Cion

( 13 )

Overview

A Picador Paperback Original

The hero of Zakes Mda's beloved Ways of Dying, Toloki, sets down with a family in Middle America and uncovers the story of the runaway slaves who were their ancestors.

Toloki, the professional mourner, has come to live in America. Lured to Athens, Ohio, by an academic at the local university, Toloki makes friends with an angry young man he meets at a Halloween parade and soon falls in love with the young man's ...

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Cion

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Overview

A Picador Paperback Original

The hero of Zakes Mda's beloved Ways of Dying, Toloki, sets down with a family in Middle America and uncovers the story of the runaway slaves who were their ancestors.

Toloki, the professional mourner, has come to live in America. Lured to Athens, Ohio, by an academic at the local university, Toloki makes friends with an angry young man he meets at a Halloween parade and soon falls in love with the young man's sister. Toloki endears himself to a local quilting group and his quilting provides a portal to the past, a story of two escaped slaves seeking freedom in Ohio.

Making their way north from Virginia with nothing but their mother's quilts for a map, the boys hope to find a promised land where blacks can live as free men. Their story alternates with Toloki's, as the two narratives cast a new light on America in the twenty-first century and on an undiscovered legacy of the Underground Railroad.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Ways of Dying:

"A marvelous picaresque."—The New York Times Book Review

"Darkly comic and sadly poignant, Mda possesses the lyricism of a storyteller."—San Diego Union-Tribune

James A. Miller
Like its affable narrator, Cion leisurely ambles from one episode to the next. As the various strands of the novel begin to coalesce, however, it becomes clearer that, in his capacity as a professional healer, Toloki has performed an important function for the Quigley family and, by extension, the larger society that continues to neglect the tangled web of its history. The sensibility through which Toloki refracts this story embodies the spirit of ubuntu—the term so frequently invoked by Archbishop Tutu and others during South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation hearings to denote "the universal bond of sharing that connected all humanity." In the end, Cion strongly suggests that ubuntu may well offer a way for America to confront the ghosts of its racial past.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

In this exuberant follow-up to Ways of Dying, the celebrated South African novelist and playwright Mda once again centers his story upon the professional mourner Toloki-this time, as he makes his way through a sad and surreal America. Set on the eve of the 2004 presidential election, the novel fixes its outsider gaze on everything from Billionaires for Bush to late-night television, viewing American cultural and political life through a near-anthropological lens. But there is much heart here, too, as Toloki is taken in by an impoverished Southern family; he befriends the son, Obed; falls in love with his melancholy, sitar-playing sister, Orpah; and learns to quilt from their mother, Ruth. Simultaneously, he learns how the quilts link Ruth's ancestry to the slave trade and, in particular, the escape of Nicodemus and Abednego, the beloved sons of a slave called "The Abyssinian Queen." Cross-cutting between the slave story and Toloki's experiences, the book offers a rich and original picture of the United States on both a personal and grander historical level and is suffused with the same lyricism, vividness and dark, tragic wit that have earned the author previous recognition here and in his homeland. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Toloki, the "professional mourner" in South African author Mda's 1995 novel Ways of Dying, returns as an impassive observer relocated to Athens, OH, to witness today's African Americans. Soon, he's helping a family with whom he has developed a relationship discover its roots. Shifting between Toloki's life in Ohio and 19th-century Virginia, Mda offers a critique of contemporary African American society. Toloki mourns the aimlessness of the family he stays with while recognizing that their ancestors, though they endured hard labor and torture, were almost singular in their intent to become free and equal. He observes that the younger generation is fascinated by the Caucasian and Native American ways of life, while the older generation holds stubbornly to conservative religious beliefs and falls prey to President Bush's pseudomessiah rhetoric. While the magic realism that Mda weaves into the novel suffers when he delves into minutiae of everyday life, his commentary on the political views and culture of African Americans is full of insight and humor. Recommended for public libraries.
—Victor Or

