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Rachel Zadok

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

PEN SA’s Q&A with Rachel Zadok

This is the first in a series of profiles on PEN SA’s members.

Rachel Zadok is the author of two novels, Gem Squash Tokoloshe (Pan Macmillan, 2005) and Sister-Sister (Kwela Books, 2013).

In 2005 she was a runner-up in the Richard & Judy How to Get Published Competition and Gem Squash Tokoloshe was shortlisted for The Whitbread First Novel Award and The John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and longlisted for an IMPAC award. In 2014 Sister-Sister was shortlisted for the Herman Charles Bosman Prize for English Fiction and the University of Johannesburg Prizes for South African writing in English and longlisted for The Sunday Times Fiction Award.  

In 2011, Rachel launched Short Story Day Africa to highlight African short fiction. Short Story Day Africa runs annual short story competitions for adults, young adults and children and produces anthologies from the winning stories. The latest of these anthologies, Terra Incognita, was launched last week at The Book Lounge.

 Favourite South African novel?

Other than my own? Fraught and tricky question. Plus, I’ve become too jaded for the kind of joyous celebration required for picking favourites. That said, the SA novel that currently speaks to me most is Pompidou Posse by Sarah Lotz. It invokes a certain nostalgia for being young and reckless, which I have to admit probably has much to do with the midlife crisis I refuse to admit I may be having.

What are you working on at the moment?

A short story called “Waiting” about a shoplifter that nicks baby goods. A novel about a child that may or may not exist. And the blurb for the next Short Story Day Africa competition themed around Water.

Favourite part of the writing and publishing process?

Disappearing days (so rare) and redrafting with an excellent editor.

Any characters (yours or another writer’s) that have stuck with you?

The narrator’s pyromaniac lover in Stuart Dybek’s short story, “Paper Lantern”.

Any advice / tips for writers starting out?

Don’t write for therapy, financial gain or glory. Write for the beauty of language and the joy of story. The first three things will disappoint you and rob you of the other two.

Hardest part of the writing and publishing process?

I hate spending time trying to grow a presence on social media so that people will read my work. I’ve tried it, and I’ve had to admit defeat. I’m a novelist. I can’t communicate well in 140 characters. I find the current publishing industry where a writer must have an internet presence in order to find an agent/publisher/audience so disheartening.

South African writers or books that have made an impact on you?

I started putting down names in reply to this question, but there are so many. Every great book I read has an impact, plus the South African writing community is so close knit and supportive of each other, simply knowing a writer has a huge impact on one’s life. I think the smallness of our publishing industry has created a kind of support group of wonderful generous talented people. I guess SA writers are like AA, only we’re not anonymous.

What are you reading at the moment?

I just finished A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and I haven’t picked another book up yet, though I’ve been dipping into Terra Incognita.

If you had to pick one book to give to all South Africans to read what would it be?


Any other genres that you’re interested in trying your hand at?

I pretty much blend genres in my work, so I find it hard to think in terms of writing in one genre or another.

Proudest moment of your writing career?

Being offered a chair at a packed book launch of a far more famous writer than me because a reader loved my book.

Favourite quote from a book?

‘Is that what writing amounts to? The voice your ghost would have, if it had a voice?’ – MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

‘”I’m a novelist,” Ruth said. “I can’t help it. My narrative preferences are all I’ve got.”‘ A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

On Okwiri’s Win

Okwiri Oduor won The Caine Prize with “My Father’s Head” the winning story in Short Story Day Africa’s 2013 competition. It’s the lead story in Feast, Famine & Potluck, our first foray into the world of publishing. Karen Jennings, the collection’s editor, will back me up when I tell you that Okwiri is a writer of sheer determination and calm poise, an African writer who is not going to let the standards of Western publishing dictate how she portrays her world. For example, she put her foot down when Karen wanted to italicize African language words, as is standard practice. And, when Karen came to me for guidance, I told her Okwiri was right. I didn’t do it in Sister-sister, so I wasn’t about to impose italics on someone else. Africa, in all its multiple glories, is not a foreigner in an anthology of African fiction.

