‘Thanks for coming out, especially on a Sunday when you should really be in church. You’re all going to hell.’
Petina Gappah exudes warmth, intelligence, fun and an almost childlike enthusiasm for learning and striving to achieve. I have to start at the finish by saying that my most anticipated book is now her forthcoming tale about Scottish explorer David Livingstone who died in Zambia, trying to discover the source of the Nile. Gappah is telling the story of the men and women who carried his body for 9 months (dried and smoked … “like biltong”) across Africa, towards the coast. I can’t wait for the book and I know I’m not alone – the entire (packed) room collectively hummed “mmmmmmm!”.
Bianca Zander was a formal chair – reading studiously from her notes. They were excellent questions but the conversation did feel a little stiff, particularly with such a joyous and funny guest to talk to. However, an aside.
Gappah read from The Book of Memory, the story of an albino woman prisoner. The reading revealed that humour we’d seen in her from the outset, and the gift of rich dialogue and voice. For Gappah, her protagonist was always going to be albino because she set out to discuss race without talking about it – she is someone white without the privilege of being white, she is black without the identity of a black person. But over the years she took to write the novel, “all of that got lost, and in the end, Albinism was a way of showing that the family had a reason to think that there was a curse at play”.
Like many writers, Gappah suffered from anxiety of anticipation of the kind of criticism that says that a writer can only write from experience. “But I remembered that writing is an act of imagination and once I remembered that I was able to write this very interesting character”. The prison in which the character is stuck is an imagined space, but based on the largest high security prison in Zimbabwe that also contains within it the largest women’s prison. The place is, therefore, a very strange mix of offences (women are imprisoned for abortion, for example). Gappah had the opportunity to visit the prison but if she did, the government would have made her sign an agreement that would mean she could never write it. So she chose the version living in her imagination and formed from other pieces of information she gathered.
Being a high-flying trade lawyer in Geneva did come in handy, however, as the novel evolves as narrative of evidence to be used in a case of appeal. “I restrained what legal language I gave the character though – I didn’t want it to be a lawyerly book”. “And my secret passion is to be a historian anyway”, she laughs.
Petina Gappah is one of those extraordinarily talented people who you can’t envy – she is so generous and open that to be envious would feel like you were moving farther away from a person who you should really try to aspire to be more like. Writing time is early morning, before work, with the evening dedicated to revising the morning’s word count. Petina can survive on 5 – 6 hours sleep (she notes, not as good as Margaret Thatcher who got by on 4 hours – “I think that’s why she was so grumpy”) and she admires the Graeme Greene method of writing 500 words a day, meaning you can achieve a novel in three months – “and he meant exactly 500 words – he’d stop mid-sentence!”
Gappah discovered reading in 1980 (she was born in 1971) when her family moved to a place in Rhodesia where there were three libraries (her early schooling was extremely basic – “we had nothing”). She read all of the books in the children’s section, and thinks she read about 500 of Enid Blyton’s novels “but not Noddy, that was just a bridge too far”. Thomas Hardy is a particular influence and the kind of writer she wished she had spent more time aspiring to be before she published An Elegy for Easterly.
The kind of writer that Petina Gappah is not, is one that can write episodes of violence and physical destruction. “For me, I want to leave that to the readers imagination. I have respect for the writers, like Marlon James, who can go to that place, but I just can’t do it”. When she was young she read a book called Let’s go to play at Adam’s, which ‘I just can’t get out of my head and I wish I had never read it’. It is the story of a group of kids who kidnap the babysitter and do atrocious things to them. There are two things Petina will never read aloud and that is a death scene and a birth scene – both difficult to write, and almost impossible for her to revisit.
Alongside her avid reading was always avid writing. Since the age of 11, Gappah has been starting (not often finishing) stories. When she was first published, age 37, she was overcome with imposter syndrome, and with the (to her) unexpected success of her book of short stories An Elegy for Easterly (“meant to be just a little thing that came out before The Book of Memory which was the one that people were really excited about”) came an anxiety that she was going to be truly found out when her novel finally came.”But I would rather have my neuroses than be one of those writers who thinks everything they do is the shit!” I really love this woman.
A consequence of her success is her labeling as a ‘Zimbabwean writer’ or the ‘voice of Zimbabwe’. A problematic categorising that we see in many writers of colour – the anthropologisation of their talents. Gappah in no way wants to be seen as a spokesperson for Zimbabwe or for Africa – of course that would be impossible. Perhaps even more frustrating is that the labeling defines the kinds of conversations about her work. She praised Zander for asking her questions about craft and background and research. Gappah is so obviously a talented writer – it feels ludicrous that the urge to pin her down to anthropological contexts is so often the urge that wins out.
We learn toward the end of the hour that Gappah has left her job: “I handed in my resignation soon after the staff party last December – the wine just wasn’t up to standard”. “I want to do what the white students do – I want to take a gap year”. Gappah put her brothers and sisters through university when her father was unable to, so she is now looking forward to time for herself.
In answer to an audience question – “What would you have wanted adults to have done for your 11-year-old self to encourage you as a writer”, she explained that nobody knew what being a writer meant when she was a child, for there were no black women writers from Zimbabwe until 1988. The best gift, she said, “is to encourage them to play with their writing. Encourage them to keep a journal. With my son we write a story about our holiday and then bury it in the garden to dig up the next year and remember. This is the gift we can give our children – the gift of play and record and remembering”.
Reviewed by Claire Mabey
An Elegy for Easterly, published by Faber & Faber, ISBN 9780571246946
The Book of Memory, published by Faber & Faber, ISBN 9780571249626