The Zimbabwean writer was inspired by Faulkner, Eliot and Toni Morrison for “Out of Darkness, Shining Light,” a fictional account of the journey David Livingstone’s workers took transporting his body.
The floppy disk where Petina Gappah saved early drafts of her historical-fiction novel “Out of Darkness, Shining Light” now serves as a lucky charm, 21 years after she began.
It took that long because the story she wanted to tell was a complex one: that of the arduous, nine-month journey in 1873 of 69 workers as they transported the body of the explorer David Livingstone from the interior of Africa to the coast of Zanzibar, where he was carried to Britain for burial. It took so much research that Gappah, 48, finished and published three other books over the time she worked on it, while navigating a career as an international trade lawyer in Geneva.
She scoured book fairs and museums, acquiring a first edition of Henry M. Stanley’s “How I Found Livingstone,” as well as other “Livingstonia” related to the man, who died in what is now Zambiaas he searched for the source of the Nile. “I remember at one time spending something like $4,000 for a huge collection of stuff,” Gappah said. “I had to not eat lunch for three months.”
Yet she couldn’t shake her interest in his legacy. “Livingstone is the only missionary who still has monuments to his name in almost every African country he traversed,” she said. “That says something extraordinary, I think, about his character.”
Inspired by William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” Gappah initially wrote her novel through the shifting perspectives of 15 characters, but she later pared it down to two: Halima, a cook who isn’t afraid to speak her mind (“I do not know what I have ever done that I should be surrounded by ugly men,” she says at one point), and Jacob Wainwright, a former slave who received a formal education and became a translator.
“Middlemarch,” another of Gappah’s favorite books, also informed her approach. “What George Eliot does is center these huge reforms happening in England on individuals in a tiny little town,” she said. “That was a model that I thought, wow, that is something I could use in my own writing.”
With “Shining Light,” which Scribner is publishing in the United States on Sept. 10, she wanted to shed light on individuals like Halima and Jacob, who might not otherwise receive much attention, as well as on the East African slave trade that many of them witnessed firsthand.
“I want people to know that they were more than just adult companions,” Gappah said. “They were people with their own wishes, own desires and own motives.”
‘Expectations that were put on me’
Gappah first read about Livingstone as a 10-year-old, when she was one of a handful of black students at the predominantly white Alfred Beit School in Harare. She struggled to regain her native language of Shona when she went on to St. Dominic’s Chishawasha, a girls’ boarding school.
After earning a law degree at the University of Zimbabwe, she continued her studies at Graz University in Austria and the University of Cambridge in Britain, experiences she called “dislocating” because of her race and the challenges of picking up new languages (she speaks four: Shona, English, French and German). She later moved to Geneva and worked at the World Trade Organization for 17 years, before returning to Harare, where she now lives.
Although she was writing all that time, Gappah felt obligated to pursue what her family considered a “professional” career in law, finance or medicine. “It was particularly important in my family because I was the very first ever descendant of all my ancestors to go to university. There were expectations that were put on me,” she said, and she also had four younger siblings for whom she wanted to set an example.
In 2007, she submitted a short story to the online writers group Zoetrope Virtual Studio, where it attracted the interest of the publisher of the literary journal Per Contra. She still has the check, never cashed, that she received as payment.
“It was a symbol of something amazing, that not only could I write something that people liked, but I could actually get paid for it,” Gappah said. “For me that was the beginning.”
‘Stories that make you cry and laugh’
Gappah has at times felt dissatisfied with her writing, finding both inspiration and frustration in literary masterpieces. “I would write something, and then I would think it’s not good enough. Then I would read ‘Song of Solomon’ by Toni Morrison or ‘Middlemarch,’” she said, “and I would think, I am never going to be George Eliot, so why bother? Then I would give up.”
Other words by Morrison helped reinvigorate her. In a Paris Review interview, Morrison spoke about the importance of revision, which motivated Gappah to keep going. She landed a two-book deal with Faber & Faber in 2008, publishing a short-story collection, “An Elegy for Easterly,” followed by a novel, “The Book of Memory,” with the London-based publishing house. A second collection, “Rotten Row,” came out in 2017.
“Elegy for Easterly” won the Guardian’s 2009 First Book Awardand was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe calls Gappah “a master of the tragicomedy,” adding: “Not many writers are able to pull off stories that make you cry and laugh at the same time.”
The New Yorker’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman, who edited Gappah’s “A Short History of Zaka the Zulu” for the magazine in 2016, said she remembers being “particularly impressed, in that story, with the way that she melded both the specifics of her characters and the sociopolitical context — Zimbabwe’s cultural and economic divisions.”
Zimbabwe, the setting for her many of her stories, will also be in focus in Gappah’s next books, which, like “Shining Light,” she expects to be historical fiction. “I thought, let me write the story of the black people of Zimbabwe,” she said, “the others who are not being talked about.” – New York Times