The Spark: Tokoloshe Song

tokoloshesongInspired by John Scalzi’s awesome The Big Idea,  The Spark is a guest space on my blog, where African novelists can promote their new novels by writing a short personal essay about the inspiration (or the spark) for the story.

It’s a side project  I run in my spare time because there’s incredible writing talent on the continent (and the diaspora) and I want to shine a blazing light on it.

Authors have previously written about how their novels were inspired by wondering what if the crazy tabloid headlines were true or by a popular Soweto ghost story, or because you were clawing your way out of depression,  or trying to live down the embarrassment of being a black student mugged by a white guy, or because Rihanna saved your life or you wrote this story because you wanted to look fancy reading alone in bars.

The Spark for Tokoloshe Song by Andrew Salomon


I had been writing short stories for a number of years and even though I wanted to write a novel, I kept putting off actually starting it. I could cite all kinds of excuses for my procrastination: work commitments; having to paint the house; the dogs need exercising, but the real reason was that I was worried I might not be able to pull it off, or that I would manage to write a novel and it would be crap.

But then a friend told me about the inaugural Terry Pratchett First Novel Award. It seemed perfect: here was an award sponsored by the publisher of one of my favourite authors, plus the prize money was in that fabled currency (especially to a South African) – pounds. Sometimes the promise of fame and fortune are just what an aspiring novelist needs to actually get down to committing those 80,000 words or so to paper (I have since downgraded those expectations of fame and fortune to slight notoriety and a bit of cash – the former is taking shape, the latter I’m still waiting for).

A short story I had written was one of the winners of the PEN/Studzinski Literary Awards for African Fiction and featured a tokoloshe – a knee-high, much-maligned creature from southern African folklore. I got a great deal of positive feedback from readers about this character so I decided to use a tokoloshe in the novel since his would allow me to further mine the rich vein of African mythology. I wanted to portray tokoloshes as intelligent, emotional creatures that, instead of being inherently evil, are misunderstood and act out against the prejudice directed at them. And I wanted to write a rollicking story, a thriller that happened to have fantasy – homegrown African fantasy – in it.

So I wrote the novel and entered it for the Terry Pratchett First Novel award and to my shock and delight it got shortlisted. It didn’t win but I then thought I wouldn’t have much of a hard time getting an agent and getting published – both turned out to be erroneous assumptions. This was at a time when e-books were just taking off and there was a great deal of uncertainty in the publishing industry. I became very familiar with rejections from agents and publishers. Recurring themes were that unless you are already an established writer, or it’s a cookbook, forget it.

Fortunately Tokoloshe Song was accepted by Umuzi, the South African imprint of Random House, who paired me with an excellent editor and a fantastic cover designer.

The novel ended up having lots of characters – along with the two main characters: Lun, the tokoloshe, and Richard who befriends him while volunteering at a Cape Town shelter for mistreated tokoloshes, there is also a book-loving assassin, a Cape Town crime lord, a pair of midwives equally adept at guiding an infant safely through a difficult birth and doling out vengeance to a murderer, and Mamron, a monster as twisted in his heart as his misshapen exterior suggests. Some of the characters were created specifically for the novel, while others had their origins in earlier, unpublished short stories.

Writing the novel gave me the chance to draw on my own experiences as an archaeologist working in South Africa, Mozambique and Zambia, and I could also borrow incidents that others had told me about, like a friend’s terrible but also hilarious experiences in the sometime-bizarre world of internet dating. My research also turned up some unexpected local gems like discovering that Mossel Bay is the only place in the world where great white sharks breach while hunting at night. Great whites breaching at night? How can a writer not use that?

Andrew Salomon’s author profile on Goodreads:

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