Kirkus Reviews
"Professional mourner" Toloki (the protagonist of Mda's Ways of Dying, 2002) makes his way to America in the versatile South African-born author's colorful sixth novel. Seeking new cultures to serve (since "the thrill of mourning was taken away by the sameness of the deaths I had to mourn on a daily basis"), Toloki arrives in 2004 in Kilvert, Ohio (near Athens), where by chance he becomes the house guest of Mahlon and Ruth Quigley, part of a motley community consisting of Caucasian, immigrant African and Native-American families. After inadvertently befriending the Quigley's son Obed (who had committed an offensive Halloween prank), Toloki experiences the take-charge wrath of matriarch Ruth (a right-wing fundamentalist who adores President Bush), the virtually silent presence of Mahlon (a passive gardener who now "grows gnomes" and other decorative figures, instead of vegetables) and a burgeoning fascination with their daughter Orpah, a reclusive, sitar-playing beauty. The Quigleys' story is then painstakingly connected to that of their ancestors: a complex tale of descent from Irish immigrants, miscegenation and enslavement, and the interpolated story of a gorgeous slave known as the Abyssinian Queen, who bore two sons to her white owner-and whose family's history and destiny would subsequently be stitched into quilts created, first by the Queen, and, generations later, by the implacable Ruth. Mda (The Whale Caller, 2005, etc.) is at his matchless best when rendering both the stories "told" by the quilts (e.g., of the Queen's sons Nicodemus and Abednego, runaway slaves who met diametrically different fates) and depicting the employment of the quilts (in accordance with African tradition)as "maps" guiding runaways to follow the North Star to freedom in (the earthly) "Canaan" (that is: Canada). The tale thus fashioned becomes an essential companion piece to such 20th-century masterpieces as Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Toni Morrison's Beloved and Song of Solomon. A stunning book-the great African writer's great American novel.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312427061
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 8/21/2007
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 969,686
  • Product dimensions: 5.35 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Zakes Mda is a professor of creative writing at Ohio University. He lives in Athens, Ohio.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Of Saints and Pagans

The sciolist has delusions of Godness. At his whim I find myself walking among colorful creatures that are hiding in stolen identities. I am wandering on Court Street in Athens, Ohio, trying to find my way among the milling crowds.

Every year at this time, I am told, the natives go wild and invoke their pagan gods who descend upon the earth in the guise of these Court Street creatures. Some take possession of the bodies and souls of decent men and women and turn them into raving lunatics who run up and down the street breathing fire. It is a celebration of blood, as evidenced by many of the creatures who are bleeding. The best of the bloody lot are bandaged all over their bodies like Egyptian mummies and are walking on crutches. Blood oozes through the bandages at strategic places.

It was the bloody ones that I followed to this street from the cemetery at The Ridges where I was abandoned by the sciolist. Perhaps he did not know what to do with me after dragging me halfway around the world.

First he had abandoned me in Durham in the United Kingdom. This, I later learned, had been at the suggestion of one Sam Crowl, a Shakespeare professor at Ohio University. The sciolist had been giving a public lecture to an august audience of scholars when the professor had asked, “Have you ever thought of taking Toloki the Professional Mourner to another culture, say to Durham in the United Kingdom?”

The sciolist had jumped at the idea.

I suppose Durham was mentioned because it was at that cathedral city that the sciolist in his Godly madness had conjured me into existence a decade or so before. It was at the time when he was resident at St. Chad’s College, just across from the cathedral that gloriously looms above all the buildings in the vicinity, where he was commissioned to write a play that would be performed in that imposing Norman cathedral as part of its nine-hundredth anniversary celebration. Instead of focusing on the play his mind had wandered to other matters—hence my conception.

I must admit that I found the idea of mourning in the Durham Cathedral quite attractive when it was first mooted to me. It elevated me to sainthood even before my death. Or at the very least it placed me in the ranks of the monks who had trodden on those grounds for centuries before me. Here was the opportunity to recapture my austere and ascetic ways that I first cultivated years ago after being influenced by the aghori sadhu of India, but that I lost in my travels with the love of my life, Noria, who did her best to reinitiate me into the ways of normal men. Here was a chance to commune with the saints at their own sanctuary.

As a votary of my own Order of Professional Mourners nothing could be as inspiring as walking in the Chapel of the Nine Altars on the eastern side of the cathedral where the tomb of St. Cuthbert—the Wonder-Worker on whose open hands birds used to build their nests—is located. Nothing could be as fulfilling as holding erudite conversations with the Venerable Bede whose bones lie buried in a splendid tomb in the Galilee Chapel on the opposite end of the cathedral.

In any event my professional mourning practice in South Africa was in a rut. Death continued every day, for death will never let you down. But the thrill of mourning was taken away by the sameness of the deaths I had to mourn on a daily basis. Death was plentiful—certainly more than before—but it lacked the drama of the violent deaths that I used to mourn during the upheavals of the political transition in that country. Now the bulk of the deaths were boringly similar. They were deaths of lies. We heard there was the feared AIDS pandemic stalking the homesteads. Yet no one died of it. Or of anything related to it. Instead young men and women in their prime died of diseases that never used to kill anyone before—diseases such as TB and pneumonia that used to be cured with ease not so long ago. At the funerals I mourned, the dreaded four letters were never mentioned, only TB and pneumonia and diarrhea. People died of silence. Of shame. Of denial. And this conspiracy resulted in a stigma that stuck like pubic lice on both the living and the dead.

