(A review of Zakes Mda’s Cion first appearing in The Lit Pub)

Award-winning author Zakes Mda first introduced us to Toloki, the sad-eyed professional mourner paid to wail at funerals, in his novel Ways of Dying. Now in Mda’s Cion, Toloki finds his South African practice in a rut. Hoping to revitalize his art and “discover new ways of mourning,” he travels to America, a place where death is glorified to an extent unimagined—and where a chance encounter diverts him from his task and draws him deeper into the land of the living.

Cast in a surreal light, the territory Mda explores is at once familiar and strange. The politics of race, the clash between the old ways and the new, the search for the self through lineage: such themes emerge naturally out of grittily realized, emotionally entangled lives.

In the tiny town of Kivert, Ohio, Toloki is taken in by the Quigleys, a tri-racial family of four. Relentlessly, Ruth harps on politics and her grown children’s idle ways. Feeling it’s not his place to argue, Toloki initially keeps quiet. But when he falls for Ruth’s daughter, the sitar-playing Orpah, and learns that her mother is destroying her art—quilt designs that tell Orpah’s story rather than following time-honored customs—Toloki intervenes and risks losing his new family and life.

As the Quigleys’ past unfolds, so does the history of the quilts. Like Toloki’s art, the quilts keep both past and future alive. Stories were told on them; dreams and hopes nourished by them. Ruth explains their significance thus: “people were made on them…people born on them, people got sick on them, people died on them, cycles of loves and losses were enacted on the quilts.”

Skillfully, the novel shuttles between Toloki’s contemporary tale and another set in 1830s Virginia. Through her stories and ingeniously coded quilts, a stud-farm slave known as “The Abyssinian Queen” teaches her sons to value freedom. One winter the two boys escape, following their quilts’ instructions as they slowly tack their way north. Eventually, one of them finds refuge among the Indians in southeast Ohio in a town where he meets an Irish fugitive, Niall Quigley, and past and present join in the intersection of three different cultures.

To my mind, Cion succeeds wonderfully at what fiction does best. It aligns our thoughts, our aspirations, with those of others; it de-exoticizes the foreign so we’re plunged in experience as it’s lived; and it brings the past in close so we feel its active presence. It’s the past more than anything that gives breadth to Mda’s vision. He, like the Quigleys and their ancestors, can hear ghost trees breathe out stories, can read the signs on a worn, tattered quilt.

(Copyright @ 2013 by Stephen Delaney)