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Crazy quilt

Cion A Novel, Zakes Mda, Picador: 352 pp., $14 paper

September 09, 2007|Dana Johnson | Dana Johnson is the author of "Break Any Woman Down: Stories" and is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at USC.

There's mourning, and there's professional mourning. Toloki, the protagonist of Zakes Mda's novel "Cion," is hired by families to bring a magnitude of sorrow to the occasion. But his practice in his native South Africa falls into a rut because he is unable to mourn sincerely. Deaths caused by AIDS are now attributed to TB or pneumonia, and Toloki feels "contaminated by the lies" as a paid mourner, part of the conspiracy. But soon he himself is in the middle of a bewildering place he's never been before -- America -- where the folks he runs into need help in their own truthful mourning.

Toloki, who first appeared in Mda's acclaimed 2002 novel, "Ways of Dying," ends up in Athens, Ohio. It is Halloween 2004, election year, and as Toloki wanders the festive streets amid the likes of Paris Hilton, Dick Cheney, George Bush and a Jimmy Carter that "no one pays much attention to," he soon runs into a man dressed as the legendary fugitive slave Nicodemus. Nicodemus is also the fabled ghost of a local sorority house, where he has been rumored to fondle members, and the present-day incarnation will soon be picked up by cops on suspicion of feeling up a coed in the basement. This time, Nicodemus' touch is a little more than otherworldly.

After paying the bond to release Nicodemus, who is actually the slave's distant relative Obed Quigley of the nearby village of Kilvert, Toloki becomes a guest of Obed's quirky family. He soon discovers that the Quigleys have much to mourn: the past and the present, ghosts and ghouls, stitched together like the layers and patterns of quilting, the history of which Toloki learns through Ruth, the matriarch of the family. Ruth is an accomplished quilter, mother of wayward Obed and the mysterious Orpah (a 40-year-old woman the family still treats like a girl) and wife of Mahlon, a man of few words who keeps a paralyzed smile on his face, to the dismay of Toloki.

The history of the Quigleys, African American slavery and Kilvert is documented in the quilt patterns that Ruth fiercely protects. Within the patterns are stories and signals that both spiritually and specifically helped slaves escape to freedom. Tradition and history are everything to Ruth, and as "Cion" shifts from the present to the past, the reason for her reverence is revealed. Like most residents of Kilvert, she is proud of her African, Native American and Irish ancestry. Her ethnic identity is a hard-won lineage born of the horrors and alliances of slavery, as Toloki recounts her telling him: " 'There's one darn thing they ain't gonna take from us . . . our heritage.' Generations of mothers teach their children to be proud of their origins because, and she stressed this: 'We're everybody. One day the whole world will look like us.' " But her pride is atrophied and absurd: She is so unyielding in her beliefs that her children have taken to calling her the Taliban, and she fiercely supports George W. Bush because "the GOP freed them slaves!" Meanwhile her daughter Orpah, with whom Toloki feels the most connection, longs for change and is struggling to break free of her overbearing mother so she can create her own identity. This conflict is the heart of "Cion." Orpah sits in her room, a shrine to Marilyn Monroe, playing bluegrass ("such wonderful hillbilly music") on a sitar, an instrument of the wrong kind of Indians, as far as Ruth is concerned. Orpah wants to quilt too, but she doesn't want to be bound by its history. She refuses to do slave patterns because she "does not need to escape to any place. . . . 'Them slaves did all the escaping for me. I want to invent patterns that tell my own story. Like my music. Nobody's gonna tell me not to play bluegrass on a sitar.' "

The Quigleys are poor, as is most of the town, depending on food stamps and free groceries from the Kilvert Community Center and on rent money from Toloki. Mahlon's white mother, who had been institutionalized for marrying a black man, lies in an unmarked grave, her death never properly memorialized. Meanwhile, Mahlon revels in acting out stories of his ancestors' daring escapes. But Toloki, with his professional mourning skills, will help the family confront their personal history.

In "Cion," Mda seems to be arguing for a compromise in the standoff between mother and daughter, metaphors for the complications of African American identity. Rather than be stifled by tradition, it is imperative that the culture be inspired by the past while allowing for new visions. Until Ruth and Mahlon come to terms with the present, their family will remain in stasis. The Quigleys tell and retell their story, but the mere telling doesn't atone for the past or salve the more immediate sting of the present. It is up to the stranger in their midst to help them finally move on.

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