A Moment in Gappah’s “The Annexe Shuffle”

Of the stories written by Petina Gappah that I have read, there are some whose narrator luxuriates in the musicality of language, introducing an ease in narration only exemplified in few instances in Zimbabwean literature. The few instances can be found in Charles Mungoshi, Memory Chirere, Yvonne Vera, and of course, now, Petina Gappah, who promises to take it to a new level. Here is a taste of the language play I am talking about, exemplified in “The Annexe Shuffle”, the Per Contra version:

They bring her to Dr. Chikara, Emily; the Dean of Students on one side, the Warden of Swinton Hostel on the other. Dr. Chikara is not who she expected. His office is an empty space with nothing on the walls. There are no books by Freud and Jung. There is no couch in sight. He does not talk about the id or the ego. Instead, from behind his government-issue desk, he directs her to a government-issue chair.

He smokes Kingsgate cigarettes, one after the other.

He writes down everything she says.

‘Canst thou minister to a mind diseased?’ she asks him. ‘Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow?’

He writes this down.

‘May I have a cigarette,’ she says, without a question mark.

‘Do you smoke?’ he asks, with a question mark.

‘I do now,’ she says as she lights one of his cigarettes. She coughs out smoke through teary eyes.

He writes that down too.

‘I am sending you to the Annexe,’ he says, ‘the mental wing at Parirenyatwa Hospital.’

The word mental and the word hospital combine to produce a loud clanging in her mind. ‘I am not mad,’ she says.

‘No, of course you are not mad’, he says. ‘Madness has nothing to do with it. You only need rest, all you need is rest.’ Read more in Per Contra.

There is something pleasurable about the style, and it makes me want to read more. Although I am yet to read the short story collection, I can safely say, based on the few anthologized stories of Gappah I have read, a new narrator is born in Zimbabwean literature.

Or did I state that  I have seen traces of this narrator in Toni Morrison, in Paradise, for instance? I have, but as you know, each individual is distinct. This narrator promises to make us laugh, cry, curse, but managing still to make us love her/him.

Conversation with Petina Gappah

Petina Gappah is a rising star, and in this insighful interview, she talks about her writing career, her soon-to-be-released short story collection, Elegy for Easterly, and her views on Zimbabwean literature.

1. Congratulations on the publication of An Elegy for Easterly. What does this big step mean to you?

Thank you very much. It is a huge step. It means the fulfilment of a life’s dream. To be published by Faber, to be in the company of T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Siegfried Sassoon, William Golding, Orhan Pamuk, Owen Sheers , P.D. James, Kazuo Ishiguro and other writers I love is almost too good to be real.

2. How has your personal background contributed to your writing of Elegy for Easterly; for instance, are there traces of yourself in any of the characters in the stories?

I think of my writing as a compulsive form of theft. Every story I have written is based on at least one true thing. This could be something that happened to me, to someone in my family, to a friend, to someone in a friend’s family, or something I read. My Aunt Juliana’s Indian was inspired by my childhood memory of Muzorewa’s UANC campaigning in the townships of Salisbury in 1979 and 1980. My Cousin-sister Rambanai tells a story that is familiar to most Zimbabweans, the shedding of an old identity to assume a new one in the diaspora. The Maid from Lalapanzi was inspired by the memory of some of the domestic workers who assisted my mother when I was growing up. The Mupandawana Dancing Champion was inspired by a news report in The Herald. And so on. Stories sometimes come to me when I least expect them: I was walking at Victoria Station in London a year ago, and playing a private game that I call “Spot the Zimbabwean” – I have the finely-honed ability to spot a Zimbabwean in any crowd – and I saw two people who looked Zimbabwean. To prove this to myself, I moved closer to them, and heard one of them say: Ufunge, kubva musi waauya haana kana kumbotengawo kana nyama. I thought, Bingo, then I thought, Now there is a story there.

3. How long have you been writing fiction?

Almost every writer says, I have been writing since I was 3, or I began to write before I drew my first breath, or something like that. I was not such a prodigy, alas. I have been writing for as long as I have been aware of the power of stories to create a firmer reality than the present. Not that I would have put it in those terms then, I was just a kid who liked stories and thought I’d try to write a few of my own. I wrote my first “novel”, if you can call it that, when I was about 10. It was set on Mars and called Return to Planet Earth! I was also ballet-obsessed at the time, and my second (and self-illustrated!) novel plagiarised quite shamelessly the Drina books by Jean Estoril. To amuse my brother and sister, I also wrote nonsense poetry in imitation of Ogden Nash and Hillaire Beloc, whose poetry we loved. These literary gems were taken for rubbish by the man who helped in our garden, and he burned them with other trash.

