Cion A Novel

Zakes Mda




Trade Paperback

320 Pages


Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
A National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Award Finalist The hero of Zakes Mda's beloved Ways of Dying, Toloki, sets down with a family in Middle America and uncovers the story of the runaway slaves who were their ancestors.
Toloki, the professional mourner, has come to live in America. Lured to Athens, Ohio, by an academic at the local university, Toloki makes friends with an angry young man he meets at a Halloween parade and soon falls in love with the young man's sister. Toloki endears himself to a local quilting group and his quilting provides a portal to the past, a story of two escaped slaves seeking freedom in Ohio.
Making their way north from Virginia with nothing but their mother's quilts for a map, the boys hope to find a promised land where blacks can live as free men. Their story alternates with Toloki's, as the two narratives cast a new light on America in the twenty-first century and on an undiscovered legacy of the Underground Railroad.


Praise for Cion

"One of the most prolific black writers of post-apartheid South Africa, Zakes Mda, has now cast his roaming, wry and satirical eye upon the United States . . . Like its affable narrator, Cion leisurely ambles from one episode to the next. As the various strands of the novel begin to coalesce, however, it becomes clearer that, in his capacity as a professional healer, Toloki has performed an important function for the Quigley family and, by extension, the larger society that continues to neglect the tangled web of its history. The sensibility through which Toloki refracts this story embodies the spirit of ubuntu—the term so frequently invoked by Archbishop Tutu and others during South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation hearings to denote 'the universal bond of sharing that connected all humanity.' In the end, Cion strongly suggests that ubuntu may well offer a way for America to confront the ghosts of its racial past."The Washington Post Book World

"Cion isn’t one worthwhile story; it’s at least three or four. Like the quilts that find their way into each one, the book is a pulsing history lesson . . . Like those quilts, this wide-ranging patchwork manages to retain a whole beauty because of the way Mda pulls it all together. Illustrating in his descriptions and exacting with his analysis, Mda is able to make mourner Toloki’s first year in the struggling Quigley household as unusual as the gnomes that dot the father’s garden like tomatoes. The story is as occasionally melodious as the mother’s ‘Todoloos’ and often as haunting as the sitar heard from the mother-in-law suite during dinner."Paste magazine

