Writer of 'a girls' guide to the struggle'

2008-08-11 00:00

ANNA Trapido was born in Britain and grew up in Oxford where her father, Stanley Trapido, who died earlier this year, was a historian and her mother, Barbara Trapido, is a well-known novelist. Both were born in South Africa, but left the country in the early sixties to make their lives overseas.

Anna Trapido did not set out either to be a historian or a writer. Her first degree, at Cambridge, was in anthropology, followed by a PhD in occupational medicine at Wits.

What brought her to South Africa, I ask. “I don’t feel at home in England,” she says simply. “I have this funny accent [she certainly sounds like a middle-class, middle-England Brit] and I like English cheese, but I just don’t feel at home.”

She thinks that perhaps it is because her parents were homesick at the time she was born. Her younger brother is English and settled, but Trapido says that she feels very at home here, and very foreign anywhere else.

She now lives near Pretoria on a farm with her husband and eight-month-old son.

“Medieval monks used to wander around — from Ireland to Normandy and so on. They would settle where they felt there was what they described as a hole in the atmosphere, where they felt closest to God. And that’s where they stayed. I’m not here to be morally virtuous — it’s just my hole in the atmosphere,” she says.

She started her working life running public health projects in the Eastern Cape. “But I began to realise that, while I was getting good data, I wasn’t doing it the usual way,” she says. “I loved my subjects, but was interested in the individuals, not in the groups. And epidemiologists should be interested in populations, not individuals.”

Her way of finding out about people was to stand in queues with them and share her sandwiches. She found out a lot, but admits the work was demoralising, and that she was very young and emotionally out of her depth.

“I decided that what I like most is cooking, and so I went off to chef school.” Now, she can combine her love for food and cooking with her earlier training — “so I didn’t waste the first 10 years of my adult life”, she says.

She describes what she does as “food sociology”, not food writing in the classic sense, and describes her book, tongue-in-cheek, as “a girls’ guide to the struggle”. This doesn’t do justice to a terrific read and fascinating piece of research.

“But the ‘what were you wearing and what were you cooking?’ questions are the interesting ones,” she says. “And maybe the struggle does need a Girls’ Guide. There was Thayanayagee Pillay, who cooked for the treason trialists right through the six years of the trial, even in the week when her husband died. Those are stories that should be told.” And Trapido is telling them.

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