Okwiri Oduor is a perfect example of the African writer Short Story Day Africa was born to create a platform for. A voice that will not make itself smaller or paler or more palatable to a tongue that has never tasted the flavours served up at her Kenyan table. And so are the other five shortlisted authors. All five author are uncompromising voices with exceptional talent. Diane Awerbuck is astute in her understanding of human nature. Her writing gets under your skin, and sometimes it flays you. Read her story, Duiweltjie, published in The Root Cellar and Other Stories if you don’t know what I mean. Billy Kahora makes you weep for things you didn’t know you’d lost, and he’s a man of great social conscience when it comes to the landscape of African writing and writers, as his editorial leadership at Kwani? is testament to.  Efemia Chela: well there’s a hotbed of talent and emotion rolled up in that young writer. She’s a complex, lateral thinker weaving plot with prose you want to eat. Brave, experimental, post-post-modern.Last of the five, and certainly not the least, is Tendai Huchu, a man who has mastered the art of comic tragedy.

I want all of these five writers to be squabbled over at book fairs. And I want everyone to read them.


Words Can Change Worlds – Sheryl Kavin of the Shine Centre guest blogs for SSDA

Sheryl Kavin shares her experiences as a new SHINE CENTRE Volunteer otherwise known as a ‘Literacy Learning Partner’.

Reading has always been important in my life. The bookshelves in my home are crammed to bursting but, as a retiree with a background in marketing and advertising, I never thought I could assist young school children to improve their reading  and writing skills, especially if English was not their mother-tongue.

I help look after my young granddaughter and, from an early age, I took her to Storytime at the local library to sing songs and listen to stories read by the librarians.  Storytime was often crowded and we’d jostle for a space amongst the other mums, grans and nannies with their young charges, and the one dad who regularly brought his young son. Meeting kids who did not share these privileges was far from my mind as I sat at the Observatory Library with my granddaughter on my knees.

When I was first introduced to Shine, I was not quite sure what to expect. I attended an orientation and loved that “The Shine Centre has a vision to create a nation of readers”. Being able to read is intrinsic to education so it was a shock to discover the high rates of illiteracy amongst grade two and three learners.

After attending training and studying my Volunteers Manual I headed off to the Observatory Primary School with some trepidation. A young pupil was tasked with taking me to the Shine Centre on the first floor, where I was greeted by Heidi, the Centre Manager, and shown around.

The atmosphere in the Shine Centre is calm but vibrant, with books marked according to reading level. Each child’s workbook is marked with a sticker indicating their reading ability, and all sessions are recorded in the workbook by the volunteers to ensure continuity of learning for the child.

Volunteer sessions are usually one hour long and I spent my first morning at Shine sitting with Eileen, a seasoned volunteer. During that time, we saw two children for 45 minutes each. The kids were obviously pleased to be there and loved the games, developed specifically for the programme to make learning fun. They made a huge effort with the paired reading – the process by which the learning partner reads along with the child – and really enjoyed the shared reading – where the learning partner reads to the child. Shared reading helps children to discover a love for reading and books.

In the short time I have worked with my two Shine charges, I have come to know them as keen learners who love to take books home. It has been an absolute pleasure to help them and see their reading and writing ability improve. The enthusiasm they show warms my heart.

Maurita Glynn Weissenberg, a former remedial teacher and Director of Shine, says that “Learners who fall behind during the Foundation Phase (Grade R to Grade 3) rarely recover their enthusiasm for learning and are most likely to drop out of school in later years”.

I have taken up the challenge and share and support the Shine Centre’s Vision of a nation of readers.  I hope that I can make a difference in the lives of the children I partner with.  I am sure they will make a difference in mine.

As well as being a Shine Centre Volunteer/Literacy Partner and granny nanny, Sheryl Kavin also sits on the board of Short Story Day Africa.

About The Shine Centre:

The Shine Centre is a multi-award winning non-profit organisation founded in 2000 in Cape Town, South Africa. It has developed a simple, scalable and highly effective model to support young children achieve age-appropriate literacy levels. Currently there are seven Shine Literacy Centres supporting nine disadvantaged inner-city schools in Cape Town. Nine Shine Chapters (social franchises) have been established in Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. The Shine model is also used in independent literacy centres in Johannesburg, Grahamstown and Stanford.  Over 2000 volunteers, parents and like-minded organisations have been trained to help over 5 000 children to read.

