/ 11 November 2008

On authorship and originality: A response

Such striking similarities between two books can't simply be a case of intertextuality.

I recently argued in an academic journal that Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness borrows words, phrases, sentences and ideas from Jeff Peires’s The Dead Will Arise. In the same journal, Mda agreed. But although he called his borrowing “intertextuality,” I called it plagiarism. Why?

Two years ago I was asked to introduce Mda’s novel to fellow students in a literature class at Yale University. Having just read Peires’s book, I noticed a striking similarity between the two. Lines like these jumped out: Peires wrote: “Dying wives watched helplessly while the family dogs ate the corpses of their husbands” (243). Mda wrote: “Dying wives watched as the family dogs ate the corpses of their husbands” (293).

In another instance Peires wrote: “He despised the way the Methodist congregations ‘told their hearts’ in public, and he yearned for the private confessions, the beautiful robes” (34). Mda wrote: ” The Methodists, he said, told their hearts in public. He preferred the private confessions of the Anglicans. Also, the Anglicans wore more beautiful robes” (52).

I documented 88 incidences such as these and shared them with my classmates. We were surprised and disappointed because, although Mda thanks Peires in the novel’s dedication, saying that his work “informed the historical events in my fiction”, the once-off acknowledgement seemed inadequate to us.

Peires’s book does more than inform Mda’s; it quite literally forms it. As Mda does not identify specifically when he borrows, he leaves readers thinking he is the sole creator of the historical passages in his book. Readers are unaware of how extensively he has borrowed from Peires’s narrative. Only by reading the two side by side, as I did, makes the profound debt that Redness owes to Dead become clear.

My professor urged me to submit these findings for publication. In the article I documented the overwhelming similarities between the books. Then I situated Mda’s novel within broader debates on plagiarism in African literature, concluding that Mda’s borrowings were not acts of “intertextuality” (allusions, references or links to other texts), but plagiarism: the novel leads readers to believe that Peires’s unidentified text is actually the author’s. I think this is a reasonable conclusion, given the evidence.

Sadly, some Mail & Guardian readers have responded by attacking my character rather than my arguments. Mda dismissed me as a “so-called historian” while artist Aryan Kaganof claimed I “was clearly hoping to build an academic reputation on the back of a globally respected man of letters”.

Even worse, lecturer Lucy Graham at Stellenbosch said I tried to “lynch Mda”, stating that my charge “smacks of racism” and that I was “hell-bent on demonstrating that post-colonial black writers are thieves”. (More bizarrely, she also insinuated I am against abortion, gays and multiculturalism.)

Admittedly, I was disappointed that these respected thinkers would resort to personal attacks. Why shoot the messenger? After all, Mda agrees that he borrowed “lock, stock and barrel” from Peires. Given this, we should be able to have a civil discussion about the artistic and ethical implications of those actions.

I am not the first to comment on the novel’s troubling use of pre-existing text. André Brink noted that “Mda revisits (but unfortunately does not fully reimagine) from a black perspective the great cattle-killing …”. Meg Samuelson remarked that the similarities left Mda “little room for interpretative work on the historical narrative”. Helen Bradford observed that “the novelist is merely paraphrasing a historian —”.

Nor am I the first to think Mda’s strategies might attract charges of plagiarism. Helen Moffett, a second editor for The Heart of Redness, wrote in an online forum: “Zakes is perhaps guilty of shrugging off the feedback that his particular creative style makes him vulnerable to claims of plagiarism; certainly he has been told this by his editors in the past and has brushed these concerns aside rather airily.”

I didn’t set out to attack Mda, but rather to question the way we interpret one of his novels. It never occurred to me that I should treat The Heart of Redness as though it were sacred, above critique. Like any good book, it deserves scrutiny.

In response to my analysis Mda has offered three main justifications, that: he fully acknowledged Peires’s work; history and fiction adhere to different citation practices; and Peires is satisfied with his (Mda’s) acknowledgement.

A full acknowledgement?
Mda mentions Peires just once, in the dedication. He writes: “I am grateful to — Jeff Peires, whose research — wonderfully recorded in The Dead Will Arise and in a number of academic papers — informed the historical events in my fiction.” (He also dedicates the book to the people of Qolorha, a trader named Rufus Hulley and his own son, daughter and grandson.)

But this word of thanks does not constitute due acknowledgement. It simply suggests that Mda is grateful to Peires for helping to shape his thinking. More importantly, it does not reveal that Peires supplies many of the actual words, phrases, sentences and sequences in the novel that follows. Thus, after this brief tip of the hat to Peires, Mda proceeds to lift from his book without restraint, with readers unaware.

Different genres, different rules?
Mda notes that his book is a work of fiction and Peires’s is one of history, and that the two genres are governed by different rules of citation and attribution. Yet, although both books make different truth claims, both are fundamentally narratives, structured by similar literary conventions.

When Mda inserts Peires’s words into his own novel, readers cannot distinguish them from Mda’s. The structural similarities disguise Peires’s contribution. Although Mda scoffs at using footnotes in a work of fiction, he could have written a preface or an afterword explaining his borrowings. Or he could have included unobtrusive endnotes to allow readers to appreciate his “intertextual” strategy.

But really, the genre argument is dubious. Writers cannot take words or ideas from other writers and pass them off as their own, even if they are transposed between genres. As in any artistic production, the creator deserves appropriate citation and the audience deserves to recognise the source.

What about Peires?
Mda says that Peires was satisfied with the dedication’s acknowledgement. This is a relief. It will keep this out of the courts and limited to academic and literary circles.

But Peires is not the final arbiter of uses of his text. We readers are, and only with an understanding of Redness’s historical debts can we engage in important discussions about history, literature, intertextuality and plagiarism.

I admit this is not easy to discuss. There are real stakes involved in this debate. But we shouldn’t shrink from it just because it might be uncomfortable. It will help us define the artistic and ethical standards we expect of our novelists.

From an artistic standpoint, Mda’s overdependence on Peires’s book stifles his novel’s creativity and originality. From an ethical standpoint, the book fails to reveal just how extensively it relies on another’s narrative.

I hope we may now engage in a civil discussion on these important matters. Otherwise we might end up hailing derivative works as original, copied texts as creative and plagiarised stories as intertextual.

In the spirit of open debate M&G readers may download my article and decide for themselves: www.andrewoffenburger.com/mailandguardian.

Andrew Offenburger is a PhD student in African history at Yale University