FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.
A love triangle between a man, a woman and a whale: That's one way to describe Zakes Mda's latest novel, “The Whale Caller.” Mr. Mda is Renaissance man. He writes poetry, plays and fiction. But he's also a beekeeper. Mda splits his time between a home in the U.S., where he teaches, and the one he keeps in Johannesburg. In South Africa, he runs the Southern African Multimedia AIDS Trust, giving workshops for aspiring writers and playwrights.
Mr. ZAKES MDA (Author, “The Whale Caller”): So it's basically that, you know, HIV positive people telling their whole stories, you know, as part of, you know, AIDS education, as part of social mobilization against AIDS.
CHIDEYA: You're someone who - to lovers of literature you may be known, but in the U.S. a lot of people may have not have heard of your work. And it seems to me that you've created not just a body of work that speaks to South Africans, it speaks to people across the world. And also with the activities that you do in your life, you seem to have this passion for doing so many different things both artistic and community minded. How do you keep your strength? How do you keep the ability to keep doing what you do?
Mr. MDA: Well, I don't know, because I mean I just do what I do. It's just part of life, part of my day-to-day living, you know.
CHIDEYA: You have this beautiful Web site and an essay that starts with a line about the playwright Athol Fugard who once declared that the best thing that could happen to any storyteller was to be born in South Africa.
Mr. MDA: Born in South Africa, yeah.
CHIDEYA: What does that mean?
Mr. MDA: During the days of apartheid it was possible to take a slice of life, you know, slice of real life and transfer it onto the page. And you would have a wonderful theater of the absurd, wonderful fiction of the absurd. So our history has helped us in creating an environment rich with stories.
CHIDEYA: The stories that you write, some are more allegorical than others. But there's definitely a feeling for not just the people of South Africa but for colonialism. And I remember in your book “The Heart of Redness” you talk about these colonials sort of discussing the natives. And your works have humor, but can you laugh at things that are as painful as colonialism and apartheid?
Mr. MDA: Well, yes. You know, even during the worst moments of our lives, the worst moments of our oppression, we laughed. That is why you'll find, you know, great works of satire but have come from that oppressive situation. So we survived by laughing at ourselves.
CHIDEYA: Tell us more about the characters. You have the Whale Caller who remains unnamed, who in some ways is a very private man. Then you have Sharisha the whale, who is in one way a love interest to him, who he calls to him with a horn. And then another love interest, the human love interest, Saluni. Tell us about these people.
Mr. MDA: Well, you know, these people cam about by accident, in fact. The first accident was when I saw a television program in South Africa about a town called Hermanus. The town is very famous for whale watching. People come from all over the world to look at the southern right whales and also the humpback whales, you know?
But then I was also fascinated by a real-life character there who is known as a whale crier. So I was fascinated by the whole idea of this human being who is able to communicate with whales. I went down to this town, Hermanus, hoping to meet with this fellow. And indeed I met him, only to discover that he did not call whales to himself at all. But he is a whale crier, and his function is to alert the tourists as to the presence of whales.
That was a disappointment on my part. But then I decided that if the real-life Whale Crier cannot call whales to himself, then I'm going to create mine, my own character, who will have some real meaningful communication with whales.
CHIDEYA: And you have actually the Whale Caller reflecting on how he doesn't make any money while the whale crier does, you know. You have the fictional life and the world…
Mr. MDA: And the real life. But of course. I had to find a story for him. Thus when, you know, Saluni and the whale, Sharisha, came about, they first came about just as names that were composed by my four-year-old daughter, Zenzi. When we were playing one day, I ask her, can you come up with some name, any name that comes to mind. Then she say Saluni. Another name, Sharisha.
From the sound of the name, Saluni would be a village drunk. Sharisha would be the whale. And then of course immediately I had Sharisha the village drunk and the Whale Caller. I had my triangle, eternal triangle, man, woman, whale.
CHIDEYA: That is a beautiful description of these characters. And when you say it that way, you can hear the, what is it, the onomatopesis? Not that I can pronounce it.
Mr. MDA: Oh, okay.
CHIDEYA: Sharisha, just, you know, the whoosh, you know, of the whale…
Mr. MDA: Oh yes…
CHIDEYA: Saluni, like saloon.
Mr. MDA: What suggested that, you know, Sharisha, that's going to be the whale.
CHIDEYA: Well, tell us about this whale.
Mr. MDA: It was very important for me that everything that is Sharisha or is about Sharisha should be very real to whales. Except of course I take it to another level, you know, through exaggeration and through use of a lot of magic.
CHIDEYA: What does magic mean to you?
Mr. MDA: Magic means a lot to me because it is the very essence of storytelling in my culture. And to use it in my literary fiction, well, it was just (unintelligible).
CHIDEYA: Mr. Mda, thank you so much.
Mr. MDA: It's my pleasure.
CHIDEYA: Zakes Mda's new novel is “The Whale Caller.” He joined me from WOUB in Athens, Ohio.