To find out how to join Shine in creating a nation of readers go to or telephone +27 21 7624320.


Why write?

From one of those websites dedicated to curating disparate bits of information, the question arose: why write? So instead of writing, I spent the day in moody contemplation.

More truthfully, the muse was elusive.

I’d begun the day discussing failure and followed that with the why write article (like a drunk person necking a tequila shooter).

Bad idea because it led to me being unable to pin down why I write or why I even want to. It made me uneasy that I did not have a solid reason. A sunny Monday that looked like it might be productive at seven am became edgy in a Fear and Loathing kind of way by ten.

The restlessness settled in like an uninvited cousin that had pitched up on my doorstep with a rucksack and no money. I found myself sucking at my fingernails until they felt too long and too thin. All the things I wanted to put on the page elongated away from me. Words became bubbles of chewed gum floating pinkly in front of my eyes until I tried to grab them. Then they slipped from my grasp.  Bouncy balls slimy with saliva.

And I got to thinking about the quotes of the famous that are meant to inspire us. And I thought: what are these things if not ideas encased in other people’s spit?

Which makes the written word what, exactly? Or more specifically, what are my written words? For what reason do they exist?

I set off on my writing journey more than a decade ago and I see behind me a pavement littered with flattened bits of gum gone grey. Maybe they stick to my shoe, or to yours when you read them, old words I chewed and spat out some time ago. My decade of writing has produced one relatively successful debut and one difficult book (difficult to write that is) which isn’t a lot and doesn’t count for much unless you’re Donna Tartt and you sold a million copies – a decade worth of rent in royalties.

My decade brought a series of disappointments, major shifts and drastic changes. My life has been completely reset to factory default twice in those years. I’m that sucker in Monopoly that keeps getting the go-directly-to-jail card (do not pass go, do not collect R200). I am not surprised that Sister-Sister took so long to write. It’s more surprising that I finished it at all. If Sister-Sister does nothing else, it remains as testimony to my resilience. To the fact that I still write.

I do not feel resilient enough of late to stand in the rain and let the hail stones brain me, but I don’t seem to have much choice. What else can a writer do, but write?

I suppose I could return to writing in my head, but then I may end up on the train.

Perhaps I write because I am siderodromophobic.

More likely, it’s because writing leads me to unexpected places. To words like siderodromophobic. Or to petrol stations at a crossroads between this world and the next.

Writing is a process of discovery. It takes me to places I might never otherwise go.  In the end, all writing offers me is a ticket to ride. And some days, that’s enough.

On writers and trains

There is no such thing as silence. The quiet buzzes with electrical pulses and insect wings and the inhalations and exhalations of breath and distant conversations and car engines and tyres against tar and the rustle of mice in the skirting boards and birds in the trees and the neighbour’s vacuum cleaner. Sounds too small for your eardrum to separate but that mesh together to create white noise. Silence is white noise with the volume turned down.

Most people don’t notice the noise. Writers do, along with tiny spiderwebs suspended in the diamond-shaped holes of chain link fences, dead flies on window sills and the hairline creases in the dust covers of the favourite book you borrowed. Writers are unable to filter the insignificant details from life. We upload them and use them as character signifiers for fictional people. We have a voice in our heads that turns these details into prose. A voice that constantly streams plot lines, characters and bits of dialogue into our waking minds. The heads of writers are filled with imagined people and places and perfect sentences that become skittish as mice when we try to pin them down.  There is no space for shopping lists or school timetables or time.

Writers are the sane(r), cleaner, less smelly cousins of the twitching nut jobs who spend their days riding the train from one end of the line to the other. Nut jobs whose muttering rises to a shout every so often – Why did you kill her, Steven? Why? –  causing you to spill your latte all over your lap. All that separates us from Steven’s stinky vessel is the physical manifestation of those thoughts: the act of putting pen to paper or keystrokes to Word document.

