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"I'm a Story. Narrate me": Zakes Mda's New Novel Rachel's Blue Launched at Haas Collective

Zakes Mda

Rachel’s BlueThe launch of Zakes Mda’s remarkable new novel, Rachel’s Blue, took place at the trendy Buitenkant Street coffee shop Haas Collective during the recent Open Book Festival in Cape Town.

In his latest book Mda tackles the thorny topic of what happens in a small American town when a convicted rapist claims paternity rights to the child conceived of his crime.

Mda was joined in conversation by his publisher, James Woodhouse, in a fascinating conversation that covered the Win people (who featured in his second novel, Cion); his own experience of living in Ohio; his approach to writing a range of different projects simultaneously and the way stories “find” him. It also included an hilarious account of the twitter exchange that saw one “Jason de Klerk” embed himself as the villain in Rachel’s Blue:

Woodhouse reflected on the recent trend of South African writers seting their fiction in places elsewhere. Mda responded, saying he did not set out with the deliberate intention of writing an American novel and that his agenda was not defined by market constraints. “The critics say you must write a story set somewhere else? No, no, no! The stories come to me. I am out there minding my own business, but the story comes to me. It says, ‘I’m a story. Narrate me.’ I say, ‘Okay. I’ll narrate you then.’ See? I don’t say, ‘Story, you are in America and I’m a South African. I’m not going to narrate you!’ As an artist, I believe I take art wherever it demands to be taken.”

Mda recalled the moment which inspired Rachel’s story. He was travelling home from Yellow Springs after Thanksgiving and heard a report about an actual rape paternity rights case on the radio and the concept was inconceivable to him. He knew instantly that he would write about it. “Really!? Is this possible? he wondered. “Is that even allowed? And then, allowed by whom? What about the humans involved in such a case, the child, the woman?”

He considered the trauma of the process and discovered that in Ohio, and in other states in the USA, there are no laws that would prohibit a rapist from seeing their rape-conceived child.

Woodhouse said what had struck him forcefully was the fact that different laws operated in different states. By leaving Ohio, Rachel attempts to get away from what has happened. “The lack of legislation seems incomprehensible,” Woodhouse said. “How is it that nobody has stood up in a court of law to insist that a convicted rapist cannot get custody of the child conceived of the rape?”

Mda said that it was not common. “You do not find rapists all over America wanting to take care of their children. You don’t hear much of it. That’s why there are not movements fighting such laws. But, there are advocates. That’s how this came to my attention. There are women who have gone through this sort of thing, and are now advocating for action in the states that don’t protect the women. Usually women who get pregnant from rape opt for abortion. It is rare that a woman wants to keep her baby. But once in a while, a woman wants to keep her baby. When a woman decides to keep the baby, there are reasons.”

Mda wondered aloud whether there were laws in South Africa that would prohibit a rapist fighting for custody or visiting rights for his rape conceived child. He spoke of the research he’d undertaken in writing the novel, examining the trauma experienced and the impact on small communities where a woman lived near her rapist, who might be a member of her extended clan. Woodhouse reflected that this was not a peculiarly American issue. It may be a particular case, but it brings up so many questions about how we deal with rapists in our communities.

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Liesl Jobson tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #openbook2014:

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