I continued to attend the funerals, to sit on the mounds and to mourn in my designer wails and groans, but there was no longer any fulfillment. My once revered howls and whines lacked sincerity. I felt contaminated by the lies, for my mere presence even as a paid mourner made me part of the conspiracy.

To break the monotony I decided to take up a new hobby, that of studying headstones and imagining the occupants’ deaths and then mourning them. At least such deaths were as exciting as I could make them. Gradually it became more interesting to mourn the deaths that I had created than to mourn the deaths of lies.

Another factor that influenced my decision to take up Crowl’s challenge was the disillusionment I suffered after discovering I had not invented the art of mourning for remuneration after all. In ancient Rome there were professional mourners. I learned this when people who saw me in action at funerals asked me questions about my trade. Where did it come from? Did I learn it from the ancient Greeks? Or from the Romans? People from other contemporary cultures who got to know of my activities in the cemeteries of South Africa (and later of Lesotho, where I lost Noria, the love of my life—but that is a story for another time) began to tell me about professional mourning in Spain or in Italy or in India or in Ireland or in Zambia. This discovery left me depressed for a long time.

When the sciolist sold me Crowl’s idea I grabbed it with both hands for at least it introduced a new concept in the art of mourning—that of an itinerant mourner. If I could not invent the profession of mourning for remuneration then I could surely invent itinerant mourning. Perhaps in my wanderings I would meet other professional mourners, learn their methods and incorporate them into my mourning routine. That would spice it a bit and would imbue it with a new vigor. Yes, I would travel the world in search of mourning.

A combination of these factors—the lack of interesting deaths in a South Africa that had become a stable society, the hope of creating more exciting deaths from the tombstones of the world and the chance to be an itinerant mourner and to learn new tricks from other mourners—contributed to my allowing the sciolist to drag me all the way to Durham, and when that did not work for him since he could not find a story that would go with my wanderings there, to his dumping me at the famous cemetery at The Ridges in Athens, Ohio.

As soon as I was placed there I set out to choose a headstone at random, to read the information inscribed on it and to mourn in my usual style. Creating the deaths of the occupants of these graves would be especially interesting for they were all inmates of a mental asylum in years gone by. From 1874 until about twenty years or so ago the grand High Victorian Italianate building near the cemetery was the Athens Mental Health Center, its wings housing men on one side and women on the other. Those were the days when women were committed as lunatics for disobeying their husbands or their fathers, or for suffering from what was then called “a change of life”: menopause. Andropause had not yet been discovered, though I doubt if men would have been punished for it. Instead they were admitted for “self-abuse”—otherwise known to us as masturbation. And for melancholia. Even the truly physically sick found their home here: the epileptic, the alcoholic, the tubercular. This also became the place for removing the unwanted people from society: the indigent, the homeless, the lovelorn. They were all signed in never to leave again, except for the clever hobos who sought shelter and food when the situation was bad, and slipped away when they thought good times had returned in the outside world. The rest left only in coffins.

I envisioned all sorts of dramatic deaths: a woman strangling herself to death after being overwhelmed by hot flashes in one of the kerosene lamp–lit tunnels of the asylum; another one drowning in her night sweat; a man standing for hours on end against the wall in another tunnel masturbating himself to death; men and women writhing on the sprawling lawns dying from melancholia; an Ohio University student who had previously been admitted for “excessive study” committing suicide by chewing all his books and swallowing them. The richness of re-creating deaths lies in the fact that you first have to re-create the lives of the deceased before they died. I looked forward to the joys of examining those events in their lives that led to these wretched souls’ perceived madness. What troubled these poor men and women, to the extent that they were forced to spend their days in this asylum? How different was their madness from the madness that possessed the sciolist? And why was the sciolist not confined to a mental facility where he deserved to be?

After admiring the gravestones that stood in rows as if they had grown from the ground I picked a prime one. Only then did I realize that they did not have names. Only faint numbers eroding in the sandstone. I could not create the deaths of nameless people. I could not mourn in a cemetery of numbers. Yes, there were about four or five bigger tombstones hewn of more expensive rock—perhaps limestone or granite—with names and dates on them. These stood out incongruously among the hundreds of small flat stones in rows, some almost buried by the lawn. The tombstones were placed by descendants in loving memory of, say, a great-great-grandmother who died a hundred years ago. Then of course there would be the name of the deceased, the dates of birth and death and the date of the dedication of the stone on the hundredth anniversary. But these did not inspire any mourning on my part for they were not the original headstones.