My first published story, “Marooned on a Desert Island”, was published when I was in Form Two, in the St. Dominic’s school magazine, Santa Dee Blues. My first earnings from writing came when I was in Form 4, when I won an award of 100 dollars in the Randalls Essay Writing Competition. I then started writing really bad poetry like this: “The beggar in the street sang out to me/I hurried on, averting the sight/To look on such suffering must be/Avoided at all cost/And still his raucous voice haunted me/ His raucous voice still taunted me.”

It was grim. Happily, I very quickly got over that stage.
Then I went to university where I became consumed by my law studies, by being a Marxist-Leninist, and by falling in and out of love. I kept a journal through my university days, but wrote no fiction. I left Zimbabwe in 1995 for postgraduate studies, then I started working as a lawyer in Geneva in 1999. Although I sometimes contributed the occasional opinion piece to newspapers, I wrote very little but talked all the time about how I wanted to be a writer. Like an unfortunately large number of writers I have come to know, I wanted to be a writer without actually doing any writing! I really only started writing, and, this is a crucial distinction, finishing things, in 2006. My first short story, Something Nice from London was published that year. My second story, At the Sound of the Last Post did extremely well in the SA PEN contest, and the rest followed from there.

4. It’s been said that your book deal with Faber and FSG is a big step in Zimbabwean literature. Do you agree?

The book deal is one thing, whether the books are any good is the question that will determine whether this is a big step for Zimbabwean literature. And that, of course, is not for me to judge. But there is this: I have found that in publishing, it helps to have a precedent. So the fact that both Brian Chikwava and I are being published by top publishers may, depending on our success, make other publishers take a closer look at other Zimbabwean writers who are coming up.

5. I have often told people that you are a hardworking writer, have noticed that you are involved in many writing projects. You have participated in international writing contests, have won second place in the PEN/Africa Prize judged by J.M. Coetzee. But you have also been a columnist for media outlets like Zimbabwe Times, where your stinging criticism of poor governance in Zimbabwean politics has intrigued readers. You are also a satirist of the highest order, and you maintain a frequently updated, professional blog. On top of all this, you are a busy lawyer. How do you manage to do all this, and in what ways have you been able to balance fiction and non-fiction works in your writing career?

Thanks for those kind words. I believe it was Susan Sonntag who advised writers to engage with the world. Hemingway shot things, climbed mountains and wrote. Scott Turow writes thrillers, and runs a legal practice devoted to death penalty cases. P.D. James worked for the NHS, raised her children as a single mother, and gave us the wonderful Dalgliesh novels.

Lady James in particular is an inspiration, because she shows it is possible to have two lives: she had solid professional achievements before she turned to writing. I was a lawyer before I became a writer, I published academic papers on international trade law before I published fiction. I see no conflict at all between my professional life and my writing of fiction. If anything, the one feeds the other, and I am grateful to have both. I love my job and being a lawyer, and I love writing….

The full interview will appear in the March/April Issue of Munyori Literary Journal, which is also going to feature works by Valerie Tagwira, Naomi Benaron, Dike Okoro and others.

The Faber & Faber edition of Elegy for Easterly will be released in April, and you can read the first lines of all the stories on Petina’s author website.

Christopher Mlalazi Wins the NAMA

Zimbabwe has ceased to make sense to most people. They have wondered how people could exist in a country where the perecentage of inflation is in the billions, and bread costs millions. Economists don’t even understand in what ways Zimbabwe is a useful case study anymore.

 But there is one place you can always count on to understand a people and the situation they are going through–that place is literature. Already there are signs that the world will be gripped by Zimbabwean literature, understanding for the first time the dynamics of a dire situation.

One writer who has arisen out of this situation is Chrisopher Mlalazi, whose stories catalogue Zimbabwe’s hard hours. His short story collection, “Dancing with Life and Other Stories”, published by aMabooks, has won the highest literary Award in Zimbabwe, the NAMA (National Arts Merit Award) for best first published book.

