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Sometimes There Is a Void

A messy memoir from an important African voice.

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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.

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.”

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