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 now no one can 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 Mr Gray is basing his jibes and snide remarks on an article in Research in African Literatures by one Offenberger that 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 out its lack of analysis of the fictional material and its relationship with the historical intertext, as well as 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. That is why the academy here has not bothered with this matter, despite the fact that the academy in the US 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 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 be regarded as a historian by his peers only when he has published work of substance. I see strong signs of dishonesty on Gray’s part, because soon after this novel was published he hailed it as a work of international standard and a “peak moment” in local publishing when it was shortlisted for the Sanlam Literary Prize (see www.artsmart.co.za). Where were the split infinitives and bad tense then?

You only have to go to a search engine such as 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 makes 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. 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 well known; as children we 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 The Dead Will Arise he rendered those events and interpreted them in a manner that captivated me. I didn’t think of using the Nongqawuse story in any fiction because it was so commonplace until Peires wrote his history book. It was Peires’s 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 postmodernist and even modernist modes of creating fiction, understand this conversation between the two texts.

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. He says this 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”. Neither of us made such a ridiculous claim.

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. 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 cling to that because 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 in which 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 he was taught when he was at school aeons ago. 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 Mr Gray, a world that has moved far beyond the literary canons into which you were socialised.

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 such as Gray in insisting otherwise?

This is an edited version of Zakes Mda’s response


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