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Sometimes There Is a Void

A messy memoir from an important African voice.

By Scott Baldauf / January 10, 2012

Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider By Zakes Mda Farrar, Straus and Giroux 576 pp.

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Zakes Mda’s life story, Sometimes There is a Void, is a fascinating shambles.

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Mda is born the awkward son of a political activist who walked with revolutionary giants. He grows up too fast in political exile in Lesotho, straying for a time as a drunken wastrel. He eventually finds his place in the world as a talented young novelist and playwright who realizes the best way he can serve his people is to give them a voice. In a racist world that viewed black South Africans as ill-educated brutes, Mda helped to change the narrative, creating complex characters who forced outsiders to rethink their misinformed prejudices.

During my five-year stint as Africa bureau chief for The Christian Science Monitor, I struggled in vain to find a memoir like this one. Bookstores in Johannesburg and Cape Town were full of memoirs, to be sure, from Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom” and Ahmed Kathrada’s “Memoirs,” to Rian Malan’s poignant “My Traitor’s Heart” and Antjie Krog’s “Country of My Skull.”

But while the vast majority of South Africa’s citizens are black, the vast majority of South Africa’s authors tend to be white. Liberal as those white writers may be – and authors such as Alan Paton, Doris Lessing, Andre Brink, and Nadine Gordimer do an excellent job of portraying well-rounded, compelling black characters – there is nothing that can replace a black person telling his or her own story, the pain of living under apartheid, and the joys, hopes, and disappointments of living in a post-apartheid majority-led South Africa.

A well-told biography is more powerful than a nuclear weapon. It can level the mental playing field, show the human commonalities that all communities and ethnicities share. It can melt hearts, create empathy, and show racism to be as stupid as it clearly is.

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