Darkness had fallen.

Crowds began to invade the cemetery, perhaps votaries of some necromantic order. I was caught in a frenzy of flashlights from different directions. The light bounced against the headstones and flashed across the branches of the trees that encompassed the cemetery in a half-circle. I would have thought they were ghosts if I believed in ghosts. I don’t. I have mourned in cemeteries for a decade at all hours of the day and night and I have yet to see a ghost. I could make out the silhouettes of the creatures against the light of the full moon, gamboling among the trees and making shrieking noises and then laughing at the horror movie they were creating for themselves in which they were the actors.

When they got tired of prancing around, hiding behind the trees and booing each other, they left the cemetery in a procession. I decided to follow. We walked down the road cobbled with red bricks, passed two blocks of townhouses (formerly the asylum doctors’ residences), one of which was the sciolist’s home when he first came here, into Richland Avenue. The creatures did not seem to mind my following them. They continued with their boisterous prancing. When we crossed the Hocking River on Richland Avenue Bridge we joined a throng of other creatures, all going in the same direction. Among them were Roman sentries and their ladies in white and gold togas. They walked silently, some pairs holding hands. They did not seem to mind a bloody gang of Visigoths, Vikings and Vandals in horned helmets led by Hagar the Horrible, which was bent on confounding and conflating history, and on disturbing the peace for everyone. Some of these savages were as young as six, while Hagar himself was a doddering old man. Possibly a retired professor with too much time on his hands. I kept my distance. Just in front of me was a very cute Little Red Riding Hood walking hand in hand with a big shaggy wolf.

I followed the crowds until we got to brown brick–paved Court Street.

Copyright © 2007 by Zakes Mda. All rights reserved.

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Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about Cion are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Cion.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 13 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 16, 2009

    Cion, Zakes Mda

    Cion, a novel written by Zakes Mda, travels through time with each chapter switching from present day of Ruth Quigley the mother of Obed and Orpah Quigley, explaining her families heritage and fight for freedom against slavery. Toloki, the narrator and man character stays with the Quigley family in Kilvert, Ohio and becomes very interested in learning about the Quigley's family heritage. Most of the novel is told from Toloki's perspective, a professional mourner who came to the United States from South Africa to pursue his career. Mda throughout Cion explains a major theme of the importance of tradition. Ruth tells the story of two brothers that escaped from slavery and moved towards freedom by way of quilts. Obed and Toloki become friends after an incident happened on Halloween night in Athens, Ohio that also is discussed in the many chapters of Cion. Toloki inquires many interesting stories threw out the novel that interest him more and more into his career and studies.
    One of the more intriguing parts about Cion are the different stories told by Ruth and Toloki, at the beginning of the book you as the reader might not be sure as to how all these stories come together or relate to the overall theme of the book, but if you keep reading they all come together. Mda uses a lot of details in his writing that help you better picture the Kilvert area, and what most of the main characters act like. While reading the book, almost each chapter would switch from story to story, which get the readers confused, but can also keep the novel more interesting. Some of the negatives about Cion are that the book is written in a certain tone that is very mellow and slow to read at parts. Overall the book is well written and does a good job of explaining slavery in the United States and how it can affect the tradition of families today.

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  • Posted November 15, 2009

    Zakes Mda's Cion

    In Zakes Mda's fictional novel, Cion, the main character, Toloki finds himself in a small town in Appalachia, Ohio. This professional mourner forms an unusual friendship with Obed Quigley on Halloween in Athens and soon moves in with his family. It's with this family that Toloki falls in love with Orpah Quigley, Obed's sister. Through flashbacks, the readers gain insight about the Quigley's ancestor's past and find themselves in a time of the underground railroad.
    In my opinion, this novel was very difficult to grasp the reader's attention. The first chapter included a drastic amount of cultural integration, which at first was quite intriguing and allowed me to explore my response to the situations the characters were experiencing. However, once I made my way farther into the book, I found it difficult to maintain my attention to the reading.
    Zakes Mda's method of story telling makes it hard for the reader to fully understand what's going on. An audience full of students not interested in the material covered will only become even more confused once the story line begins to go back and forth between the past and present. Mda tends to constantly flashback to the lives of the Quigley's ancestors; the slave trade and the escape of Nicodemus an Abednego.
    The book was not anything that I couldn't put down. It was more of a piece of work that I struggled to even pick up. Someone interested in our country's history and the slave trade may have better luck with this novel. I think that this is a type of book that you either like or you don't- you either understand or you struggle with it.

