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Read Zakes Mda’s UJ Prize Acceptance Speech and Ronit Frenkel’s Praise of Rachel’s Blue

Zakes Mda and Penny Busetto Win the 2014/2015 University of Johannesburg Prizes for South African Writing (English)

On Wednesday, 9 October, Zakes Mda and Penny Busetto were awarded the 2014/15 University of Johannesburg Prizes for South African writing in English for their respective novels, Rachel’s Blue and The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself.

Rachel’s BlueThe Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself

Mda received the main prize of R75 000 while Busetto received the debut prize of R35 000.


On the main shortlist this year were Mda, Jacob Dlamini (Askari), Damon Galgut (Arctic Summer), Lauren Beukes (Broken Monsters) and Johan Vlok Louw (Karoo Dusk).

Contending for the debut prize were Busetto, Masande Ntshanga (The Reactive), Jaco van Schalkwyk (The Alibi Club) and Nadia Davids (An Imperfect Blessing).

In her laudation speech, Professor Ronit Frenkel said that Rachel’s Blue “heralds a strong connection between South African and American literary patterns while placing Zakes Mda as an iconoclastic writer in both locales”.

Mda expressed his deep gratitude to the University of Johannesburg for awarding him this prize, saying that “this award means a lot to me, it means much, much more than many other awards”. In his speech Mda congratulates fellow winner Busetto on her startling debut and takes the reader on a journey through the writing of Rachel’s Blue, one of the most harrowing stories he’s ever had to write.

Read Frenkel’s thoughtful comments, followed by Mda’s acceptance speech and photographs from the event:


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Zakes Mda

UJ Prize Laudation, 9 September, 2015

Ronit Frenkel

It is my great honour tonight to introduce one of South Africa’s literary giants and our main prize winner, Zakes Mda. He is a professor of creative writing at Ohio State University in Athens, Ohio and spends part of the year in South Africa when he is not teaching. He is extremely prolific having published numerous plays and novels, and having won too many awards to even name tonight. His texts are taught and read across the globe. He also has the enviable place of being the author of The Heart of Redness which is the third most popular book to steal from the Johannesburg public library, right after Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and Biko’s I Write What I like.

Our main prize-winning Mda text tonight is Rachel’s Blue, published by Kwela Books. The novel is set in the area around Athens, Ohio, a small town in a rural part of the American Midwest and very far away from South Africa where most of Mda’s work is set. The story traces a few years in Rachel Boucher’s life during her early twenties, after she is raped by an old high school friend, Jason de Klerk. The rape forms the major thread of the narrative in that its effects tie all elements of the plot together. The novel was written as a response to the legal situation that persists in many American states where the father of a child conceived as the result of rape can claim paternal rights. In a recent interview with Sarah Laurence, Mda said that he was inspired to tackle this topic when:

“I was listening to the radio when I heard this story – in some states in America there are no laws that would protect a woman if a situation like this arose. And situations like this have arisen. In some states there are laws that state that you forfeit your rights as a father if the child is a result of rape but in South Africa I doubt that there are laws that would prevent that. So when I heard of this incident it just fascinated me and I thought this would make an interesting novel. As writers we thrive on conflict and this is an interesting conflict.”

The Athens area in this novel is marked by rural poverty, petty crime, drugs, unemployment, conservative Christianity, invasive small town gossip and insider politics – elements that could certainly apply to many small towns in South Africa too. The novel is a damning critique on inequality and archaic legalities within larger debates on human rights as they relate to the poor and disenfranchised. Mda’s setting is significant in that it marks a shift in South African writing where many writers are setting their works outside of South Africa and entering debates on World literatures.

Mda’s Athens is an American setting with both transnational and national resonances: Rachel is brought up by her grandmother Nana Moira in a trailer home after her father is killed in the American military’s first war in Iraq and her crystal meth addicted mother absconds. Nana Moira works in the local community centre, handing out food parcels to the local community and running a quilting circle. Rachel is a busking musician, travelling with the local markets in the area and living an itinerant lifestyle. She meets Skye Riley, an environmental activist, in the area and they begin a relationship. Rachel’s life is thrown into turmoil after Skye leaves her and she is then violently raped by Jason. Jason’s mental instability is highlighted when he then believes that he can build a relationship with Rachel after attacking her.