"Mda, a visiting professor at Ohio University . . . takes the traditional pattern of a picaresque novel—an episodic recounting of roguish schemes gone awry—and decorates it with a richly textured overlay of embroidery, applique, collage and found art . . . Mda writes about hardscrabble lives without dwelling on the hardscrabble . . . Mda's elegant patchwork of clever storytelling, wry characterization and good-natured humor is more than enough."—John R. Alden, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
"For a long time, white writers dominated South African literature—Paton, Brink, Gordimer, Coetzee. Post-apartheid, Zakes Mda, only 58, looks like the great South African novelist of his generation, a writer rich in both imagination and ironic political attitude. In this daring effort, Mda brings South Africa and the land where he teaches, the United States, together—Cry the Beloved Country meets Beloved."—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“In Mda's new novel, Cion, Toloki is a sort of South African de Tocqueville, a fresh-eyed but old-souled observer of the American condition who finds America's greatest mistake—slavery—is a long, ugly scar that is never quite covered . . . A chilling, believable, yet mystical evocation of slave times worthy of Toni Morrison. Mda's research into Kilvert's history obviously affected him deeply, and it is during the tales of ruthless slave breeders, heartless slave chasers and unbreakable human bonds that Cion approaches the ugly majesty of Ways of Dying. Slavery, racial identity and why a black person might support George W. Bush are complicated issues in America. Mda is a brave writer to try to take them on. Like a new friend with a fresh take on our childhood traumas, his view of what slavery must have been like is a revelation. If his analysis of contemporary American racial identity is a little less nuanced, well, pour him a cup of coffee and keep talking. He knows where we've been. Perhaps in time he can figure out where we're going."—Cherie Parker, The Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
"In his first novel, Ways of Dying, award-winning playwright Zakes Mda introduced the unforgettable character Toloki, a professional mourner who earned his living by providing 'designer wails and moans' at funerals throughout his native South Africa. In Cion, Toloki has reemerged, this time on American soil. 'My professional mourning practice in South Africa was in a rut,' says Toloki. 'Death was plentiful—certainly more than ever—but it lacked the drama of the violent deaths that I used to mourn during the upheavals of the political transition in that country. Now the bulk of the deaths were boringly similar.' Toloki’s quest for more authentic mourning leads him to the poverty-stricken village of Kilvert, Ohio, and into the midst of a family and community obsessed with preserving their heritage. With a rich narrative shuttling between the piquant characters of 2004 Ohio and an 1830s Virginia stud farm where slave children were separated from their mothers at birth, raised collectively and sold at age 15, Mda deftly traces the ties of the so-called WIN ('White-Indian-Negro') people—what sociologists refer to as 'tri-racial isolates'—to the Underground Railroad. Despite extensive historical research, Mda says he broke from his usual theme of exploring how 'the past is always a strong presence in our present.' Instead, he 'aimed to show how the present shapes the past because these people are creating their past anew all the time.'"—Kirkus Reviews 2007 BEA/ALA Big Book Guide
"'Professional mourner' Toloki makes his way to America in the versatile South African-born author's colorful sixth novel.  Seeking new cultures to serve . . . Toloki arrives in 2004 in Kilvert, Ohio (near Athens), where by chance he becomes the house guest of Mahlon and Ruth Quigley, part of a motley community consisting of Caucasian, immigrant African and Native-American families. After inadvertently befriending the Quigley's son Obed (who had committed an offensive Halloween prank), Toloki experiences the take-charge wrath of matriarch Ruth (a right-wing fundamentalist who adores President Bush), the virtually silent presence of Mahlon . . . and a burgeoning fascination with their daughter Orpah, a reclusive, sitar-playing beauty. The Quigleys' story is then painstakingly connected to that of their ancestors: a complex tale of descent from Irish immigrants, miscegenation and enslavement, and the interpolated story of a gorgeous slave known as the Abyssinian Queen, who bore two sons to her white owner—and whose family's history and destiny would subsequently be stitched into quilts created, first by the Queen, and, generations later, by the implacable Ruth. Mda is at his matchless best when rendering both the stories 'told' by the quilts . . . and depicting the employment of the quilts (in accordance with African tradition) as 'maps' guiding runaways to follow the North Star to freedom . . . an essential companion piece to such 20th-century masterpieces as Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Toni Morrison's Beloved and Song of Solomon.  A stunning book—the great African writer’s great American novel."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"In this exuberant follow-up to Ways of Dying, the celebrated South African novelist and playwright Mda once again centers his story upon the professional mourner Toloki—this time, as he makes his way through a sad and surreal America. Set on the eve of the 2004 presidential election, the novel fixes its outsider gaze on everything from Billionaires for Bush to late-night television, viewing American cultural and political life through a near-anthropological lens. But there is much heart here, too, as Toloki is taken in by an impoverished Southern family; he befriends the son, Obed; falls in love with his melancholy, sitar-playing sister, Orpah; and learns to quilt from their mother, Ruth. Simultaneously, he learns how the quilts link Ruth’s ancestry to the slave trade and, in particular, the escape of Nicodemus and Abednego, the beloved sons of a slave called 'The Abyssinian Queen.' Cross-cutting between the slave story and Toloki’s experiences, the book offers a rich and original picture of the United States on both a personal and grander historical level and is suffused with the same lyricism, vividness and dark, tragic wit that have earned the author previous recognition here and in his homeland."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Chapter One Of Saints and Pagans The sciolist has delusions of Godness. At his whim I find myself walking among colorful creatures that are hiding in stolen identities. I am wandering on Court Street in Athens, Ohio, trying to find my way among the milling crowds. Every year at this time, I am told, the natives go wild and invoke their pagan gods who descend upon the earth in the guise of these Court Street creatures. Some take possession of the bodies and souls of decent men and women and turn them into raving lunatics who run up and down the street breathing fire. It is a celebration
Read the full excerpt


  • Zakes Mda

  • Zakes Mda has received every major South African prize for his work, which includes The Heart of Redness, Ways of Dying, and She Plays with the Darkness—all published in paperback by Picador. Born in 1948, he has been a visiting professor at Yale and the University of Vermont. Mda is now a dramaturg at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, and a professor in the Creative Writing Department at Ohio University.
  • Zakes Mda Sal Idriss
    Zakes Mda




Download PDF



Go to website


Sign Up


Reading Group Guide