I am thrilled to have come across the Zebra Affaire by Mark Fine. First, it is a remarkable love story with pages turning easily and frequently. Mark’s writing style flows nicely and kept me engaged without going too deeply into the setting.
Mostly, the book educated me to the horrors and nearly unbelievable societal darkness of South Africa in the 1970s. In America, we tend to see news of racial and ethnic atrocities though a sanitized lens in short snippets on the television, or though brief newspaper headlines. Mark brings the realities to life by bringing us inside the minds and relationship s of some very real characters.
Kudos to Mark on a great job. Highly recommended.
A CHAT WITH THE AUTHOR
Dave: How long ago was the seed for Zebra Affaire planted in your head and from where did the passion for the story come?
Mark: David, you have me searching further back than the actual moment of sitting down in front of a blank screen, and beginning the writing process. That incidentally was approximately four years ago. But in reflection it was after my father’s death in 2006. All those questions that would for now remain forever unanswered, because I failed to ask them when he was alive. My dad was a superb communicator–a wonderful man, reminiscent of the DGF patriarch character in the book, and he would have been happy to oblige, if only I had the common sense to ask. But life gets in the way of things; we get numbed by routine and obsessed with ambition, and tend to forget to consider the past. With that sudden void, my father’s death, I found myself interested for the sake of my two sons, to make an effort fill in the blanks of our family’s legend–even if much of it is personally fictional, but honestly reflective of those times.
D: Tell me more about why this book is important to you and your sons?
M: In my experience, whether it’s a people or individuals, they are inclined to feel a sense of “rootlessness” if they lack knowledge of their history, culture, heritage and legacy. As an immigrant I’m keenly aware I’ve left behind this personal link to my past; for sake of argument let’s term it my birthright. I don’t want my sons to become similarly detached from their birthright. As my sons sole senior family member living on this continent I feel that the bridge to their past has become increasingly tenuous–further exacerbated by the passing of their grandfather. Now not being of a family meriting a vivid biography, being neither famous nor notorious, it occurred to me that I could lace the family legend throughout a far more compelling work of fiction. The game for my both my sons, and any reader of Zebra Affaire, is to try and divine what is fiction, what is grand history, and what is personal history…
D: How did you come to leave your birth land, and do you regret that, at times?
M: Lots of guys left the country to avoid compulsory military service, but I stayed and found myself in the Signal Corp of the South African Navy. Turned out to be a good thing for my future writing endeavors; along with learning Morse code I also had to learn how to touch-type to operate those cumbersome ticker tape-like Telex machines. Unlike most males of my generation I found myself to be a skilled typist, which served me well in business and as a future author.
When I did finally emigrate in the late 70s there was a prime motivator that decided everything. A powerful desire to not be on the wrong side of history. I felt that if I remained in South Africa I would be tacitly endorsing apartheid. After travelling overseas, and having my mind and conscience awakened, I had come to fully realize how abhorrent the system was. I will also admit to having my nerves rattled by an unexpected visit by two officers from the Bureau of State Security (BOSS). They accused me of sedition and threatened me with imprisonment; my “crime” was the marketing and sales of a Bob Marley reggae record which they deemed subversive. After that threatening visit I did begin to have my eye on the exit door.
My regrets have been centered on the fragmentation of my family. This unkind diaspora, an unfortunate by-product of emigration, where the family unit is broken down into disparate individuals–each who find separate safe havens in different parts of the world. Like a glass broken, it has been impossible to reassemble the broken shards into a single perfect entity.
D: To where did you move, and how has living in a freer society impacted the tone of A Zebra Affaire?
M: Manhattan, New York. Not a good idea in retrospect. In 1979 New York was a murderous place and a mugger’s paradise. I had never known such fear, such constant threat of danger in my life. Africa was a picnic in comparison. Incidentally, my fears weren’t a syndrome of being a small town lad in the big city phobia; but based on my day-to-day experiences. Circumstances found me managing an independent record retail store near the Port Authority in New York. One brisk winter morning I came to open the steel shutter to the shop, and found a bloody knife and trail of blood lying in the alcove.