The community is torn apart by Rachel’s accusation of rape against Jason. He comes from a wealthier, more powerful family in the area, with his grandfather being part of the church elders who hold sway in the area and many residents not believing Rachel’s story. Even her grandmother is skeptical at first. This reaches an apex when Rachel discovers that she is pregnant and Jason sues her for custody of the baby called Blue.

“Mda’s … appreciation for the subtleties of community interaction, and his storyteller’s instinct for driving the plot forward, means that the sense of despair surrounding Rachel’s situation creeps into the novel almost unobtrusively. When Jason’s father, an organic-cheese-farmer-turned-Reformist-churchman named Genesis de Klerk, discovers that Rachel is pregnant, he approaches Nana Moira to negotiate for custody of the child … the reader is fully immersed in the court procedural that makes up a substantial part of the novel before the realisation strikes, with a mounting sense of dread, that the scales of the law are tipped heavily in favour of the De Klerks and their expensive lawyer. The seemingly effortless skill with which Mda weaves these constricting webs around his protagonist brings her plight to life in a thoroughly compelling manner.” (Eckard Smuts Reviews Rachel’s Blue by Zakes Mda)

The novel then traces Rachel’s options in this suffocating environment where she can barely afford enough gas to leave the state, much less a lawyer to defend her rights over her child. Rachel and her grandmother eventually decide to leave the state and drive to Louisiana as these laws are state based rather than federal, allowing for the only means of escape possible for Rachel as a member of the under classes. Mda’s strong characterisation gives an ordinary face to all the protagonists in this story where even Jason, the rapist, is humanised. Gone are the stark divisions between good and bad that characterised much writing under apartheid and many post-9/11 texts. As Smuts reminds us, “One of the novel’s strongest accomplishments is the ease with which Mda has transplanted his sensitivity to such issues – and to their human impact – from the more familiar South African setting of his earlier work to the apparently fertile grounds of the American Midwest.”

Mda captures the flavour and nuance of small town life in this portrayal but moves away from the more romanticised narratives that mainly focus on the sense of community and bucolic pace of rural life, revealing the class politics that also undergird small towns. His utilisation of rape as the main structuring device in this novel, draws attention to the connections between oppressions that cut through nations and continents to reveal the connections between different sorts of oppressions globally.

There have been a number of studies that have looked at changing literary representations in America post-9/11, from ghost stories to dystopian post-apocalyptic fictional worlds, dominant hyper-masculine heroes, and various depictions of violence as “justified”, preemptive or retaliatory. Yet, much post-9/11 writing is also “… steeped in the domestic, [and involves] inward-looking dramas” (Morley 84). Mda’s novel does not fit into these broader patterns in American literary studies despite the setting of two of his novels, but he is steeped in the domestic. The novel though also reveals shifting patterns of the post-transitional South African cultural landscape that is often outward looking but is born from a post-democracy consciousness that things can be changed.

This novel, then, heralds a strong connection between South African and American literary patterns while placing Mda as an iconoclastic writer in both locales.

The above is a slightly adapted version of an article that appeared the Mail & Guardian on 26 June 2015

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Read Zakes Mda’s acceptance speech

Thank you, thank you very much, Professor MacKenzie and Professor Frenkel, and of course the judges. I’m very, very grateful for this award.

Professor Frenkel is quite right when she says that I’ve won many awards, indeed I have won quite a number of awards for various works of mine, plays, novels, but also for community work in the Eastern Cape and so on. But this award means a lot to me, it means much, much more than many other awards.

The reason being that, this is one novel which (and hopefully this will change) had the lowest profile of all my work. Even after it was published it was never really launched like my other novels, it was never reviewed by the media (except an attempt of a review by City Press). So it was totally ignored and hopefully this award will raise the profile of this book.

