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.

One thought on “Conversation with Petina Gappah

  1. I just finished listening to Ms Gappah’s interview and reading on the BBC’s The Strand. Most certainly makes me want to read her collection of stories.

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