Petina Gappah was born a traveller, in Zambia to Zimbabwean parents. The family moved back to Zim when she was nine months old. She went to school in Harare and studied law at the University of Zimbabwe. But this wasn’t enough for this international overachiever. She obtained a law master’s from the University of Cambridge and a doctorate from the University of Graz.
By Phumlani S Langa –
From 1998 she was based in Geneva, Switzerland, working as an international lawyer. And then she decided to change careers.
After having had some success with her short stories, she landed a publishing deal.
In 2009, An Elegy for Easterly lifted the Guardian First Book Award. It is a collection of 13 stories, “all but one of which are set in her homeland and feature characters struggling with the hyperinflation, bureaucracy and misogyny that beset life in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe”, according to The Guardian.
Emboldened, she moved back home for three years to write her first novel.
In 2015, her most celebrated work appeared. The Book of Memory tells the story of an albino woman on death row, clinging to her hopes of a presidential reprieve.
In 2016, she published another book of short stories titled Rotten Row.
City Press spoke to her in Europe this week, where she had been attending Edinburgh’s famous arts festival, talking books.
Over the phone she came across as highly articulate and astute, sounding like a person who spends a great deal of time contemplating society’s idiosyncrasies.
How do you handle being a writer and a lawyer?
I wrote my first three while I was still a lawyer, which was a challenge, but I have since left that behind. I resigned last year August and now I am a full-time writer. No more excuses, I guess.
How was it being at the Edinburgh Book Festival and what were the conversations around the African literary landscape?
I was there for a day and it was great. I attended a fascinating session with Akil Sharma [the Indian-American author and professor of creative writing who most recently published A Life of Adventure and Delight]. We focused on what we could do with our writing going further, impacting.
Who are you hoping to catch at the Open Book Festival?
It is my favourite African festival. I have been once before and they were good to me. I am looking forward to chatting and meeting with other writers. Who I’m hoping to see, how long do you have? Ayobami Adebayo who wrote Stay With Me, which is one. Another would definitely be Chibundu Onuzo, the author of Welcome To Lagos.
What are your views on South African book festivals that tend to be all white, except for the authors and the cleaning staff?
It’s a debate I am well aware of, but I do try to avoid it as our countries are not the same. Things are different in Zimbabwe to the way they are in South Africa. I am simply a guest and I am honoured to have been invited… I think that’s a safe way of answering that, but sidestepping it at the same time.
I believe you will be reading the Universal Declaration of Independence in Shona; talk to us a little about that.
This will take place in Berlin and the idea is to send it to [US President] Donald Trump, but I’m really not sure he will pay attention to all of us reading it in an array of languages. He barely pays attention when it’s read in English, so I’m not sure me doing it in Shona will make much difference. It is just a great chance for me to read a document I love in a language I love.
I can’t help but ask this: What are your views on the Grace Mugabe debacle?
I’m not surprised that the ANC has retrospectively given her diplomatic immunity. Even though she wasn’t in the country on state business. Just imagine the embarrassment of having your neighbouring country’s first lady in court. She has a violent history, this isn’t the first time.
What plans do you have beyond the Open Book Festival and reading the Declaration?
My new novel is done we’re just adding the final touches. I’m excited and, as I said, I can’t hide behind work any more. I would like to release 10 books. I have done four so far, so now I want do one a year until I hit 10.
What are you reading right now?
I am reading a few books off the short list of nominees for the Gordon Burn Prize. This prize is given to up-and-coming writers, which is always good. These focus on converting the news into a novel, which I think is quite interesting.
Which recent releases would you recommend as being worth a read?
Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi who is from Uganda and Tram 83 by Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila – I highly recommend these, both are terrific.
What are your views on the rising number of African female authors and do you feel that some of them might be trapped in the shadow of someone like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie?
Well, first of all, we have always been here. It shouldn’t be all that surprising. Black and white men have been dominating the space for a while, but I feel it may now be our time, I guess. And of course it is a struggle, every publisher wants their own version of Chimamanda
Open Book is on from September 6 to 10 at The Fugard theatre in Cape Town.
Gappah will be talking on reflections of justice in her work, among other topics. Visit openbookfestival.co.za for more info. This was first published by News24