Zakes Mda is the most acclaimed South African writer of the independence era. His eight novels tell stories that venture far beyond the conventional narratives of a people’s struggle against apartheid. In this memoir, he tells the story of a life that intersects with the political life of his country but that at its heart is the classic adventure story of an artist, lover, father, teacher, and bon vivant.
Zanemvula Mda was born in 1948 into a family of lawyers and grew up in Soweto’s ambitious educated black class. At age fifteen he crossed the Telle River from South Africa into Basutoland (Lesotho), exiled like his father, a “founding spirit” of the Pan Africanist Congress. Exile was hard, but it was just another chapter in Mda’s coming-of-age. He served as an altar boy (and was preyed on by priests), flirted with shebeen girls, feared the racist Boers, read comic books alongside the literature of the PAC, fell for the music of Dvorák and Coltrane, wrote his first stories—and felt the void at the heart of things that makes him an outsider wherever he goes. The Soweto uprisings called him to politics; playwriting brought him back to South Africa, where he became writer in residence at the famed Market Theatre; three marriages led him hither and yon; acclaim brought him to America, where he began writing the novels that are so thick with the life of his country. In all this, Mda struggled to remain his own man, and with Sometimes There Is a Void he shows that independence opened the way for the stories of individual South Africans in all their variety.