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  • Posted November 13, 2009

    Great Read!

    Cion is a book written by Zakes Mda where the setting of the story takes place in Athens, Ohio, home to Ohio University. Mda brings back Toloki, the main character from a previous book, Ways of Dying. Toloki meets a new friend, Obed Quigley in Athens, and moves in with his family, Ruth, Mahlon and Orpah. Mda learns quilt making from Ruth and then links the quilts back to her ancestry; the escape of two slaves Nicodemus and Abednego. Mda is able to go into great depth with both the story lines, describing the escape of the two slaves, and the present time with the Quigley family.
    Mda is able to connect the past and present in a beautiful way to introduce the history of one's family. He was also able to bring the setting of Athens alive by describing the Ridges, the old mental health center, and a popular time of the year in Athens, Halloween. Mda describes Nicodemus and Abednego to the extent of understanding the character as if they were real. His magnificent style of writing is able to capture you and draw you in to the book.
    When we were told we would have to read Cion by Zakes Mda, I was really hesitant. The cover of the book made me wonder if I would understand it. After the first chapter I was so confused and confessed that I hated the book. But when I continued to read each chapter, my opinion of the book changed. I grew to enjoy reading about the story line of Nicodemus and Abednego. In the end I was happy that I got to read Cion. I would recommend it to anybody who was interested in learning about their ancestry or wants a good book to read.

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  • Posted November 12, 2009

    Critique

    Zakes Mda enjoys writing stories about the past. In his latest novel Cion, he intertwines a modern story with a historical one from the past. Although his characters in his stories aren't always necessarily real, the story lines usually are. Mda goes back and forth about every other chapter with the present story and the historical story, and even in some chapters. As you read further into the book, you see how they are related to each other. For example, the escaped slaves Nicodemus and Abednego are actually related to the Quigley family. Everything seems to tie together by the end of the book.
    What I liked about Cion is the style in which Mda wrote it, with the mix of past and present stories, though it was confusing to me at the beginning of the book. He gives us historical information and some actual facts about what he was writing about, for example, what life on a plantation was like, secrets of the Underground Railroad, and what life is like in Athens, Ohio. Because the book takes place in Athens, Ohio University, or close by, this could make people around that area want to read the book or be more interested in reading it.
    On the other hand, I felt that the book was very difficult to get into. It was very uninteresting to me at times. This would most likely be what others might not like about it as well. Perhaps part of this was also due to how long each chapter was. I also found the book very confusing at times as mentioned before. I just could not grasp what was the past, what was the present, and what was just a flashback. Others I'm sure would be confused by this as well. Overall, Cion was an okay book, but I would not read it again.

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  • Posted November 12, 2009

    Good Book for those interested in South African culture.

    In the novel Cion, by Zakes Mda, one witnesses the books opening in the setting of Athens, Ohio, during the Halloween festivities held in town. The reader is introduced to a mysterious character by the name of Toloki, who claims to be a professional mourner who came from Africa in search of new mourning. What exactly his profession entails is a little unclear, and I felt as though where exactly the book was heading to be cloudy as well.
    The main character, Toloki, then stumbles upon a character who claims to be Nicodemus, the ghost of a murdered slave from the local area of Athens. Toloki later finds out that his real name is Obed Quigley, and finds himself renting a room from their family. The relationship between Toloki and the Quigley's thereafter develops into him becoming interested in their historical family.
    The direction in Cion then changes as each chapter in the novel rotates between the present setting with the Quigley's and then their ancestral heritage with a woman named the Abyssinian Queen. The Abyssinian Queen is a woman who is enslaved on a slave reproduction farm. The story then begins to be told of her two children and their fight for freedom. I enjoyed reading the way Mda incorporated these two in the novel, as following their adventures became captivating and exciting.
    To a resident of Ohio residing in the local area where the book was written about, I found it to be quite exciting to know of some of the historical significance of the area of which I live in now. To someone else, the book might be a little slow and unentertaining. With interest taken in the slave age and underground railroad, Mda did a very good job writing a historical fantasy that is based on true events.

