Title: The Heart of Redness
Author: Zakes Mda
Publication date: 2000
Country/culture: South Africa
For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)
In the 19th century the Xhosa tribe split into two – Believers and Unbelievers – as a result of a teenage girl’s prophesies. She proclaimed that if the tribe killed their cattle, their ancestors would rise from the dead and drive the English colonisers into the sea; but her prophesies failed. 150 years later, returned exile Camagu finds the two groups’ descendants still at loggerheads over plans to bring tourism to the area. History and myth are woven together, alongside modern-day politics, as we question what empowerment, heritage and civilisation really mean.
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What did I find out?
I was reminded of how much I enjoy discovering new topics. To some extent this has been built into the Book Diaries from the outset this year, as my explorations into world literature were always intended to introduce me to cultures and ethnic groups I previously had no (or very little) knowledge of; but the experience has been particularly pronounced this time.
I’m not entirely sure why this is: it’s not as if the Xhosa people are necessarily more alien to me than, say, the Inuit people of Skraelings, or the indigenous Australian people of That Deadman Dance – indeed, The Heart of Redness reminded me more than once of that latter book, in its description of the activities of 19th-century British empire builders.
Perhaps it is because Africa is such a huge nation, consisting of so many different national, cultural and tribal groups (and languages), that I know I can’t hope to ever do more than dip my toe into the well of knowledge about it. But instead of feeling frustrated at this, I actually feel quite excited. Such a wealth of experience out there! So many worlds! It means that life will never, ever be dull, because there will always be somewhere I’ve never visited, something I’ve never learned, someone I’ve never met… and I could do any of these things if I wanted to.
Africa is a fabulous reminder of the infinite variety our world has to offer, and the multitude of people we could connect with. Whether we make the effort to do this is entirely up to us.
What do I now see differently?
The importance of land as a key to power came across very strongly in this book. When the British are colonising the Eastern Cape in the 19th century, they gradually take over the homesteads of the native people, rendering them rootless and lost. When the new holiday resort is being proposed, the point is made that, once it is built, the locals will have to pay to access the ocean, which now they happily enjoy for free.
It is a theme not unique to South Africa. Even in the UK, this topic has a long and sometimes painful history: the Inclosure (Enclosure) Acts over a period of centuries saw the gradual fencing off of previously common land, with the result that landowners benefited at the expense of the general public. Just days ago (at the time of writing) it emerged that public spaces in London are being sold off to private corporations, who will then be able to dictate what may (and may not) be done in those spaces.
Those with the money own the land, and those with the land hold the power; for them it is an upward spiral. For those who are at the other end of the scale, the reverse happens: loss of land, or access to it, renders them rootless, wandering, without a firm base of operations from which to build their own empires – or even just their homes.
Although the 19th-century Xhosa people are different in many ways to, say, the 21st-century homeless, it is clear that, even across centuries, there are some experiences that bind people together.
How will this inspire my writing?
There were two things that leaped out at me as I read this book:
- The world of the dead, of the ancestors, in Xhosa culture is referred to as the Otherworld. This is precisely the same name as I’m using for the land of the dead and the supernatural in my novel! I’m not trying to appropriate the Xhosa culture; it’s a name that is used in several cultures around the world, so I’m hoping it will have a general resonance rather than be viewed as an attempt to build an ‘afterlife’ modelled on any particular group’s beliefs. But I’m certainly inspired to look a little more into the traditions of the Xhosa’s Otherworld, in case there are aspects I can draw on to better flesh out my own.
- My mulling over the huge number of African cultures and languages initially tempted me to try and learn an African language myself. Languages were my best subjects at school, but as I’ve grown older, my brain has exercised itself less and less in this manner (my last foray into language learning was Welsh, about 10 years ago); and the idea of picking up a new one seemed like a good way of stemming the inevitable mental decline that comes with age.
However, I soon realised that this would be an enormous task, not least because of the first question I’d have to ask: which language? There are so many: which would be the most useful? the most interesting? and (ahem) the easiest? So I shelved that idea (for now, at least), and came up with a new one: to investigate the creation of a new language for the world of my novel. Now, I only say ‘investigate’, as I realise this would be a mammoth task; much as I admire JRR Tolkien, I am not him, and I’m not sure I’d know where to start on this project. But to think about it: that’s certainly something I can look into. Who knows, I may surprise myself.
A musical interlude
This one seems at the same time both terribly obvious but also surprisingly appropriate. It features American musician Paul Simon and a group of South African singers, and deals with the ability of music to connect people in countries as far apart as the USA and South Africa. The Heart of Redness does not specifically have music as a theme (although it does feature singing by several characters), but the interplay between black and white cultures, and what we each recall of our histories, is a primary theme of the novel.
This is Under African Skies.