Writers who don’t write are fucked. We descend slowly into a pit of despair from which the only escape is another novel or short story or even a blog post. But the longer you leave it, the further you sink. The further you sink, the harder it becomes to sort through the mess in your head and pair character with plot, fill their mouths with dialogue and scatter dead flies on their windowsills. At some point the voice becomes two, then three, then four. All that stuff you’re constantly uploading swirls around like a tornado, battering against the inside of your skull until the noise becomes silence. And the silence is deafening.

So if you love a writer, be they your child, your lover, your mother or your client, love their writing in spite of the burnt dinners and forgotten dry cleaning and missed car services. Remind them to write. Give them time and space and encouragement. Or one of these days, you might find them on the train.

Shame on you, fat shamer. Shame on you!

The furore surrounding ANC MP Thandile Sunduza figure-hugging boob tube dress has left me wondering when diversity in South Africa became a limited ideal? We South Africans, it seems, have become hypocrites of the worst kind. Celebrate diversity, we declare on Heritage Day, turning the chops on the braai while resting beers on our boeps, but don’t let that “celebration” extend to fat women and their taste in clothing.

In fact, let’s not celebrate fat women at all. Let’s shame them for daring to come out in public dressed in clothing we’ve decided only the skinny are allowed to wear. Fat women should wear kaftans, dull ones, and hide their curves from view lest they offend our delicate sensibilities, lest steal the limelight from the skinny latte drinkers who work hard at the gym, eat according to the latest diet trend and sip on sparkling water at parties while sucking in their cheeks. Fat women are not allowed to feel beautiful, or dance down the red carpet or flirt with the paparazzi. And god forbid they throw their heads back and laugh in delight. Shame on you, Fatty Boom Boom, shame on you.

Fuck that, I say. Part of what is abhorrent in our society is that we’ve come to think it’s acceptable, and not only okay but fun, to make nasty jibes about a woman’s choice of clothing and the shape of her body. We’ve decided that bullying, when directed at fat women, is a social event we can all participate in, together, as a nation.

We’re living in a size zero era when gorgeous little girls grow up believing they’re ugly. When normal-sized women have body dysmorphia issues that turn beautiful bodies into sick ones in pursuit of an ideal that is, to anyone in the medical profession, unhealthy. Skinny and healthy are not the same thing. Fat people can be fit people, and often are. When did we decide that it wasn’t okay for a generously proportioned woman to show off her booty in a lemon yellow boob tube if she feels she can pull it off? Please note, I say if she feels she can, not if you think she can. It has absolutely nothing to do with you. If this affects how you feel about yourself; if you feel hard done by because you, Skinny Latte, feel you’ve earned the right to wear figure-hugging and she hasn’t, get yourself some therapy. Her dress is not about you!

Most of the time, a thin lithe body is the result of a genetic lottery that saw Skinny Latte land in a time in history when thin lithe bodies were the in thing. You, Skinny Latte, contribute nothing real to our society by looking pretty. Beauty, to quote karakamos, is not an achievement. Looking pretty did not eradicate polio, or split the atom, or chair the Portfolio Committee of Arts and Culture. Which is not to say that  Skinny Latte is not capable of those things. But, by the same token,  Full Cream Cappuccino is capable of rocking a figure-hugging dress if she wants to.

So next time you see a voluptuous woman on the dance floor in a slinky sequined number, ask yourself if she looks like she’s having a good time. Then ask yourself: what gives you the right to deprive her of that good feeling by fat shaming her?

And by the way, in my humble opinion: Thandile Sunduza, you looked fabulous.

National Short Story Day – UK

Tomorrow, 21 December, is National Short Story Day in the UK . In honour of the short story and the project from which the seed for Short Story Day Africa grew, we’re offering readers a 50% discount on Feast, Famine & Potluck for one day only. Due to the way the world of publishing currently operates,  we’re only able to offer the 50% discount at Smashwords (Amazon has yet to offer discounts as promotional tool). Smashwords offers the book in all formats, from Kindle to iBooks, so no matter your e-reader, you’ll find a format that suits.