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  • Posted November 10, 2009

    Ok not a must

    When Toloki first meet Obed he seemed to have some connecting I didn't sense when I first read the book. Yet Toloki still bailed him out of jail because of some connection the author was attempting to establish. When Obed brought Toloki home, it seemed this connection was gone and was reestablished with his mother Ruth. Toloki had a discussion with Ruth shortly and discussed her ancestors. Her ancestor was called the Abyssinian Queen and was a slave on a plantation on the south and her two children later escaped to seek freedom. Only one made it, and they made it to the town that the story is taking place. I personally liked this back story and wished it was just a book of its own but it was only two chapters of the book. Ruth at first in the book seemed a little extreme, but later in the book when she revealed she was for George Bush, her character unraveled as some lunatic. I think this was an obvious "plot" for the author to quietly express his political views but it seemed to obvious for me not to notice. We never really knew much about Oprah in the beginning of the book because she stayed in her room and Toloki's curiosity made it appear early that he was interested in her. When Toloki discovered Oprah's and Mahlon's affair he was disgusted and asked Obed if he knew about it. Obed admitted to he knew about it as well as Ruth and they both accepted this disgusting fact. I found that this book was attempting to show the wonders of Appalachia but for some reason the author added this conflict as if this is what happens if you come to Appalachia. Throughout the story Toloki and Oprah gain a steady relationship and the family does not approve especially Mahlon. Mahlon later gets upset at Oprah for lying to her father and their affair stops. I find it strange that this minor thing stops their relationship even though they have done it for a long time. Oprah goes to Toloki asking to go to Virginia and Toloki wanted to find Mahlon's mother's grave before he left. I found it strange that Toloki somehow owed the family this much that he has to go through the trouble to find Mahlon's grandmother's grave. Before Toloki left to find it, he found out that Obed knows how to locate it. This grave is often mentioned multiple times in the book and yet it is so easily found just because Obed thought it wasn't that important. This is as far as I got in the book to write this review but overall this book seemed very strange with writing style and seemed a little disorganized but it was an OK book.

    3/5

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  • Posted November 10, 2009

    Cion Book Review

    Cion Book Review
    Toloki is a professional mourner who travels around South Africa weeping for the death of strangers. In Cion Toloki meets a family and begins a relationship with them. Deeper into the book he discovers stories about two young boys, Nicodemus and Abednego. He learns of their quilts and their journey of escaping from a slave farm. The story interchanges between the boys' story and Toloki's giving new insight to America's past.
    I have mixed feelings about the book Cion. It didn't catch my interest from the beginning, but towards the end of it I became a little more attracted. It was difficult for me to get into because it seemed to start pretty slow and it didn't relate to me at all. It was easier for me to not read it than to read it, but I had to. There were many confusing parts, parts that didn't make any sense to me. Sometimes it felt like a chore to read and other times I actually wanted to keep reading. For me I liked it best hearing the stories of the past rather than those of the present. Some other readers say that there is humor in Cion but I just didn't find any. Also there were many things that I found to be weird and it was somewhat vulgar as well. Cion was very descriptive and it painted an image in my head every time, however sometimes I didn't really want to see that image. I won't give the ending away but to me it felt very appropriate and was very satisfying to finish off in the way it did.
    Cion wasn't all bad, it was interesting and the stories about the two boys made me not want to put the book down. At the end I was glad it was over but I was also glad that I read it. It added some "Culture" in my life that I needed to experience. It's not good to just stay inside your own little bubble and keep reading the same old stuff. Cion was an experience that I did not enjoy at the time, but it's something after looking back on it, I'm glad I read it.

