2005-11-18

Intolerance: Waitress's 1st Novel Up for Prize

Article by Emine Saner: I meet Ms.Rachel Zadok in a café in London's Herne Hill. She knows the staff -- until recently she worked as a waitress in the café's sister restaurant nearby. For four years she spent her evenings serving up the likes of risotto and goat's cheese salad to locals, leaving her days free to write her first book... In the south London flat she shared with her husband, a physician, the South African-born writer crafted a haunting story of 'Faith', a child whose parents' marriage breaks up and whose mother descends into mental illness, all set against the backdrop of 'apartheid'. The book, entitled 'Gem Squash Tokoloshe' , has been shortlisted for 'The Whitbread first novel award'. The prize, worth 5_000_GBP and guaranteed to bring big book sales, will be announced at the beginning of 2006-01.
'I'm astounded,' she says in her quiet South African accent. 'I just want to try and forget about it for now otherwise I think I'll go a bit mad.'
It's been an amazing year for Ms.Zadok, whose first book also landed her a publishing deal worth 20_000_GBP after being a runner-up in 'Channel 4'' 'Richard & Judy' creative writing competition, which more than 46_000 aspiring novelists entered. Ms.Zadok had come to London from South Africa four years ago when her husband was offered a job in a London hospital. Originally a graphic designer in Johannesburg, she arrived in the capital with a desire to write a novel, and it was a bout of writer's block that led her to enter it into the television competition.
'I was having a really bad day,' she says. 'I had a rule that I wasn't allowed to watch the television during the day, but I wasn't getting anywhere, so I thought I'd put it on. 'It was 'Richard & Judy' and they were announcing their creative writing competition. 'It seemed like fate, so I had to enter.'
In the novel, 'Faith' is plagued by fairy stories and frightened of 'The Tokoloshe', a mischievous and sometimes evil dwarf-like spirit, an integral part of South Africa's folklore. A sense of menace creeps across every page and there's a darkness in it that seems incongruous with the slight, pretty 33-year-old woman with glossy brown hair and a ready smile sitting opposite me. All her childhood, Ms.Zadok never realised how wrong it was that there were no black children at her school and, apart from the maids and gardeners, no black people in her middle-class white suburb of Kensington in Johannesburg. Blissful afternoons were spent searching for chameleons and scorpions in the garden. Ms.Zadok and her older brother were brought up by her mother after their parents separated. Her mother worked as an advertising executive, so her children were looked after by a nanny, Gladys.
'We weren't rich, but we were well-off, just by dint of being white,' she says.
Ms.Zadok's mother did have friends who were black, but when they came to visit, they were always ushered into their house quickly (if caught, she could have been arrested just for having black people in her house who weren't her employees).
'My mother was very liberal, but she didn't tell us what was going on in the country -- we were sheltered that way.'
Instead, the chaotic and divided country confused her.
'I remember going to the shop with my nanny and it was pouring with rain. 'She stopped the bus but they wouldn't let me on because it was for black people only, so we had to walk. 'I didn't understand why I couldn't go on the bus. 'I remember whites-only lavatories and whites-only benches in parks. It was completely mad. But that's what I thought the world was, nobody said to me that this was wrong. 'As far as I was concerned, black people sat on those benches and we sat on these benches. 'I didn't equate it with inequality because I didn't see how black people were forced to live.'
As a child, Ms.Zadok never saw the townships; the closest she came was when the family drove through poor rural areas to get to their grandparents' holiday home on the south coast. She remembers throwing sweets to small, ragged children with hunger-bloated bellies who waved from the side of the road.
'At the time I thought it was a nice thing to do, I didn't think about how poor they were. 'Now I think it was a horrid thing, to throw sweets at children from a car window.'
Her nanny, Gladys, never talked about 'apartheid' either.
'Instead, she taught us Zulu customs and we grew up eating the food she made us -- traditional maize porridge.'
Then, when Ms.Zadok was 12, something happened that changed the way she saw her country. Every day for three days she stepped off her whites-only school bus and over the body of a black woman, the victim of a hit-and-run.
'She was lying in the street and her arms and legs were splayed out as if she had been running,' says Ms.Zadok. 'For three days she lay there in the hot sun and nobody had bothered to do anything about her except place a newspaper over her face. 'She was wearing a maid's uniform and I was deeply shocked. 'I thought: "Don't they miss her?" 'I told my mum and she called the police. 'I stood in the doorway listening to her conversation, and when she finished I heard her muttering to herself that "she never would have been left there if she was white". 'It was an awakening, for the first time I looked around and realised there was something very wrong here. It was chilling.'
She didn't become political, instead she became a rebellious teenager.
'I didn't know how to be political but I had all this anger. I was so angry at society and I thought: "Stuff you for trying to make me into this person who lives in this society."'
She dyed her hair black, skipped school and hitch-hiked to nightclubs. She drank and would disappear from home.
'I was lucky that I didn't come from a racist family and I had quite opposite views to many of my friends.
'I remember I was at my friend's house and her boyfriend was talking about going kaffir-bashing, using one of the most derogatory words for a black person. 'I said: "How can you do that? What kind of people are you?", and they were really angry. They spat in my face, pushed me around and shouted at me to get out of their house. 'These were teenagers and this was somehow even more shocking -- that race hatred they had even though they were only 15 or 16.'
By the time 'apartheid' had ended, she was studying' fine art' and living in Yeovil, one of Johannesburg's first mixed areas, with a friend.
'There was an amazing atmosphere in the country,' she says. 'But the legacy was everywhere. A black woman rented a room upstairs from our flat. She told me when she was six she got sent to work in the kitchen of a farm, and was treated horrifically; she was beaten, shouted at, even though she was a young child. 'I really can't understand white South Africans who think it was better during "apartheid". 'The whole culture in South Africa was to make black people feel subservient. They were educated into feeling they were less than white people. 'South Africa was very stifled, there was so much censorship. 'You couldn't speak out because you'd be arrested, and people were scared. 'We only got television in the 1970s. People who have read my book say it sounds like it was set in the 1950s, not the 1980s, but that's what South Africa was like then.'
She is still shocked by racist white South Africans -- many of them, she says, have settled in London.
'I'm not saying every South African here is racist but, unfortunately, I've met quite a lot. 'They seem to assume that because I'm here, I share their racist views. 'I remember going to get my passport renewed at the South Africa High Commission, and the guy in front of me in the queue turned around and started complaining about how slow the black staff behind the counter were. I was deeply shocked. 'One of the things I love most about London is that it is so multicultural, but when I left South Africa, the country had changed so much that it wasn't a huge surprise to me to see people of all races mixing.'
She wants to go back to South Africa to live but she is planning to travel for a while first.
'If I do make money from writing, I would like to return to South Africa and start up some sort of project for HIV/AIDS orphans.'
In the meantime, she has just finished the first chapter of her next novel, again set in South Africa, but much more up-to-date.
'I felt I needed to get all my "apartheid" anger out,' she says. 'And I think I've done it.'
WHITBREAD FIRST NOVEL SHORTLIST The Harmony Silk Factory -- Tash Aw 26a -- Diana Evans The Short Day Dying -- Peter Hobbs 'Gem Squash Tokoloshe' -- Rachel Zadok 'From risotto to riches for Richard & Judy author', Emine Saner, The Scotsman, 2005-11-18, Fr

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