The Heart of Redness A Novel

Zakes Mda




Trade Paperback

288 Pages


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A New York Times Notable Book
Winner of the 2003 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award

In The Heart of Redness—shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize—Zakes Mda sets a story of South African village life against a notorious episode from the country's past. As the novel opens, Camagu, who left for America during apartheid, has returned to Johannesburg. Disillusioned by the problems of the new democracy, he follows his "famous lust" to Qolorha on the remote Eastern Cape. There in the nineteenth century a teenage prophetess named Nongqawuse commanded the Xhosa people to kill their cattle and burn their crops, promising that once they did so the spirits of their ancestors would rise and drive the occupying English into the ocean. The failed prophecy split the Xhosa into Believers and Unbelievers, dividing brother from brother, wife from husband, with devastating consequences.

One hundred fifty years later, the two groups' descendants are at odds over plans to build a vast casino and tourist resort in the village, and Camagu is soon drawn into their heritage and their future—and into a bizarre love triangle as well. The Heart of Redness is a seamless weave of history, myth, and realist fiction. It is, arguably, the first great novel of the new South Africa—a triumph of imaginative and historical writing.


Praise for The Heart of Redness

"Bewitching . . . [An] inspired synthesis of history, myth and satire . . . and about post-apartheid South Africa by extension . . . Luxuriantly steeped in African customs . . . [Mda is] one of his country's most trenchant current voices."—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"Brilliant . . . A new kind of novel: one that combines Gabriel García Márquez's magic realism and political astuteness with satire, social realism and a critical re-examination of the South African past . . . The novel abounds with ironic observations . . . witty aperçus and delightful magical scenes."—Tony Eprile, The New York Times Book Review

"The most powerful novel by a black writer in recent years."—Donald Morrison, Time

"Mda's fascinating narrative skill reveals the past as a powerful presence in the present: of his characters, and of all of us, as we live."—Nadine Gordimer

"This is a major new novelist, and The Heart of Redness is, as the book jacket proclaims, 'the first great novel of the New South Africa.'"—Tiffany Lee-Youngren, The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Zakes Mda writes of his troubled homeland with as much affection as outrage, as much love as lamentation . . . This emotionally rich novel dares to seek redemption amid desolation. In these devastated lives, Mda finds grace, tenderness, even the kind of world-weary humor that is born of hardship."—The Boston Globe

"In two quiet, subtle and powerful novels [Ways of Dying and Heart of Redness], we are taken from the brutal, nearly unbearable horror of life during the revolution against white minority rule to the daily, nearly unbearable hopelessness of life under the cronyism, corruption and injustice of the post-apartheid government. That this universe is not just depressing but also enlightening is due to the enormous talent behind Mda's vision . . . Mda's enormous skills as a storyteller are everywhere in evidence, making [The Heart of Redness] impossible to put down. No hint of sentimentality mars his recounting of his people's lives—he's unforgiving of their crimes, critical of their inability to get along and skeptical about their future. Everywhere in his universe there is conflict. But hope lies in the possibility that his characters' rich cultural backgrounds and personal goodness will beat the odds against their country's escaping from its centuries-old cycle of oppression and violence."—Neil Gordon, The Washington Post Book World

"In an affected, generous style that blends social and magical realism, oral tradition and written history, Mda spins stories that both read like myth and chronicle ordinary South African life."—The Philadelphia Inquirer

"A prolific and prominent new voice of South African literature, Mda transformes historical events and invents new ones that express his continued concern, as in these two novels, that the liberators do not become the oppressors . . . A brilliantly profuse novel . . . Provocatively offbeat and tragically weird."—Maureen Isaacson, Los Angeles Times

"[The Heart of Redness] is a nuanced story about belief, memory, and the complex legacies of colonialism and its contemporary heir, global capitalism . . . [Mda] paints a vivid picture of a new South Africa of uncertain future . . . where the past is deeply contested terrain and social equality remains a faraway dream."—Ben Ehrenreich, Mother Jones

"Here . . . is another major step in the new South Africa novel—now a polyphony of voices, suddenly freed yet still shadowed by deep and immense riddles."—Anderson Tepper, The Village Voice

"As Camagu and the people of Qolorha explore the dramatic tensions between the past and the future in today's South Africa, it makes for a humorous, mythic and complicated novel."—Jane Ciabattari, San Francisco Chronicle

"In Zakes Mda's new novel, 'redness' means traditional culture. It is taken from the red ochre used by Xhosa women as a dye and adornment . . . But Mda is far too sophisticated to make simple distinctions of 'tradition good; progress bad.' He tackles history, heritage, exile, conservation, and empowerment in this novel of a community, riven by old animosities and coming to grips with its future and its past."—Natal Witness

"A novel of tremendous scope and deep human feeling, of passion and reconciliation . . . A seamless weave of history, myth, and realist fiction. It is, arguably, the first great novel of the new South Africa—a triumph of imaginative and historical writing."—The Seattle Skanner

"Mda tells his country's stories through beautifully realized characters whose search for love and connection take you up close to the black experience, past and present."—Booklist

"A work of extraordinary richness, suffused with genuine mythic power: comparable to the recently discovered fiction of Moses Izegawa and Emmanuel Dongala—and not unworthy of comparison with the masterpieces of Chinua Achebe."—Kirkus Reviews

"[A] richly suggestive novel . . . His joy in the back and forth of village politics beautifully communicates itself to the reader through poetic language enlivened by humor and irony."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

"Tears are very close to my eyes," says Bhonco, son of Ximiya. "Not for pain . . . no . . . I do not cry because of pain. I cry only because of beautiful things."
And he cries often. Sometimes just a sniffle. Or a single tear down his cheek....

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