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  • Posted April 30, 2009

    You Will Be Assimilated, Resistance is Futile

    "Yes, I would travel the world in search of mourning," (Mda 4). In the book "Cion" Toloki, a professional mourner, befriends a family in Kilvert Ohio, near the city of Athens. Toloki is from South Africa and is very new to American culture and traditions. He comes here in search of new ways to mourn for the dead, but instead finds a new way to live life. Obed, the son of the family is the first person he meets in Athens, during Halloween, and Obed has gotten into some legal trouble. Ruth is the mother of the family and takes care of them by making home-made food and quilts. Mahlon is the curious father who is the strong, silent type and tends to a garden of gnomes. Orpah is the shut-in who rarely comes out of her room and is always playing the sitar. It also involves the tale of two young African American slaves by the names of Abednego and Nicodemus who try to make their way to freedom from Virginia to Ohio using quilts their mother, the Abyssinian queen, sewed for them as a guide. Toloki's and the boys' stories intertwine throughout the book to give a new twist on story-telling.
    The story begins with Toloki being in Athens, Ohio to find new ways of mourning. He happens to be in Athens during Halloween, where he meets a young man who is dressed up as a slave who died in Athens named Nicodemus (Mda 13). The young man gets into some legal trouble, so Toloki has to bail him out of jail (Mda 19). Toloki then learns that the young man's real name is Obed Quigley. Obed then proceeds to take Toloki to meet his family. Toloki becomes close to Obed's mother Ruth becoming a good friend of hers. The story progresses and Ruth introduces Toloki to the quilts her ancestors made and explains their significance. The Quigley's ancestry is closely linked with two run-away slaves named Abednego and Nicodemus and their mother the Abyssinian Queen who sewed quilts to help her boys escape to Ohio. Toloki befriends the family more and more, except for the daughter Orpah who won't come out of her room or interact with Toloki. Toloki becomes enthralled with Orpah and eventually the come to like each other very much. Toloki starts to step on the families toes in various ways. He then decides that it is time for him to move on with his mourning (Mda). Orpah decides that she wants to join Toloki in his journey (Mda).
    Throughout the story, Toloki has to constantly adapt to a new society where he is very alone. He tries to assimilate into this society which only works partially. The American culture is very good at alienating people that don't have the same beliefs by expecting them to know ours when we don't have a clue about theirs, as pointed out very subtly by Mda throughout the book. Assimilation is very hard, especially into American culture, as Zakes Mda proves multiple times. This is especially apparent in the beginning chapters.
    In the first chapter, Toloki is pretty much dropped right in the middle of Athens, Ohio where he is trying to do some mourning for patients of an asylum located in a place known as the Ridges (Mda). He then happens on some college students going into town and decides to follow them. Toloki is amazed that these people are dressed up as, "a bloody gang of Visigoths, Vikings and Vandals in horned helmets led by Hagar the Horrible," (Mda 6). He continues to walk down Court Street where he sees all kinds of costumes (Mda). This is where Toloki happens upon a young man dressed as a deceased slave known as Nicodemus (Mda). The youn

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  • Posted May 1, 2009

    Heritage throughout Cion

    The book Cion, by Zakes Mda teaches us a lot about family history. One of the main characters, Ruth Quigley, states, "'There's one darn thing they ain't gonna take from us.our heritage'" (Mda 59). There are many examples throughout the book that explain the significance of our past and show how it affects our present and future more than we know. Once we forget about our past, we can never look back and appreciate where we were, where we are, and where we are going.
    In Cion, two parallel stories are told. At the beginning, Toloki, a professional mourner, meets the Quigley family, and they let him stay with them during his visit. Toloki becomes friends with the son, falls in love with the daughter, and learns much about the family's heritage from the parents. Ruth is not especially proud of her children because they are not the adults that she raised them to be. Orpah strays away from what Ruth believes to be tradition by creating non-traditional drawings of the ghost trees, playing her sitar, and performing memories with her father. Obed is lazy and disagrees with his mother's thoughts of custom in the areas of religion and politics. It is not until the end that both become driven to grow up and make their mother proud. In the other story, set during the 1800's, the Abyssinian Queen, a slave and a mother to Nicodemus and Abednego is introduced. Both of her children listen to her and grow up conforming to what she says and believes. She tells them stories and prepares them to escape from slavery, so they may have a better life than she. Her motivation wore off on them during their journey to freedom. Nicodemus dies before the boys fully reach safety, but Abednego turns out to be a wonderful man and carries on his mother's tales; Even Toloki hears of her tales through the Quigleys in the 21st century. In the conclusion, Orpah leaves to go mourn with Toloki in Virginia and Obed decides to become a pastor, both living up to their mother's wishes.
    In Cion, there is great contrast in the way that Ruth Quigley and the Abyssinian Queen each raise their children. The Abyssinian Queen sticks to her roots and brings her children up in a traditional African fashion, which her children respect greatly. On the other hand, Ruth often turns her back on her heritage, causing her children not to value what she has to say.
    The Abyssinian Queen is tied strongly to her heritage and raises her children in a manner so that they appreciate where they come from. From the moment Abednego was born his mother took charge of him. Although they were ordered not to by the plantation owner, the midwives kept track of her baby; "When nursing mothers gathered at the feeding bay[.]the nursemaids gave the Abyssinian Queen her own baby to breastfeed. She and Abednego got to know each other very well and bonded" (Mda 39). After all of her hard work to keep in contact with her boys throughout their infancy, she finally convinced The Owner to let the boys live with her (Mda 47). Now that the boys lived with her, she could pass on all of her inherited knowledge to them. This information was the key to helping her boys escape slavery and make better lives for themselves.
    The first piece of cultural knowledge she gives to them is through her quilting, "Abednego and Nicodemus learned that there was some rhythm in the madness of her compositions[.]In the seemingly haphazard arrangements, she taught them to indentify some landmarks" (Mda 48). After she taught her boys all

