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“Death, Here I Am”: Violence and Redemption in Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 43, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 87-107 | 10.1353/jnt.2013.0009

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Violence in African Literature

Engagement with violence characterizes most works of African fiction published in the twentieth century, as Richard Priebe shows with such works as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Yambo Ouloguem’s Bound to Violence. The new millennium has its own share of texts in that genus: Nega Mezlekia’s Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is Not Obliged, and Asia Djebar’s Algerian White. Priebe points out that some of these works achieve more of a Medusa-like effect on the reader than their authors might have anticipated, but he also acknowledges that “we need a rhetoric of motives, and perhaps a grammar of motives,” for their representations (48). Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence is arguably the African novel of violence par excellence. Kwame Anthony Appiah asserts that this work sought to create a new narrative trajectory away from the excessive and apologetic obsession with the past, and to challenge Africans to embrace the complex nature of truth and the postmodernist nature of African societies (152–57). The same could be said of Ayi Kwei Armah’s Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Ouloguem and Armah were not immediately successful in this regard; however, their efforts seem to have been replicated in the new millennium, in works that include, among others, Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying.

We cannot think of violence in African literature without thinking of the same in African societies, and to say that violence is rife in many African societies would be an understatement. The prevalence of violence in such societies is an expression of the people’s desperate search for meaning and for solutions to the particular postcolonial dysfunction to which history and various African governments have subjected them. This violence is, as René Girard argues about that of societies in general, always a result of a loss of hierarchy and differentiation among people. Violence in African narratives is necessarily a consequence of the writers’ engagement with their reality; it is a reflection of African writers’ attempts to come to grips with the loss of order or hierarchy in African socio-political and economic situations. It is therefore clear that these authors do not represent violence in their works for its own sake. Quite the contrary, their narratives represent violence for cathartic reasons. Indeed, they ultimately issue a moral challenge by drawing attention to ‘damaged lives’ in hopes of eliciting responses from readers.

Ways of Dying bridges the millennial gap between the works named above; it exemplifies not only the raw violence that characterized works of the past century, but also the moral visions of those in the new. In addition, it captures the dilemma and hopes of the postcolonial African nation. Written during the violent transition years in South African politics, it represents an indeterminate grey area of dawn and dusk. It is a book of grief, but also of hope; a book of hatred, but also of love. Above all, it is a book that catalogues various forms of sacrifice made by individual South Africans and their communities. Though told in the first person plural, the “we” perspective, it is generally a story of one individual, Toloki, who takes a job as a “Professional Mourner” in a city steeped in violence. He attends funerals in the townships, well dressed and crying for the victims of the city’s violence. He eventually reunites with Noria, the flame of his youth, whose affections his own father had stolen. Toloki and Noria bear scars from the violence in their lives, but they turn to each other in both actual and richly symbolic gestures of care, consolation, and redemption.

The narrative arc begins with an announcement—there are many ways of dying—and ends with a paragraph informing us that the smell of burning rubber which fills the air is, this time at least, unmingled with the sickly stench of roasting human flesh (212). This “pedagogical” structure indicates Mda’s moral and political vision of history: there is hope, but a hope born of pain. It is precisely the deep experience of pain that will aid the people to finally make the leap of empathy without which society...



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