The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Author speaks of culture and tradition at lecture

The English department sponsored a Gilbert Lecture featuring Zakes Mda, a South African novelist, playwright, poet and filmmaker and professor of English at Ohio University. Mda read a selection from his most recent book “Cion,” a novel about a group of people in Athens, Ohio, who have descended from African-Americans, Native Americans and Irish Americans.

“I’ve written 16 or 17 books in all,” Mda said, “seven of which are novels. This is the first of my works to be set outside my home country of South Africa.”

Mda said he never intended to set one of his novels in Ohio, but he became interested in the small group of people who have a long history of quilt-making and oral histories.

“They came about through intermarriages,” he said. “The slaves were escaping from the south on their way to Canada. The Irish found refuge there, and of course, the Indians were already living there.”

Mda said the three groups came together to make a new ethnic group, claiming they “belonged to nobody.” The group, which has undergone so much discrimination with the surrounding world because of its unique heritage, fascinated Mda with the culture’s quilt-making.

“They reminded me of similar cultures in my country,” he said. “The Dutch colonized South Africa in 1652 and brought slaves from Malaysia and Indonesia. We had intermarriages.”

Noting the importance of oral traditions in his country, Mda said he found similar traditions in Ohio.

“Oral tradition is a rich source of history,” he said. “The history of oral tradition is great for a novelist like myself. The history now is mixed with a lot of myths and legends, which is stuff of great fiction for a writer like me.”

Mda stresses that his book is a novel, not historical fact. In his book, he looks at the ancestors of the people and creates a family from his imagination.

“My characters are influenced by real-life characters I’ve met,” he said.

Although his story is fictional, he uses historical facts to give the background, setting his book in both the present (2004) and the past. He looks at the many ancestors who came together to form a new heritage.

“It becomes important to go back to historical records and primary sources in order to recreate the world,” Mda said.

Through the use of quilts, Mda creates a portal between the past and the present. He said that he does this because “the people believe their ancestors used quilts to escape from Virginia.” The quilts were used on the freedom trail to help slaves escape to Canada.

“They contained codes in order to find their way to freedom,” he said.

Many historians have disputed the claim that quilts were used in such a way, but Mda said for him it is irrelevant.

“What matters to me is that the people believe their ancestors used quilts in that way,” he said. “We all create our past along the way. We are always recreating the past to suit the present. That’s one of the beautiful functions of memories.”

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