Petina Gappah on Zimbabwe, Language, and “Afropolitans”
An Interview with the author of The Book of Memory
Contemporary literature in English is rich in international voices. Writers arrive holding multiple passports and complicated backstories. They deal in more than one culture, salt their sentences with Shona or Spanish. They cross and recross borders, carrying their stories with them.
You might think Petina Gappah is such an international writer. Born in Zimbabwe in 1971, she lives in Geneva, works in a language, English, that is not her mother tongue, and writes fiction that draws on African history, the English classics, American thrillers, and her own journeys between cultures. In the glossy, generic luxury of a hotel lobby in The Hague, where she spoke at the Winternachten literary festival in January, you might even mistake her for her alter ego, a lawyer, educated at Cambridge and Graz, working for the World Trade Organization.
But when she talks about her work, she emphasizes that the cultural conflicts her characters negotiate are not international ones. She has a clear idea of where her home is: in the troubled mix of cultures that is post-colonial Zimbabwe.
Gappah made her fiction debut in 2009 with the short story collection An Elegy for Easterly, a critical portrait of life and politics in Zimbabwe that earned her the Guardian First Book Award. Soon afterward she started on her first novel, The Book of Memory. She drafted early chapters in Amsterdam, in the writers’ residence over Athenaeum Bookstore. But to complete the novel she had to go home, ultimately immersing herself for three years in her country’s language and history. “The National Archive is my favorite place in Zimbabwe,” she says. “If I get the chance, that’s where I go to write.”
Julie Phillips: What effect did going back to Zimbabwe have on your writing?
Petina Gappah: I had a very fortunate experience that I didn’t handle in a fortunate manner. My first book was a critical success; it was widely praised, and I read every review. And I got completely freaked out. Because I came to writing so late—I’ve always wanted to be a writer but I ended up being a lawyer. And so when this book got this incredible reception, I felt that I had somehow pulled a con. I had defrauded everybody and they were going to find me out.
Part of what helped me was to go back to Zimbabwe for those three years. That made me see Zimbabwe as a normal place. Because from outside, it’s an extraordinary place. You’ve got a 91-year-old president who’s been in power since 1980, ridiculous levels of inflation, a huge HIV/AIDS crisis, poverty… From the outside it’s very easy to see Zimbabwe as just a story of extremes. And then you go there, and you go to a wedding, and people are quarreling over which car to use, and you go to a school, and the children are telling you their dreams about what they want to be, and they’re convinced they’re going to be it. Right? They don’t see the country of extremes. They just see their reality.
And so I was able to see Zimbabwe, I want to believe, in its proper context. There’s still a lot of kindness, there’s humanity, there’s laughter. I did bring that out a little bit in my first book, but I think this book is much more rooted in the reality of what Zimbabwe is.
What those three years did for me is that I no longer feel like an outsider. I have a stake in Zimbabwe. It’s mine, as well as Geneva is mine.
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In The Book of Memory Gappah has drawn on the diverse strands of Zimbabwe’s history to make a literary tale of two murders. Memory is a young woman wrongly convicted of murdering Lloyd, the white teacher and translator who was her adoptive father. Brought up by Lloyd in his European, suburban, intellectual milieu, she doesn’t feel at home either there or in her parents’ Shona culture. Her sense of alienation is even greater because she’s an albino, neither black nor white. In prison, in hope of exoneration, Memory is writing her life story.
JP: I wonder if telling her story is a way for Memory to bridge the black and white cultures.
PG: That’s really interesting. But the stories from the two different cultures are so different. I’ll have to think about that.
The main reason she comes from those two cultures is because she mimics an experience that I had. I was one of the first black kids to integrate a formerly all-white school, in 1980 when my parents moved from the township to the suburbs. So those are my first memories: the white kids laughing at my hair, and laughing at the sandwiches that we brought to school, because my parents didn’t have Marmite, we didn’t have bologna. My first memories are of being outside the group.
I’ve always been interested in outsiders, because I’ve spent so much of my own life being an outsider. There was that early experience, and then I moved to Austria when I was 23, and [laughing] that was insane. Being an African in a place like Austria, you’re immediately different. All the black people that people had seen were on television. And suddenly there’s one in front of you.
I stopped traffic in Ljubljana, you know, not because I looked particularly good or anything, but just the shock. Squealing brakes, and me saying, “What? What have I done?”
And it seemed to me that looking at albinism, at somebody who had this condition, was an interesting way of writing about that. Because Memory is black, but she isn’t really. And she looks white, but she isn’t really. She’s white without the privilege that comes from being white in a place like Zimbabwe.
JP: Memory writes in English, the language of her education, but wishes she could write in her family’s language, Shona. Is that also true for you?
PG: It’s my biggest regret. The colloquialisms, the idioms… the veins of a language, not just the surface—that’s what I don’t have. In a way I feel something was lost in me, and over the years I’ve tried to get it back.
