Durban – A Buddhist monk, dusty back alleys, a sleazy cafe owner and shimmering pagodas are all woven into Whisper of the Lotus, the newly released novel by former journalist Gabrielle Yetter, who regards Cambodia as her “soul home”.
The first 57 days of proceeds from the book, which has just been launched, will be donated to anti-trafficking non-profit organisation Justice and Soul.
Yetter spent her teen years in Durban where she went to Maris Stella school, studied journalism at the Natal Technikon (now Durban University of Technology) and worked at The Star in Johannesburg before heading to the United States for a year of travelling.
She also spent four years in Cambodia, which is the setting for her story.
Speaking to the Independent on Saturday this week, Yetter said she and her husband, Skip, moved to Cambodia in 2010.
“We’d been living in Massachusetts and were attracted to the idea of a brand-new lifestyle, so we sold or gave away all our possessions and bought one-way tickets to Phnom Penh, where we worked as English resource volunteers for NGOs (non-governmental organisations),“ she said.
Now living in the UK for the past two years, Yetter started the book in 2016 while she and her husband were travelling around the world, and finished it this year.
She said: “I loved the process of creating word pictures from my imagination. Because Whisper of the Lotus is based in Cambodia, I was able to relive and recapture the sights, smells, and sounds of the country I fell in love with, as well as create characters based on people we knew. The tuk-tuk driver, SomOn, is an actual person who drove me to work every day for three years and became a friend.
“The challenges lay in finding the right words to capture these memorable moments: how to take readers into stinky open-air markets or along sandy, potholed roads to remote villages, and how to describe the gentle, inquisitive nature of Cambodians and illustrate some of the pain they experienced from the horrific past of the country,” she said.
The main character in the novel is Charlotte Fontaine, a young woman who travels to Phnom Penh to visit her best friend and meets a mysterious elderly man on the flight. When she arrives, she discovers a land of golden temples, orange-clad monks and kind-hearted people. But she realises many things are not what they seem, including her own family relationships, which bubble to the surface through a series of revelations, said Yetter.
She decided to donate the first 57 days of the proceeds of her book to the non-profit anti-trafficking organisation Justice and Soul.
“It is an organisation that provides training for at-risk youth rescued from trafficking in Cambodia. It was founded by Matthew Fairfax who became a close friend in Phnom Penh. His work is inspirational and the organisation does wonderful work in providing hope and promise to young people who could have been throwaways in society.
“Since trafficking is such a dreadful problem in that part of the world and I wanted to give back to the country that became my soul home, Justice and Soul was the obvious choice for me,” said Yetter.
Whisper of the Lotus has been described as “a multi-layered story full of memorable characters and the sights and senses of a magical country. It is a story about friendship and family, love and identity, a tale of no matter how far you travel, the path will always lead you back to yourself”.
Other books Yetter has written include The Definitive Guide to Moving to Southeast Asia: Cambodia and the Sweet Tastes of Cambodia, as well as two books for children, Ogden, The Fish Who Couldn’t Swim Straight and Martha the Blue Sheep, as well as Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of Adventure, which she co-wrote with Skip.
Yetter was back in Durban three years ago for a Maris Stella school reunion and said some of her best memories of the province were the “gorgeous views and lush countryside of Valley of 1000 Hills“, as well as “passing fields of sugar cane, hiking in the Berg and travelling to Hluhluwe to soak up the magic of the bush”.
Whisper of the Lotus is available on Amazon as a paperback or e-book.
Independent on Saturday