South African novelist Rachel Zadok came to limelight when her manuscript was chosen from the numerous entries in the Richard and Judy Show “How to Get published”. With the publication of her novel, Gem Squash Tokoloshe, Rachel was propelled into fame and with her second novel Sister-Siter out only recently, she has cemented her place among South Africa’s new breed of writers.
Over the years she has been doing a lot for literature, not only in South Africa but on the continent as a whole with her Short Story Africa Day project, a platform for writers across the continent. In this interview Rachel talked about her craft, SSDA and her novels.
Following the success of your debut novel Gem Squash Tokoloshe, did you feel pressured to write something better? Was that why it took so long for Sister Sister to eventually come out?
There were a lot of reasons why Sister-Sister took so long to write; that was definitely one of them. Another was that the story I had planned to write changed when I moved from London back to South Africa, and changed again when I fell pregnant with my daughter. I think, while living in the UK, I developed a rose-tinted view of the New South Africa as a great place to raise a child. And it is for people like me (middle income). However, there is this constant sense of threat that one feels as a mother living in a country with such high women and child abuse rates. Reports in the media played on my mind and that certainly shaped Sister-Sister. Then there was the distance moving country had put between me and the support for my writing I’d built up in London. Moving to Cape Town I literally had to start from scratch, making new connections in the industry here. There were other contributing factors which had to do with the economy and the struggling publishing industry but those are too boring to go into.
You had the opportunity of experiencing several cultures in your travels but your works so far have been set in South Africa, did these other cultures and places help you in appreciating yours, and your background?
I’ve always appreciated South Africa, so no, travelling didn’t give me a greater appreciation for SA. I’m just not comfortable setting a novel in a place I haven’t been immersed in as a citizen; i.e. lived and worked for a prolonged period of time. There are nuances to places and culture that you just don’t pick up passing through. I don’t believe it’s possible, even with extensive research, to understand the minutiae of day to day life, and cultural symbols, unless you are part of it. I would, and have, set short stories in the places I’ve been, but those are usually from the point of view of a traveller, not someone who lives there. At this stage, I wouldn’t feel confident setting a novel somewhere other than South Africa or London, where I lived for six years.
If I had the resources to live somewhere else for a few months, now that would be a different story. For example, if someone were to offer me a stipend and a flat in New York for six months, I’d definitely write my New York novel.
However, the idea of mixing cultures appeals to me, creating new fictional worlds that almost anyone, anywhere, can relate to. I experimented with combining folk lore in Sister-Sister, which is one of the reasons for the setting being both specific yet off kilter.
Did your participation in the Richard and Judy “How to Get Published” competition in any way inspire the idea of Short Story Day Africa, which has gone on to create a platform for other writers across the continent?
No. While living in the UK, long before the Richard and Judy moment, I experienced what I think of as a culture of mentoring creativity. I met many wonderful people who were invested in teaching and helping me along the way. That inspired SSDA more than anything else, this idea of writers helping writers.
How did you feel when the winning story of the SSDA competition and another shortlisted story were both shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize?
I was thrilled for both Efemia and Okwiri, they’re both brilliant writers. It was great to see all the work we’d invested in SSDA, all the sacrifices we’d made, come to fruition in such a large way. Two stories out of five on The Caine shortlist!
That said, I did have a little moment of wishing it was me going to London to the Bodleian Hall, and realising that if it was ever going to be me, I would need to dedicate more of my time to writing and less to SSDA.
Interesting. I was wondering how you find time to write and keep the SSDA running considering you have to devote time to your family and your craft, among other things. How do you keep this project running?
The project took three years to get up and running, to find funding and support, and complete the paperwork necessary to apply for funding. That’s all getting sorted out now. There are more people involved in SSDA than just Tiah and I, people putting in long hours and talent. Thanks to this spirit of community that SSDA evolved from, that has continued to grow year on year, and I have more balance in my life now. The bags under my eyes from working half the night to keep it going are starting to recede. SSDA is finally the sibling to my writing, instead of the squalling new infant that consumes all my time to the neglect of her brothers and sisters (writing and family).
That is a fascinating way of putting it. It seemed you were overwhelmed by the buzz around your first novel back in London when it was first published. Now as an older, wiser writer, how do you think you could have handled things differently?
The biggest lesson I have learned is that looking back at your mistakes and playing them over again in your head, imagining how things might have been different, is destructive. It took me a long time to stop dwelling on the paths that I might have taken, opportunities missed, and focussing on what is. I only have what is to work with. I can only ever go forward from here.
As one of a new generation of South African writers, do you think that your characters have to reflect the new South Africa in terms of embracing the racial divide, such as Faith did in Gem Squash Tokoloshe, a white girl dabbling into black cultural practices sort of?
This requires a three part answer.
Magic and magical worlds have always interested and fascinated me; and the part faith/belief plays in creating personal realities, whether mundane or magical. There is a fear that what I write may be seen as some sort of negative cultural appropriation, but my interest in folklore extends far beyond the borders of South Africa. The Skin Man in Sister-Sister, for example, is half muti man, half Navajo skinwalker. The hawk moth as representation of the soul is European (moths appear a lot in my writing). I’m far more interested in the belief systems of different cultures than race.
Personally, I don’t want to impose racial constraints on my writing, and write only white female protagonists with any character of another race being peripheral. No one flinched when Zadie Smith wrote White Teeth, with characters spanning just about every racial group in the UK. No one criticised her for it, said that it was cultural appropriation. South Africans need to let go of the idea that we, as human beings, are so different. I prefer to see differences as environmental rather than racial, and imagine myself/my characters in those environments.
A decade ago I did buy into this idea that writers have a social responsibility, but I no longer believe that writers need to reflect anything, or write anything, unless it interests them. I think you have writers who are socially aware, and that comes out in their work organically. I dislike writing that tries too hard to be political. That shouts theme above story. A writers morality/social themes always show up in their work, but with good writers it’s usually subtly, as subtext.
Speaking about theme above story, how much do you think the changes in South Africa have affected writing in that country. Do you think that new stories have lost a certain amount of verve because they are no longer weapons against apartheid, for instance, but are now more subtle prisms for examining the effects of life after it? In other words, after the goldmine of stories that apartheid provided, do you think South African writers are struggling to find powerful enough social issues, apart from crime, to focus on?
This question is a minefield. I don’t believe the writing lost verve, I think much writing now is better than ever before, but I also think the industry (local and global) is currently only interested in certain stories and certain writers. The publishing industry is very conservative and stuck on trends right now. It’s not ready for the new breed of South African literary writers. It’s missing a trick, I might add.
You were living in London before you relocated to Cape Town. Did you find that being back home was more inspiring for your writing especially when one considers that the mix of myth and magic in your novel Sister-Sister could not have been inspired by, shall we say, the ambience of London?
I started writing Sister-Sister whilst living in London, and the inspirations are taken from many sources, as I mentioned earlier. The different cultures of the world have more in common than they think. I’m not talking about globalisation either. Myth and magic exist in pretty much every human culture. We all have creation myths – Adam and Eve is a creation myth much like any other – it’s just that historically the more powerful pockets of humanity got to call their mythology religion while damning the less powerful to the realms of superstition. St Paul’s Cathedral is in a very atmospheric place, full of whispers and ritual.
Interesting. Whatever happened to the SSDA Chain Gang challenge?
We decided that part of SSDA was fun for the writers, but didn’t get the kind of attention it needed to make it worth the gigantic effort it took to set up – it was the part of the project that took the most resources and energy. We decided to focus those resources to create a better platform for African writers; the annual competition and anthology.