins” Radisene and Dikosha in She Plays with the Darkness (1999), to name but a few. They are built with convincingly detailed psychological acuity, a commitment to verisimilitude on the emotional level that contrasts with the loose and zany style of Mda’s prose. Similar elements are present in Cion.
Ruth is a contradictory character enmeshed in unorthodox difficulties. Her quilts use the same patterns as those of her slave ancestors, but they fail to sell at local fairs. Orpah’s designs are original, but their departures from traditional symbolism enrage her mother, who has taken to destroying her daughter’s artwork. Meanwhile, during Halloween, Obed impersonates the ghost of an ancestor, the runaway slave Nicodemus, leading to a brush with the law. Mahlon, the descendant of Native Americans, sneaks into his daughter’s room at night in a misunderstood attempt to bequeath to her the family’s complicated history.
Toloki is a tolerant soul. He finds Ruth’s fundamentalism hypocritical and her Republicanism less than coherent, but he has great affection for her: “She certainly has welcomed me with open arms into her family. Hers is the generosity of the poor.” Toloki is also the standard-bearer for Obed’s innate worth in the face of constant proof that the African’s young friend is a hopeless scallywag. Toloki falls in love with the less-than-lovely Orpah. After initial condemnation, he comes to understand and forgive Mahlon. Early in the novel, Toloki explains his governing principle: “When I sought assistance from the sciolist on how to deal with the ghosts of the past in rural America, he told me always to bear in mind one thing: memory thrives on transforming the past to palliate the present.” It would be pointless to ask why Orpah has never left home or why Mahlon rarely speaks. Nor should a reader ask why, if Toloki misses mourning violent death, he hasn’t moved to Baghdad, Darfur, or any one of countless other places. (He mentions Iraq but never discusses plying his trade in its deadly climes.) These are rational queries, and as such, they don’t appeal to an imagination like Mda’s. He is more interested in the ways Toloki, who functions similarly to a Shakespearean fool or Don Quixote, inadvertently coaxes the unheralded Quigley aristocracy back to its honored place in the cosmology of all souls.
The irregular woes of the Quigleys seem less quirky once we have read the Underground Railroad passages of Cion. The historical characters, all Quigley ancestors, are more recognizable—the Abyssinian Queen, used for sex by her white owner; Nicodemus and Abednego, her runaway sons; William Tobias, a slave hunter; Niall Quigley, an Irish gambler; Harry Corbett, a Cherokee (or Shawnee, it’s unclear) chief. Through their stories, the Ohio River Valley, which, as a setting, at first feels more like a convenience of the novelist’s life than an imperative of his art, becomes a sacred place in African peregrination.
Despite Cion’s phantasmagoric plotting, Mda drew on local sources, however unorthodox, to write it. In the acknowledgments, he credits an oral history from the Kilvert Community Center, cemetery records, even a ghost hunter. The fictional Quigleys are amalgams of what sociologists of the ’40s called “tri-racial isolates,” or “WIN” peoples. Pockets of such White-Indian-Negro families dotted the upper South (and parts of southern Ohio). Some remain. The great Jamaican-American historian J. A. Rogers wrote extensively about these proud and often-misunderstood people; Mda cites Rogers’s 1942 three-volume opus, Sex and Race: A History of White, Negro, and Indian Miscegenation in the Two Americas. Sycamores are the ghost trees of which Cion’s characters are the shoots and twigs. One stood in front of the Abyssinian Queen’s cabin. She told stories from its branches. (In other sycamores farther north, she planted “provisions for the road” wrapped in quilts, for the day when her sons would escape from slavery.) Her children hid in its hollow trunk during the day. At night, it was enchanted:
The singing sycamore was haunted. Not because it was a ghost tree but for the wellknown fact that it harboured in its soul the spirits of little children who once sat under it listening to stories and telling their own eons before the world was killed. These were spirits waiting to be reunited with all the children from the tribes of the universe on a regenerated earth that would be free of sickness and death; an earth where man, woman and child would roam free, owned by no one.
The novel, naturally, is this tree. Like many things in Mda’s work, the reference to the world’s killing is hard to parse, but far easier to enter into is the idea that stories confer a magical freedom, beyond the reach of geography, politics, and race.
Lorraine Adams is a writer in residence at the New School in New York.