Zakes Mda is a respected academic and one of South Africa’s most recognized authors. And yet for a man with potentially lots to lose, he appears bent on ripping apart his own legacy. His biography, Sometimes There is a Void (published in the USA in 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is at once riveting and daring – almost bordering on reckless.
Mda goes totally against the grain of what many readers have come to expect from most biographical accounts. He lays his life bare for all to see – triumphs, warts and all. There is no embellishment here, and no attempt to whitewash or explain his past. Rather, what we get is an honest account of one man’s difficult and often rocky path to adulthood – a constant search to fill many voids.
The journey starts in Soweto, where the young Mda’s family lived for a while, before they were hounded into exile by the South African Apartheid government. The son of a highly regarded lawyer whose selflessness condemns his family to a life of modest means, Mda recalls life in Soweto, notably the visits to their home by the great Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders. Another memory relates to an encounter with the family’s nanny, from which Mda never fully recovers until much later into adulthood.
At age 15, Mda leaves South Africa to join his father in Lesotho, and there the young Mda appears destined for a life of failure. At school, his grades are unimpressive. He picks up a drinking habit that only gets worse with time. He dabbles in politics but when push comes to shove, he is not quite prepared to follow the path of other young revolutionaries by risking his life to take up arms against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. At age 19, he receives the ultimate curse from a priest after an altercation that partly has to do with Mda’s association with the Botswana Communist Party. All this is a far cry from the Mda that we know today.
In an easy and often conversational tone, Mda takes us through the years, sharing intimate and sometimes very painful events in his career and personal life. We learn about his struggles and failures. For instance, Mda confesses to failing his wife and children from his first marriage.
“I didn’t spend much time with Mpho and the children. Much time? I spent no time at all. I was either at work or in a bar. If I happened to be at home I was always irritable and snapped at everyone. It was the only way I knew how to be a father. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to live with me.” (pg. 205).
As one would expect with a biography, there is so much covered. Readers unfamiliar with Mda’s work will find the book a useful introduction to the author’s books. Mda shares insights about his writing and talks about the inspiration behind many of his novels – including the controversy that kicked off around ‘The Heart of Redness’.
We also learn about Mda’s struggles with South Africa’s post-apartheid government, which partly forced him to leave the country.
“… I have other skills for which I am trained. I can’t practice them in South Africa because all doors are closed by the vast patronage system and crony capitalism that has emerged in my beloved country. Doors were banged in my face, that’s why when the opportunity availed itself I left, though it was a difficult decision. We go to where our skills are appreciated first and foremost, and then of course rewarded.” p.195.
The most difficult aspects, however, are left to the end, as the writer’s life threatens to unravel.
All told, Sometimes There is a Void is a book that readers will enjoy both for its frankness and completeness. Despite all that he’s gone through, Mda is neither judgemental nor bitter. Instead, he provides what in my opinion, exemplifies how memoirs should be written. Readers will come away with a full appreciation of the subject, his life and the events that have shaped his views and actions over decades.