Mediation, Misremembering, Creativity, and Healing in Zakes Mda’s Cion

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In Cion (2007), the sequel to Ways of Dying (1995), South African writer Zakes Mda reads critically the collective mythic consciousness of African America. The result of his close reading is the collapsing of causal and spiritual realms and the creation of mythic spaces within which to imagine shifting identities that afford the descendants of slaves opportunities for wholeness. In Mda’s mythically real conception of the American past, sycamore trees sing sorrow songs and quilts narrate heroic patterns of suffering and triumph. The novel signifies upon the neoslave narratives of Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, Margaret Walker, and Alex Haley whose works, in turn, speak back to Frederick Douglass, William and Ellen Craft, and Harriet Jacobs. Yet, Mda’s narrative is outside of that neoslave narrative tradition; his authorial voice cognizant of its outsider status. He is careful not to assume that he fully understands this experience, these people. Mda is the sciolist, a role Mda describes as a “pretender to knowledge.” Mda, the sciolist, is both the creator and manipulator of the narrative and a participant in its action. He inserts his authorial voice directly through the narrator’s explanation of the sciolist’s deeds and indirectly through the narrator’s structurally disruptive commentaries. Toloki, the novel’s narrator, is the same professional mourner from Mda’s Ways of Dying. Interestingly, Mda chooses to revisit the legacy of the American racial past through the voice of a South African, an outsider seemingly removed from the historical contexts of this palpable referent of the American experience. Certainly, Mda expects us to locate the apartheid sub-narrative of Ways of Dying alongside the complicated history of the Quigleys, the odd family who takes in Toloki when he arrives in Athens, Ohio. We are expected to read these two events- slavery and apartheid- together and through Mda’s phantasmagoric lens, Toloki shows us shifting scenes of real and unreal, truth and untruth. Toloki’s universe is one of relativism, and, like the ancient Greek sophists, Toloki argues both sides of the argument without assigning moral or ethical judgments; instead, through the rhetoric of mourning, he invites us to interrogate what we believe we know. The question, then, is “why?” One response is that Mda is actively re-reading the literal and figural narratives of race in the United States. Reading backward from Toloki’s post-apartheid South Africa to the slavery of the New World, Mda asks how the aftermath of oppression and exploitation can be resolved in the twenty-first century. His response is guileless: Through the itinerant mourning of Toloki, America can experience catharsis and purge itself of the destructive emotional carryovers of slavery. In South Africa, ubuntu or the language of truth and national reconciliation proffers a possible vehicle to confront the personal and societal traumas. Toloki, then, brings to America that language of healing and forgiveness and helps the Quigley family, in particular, and the United States, in general, to embark upon their own truthful mourning.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAfterimages of Slavery: Essays on Appearances in Recent American Films, Literature, Television and Other Media
EditorsSeretha D Williams, Marlene D Allen
StatePublished - 2012


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