Escaping the Tyranny of Magic Realism? A Discussion of the Term in Relation to the Novels of Zakes Mda

Derek Alan Barker


Writer, playwright, poet, academic, activist and polemicist Zakes Mda is one of the most prolific and exciting South African artists today. Since the demise of apartheid, he has published 7 novels: Ways of Dying (1995), She Plays with the Darkness (1995), Melville 67 (1998), The Heart of Redness (2000), The Madonna of Excelsior (2002), The Whale Caller (2004), and Cion (2007). The approaches to Mda's novels range widely. One term which has been applied to describe his work is magic realism. This article sets out to assess the term and its application to Mda's novels. It starts by providing an outline of the origin and definition of the term, followed by a brief discussion on some criticisms of its application to African texts, an examination of its application in criticism of Mda's novels, an outline of oral influences, some suggestions as to why Mda does not always employ this narrative strategy and a brief comparison of Ways of Dying to Cion to illustrate the points raised, and concludes by giving a brief overview of other approaches to his novels and an assessment of the application of the term in criticism of his work. Among the questions which this article aims to answer are: does the term have any explanatory value in relation to Mda's texts? If the term can be used to describe some of his texts, why does Mda not always employ this narrative mode? Even if its application is (at times) cogent, is it sufficient?


magic realism; postapartheid literature; orature

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