A charge disputed

After Stephen Gray savaged me in the pages of the Mail & Guardian a few weeks ago, I immediately responded, thanks to the new age of blogs where no one can now act as the gatekeeper of ideas.

I would like to share my response with the readers of the M&G in this expanded and revamped version of what appeared in the blogosphere.

It is interesting that Gray bases his jibes and snide remarks on an article in Research in African Literatures by one Offenberger, which has been totally discredited by such literary scholars as Byron Caminero-Santangelo (author of an excellent book titled African Fiction and Joseph Conrad: Reading Postcolonial Intertextuality, published by the State University of New York Press in 2005), who calls Offenberger’s article “critical absurdity”.

Caminero-Santangelo points to its lack of analysis of the fictional material and its relationship with the historical intertext, and also its lack of theoretical reflection. That is why not a single newspaper here in the United States has picked up that story—everyone regards it as a nonsensical issue.

And that is why the academy here has not bothered with this matter, despite the fact that the academy in the United States regards plagiarism as a serious offence and people lose jobs because of it.

But here I am, still working as a scholar who is highly respected by his peers. The reason is simply that my peers know enough about intertextuality to conclude that the charges of plagiarism are baseless. They find this whole debate silly, and they are wondering why I am wasting my time responding to it. I don’t normally respond to critics, I tell them, and I would not be responding to Gray if it were not for the tone of his scurrilous charges, not so much against my work, but against me as a person.

The Heart of Redness was first published in 2000. If Gray is such a great scholar, one wonders why he didn’t discover this “cribbing”—as he so cutely calls it—all these years. Why is he now riding on the tailcoats of this so-called historian—who is in fact a student at Yale University and will only be regarded as a historian by his peers when he has published work of substance.

I see strong signs of dishonesty on Gray’s part because soon after this novel was published, the same Gray himself hailed it as a work of international standard and a “peak moment” in local publishing when it was shortlisted for the Sanlam Literary Prize. Where were the split infinitives and bad tense then? Come on, Gray!

You only have to go to a search engine like Google Scholar to realise that many academic papers have been written on this novel since 2002 and some of them make a thorough study of the intertextual relationship between The Heart of Redness and Jeff Peires’s The Dead Will Arise. None of them make the absurd accusation of “cribbing.”

A scholar from the University of Padua in Italy wrote a thesis on how a new imaginative world flows not from the cattle-killing events, but from Peires’s interpretation of those events. These scholars understand what Offenberger and Gray fail to grasp, since these two guys are not literary scholars—one is a history student and the other thinks he is a literary scholar. But I have news for his small band of followers: he is not. His work in that direction is shallow and devoid of literary theory.

The story of Nongqawuse and the cattle killing is a well-known one; as children we actually grew up with it. Our language is replete with proverbs based on that story and we sang songs about her. It is our story. Jeff Peires does not own that story. So I can’t steal it from him. He did not invent it, or create those events in the manner that I have created the fictional world in The Heart of Redness.

But in his The Dead Will Arise he rendered those events and interpreted them in a manner that captivated me. I never thought of using the Nongqawuse story in any fiction since it was so commonplace, until Peires wrote his history book. It was the Peires rendition of that story that inspired my fiction, rather than the historical events themselves, and I had to make that obvious in my fiction by deliberately using Peires’s phraseology as an intertextual device.

The academy here, at least those members in the English departments who are versed with post-modernist and even modernist modes of creating fiction, understand this conversation between the two texts.

Ridiculous claim
Gray’s article distinguishes itself by its arrogance; for instance, calling the language of my people, isiXhosa, “tribal jargon”, exactly what an old colonial would call indigenous languages, and claiming that my book on theatre-for-development (that is used as a textbook at universities the world over) conned audiences into social development without producing a shred of evidence to that effect.

He also lies unabashedly when he says that both Jeff Peires and I have asserted that “fiction writers are traditionally irresponsible”. None of us ever made such a ridiculous claim.

Another lie is that I have billed myself as an “internationally acclaimed playwright, novelist, painter and academic without qualms”. He cannot quote a single piece of my own writing where I call myself internationally acclaimed. The media and blurb writers have billed me as such, and rightly so. There are no “qualms” about that because it is the truth.

