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In Conversation: Petina Gappah

Catapulted into the literary world with her accomplished debut, Petina Gappah has being hailed as a major literary voice by critics. Winner of the 2009 Guardian First Book Award, an ‘Elegy for Easterly,’ is a collection of short stories about life in Zimbabwe, written with musicality and humour. While her book has been very successful, Gappah has a wish, to have the same impact Jane Austen had on Literature. I interviewed her for The New African Woman in 2009. So, here is Petina Gappah in her own words.

DSC_1259Belinda: How long have you been writing?

Petina: I have always wanted to be a writer. The first time I wrote something for myself and not for school, I think I was 10 years old. But I grew up in a Zimbabwe, where all our parents wanted us to do was get an education, get a profession and go to university and I didn’t know any black or Zimbabwean writers, there were none apart from Dambudzo Marechera. I also didn’t know any black writer in English. Tsitsi Dangarembga, who was the first woman to write a novel in English, only wrote hers when I was 17. So I never grew up with this idea that it was a possibility for me and I really didn’t think of it as a job. I was persuaded by my teachers and my parents to do law at university but I was still writing. I never really thought of myself as a writer until fairly late in life. I think I only wrote my first short story in 2006 and that’s what started the whole process.

Belinda: What inspired the collection of short stories?

Petina: I’m inspired and I take my stories from real life. Every single story in the book is based on something that actually happened. It either happened to me or a friend or something I read about in the newspaper. I always give the example of ‘The Mupandawana Dancing Competition’ story. It was inspired by a newspaper report in The Herald, Zimbabwe’s main daily paper. There was this headline about this man who had died while dancing. It was a sad little story but it was also very funny. So, that inspired me to write a completely different story about someone who had died while dancing in the same way that the character in the newspaper had died. So yes, the stories are inspired by things that happened in Zimbabwe.

Belinda: How long did it take you to write the collection?

Petina: I write everyday but these things take their own time. I started writing in, maybe January and finished in December. I write like a lawyer revising a contract, I revise and revise and that for me is also part of writing.

Belinda: Who are your influences in the literary world?

Petina: I can only talk about the writers I love and the writers I like. I can’t really say who or what my influences are because that’s for somebody else to read my work and say there’s something very Dangarembg about this or very Morrison in this. ‘Song of Solomon’ is one of my favourite books. I also love ‘Nervous Conditions’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I think for a lot of Zimbabwean women writers; that was the novel which showed writing was not just about politics or prostitutes. She talks about very familiar things and wrote about the domestic space and national space from the perspective of individuals. I read a lot of women writers but there are also a lot of men who have been very influential in terms of the way I want to write. Paul Auster is one of the most beautiful writers that I have read; just beautiful sentences. I love Indian writers, Arundhati Roy, author of ‘The God Of Small Things,’ is absolutely amazing and I love Jane Austen. I would like to have the kind of impact that Jane Austen has had. Somebody once said to me that literature is what gives life to history. You read these wonderful books by Jane Austen and you know how people lived, what their concerns were and you think my goodness, these people were just like me. These are people in a foreign country, white people in England years ago and you sort of think, goodness, we all share the same things. I always think Austen is an African writer. There is something very African about her characters, you know those gossiping women, that kind of thing. I just love her work.

Belinda: How would you describe your writing style and voice?

Petina: I’m afraid I can’t because I don’t know what it is that makes me different from another person. I’ll tell you one thing and this is where Toni Morrison may actually be one of my biggest influences, I believe that each book, each story should have its own language. I’m not sure that you will ever read a book from me that’s exactly like the next or the last book. I believe that each thing that you write has to have its own language. For me, it is really important to write with music. I love the musicality of some writers like the ones that I have mentioned. I’m also very concerned about craft as well as the story.

Belinda: Your stories focus on Zimbabwe, were you concerned that you would alienate readers who might not be able to understand the cultural aspects and details of the stories?

Petina: No. One of the things I absolutely hate is to open a book with a glossary that tells you this foreign word means hello. I can’t stand that because it assumes that I’m stupid and that some languages are so annoying, you can’t understand them within their context. But you will never find Agatha Christie for example, who uses French with a glossary that says bonjour means hello because she assumes that you are working hard with the text to assume what Poirot is saying. So, I find it offensive that a glossary is used for some languages and not for others. I wanted to write a book that reflected the way Zimbabweans talk. And one of the things I refused to do was to use a glossary for any of my stories because I believe that the Shona and Ndebele words that I used should be understandable within their context and if they are not understandable, then I have failed as a writer.