More developments are occuring in Zimbabwean literature. Faber (UK) and FSG (USA) gave a joint book deal to Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah, a lawayer based in Geneva, whose stories portray contemporary life in Zimbabwe. Another writer, Brian Chikwava, who is based in the UK, has published, with Random House, a novel entitled Harare North, which deals with the struggles of Zimbabwe in the UK.

There are more works too, works that openly are an indictment of failed governance, and others that celebrate life even where it seems impossible.

Hard Times Have Freed Zimbabwean Literature

Zimbabwean literature in English has a short history, only having started in the 70’s with the writings of Charles Mungoshi and a few other writers. The literature started in war time, when the country was still under white minority rule, which meant that the writers had to exercise a degree of self-censorship in order not to get in trouble. So this early literature was mainly rooted in moralism and the troubles of domesticity. Some, especially that written in Shona and Ndebele, the dominant indegenous languages of the country, was state-controlled, since it was channeled through what was then the Rhodesia Literature Bureau. So the overal effect of the literature was that it was not a threat to the government.

Then came Dambudzo Marechera, a Zimbabwean writer who was based in England, who published his ground-breaking novella House of Hunger, which was a sting on the government of the day, as well as an advance indictment of the upcoming Zimbabwean majority government. It was his writing, in its avant-gardist nature, which introduced defiance and non-conformity to Zimbabwean literature, but for much of the early eighties, immediately after Zimbabwe got its independence, Marechera did not have many followers; in fact, many African readers dismissed him as irrelevant to issues African. To them ,he was not African enough in his writing, so he was not frequently mentioned in matters of African literature on the continent.

Then came the late eighties and all of the nineties, when Marechera had died, and Zimbabwe was going through many economic and political changes. By then he had a large following of young writers, most of whom belonged to one of the largest writers’ organization in the country, Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe (BWAZ). These writers had great promise and revered Marechera’s radicalism and courage in his writing, but not many publishers were willing to risk publishing these young dreamers. So many were discouraged, but a lot continued to work hard on their art.

Up to the mid-nineties, much of Zimbabwean literature had still not fully recovered from the euphoria of Zimbabwean independence, and was therefore still appealing to what had already been defined as the real Zimbabwean literature, state defined. This literature still lacked the courage to pierce the heart of socio-political problems; it was afraid of artistic risk. The promising young writers were receiving rejections, realizing then that to be published they had to present material that would suit the publishers’ needs. And the main market for the literature were students, who could only read “certain” kinds of literature, the “suitable” kind. A Marechera-type book was not suibale for secondary school, neither was a book that seemed not to follow rules, because were the schools not trying to teach the students to be leaders of tomorrow? So there were more years of mediocre literature produced for schools.

But now, when it has become clear to Zimbabwean citizens that the greatest betrayal can come from the leaders of the country, after they have watched overt actions by the government to restrict freedom of expression, the people have lost respect for the government, which has not been useful to them for a long time. The unbearable levels of hardship in the country have taught the people to fight hard for survival, to do whatever it takes to remain alive. Among these people are writers, most of whom are the formerly rejected budding writers who have now matured, with their non-conformist tendencies. Writers existing in the harshest of enviroments, driven by words that defy control. The writer in present Zimbabwe had no time to rest; plots rain from every direction as the country continues to shock the world with its drama.

The Zimbabwean situation has shifted the production of literature from semi-conformist to free and courageous art. First, there is more writing than ever before, with the internet working as an outlet for much of the writing. The large number of Zimbabweans in the diaspora has also led to the expansion of free writing, with much of the new works employing satire both to make people laugh, but also to make direct criticism of failing governance.

Writers like Petina Gappah, Brian Chikwava, and Chris Mlalazi are expert satirists, who write without restraint. Mlalazi’s writing, in particular, is openly political, but because he is a master craftsman, the writing also is at best literary. More Zimbabwean voices are represented in the anthologies published in the country, which show writers like Ignatius Mabasa, Wonder Guchu, Joyce Mutiti, and Nhamo Mhiripiri dealing with the hard times in the country. The writing portrays today’s Zimbabwe, capturing the craziness, but it also manages to show that even in a situation of total chaos, life still finds a way to go on, courageously. Even when everyone has to wonder where the next meal is coming from, literature is still being produced, literature that will define an era and set the trend for tomorrow.