My novels have won important prizes in South Africa, the United States and Italy. They have been translated into 19 languages, including Catalan, Korean and Serbian, in addition to the mainstream French, German and Italian. On the other hand, there would be qualms if anybody were to bill Gray as an “internationally acclaimed poet and novelist” because he has no such international recognition. At best he is a local hero, but I suspect only to fellow colonials. 

One thing that Gray should bear in mind is that I am a novelist, not a historian. When I choose to write a historical novel I have to get my material from historians—both of historical record and of the oral history. For The Heart of Redness I chose the work of Jeff Peires, which I duly acknowledged in all the editions and translations of the novel.

Now Gray throws some red herrings, insinuating that an acknowledgment that is titled “Dedication” instead of “Acknowledgements” does not count as an acknowledgement. His supporters on one blog now cling to that since they can’t accuse me of not crediting Peires. How silly can you get!

Gray’s complaint that I used a single source is not valid. I was writing a novel—a work of fiction—not an academic paper or a history textbook. The two sources that I used—namely Jeff Peires and the oral tradition—were adequate for the purposes of my fiction. When he writes his own historical novel, he may use as many sources as he pleases. It is his choice. The last time I checked, there were no regulations as to how many sources a writer of fiction should consult.

The problem I see here is that some history academics used my novel as a history textbook in their classes, and now they want to assess its modes of creating as one would assess a history textbook.

Gray seems to suggest that I should have used footnotes in every page the material from The Dead Will Arise was used. Well, that’s not the kind of novel I chose to write. I hate footnotes in a novel. In any event, the historian whose work I used is happy with the manner I credited him.

Gray is so hermeneutically challenged that he is unable to understand a novel that breaks the conventions of the English literature that was taught him when he was at school eons ago.

If he had asked those who have the savvy before he embarrassed himself, they would have told him that the use of tense in The Heart of Redness follows a simple logic: the historical past is narrated in the past tense and the contemporary events in the present tense. They would have also told him that the novel subverts standard English and uses the kind of language that is transliterated (rather than translated) from the isiXhosa idiom. It is a new world Gray, a world that has moved far beyond the literary canons into which you were socialised.

No plagiarism
Jeff Peires wrote to me recently, unsolicited, expressing his dismay that Research in African Literatures has published such an unfounded allegation about me, and reiterating that he sees no plagiarism in The Heart of Redness. In the same letter he thanked me for my “generous acknowledgement” of his book in my novel. Now, if the guy from whom I am supposed to have “cribbed” says this, what is the motive of people like Gray in insisting otherwise?

And finally, I must point out that as a successful writer (and yes, I say this without any qualms) you learn soon enough that not everyone will love your work. There are those who will go crazy over it and shower you with letters of praise. But there will be others who will be lukewarm about it, or even hate it with a passion.

You take that in your stride and continue to produce your art the best way you can. When you attain a global stature you also learn that there will be minor writers and shallow scholars who will try to build their reputations by destroying yours. Some will be driven by sheer envy, especially those aging ones who have spent years trying to establish a credible writing career but have little to show for it. The lack of substance, the sneering tone, and the personal nature of their attacks will tell you that the green-eyed monster is indeed at play here.

You nevertheless brush that like dandruff off your shoulders because you know that there are a hundred positive reviews of your work for every negative one.

Let me end with a quote from the South African philosopher, Aryan Kaganof, who wrote to me on this matter: “What nobody has mentioned in any of these debates: was James Joyce a plagiarist? Was TS Eliot a plagiarist? Was William Shakespeare a plagiarist? Whole paragraphs in their fictions are taken from the King James Bible, and from each other sans any risible ‘footnotes’. The whole idea of putting footnotes in a text belongs to the realm of ludicrous noddy academia.

“The greatest philosopher of all, Nietzsche, rarely, almost never, used footnotes. And indeed, he also lifted sentences wholesale from Schopenhauer, and from the New Testament, and from Kant, without mentioning where he lifted them from ... So how come when you do the same, with a single literary source that you actually credit, is this plagiarism? Are you not allowed access to this trope of high literary culture because you are a “local”, and does Gray perhaps mean something else when he writes “local”, is that not perhaps what the underlying issue is in all of this?”

I rest my case and this is the last time you will hear from me on this matter.

Zakes Mda is a novelist, a professor of creative writing and world literature at Ohio University and a visiting professor of human rights at the University of Connecticut

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