Belinda: Your book came out at a time when Zimbabwe was high on the news agenda. Were you concerned that you would be seen as a traitor of your own heritage?

Petina: What’s my heritage? Political repression and vote rigging is not my heritage, so if I’m writing a story that is critical of those things, I would say that I’m not betraying anything. In fact, I would say that I’m being true to principles on which liberation in Zimbabwe was fought. We fought for one man, one vote, we fought for equality and those are principles that I still believe in and if some people believe that my book is treacherous, well that is for them to explain what they mean by me being a traitor. I’m not going to defend Robert Mugabe. How can I? I don’t agree with his politics and policies. So, I have absolutely no hesitation at all in writing a book that might be considered critical to him because I think he is on the wrong side of history.

Belinda: Have you had any negative responses from Zimbabwe or Zimbabweans in the diaspora?

Petina: Yes, I have had some negative comments but I’m not going to obesse myself with that because it is expected. But one thing that I have really loved is that people across the political divide have just absolutely loved this book because they recognise themselves in it.

Belinda: There is something that tugs at you emotionally about the different characters in the stories. How important is it for you as a writer to bring these kinds of emotional facets to your work?

Petina: It is everything. I really work hard at humour and pathos. I want to move you and I want to make you laugh and I think if you do that, you have got something. And for me, it is important that I write things that are truthful.

Belinda: Did you ever dream of the international success that you have had with your book?

Petina: No. I always thought that I would get something published but I never imagined that it would be with Faber and Faber, and I certainly never imagined that it would be at this level.

Belinda: Your first book has done very well, has it put any pressure on you to make sure your novel is as good as the collection of the short stories?

Petina: No, the only pressure I have is to be the best that I can be and do the best I can do. I’m very lucky in the sense that I have had a good start to my career. ‘An Elegy For Easterly,’ I hope is not the best book I’m going to write. So, the next one can only get better and the one after that; I don’t want to be one of those writers where you say, her early work was good and her latter work is shit. I really don’t want that. It would kill me because you are supposed to get better.

Belinda: The response to the book has been great, do you at all think you have served as a voice for the ordinary Zimbabwean?

Petina: The whole voice for Zimbabwe thing is a very useful marketing tool and publishing is an industry that works on hyperbole and exaggeration. I’m speaking what I see as my truth and the truth of my country at a particular point in history. If it happens to coincide with reality on the ground, brilliant but I really can’t say that I’m speaking for everyone.

About Petina Gappah

Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer and an international trade lawyer based in Geneva. Her work has appeared in eight countries and she has been published in Prospect, Farafina and Per Contra.

An Elegy For Easterly is published by Faber and Faber.

ISBN – 978-0571246939

Image of Petina Gappah: Used with the permission of the author

Photographer: Claude Laffely

Please, do not use without permission.

Note: This article first appeared in the New African Woman magazine, third edition, 2009


6 Responses to “In Conversation: Petina Gappah”

  1. Myne Whitman says:

    Beautiful picture and nice interview. I didn’t know her book was a collection of short stories.

  2. Belinda Otas says:

    Yes, its a collection of short stories. Thanks for the compliments on the interview.

  3. Temitayo says:

    I enjoyed reading this interview. I visit Petina’s blog…yet to read the book sha. LOLed at opening a book with a glossary. For some books then, the glossary could as well be the whole book. Belinda, now I want to read this magazine 🙂

  4. Belinda Otas says:

    Thanks Temi and happy to hear you enjoyed reading the interview. The magazine, you should get it, its is good and well worth reading. Thanks for visiting my page and taking your time to comment.

  5. Penny says:

    Lovely interview Belinda, I enjoyed reading it. Being a Zimbabwean myself I am pleased to see my fellow people doing well and achieving such literary acclaim. I had never heard of her book but it will definately go on my reading list for this year.

  6. Belinda Otas says:

    Thanks Penny. Glad to hear you enjoyed it!

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