SA waitress a Whitbread nominee

18 November 2005

A South African working as a waitress in London is on the shortlist for the prestigious Whitbread Award for her first novel. Rachel Zadok (33) joins fellow nominees Salman Rushdie and Nick Hornby with Gem Squash Tokoloshe, the story of a girl growing up on a remote farm in the height of the apartheid era.

Order Gem Squash Tokoloshe from Pan Macmillan

Zadok’s talent was spotted in a television writing competition on Channel 4’s Richard and Judy show, where she was one of five finalists out of 46 000 entrants.

Although she didn’t win, the quality of her work prompted Pan Macmillan to offer her a £20 000 (R230 000) advance for her novel. Gem Squash Tokoloshe was published in September.

The Whitbread Award shortlist was announced on Wednesday, with winners in the five categories, who each receive £5 000 (R57 500), to be made known in January.

‘Writing takes you to another place’

Zadok began writing when she began to feel unfulfilled with her job as a graphic designer in Johannesburg.

“I suddenly realised that it was something I really enjoyed doing,” she told BBC News. “Writing takes you to another place.

“When my husband had to move to London for work, I made the decision to work here as a waitress and concentrate on writing.”

It was at her Brixton flat that Gem Squash Tokoloshe began to take shape.

The book follows Faith, the young daughter of a mentally ill woman living on a remote farm in apartheid era South Africa.

“The book is really about belief and the influence society has on children,” she told the BBC. “I grew up in South Africa during apartheid and saw how beliefs become so ingrained in people.”

After one unproductive afternoon, a frustrated Zadok began to doubt her skills. She stopped working and turned on the television in time to see Richard and Judy announce details of a novel-writing competition.

Seeing it as a sign, she sent off a sample chapter and synopsis to the competition – eventually reaching the final five of 46 000 entrants, and the Pan Macmillan book deal.

“The day the book arrived in the post was the first time that I felt that I didn’t have to waitress anymore. I was overwhelmed that I had actually had my book published,” Zadok told the BBC. “That night, I went to the restaurant and quit.”

Now working on a new novel, Zadok hopes to return to South Africa to live.

“It’s such a dynamic country, and it’s changing so fast. I’d miss London if I left, but I would always come back to spend time here.”

Gem Squash Tokoloshe

Gem Squash Tokoloshe takes its title from Faith’s incantation to ward off the tokoloshe, an evil spirit in South African mythology.

The opening half of the novel is set in 1985, when Faith is seven. Her father leaves and her mother suffers a breakdown, becoming increasingly obsessed with the African world of spirits, her tales of which terrify her daughter. Faith is a resilient child with a vivid imagination trying to absorb and survive her parents’ marital strife and her mother’s descent into madness.

In the second half, Faith, now 20, returns after her mother’s death to the farm she left as a child, and learns why her mother was incarcerated and she sent away. The account of Faith’s return and the awakening of her memories of the death of the family maid, Nomsa, is vivid, particularly in its description of place.

Gem Squash Tokoloshe impressed us with its powerful evocation of a child’s-eye view of rural South Africa,” said the Whitbread judges. “Rachel Zadok sets the private drama of a collapsing household against the backdrop of a changing nation and creates a tangible atmosphere of menace.”

The Whitbread Awards recognise the most enjoyable books of the year by writers based in the UK and Ireland. They were established by Whitbread, the UK’s leading hospitality business, in 1971.

SAinfo reporter

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