The young writer Tinashe Mushakavanhu, who is based in the UK, speculated at the beginning of 2009 that his may be the year for Zimbabwean literature. This literature, a giant that’s been sleeping for many years is awakening, and, as another Zimbabwean writers, Ivor Hartman, has said, it’s “an African Roar”.

Here are some of the Zimbabwean writers who will open a wide window to the Zimbabwean experience this year: Petina Gappah (whose first short story collection compelled Faber & Faber (UK) to do a transatlantic joint book deal with FSG (New York), a first deal of its kind in the history of book deals. We are yet to see what these publishers saw in this book, but whatever it is, it certainly has begun to work because the book, by the time it comes out in April, would have been translated in numerous languages, including Dutch, Italian, and others. Wonder Guchu has been described as “a literary heavyweight” and he is. He edits one of the vibrant online journals in Zimbabwe, artsinitiates, which showcases the country’s writing today, and what it promises to be in the future. Chris Mlalazi, who is a master satirist and stylist, one of the most courageous writers of the times, whose gems are in a collection entitled Dancing With Life, published in 2008 has several of his short stories StoryTime, a magazine for new African writing, edited by Ivor Hartman, a Zimbabwean based in South Africa.

Not all the writers are polical, of course, but they are all courageous and risky, finally taking Zimbabwean literature to levels that Dambudzo Marechera and  Yvonne Vera would have wanted it to go. This new literature will portray Zimbabwe to the world in its deepest sense; it is a literature of witness, illuminating what William Faulkner described as humans’ tendency of not only enduring, but also prevailing.

Ignatius Mabasa to Read Shona Poetry in San Francisco

photo by Fungai J.T.

Listen, I am too excited about this news to know where to begin, but let’s start with this announcement from the organizers of the Second San Francisco International Poetry Festival:

Second San Francisco International Poetry Festival will Ring through the City in July 23-27, 2009

Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, Mayor Gavin Newsom, Jack Hirschman and the San Francisco Public Library will present the second San Francisco International Poetry Festival, July 23-27, 2009. The festival will take place at the Palace of Fine Arts and various venues and libraries throughout San Francisco.

The Festival honors our City’s great legacy of hosting and encouraging cross cultural dialogue. In 2007, the three-day extravaganza drew thousands of people from the Bay Area for free and open-to-the-public poetry and music at both large and small venues throughout the City, including a street party in North Beach, youth events, book signings, translation workshops and more.

This year’s landmark event will be co-hosted by Poet-in-Residence for Friends of the SFPL, Jack Hirschman; United States Poet Laureate Kay Ryan; California Poet Laureate Carol Muske-Dukes and the San Francisco Poet Laureate (to be named). San Francisco Poet Laureate emeritus Lawrence Ferlinghetti will be presented with a special honor.

Fifteen poets from around the world will journey to the Festival, reading together with the leaders of San Francisco’s own highly regarded literary community. The truly international group of poets, from countries including Bangladesh, China, France, Greece, Haiti, Iraq, Israel, Sudan and Zimbabwe, represent a wide spectrum in the world of poetry, from recognized masters to emerging new talents, who are redefining the art in our evolving times.

Since the 2007 Festival, Friends of the SFPL has presented smaller poetry festivals in a variety of languages, such as the Iranian Literary Arts Festival, Vietnamese Poets of the Diaspora and Flor y Canto en el Barrio: A Celebration of Latino Poetry, in their ongoing effort to continue to build cultural bridges, celebrate the literary arts and foster international dialogue

Mabasa has informed me that he will be representing Zimbabwe at this festival, which will take place only one-and-half hours from where I live. He will be in good company, especially considering that Jack Hirshman (current San Francisco poet laureate) and Kay Ryan (United States poet laureate) will be part of the festival, not to mention the poets from fourteen other countries; they all will get a chance to watch a great performance from the inventor of gospoetry.

Mabasa’s presence may also be an opportunity for the Sacramento Poetry community to see this vibrant performer in action; perhaps I can ask someone to host a dual performance of Mabasa and I, like we did in the old days at UZ, in Mabvuku, in Norton…

Ignatius Mabasa is the award-winning poet and author of the novels Mapenzi and Ndafa Here. Labelled the Marechera of Shona literature by Musa Zimunya, he is also a friend of mine(I had to say this. Had to).