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  • Posted May 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Tradition

    Cion is a book loaded with underlying tones and themes, some of which are easier to pick out then others. Some main ones deal with race, family, religion, and tradition. Tradition is one theme in particular that can be seen quite frequently in this story. Mda plays with this theme in different ways, some of which, again, can be hard to pick up. This theme also helps tie in the other main themes of the story together. The main character of the story, Toloki, plays a big role in this theme in a very unique way.
    "I am wandering on Court Street in Athens, Ohio, trying to find my way along the milling crowds"(1). This is where Toloki starts off on his adventure in search of new ways to mourn. Toloki meets Obed, who is in a particular time of need, and soon enough becomes close friends with him. He accompanies Obed back to his home where he is introduced and taken in by Oped's family. Toloki soon learns the unique ways of this family, including the tradition behind quilting, and how it connects Obed's family back to the days of slavery. The author takes you in and out of the past to show where the foundation of this unique tradition comes from. Toloki soon finds himself caught up in love with the family's daughter, Orpah, which naturally leads to the common theme of dislike towards him. Toloki eventually gets back to his original goal of focusing his attention on mourning, and learning new ways/traditions of mourning. The story ends with him and Orpah leaving Kilvert and heading towards Virginia, in search of the Virginia Mourners.
    Tradition is clearly a common theme in this story. What makes this theme unique is that each character considers tradition to be something different and in-turn, shapes who they are. In addition, you can see the idea of tradition carried out through different objects in the story. This theme is introduced early on, and can be seen first when referring to Toloki.
    Toloki is introduced with a bit of a depressing story, and when he is offered a trip to enhance his mourning, he simply can't pass it up. "Perhaps in my wanderings I would meet other professional mourners, learn their methods and incorporate them into my mourning routine. That would spice it a bit and would imbue it with a new vigor"(4). The theme of tradition is not directly addressed here, but it is reasonable to infer that he is indeed in search of other mourner's traditions. Toloki himself obviously carries traditions of his own, mainly being the way he mourns, but throughout this story, he is focused more on the tradition of others. As quoted above, he is in search of better and different techniques to his profession. Toloki is the only character that looks at tradition in this way, which makes for an interesting contrast between his views and that of the other characters. Orpah, however, has views that of which run most parallel to Toloki's.
    Orpah respects her family's traditions, but definitely is not afraid to break them and try new things. She expresses this primarily through her art. The sitar she plays is one good example of this. She expresses herself and her feelings through this instrument, weather they be happy, sad, or angry. The reason this is breaking tradition is because nobody in her family history had ever played such an instrument. To her though, it is simply her way of being creative. Orpah did, however, attempt to learn the tradition of quilting from Ruth, but in doings so, ran into problems.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2007

    A reviewer

    I had not read of Ways of Dying or heard of Zakes Mda before reading the Essence article that featured Cion as the October 2007 book of the month. Based on the article's synopsis, I knew it was a book I wanted to read, so I ordered it immediately - in doing so, I have no regrets - what an insightful, creative, and often humorous read! Cion follows the travels of Toloki, a professional mourner 'which in itself is an unusual profession', as he ventures to Southeastern Ohio 'Appalachian country'. It is in this rural, impoverished setting and through Toloki's eyes that American pop culture, politics, and other 'isms,' such as racism, colorism, sexism, etc. are explored. A Halloween prank-gone-bad leads Toloki to form an unusual friendship with a local, rather eccentric family. His host family is self-described as WIN 'White-Indian-Negro' and it is with them that the complexities of racial identity, prejudice, and stereotypes emerge. Mda uses his creativity and playwriting skills to construct scenes that evoke crystal clear images and crafty dialogue/arguments to cover aspects of African American history 'a wonderfully imagined Underground Railroad escape is presented as a sub-plot' and its far-reaching impact on Americans today. Toloki's observations and internal thoughts/commentaries are oftentimes laugh-out-loud funny and laced with truth and heartfelt honesty. This book is definitely in my 2007 Top 10 list - I have already ordered his earlier works and look forward to the reading experience. Reviewed by Phyllis October 6, 2007

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2008

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