Celebrate National Short Story Day  by buying the first anthology to spring from this fabulous concept –  celebrating the short story on the shortest day of the year.
To get your discounted copy, go to:

If you don’t have a smashwords account, it only takes a moment to get one – it’s free! Then put the book into your cart, check out, enter this code:


The just ollow the instructions on how to download the book in a format of your choice.
**ebook formats are: Kindle, ipad, html, plain text, epub, PDF, RTF, LRF, PDB

Feast, Famine & Potluck Cover Revealed

A good writer possesses not only his own spirit but also the spirit of his friends.  – Friedrich Nietzsche

That Nietzsche quote has come to pretty much sum up the nature of Short Story Day Africa. In the three short years the project has been running, every element has been collaborative – and all its resources supplied by a community of writers, publishers, booksellers, readers and artists from all around the globe. The Feast, Famine & Potluck anthology is a physical representation of that spirit – a quick glance at the acknowledgements will tell you that.

The beautiful cover of our anthology is no different. It’s the result of two great creative minds, Nick Mulgrew and Candace di Talamo, putting their heads together. This is what they have to say about their creation.

We wanted a cover design that reflected the stories in the collection, something layered, verdant and crawling with symbolism; something that, like the stories, didn’t pander toward typical “African” narratives and established its own, inclusive aesthetic.

But really, great art speaks for itself. We love it, and hope you do to.


Nick Mulgrew is a writer and part-time creative director. His story “Ponta do Ouro” is included in the collection.

Candace di Talamo has loved art and illustration as long as she can remember. She has worked  for the Moving Picture Company as a 3D artist and technical director. Movies she has worked on include Alien vs Predator, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Harry Potter. Illustration works have appeared in Destiny and Destiny Man, and  her inks have been exhibited in group shows in Salon 91, Cape Town. She lives in Hout Bay with her husband, two children, a dog, three cats and a tortoise. Other works can viewed on

Feast, Famine & Potluck is available on Smashword as an e-book, and soon from MegaBooks in print.

And the winner is…

After difficult deliberations Petina Gappah has chosen the winners of the Short Story Day Africa 2013, Feast, Famine and Potluck short story competition.

1st Place

My Father’s Head by Okwiri Odour (Kenya)


2nd Place

Choke by Jayne Bauling (South Africa)


3rd Place

Chicken by Efemia Chela (Zambia)


Short Story Day Africa is grateful to the support of the writing community of Africa, and especially to BooksLiveAll About WritingHelena S. PaigeThe Caine Prize for African WritingModjaji Books and Botsotso for sponsoring the prizes.


Also to Petina GappahIsabella MorrisConsuelo Roland and Novuyo Rosa-Tshuma for generously giving their time and love of the craft to judge the competition. Buy their books, they’re wonderful and we can all learn a lot from their work.


Special thanks to our team of readers, whose names can now be revealed without fear of reprisal. Tiah BeautementHenrietta Rose-InnesDiane AwerbuckKarina Magdalena Szczurek-Brink, Alé Steyn, Na’eemah Masoet, Sheryl Kavin, Lindsay van Rensburg and Casey B Dolan.


And to all the writers who entered this year, a big thank you. We hope you’ll continue writing and submitting to competitions and publishers. There is so much talent, we wish we had the resources to work with all of you.

The Shortlist

The judges decisions are in and a shortlist has been compiled for the Short Story Day Africa Feast, Famine and Potluck Competition. Once again, the judging was completely blind. Judges were given stories stripped of names and email address and were asked not to look at the longlist on this website or on BooksLive. They readily agreed. They were asked to rate each story out of ten, and the ratings were then added together to get a final score. A few points of interest have emerged.

1. The three highest scoring stories were all scored the same, with the exception of the top scoring story: one judge judge gave it a point less than the other two judges, perhaps because she does not believe in perfect tens.

2. The top scoring story was also scored highest by the readers.

Many thanks to Isabella Morris, Consuelo Roland and Novuyo Rosa-Tshuma for dedicating their time to this project. Curious now to see what stories Petina Gappah will choose.

The Shortlist

Bloodline by Tarryn-Anne Anderson (South Africa)

Choke by Jayne Bauling (South Africa)

Chicken by Efemia Chela (Zambia)

The Dibbuk by Manu Herbstein (Ghana)

My Father’s Head by Okwiri Oduor (Kenya)

Burning Woman by Michelle Preen (South Africa)

Congratulations to the shortlisted authors.