Some time mid last year there were talks on national television concerning the definition of an African. The debate was centered between two polarities of identity – black and white. Of course this debate has been going on for a long time. In one particular debate televised on ‘Weekend Live’ sister show to ‘Morning Live’ breakfast show; two ladies vied with one another with regard to who qualifies to be an African, specifically a South African. One proposed, from a global stance as far as the question is concerned, that an African will be someone who is born and raised in Africa and this is extended to the white people living in the African continent. The other’s position was that an African is someone who is born on the continent, acknowledges the languages spoken in the country of their birth to such an extend that even they themselves speak some of the languages of that country. What is more, the second speaker pressed on, that persons have to acknowledge the colonial heritage and segregated historical past that goes hand in hand with that constructed African identity based on the cultural background that they claim they identify with of the country of their birth.
On our behalf Zakes Mda’s Cion (2007) casts a metaphoric look across the Atlantic Ocean to ponder the issue of identity through the assertions of the Quiqly family; an American family of mix race heritage. In this exposition the narrative explicitly reflects back to us the dodgy nature of Race.
We are reacquainted with Mda’s character from Ways of Dying (1995) Toloki. It’s several years since we last saw him and unfortunately his beloved Noria has passed on. Non the less she has made a profound impression on our dear yellow skinned friend as far as matter of hygiene are concerned. You will gather that in the prequel to the present book the self initiated monk of his self invented order of the oppression of mourning hardly ever washed. His cheer entry into the crowds of the many funerals he had served involuntarily made way to his persons especially when he took alms following the exhaustive task of weeping and wailing for the dearly departed souls.
He is in the USA, Ohio – Athens during Halloween Day Celebration when we reacquaint with him.We learn that he has traveled the world (Africa and Europe) in search of mourning; the Sciolist, his conscience must be applauded for this global displacement: for in his search of mourning he got the opportunity to see the world as well. We immediately behold the world of phantoms: Where mummies, dead politicians, mythological personages both ancient and modern (Super Heroes) roam in hordes that leave our Toloki intrigued and mesmerized. The introduction of a mischievous character, Obed Quiqley, in the guise of a man whom he calls a slave ancestor anchors to us the fact that the spectacle that we have hitherto witnessed is that of Halloween. There is a technical effect in how this world is introduced to us, by the narrator, in that the layering of this fictional world moves from magic realism towards reality as, through our reading, we put two and two together – trying to make sense of where the events are taking place. This device is actually used several times through out the narrative.
Abednico, Obed Quiqley’s guise, and his brother Nicodemus escaped from a slave plantation – Fairfield Farm. After being tracked by slave bounty hunters they were caught in Ohio during a stop in one of the stations of the ‘secret’ Underground Railways Station. The bounty hunters have shot and killed Abednico and brought back Nicodemus. Presently that station has been turned into a house and the ghost of Abednico haunts and torments the tenants. It has become widespread knowledge that the ghost is fond of squeezing and fondling breasts of young women and that many women have left the house after their encounter with the ghosts. Ironically the present occupants find such encounters with the ghost a delight and have stayed one. Prior to his meeting with Toloki, Obed had impersonated the breast fondler by breaking into the house and hiding in the supposedly haunted basement. Unfortunately Obed squeezed too hard for a ghost and he was discovered. Clad in his slave costume he escapes to the Halloween carnival and meet Toloki.
Mwelele Cele, a friend of mine, once drew my attention to the fact that the literary output of the late Sello K Duiker, Phawane Mpe (also late) and Zakes Mda tends to spill into fantasy – magical realism to be specific, while simultaneously holding on to realism thus blurring the fine line that separate the two modes of perception in representation. Until then this writer has not yet made the connection. Cion attests to this fact; here we see Mda at his best form in merging the two modes of perception. Cion is about a family coming to terms with its slave heritage. In chapter two the tracing of this heritage is traced, we are introduced to the Abyssinian woman, a slave woman oozing with so much power in the slave plantation of Fairfield Farm that with hands down she commands the attention of the slave master himself and in turn threatens the mistress of the plantation. She gives birth to slave off springs herself but unlike the rest of the slave breeding slave women who are immediately severed from their children she maintains contact with her two sons – desiring only freedom to tem. Of noteworthy is the Abyssinian woman’s ability to tell mythological fables fused in the traditional quilts that the slave women make to the children including her two sons. Privately she taught her sons to decipher the coded language hidden in the quilts which when understood yield the key to freedom from slavery: escape routes and networks. In chapter three Toloki takes over the duty of telling the story (one point perspective) and tells the reader how he saves the mischievous Obed Quiqley from being convicted of burglary and breast fondling. He ends up staying with Obed’s family – while still in search of mourning, in chapter four we ride the myth wave as the ghost Trees of Athens Ohio takes over the telling of the story picking up where we left off in chapter two (I shall not give away the telling my self). In chapter five the main protagonist, Toloki assumes the narrative role once more. In chapter six the authoritative narrator takes over as life is shone on the slave heritage of the Quiqley’s; hereafter a synthesis occur in that the point of telling the story unite into one in the authoritative narrator. In stark relief the story of the Abyssinian woman, the narrative told by the ghost trees are reconciled to be part of the slave heritage of the Quiqley’s in particular and in general the early beginnings of the community of Athens, Ohio. Such is the narratology of this fine novel, it is transactional in the opening chapters, to open up the plot and gain ground over narration. However the technique of giving back the authoritative narrator the role of telling the story knit the plot into unison in the later chapters.
To the discerning reader as they get to the conclusion of the novel, it might dawn on them that in Cion Mda has touched on the fact that given the treacherous twists and turns of history and the complexity of social heritage it is unwarranted to speak of a pure race. Although the Ohio community provides the setting for Cion, this novel is an assessment of identity – it is a metaphorical offering on our current identity preoccupations.
Moreover Cion inspires one to look at one’s own South Africannes with a delicate sense of humor in order to acknowledge that we cannot be hundred percent accurate to claim that we are of a pure tribe or cultural identity given the fact that the turmoil that has taken place in the past centuries have brought about a drastic synthesis across our colour lines and ethnic demarcations: blurring tribal ideologies and racial differences through displacements brought about by ideological repressive policies towards the ‘other’. Who is an African then, specifically South African? Cion, I believe, is the metaphorical answer to this troubling question of our time.
*NB. This review was originally published in my earlier blog The Couch Potato on 7 February 2008. Although slightly altered from the original piece, this reworked version retains the original arguments and observations of the original.
© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2008