Petina Gappah is a delight. Describing herself modestly as a “lawyer who writes, yet a reader above all else”, she was recently on a whistle-stop trip to Melbourne for the Writers Festival – warranted by An Elegy for Easterly, her first book, a collection of 13 short stories. This sanguine, satirical Zimbabwean writer is every inch the ‘what you see is what you get' kind of person.
The witty and humane stories that make up An Elegy for Easterly incorporate a spirited cross-section of Zimbabwean life against the backdrop of Robert Mugabe's regime and have received positive reviews from acclaimed writers such as J.M. Coetzee, Yiyun Li and Owen Sheers. Yet it is rather disconcerting for Petina that these ‘little' stories of hers have brought about such an effect. She says the collection of short stories was submitted for potential publishing almost as an afterthought. “At the time my agent was planning to send out a few chapters of my first novel, The Book of Memory to potential publishers and suggested that I also include a number of my short stories for submission,” Petina explains.
Yet the author was not convinced that they would be well received. “I had been told by many that short stories are the ‘ugly stepsister' in publishing and that no one trusts them enough to publish them.” Faber and Faber decided to publish both. The Book of Memory, an exploration of race and race issues in Zimbabwe from the perspective of a black Albino woman, is scheduled to be on the shelves next year, while An Elegy for Easterly was published in April 2009.
Petina's reservations regarding An Elegy for Easterly proved unnecessary – even the critics have been kind. Certainly the type of stories that she puts together could be perceived as tragic, yet their zany titles alone reflect how remarkably they are weaved together with wit. Something to which Petina herself aspires. “I feel that it is far better to embrace humour than to adopt a victim mentality – something I cannot bear. It is so easy to abdicate responsibility for your own life and your own choices, but I think the world makes more sense when you look at it through humour,” she says. “I don't like the idea that Zimbabweans are victims of Mugabe because I believe we partly created him. There are some really nasty people in Zimbabwe just as there are some really generous and wonderful people. In other words, it is a place just like anywhere else – it is not made of one kind of person oppressed by Mugabe.
“It is this which inspired me – I hope that my stories go beyond the headlines. Trying to see what life might be like for people you see as statistics. I am hoping that people will see how funny, tenacious and resilient Zimbabweans are and how similar we all are, even in our differences. Underneath the skin beats the same heart everywhere in the world.” Clearly she has achieved this ambition – the publicity and accolades received by the short stories in An Elegy for Easterly have been phenomenal. Petina also received the second prize in the 2007 HSBC/SA PEN Literary Award for her short story ‘At the Sound of the Last Post', selected by Nobel Laureate J.M.Coetzee. She is currently short listed for the world's richest short story prize, the Frank O' Connor Award and long listed for the Guardian First Book Award.
As well as appearing at the Melbourne Writer's Festival, she has also presented at literary festivals in London, Galway (Ireland), New York, Franschhoek (Western Cape) and Nairobi. Petina describes the barrage of interviews she endured in South Africa as ‘brutal' – she was reviewed in almost every publication and appeared on the SABC as well as CNN. “What I loved about South Africa, apart from this massive publicity, is that it is my natural market. A lot of Zimbabweans live there and it is close to home. Because it is so close, people are interested in the stories, in the individuals,” she says, pointing out the contrast in the UK, where publicity tended to lean more towards the Mugabe angle.
Despite the fact that Petina has lived in Geneva, Switzerland for the last decade, she has strong ties with Zimbabwe. Her parents are there, her young son Kushinga, which means to be strong in Shona, often accompanies her on trips there and she vehemently retains her Zimbabwean passport. Describing herself as an accidental lawyer and mother, but a deliberate writer, Petina, who holds law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University and the University of Zimbabwe, works in an international organisation that provides legal aid on international trade law to developing countries.
Fellow Zimbabwean writer Brian Chikwava is one of Petina's friends. Their first books, published by two different and major publishers, came out simultaneously, absorbing a lot of publicity.
Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Petina is now itching to start her next two novels and has also set her sights on doing something she considers scary and that is to write a
As I wrap up our interview, I can't help referring to a statement made by Paul Cezanne that “the awareness of our own strength makes us modest”. Perhaps this could be a defining moment for the memorable Petina Gappah.