This book was very harrowing for me to write. For me, writing is very enjoyable … I actually enjoy the process of writing. I look forward to waking up the next morning, sit at my desk and interact with those characters. And immediately when I finish the book, there’s a very big void in my life, a deep feeling of loneliness, from which perhaps I will recover when I get into another novel – to write another novel and get acquainted with new characters that I’m beginning to know about as I create them. And of course as I create them they create me as well – it’s a symbiotic thing that some writers have with the characters that they create.

A novel like Rachel’s Blue was very harrowing to write and also to discuss. I remember I was at the Jozi Book Fair last year and then the topic was Rachel’s Blue, and then of course later people were asking questions. There’s a rape scene in the novel which is quite explicit in many ways – not in a gratuitous manner, there are reasons why it is like that. It was very harrowing to write that scene and whenever a discussion comes to that scene I break down. It’s a scene that affected me a lot and my relationships, even at home when I was creating. So you can see how these works of art we create also create us in the process – for better or for worse.

So this novel is very important to me, even though it has been ignored generally in South Africa, I thought, until you rescued it. That’s why I say to me this award means much more than many other awards for novels that right from the beginning were well received and reviewed and there was excitement about it. I’m hoping that now that we have rescued it then, perhaps more people will be interested in it and will begin to read it.

As Professor Frenkel has explained already, it is set in a real place which is a very depressed place. That’s where my wife works as a psychotherapist. Well in my earlier novels, my wife used to read my work and as I was writing it she would comment on it. But of course lately, because of her work, she’s steeped in the most depressed of places in the United States, where there are lots of drugs, spousal abuse and poverty generally, the likes that, you know, many of you would not believe exists in America. So she works in these communities.

Now, with this one she never got to read it because she was too busy. But then many months later, when it was long published she was reading it. Then she was amazed and she said, “but you are writing about my client here. This character that you’ve created here, her story is my client’s story.”

Now I knew nothing about her client and I didn’t write about her client but the fact that she who works with these people, identifies these characters with the real-life people she knows, you can see how much I’ve tried to portray here. Unlike my magical realism where I create all things, I go crazy, imagination and so on, here I tried to portray life as I saw it and as it was – some form of realism that is not really my forte. And I was encouraged then also when some people from the community read it and said, “now you talk about things that are happening here but we’re too afraid to talk about them”. There’s a lot of silence about many things in these communities.

So, that is why I’m saying to you judges, I’m very grateful you decided to choose this novel and to give it a prize. I’m also grateful because I only heard recently that you nominated my novel the previous year. The Sculptors of Mapungubwe was one of the shortlisted novels for this prize – I didn’t know that, unfortunately, because it was something that was worth celebrating and that I would have celebrated. I’m happy and I’m belatedly celebrating it now.

Let me just add more thanks, of course, to members of my family who are here. My daughter-in-law, my son, my daughter and of course, my beautiful wife, who as you would all attest to is the most beautiful woman in the world, and a very brilliant one too! How many couples have Derrida or Foucault as their pillow talk? So, it is a great pleasure that she was able to make it, despite the fact that she’s very busy with her clients, to be here. My friends who are here at this event to celebrate this with me, thank you very much.

But lastly, please allow me also to thank Penny Busetto, because she graciously agreed for this event to be postponed – it was supposed to be 10 days ago, to be postponed because I was unavailable then; we’d just started a new academic year and I couldn’t make it.

That is the first thing I’m thanking Busetto for. But I’m also thanking her for her novel – a novel that we’re talking about here which I read and is a very beautiful work of art. Busetto’s novel resonates with me in many, many ways.

What I love most about it, are those evocative small moments, proving that the mundane can be a source of greatness. This is a work that is gentle, and understated, even at its most harrowing. So, it was a great joy for me to read this work and all I can say is that I’m very happy that this is Busetto’s debut novel, otherwise I would not be standing here.

Thank you very much.


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Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) tweeted the awards using #livebooks:


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