Soon thereafter I was “adopted” by a homeless chap at the store. His index finger was missing, he wore a balaclava on his head, and in lieu of winter coat he wore a plaid bath robe. Without prompting he volunteered is life story: released from the Navy brig after serving time for manslaughter and his beverage of choice was a mixer of Aqua Velva aftershave and Coca Cola.
Nothing in life had prepared me to befriend such a distressed soul. Rather than handouts, I asked him to sweep out the store–and then paid him for his services. This encouraged him to hang around. Then, one day I called him over and gave him a fresh $20 note, and asked him to buy us both coffee and donuts. Half an hour later he returned with tears in his eyes and coffee and donuts in a cardboard container. Methodically he counted out the exact change into my hands. Confused, I asked him what was wrong, why he was so emotional. Leon, that was his name, said that since his release from jail no one would trust him, and the fact that I gave him the full $20 with the expectation he would return with both the coffee and the change, was the first demonstration of trust he had received in decades! His response taught me an important lesson; how small things that I may consider trivial may be a magnitude greater to someone else.
David, a guess this is a clumsy way for me to say that living in a freer society had no real bearing on my writing “The Zebra Affaire”. But living for the first time in a less protected cocoon, and interacting with folks on the fringes of my prior life’s experience, definitely had an impact on the in depth character-driven nature of my story. I sense you may have similar stories, judging by the richly rendered characters in your “Random Lucidity”
Yes, thinking a bit more about it, there is a profound way that living in a freer society has helped in my writing; the freedom from censorship. I was able to research matters of South African history that were previously hidden from me. Also, in the South Africa I once lived in, “The Zebra Affaire” would certainly have been banned.
D: When you came to the U.S., did you find it surprising to learn that racism was alive and well here, as well? And have you seen progress in the U.S. in that regard since your arrival?
M: David, what did stun me when I landed in New York appeared to me far more complex than racism. In apartheid South Africa, that regime proscribed via rule of law where whites and blacks may live; the blacks were relegated to the worst areas, such as the notorious Soweto Township. Whites were privileged to inhabit the choice suburbs. However, if a white person chose to live in Soweto, that wouldn’t be permitted by the authorities. In other words the government imposed a compulsory separation of the races.
So imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a kind of voluntary ghettoization New York! There was Chinatown, Little Italy, Orthodox Jews had their patch of the city, the Irish were confined to a community of their own, and of course, there was Harlem. After the liberation struggle in South Africa, this form of self-segregation continues to bewilder me–and some in these politically correct overwrought times have even labeled this behaviour as “racism”. Personally I’ve come to regard this desire by cultural or racial groups to stick close to those similar as far more benign that racism–simply because there is no demonstrated will to harm those unlike themselves, but I do label this behaviour as “ethnically insular”. Racist it is not, but it does sadden me. It puts lie to the notion of America being the great melting pot.
D: As a nation of immigrants, we like to stay near to those we are like. As each generation dies out, though, the melting pot becomes larger in circumference. Last question. What do you feel is at the root cause of racism, regardless of nation, politics or geography?
M: As I suggested in my novel, I believe that racism and all the other bad habits that divide us are learned. In South Africa many of us whites were raised by our black nannies, and played alongside our nanny’s children, without any sense of prejudice. But the great separation began when we reached schooling age. It is within these institutions of knowledge a certain conditioning takes place, initially subtle but then history lessons of primitive savages slaughtering white “guests” at a feast celebrating a peace treaty, of white superiority in battle and in culture, and the continual drumbeat narrative that the Bantu has no other purpose than that of a common laborer. And as white students absorbed this message, they may look at each other seated at adjoining desks, and recognize the knowing looks reflected in the white faces of fellow students. There simply was no diversity of opinion. Once the seed’s planted, the social construct of the society at large continued to reinforce and perpetuate these incipient prejudices. That was the story in apartheid South Africa.
But similar libel, spread elsewhere can be shared in song and dance around a community campfire, uttered from the pulpit, preached in a mosque, instilled by listening, watching and mirroring the behavior of family elders. This corrosive message threatens to accelerate in 2015 via the Internet. However it is the political hacks that I despise the most, in their fervor to gain or maintain power they are far too comfortable spewing racial divisiveness, regardless of the consequences.
Dave Adair is the author of Random Lucidity. “A remarkable narrative. A fascinating book with an unpredictable end.” – Portland Book Review.