One thing I love is translation. I’ve been doing a project with some friends to translate Animal Farm into Shona. It’s finished, and we’re going to try and get a Zimbabwean publisher to put it out. It’s really eerie to read it in Shona, because you can see just how much Orwell could have been writing about Zimbabwe: this wonderful, ideal revolution that is then poisoned, and the people who are supposed to be the leaders become the replacement oppressors.
JP: Can you say that in Zimbabwe? What about freedom of speech?
PG: That’s a difficult question to answer because, and it’s very sad, it really depends on who you are. There’s no instruction from above saying not to insult the president. But people feel offended on his behalf. So you have these ridiculous cases of people being prosecuted for insulting the president, usually people in rural areas who are having a drink in a pub. I can stand in a seminar and say, “I think Grace Mugabe is the most mediocre public figure that Zimbabwe could have, and I think Robert Mugabe is a fool to encourage her,” and I will be ok. I’m protected by the fact that people know who I am, and I know my rights—I’m a lawyer. But somebody who doesn’t know their rights is much more likely to be a victim than somebody who’s outspoken.
JP: There’s a lot of interest in what’s been called the “Afropolitan” writers, writers living and working between Africa, Europe, and America. How do you feel about that term?
PG: [Laughs] My very good friend Taiye Selasi coined that phrase, apparently. But I’m not an Afropolitan. I am the daughter of a goatherd; my father didn’t go to school until he was 11. I’m the first person in my family to be in the middle class. I write about the life I know, which is the transition from the township to the suburbs, and the transition from Zimbabwe to living outside. But it’s not something I was born to.
My son is different. My son was born into the middle class, in Geneva; he speaks a gazillion languages. And so his experience of being an “Afropolitan” might be what Taiye’s talking about.
* * * *
Gappah and I compare notes about our expatriate lives, hers in Geneva, mine in Amsterdam. (“So you’re an Ameripolitan,” she suggests.) We discuss our children’s national loyalties: her 12-year-old son sees himself as Swiss, Zimbabwean, and Scottish, she says, now that he’s playing cricket at a UK boarding school. And we talk about books and reading, an important subject of The Book of Memory. Gappah’s characters read Homer (translated by Lloyd into Shona), the English classics, Zimbabwean popular novels, Stephen King, Dan Brown. Gappah is a Brown fan whose affectionate parody of his style can be found on her website, theworldaccordingtogappah.com.
JP: Do you think writers who’ve lived in both Africa and Europe are better able to translate their experience for Europeans?
PG: I think it’s certainly helpful to have a foot in both cultures. I won’t deny for a minute that part of what makes me, in my writing, appealing, is that I know this culture extremely well. So I can put Vermeer into a book about Zimbabwe, I can put in Mondrian.
But I also read to get away from myself. I know nothing about being a man, but some of my favorite characters are male. I know nothing about being white, but some of my favorite characters are white.
America is a difficult market for outsiders, because Americans are only interested in themselves. If I were to write a book about race in the United States, for instance, I might get more attention than writing a book about an albino girl in Zimbabwe. That’s why it’s so interesting to me to come to a place like the Netherlands where the readers are so interested in what’s going on out there. So I think that yes, readers do want to see themselves reflected in the story, but there are a lot of readers who also just want to know what it’s like to be somebody else.
JP: Your characters’ love of reading made me think of Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize lecture, in which she spoke of Zimbabweans as a people with a passionate hunger for books.
PG: I was struck by that speech as well. Lessing actually got to the essence of what’s wrong with the literacy of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is the African country with the highest literacy rate, 94-point-something percent. But the government recently imposed a new tariff on books; so you have books coming in that are very expensive. My book, for instance, is 25 dollars. And then you have a dying library culture. People can read and want to read, but books are not always available.
* * * *
While she lived in Zimbabwe, to stem the tide, Gappah became chair of the board of directors of the Harare City Library and raised funds for a successful restoration. “I spent more time working on the Harare City Library than on The Book of Memory. But I think I’m actually more proud of the Harare City Library.”
Over the years she’s built a specific book collection of her own: “I’ve spent a hideous amount of money collecting what I call Livingstonia: a first edition of Stanley’s book, Livingstone’s books, everything. I’ve got the walls of my study at home papered with charts and maps. It’s been a passion for a long time.” She’s at work on a novel about the African companions of the explorer David Livingstone, who after his death in 1873 made a nine-month journey to carry his body to the coast. In taking the history of her country and of Africa as her subject, Gappah seems to be coaxing it to yield an identity that fits her, while giving back to postcolonial Africa new images of itself.
JP: In calling this novel The Book of Memory, what do you want Zimbabweans to remember?
PG: I’m a frustrated historian, which is probably clear from the book. I’m interested in excavating the social histories of Zimbabwe. For instance, Zimbabwe was built on a very unjust system of racial segregation; I know that. But I also know that there were amazing stories of love across the races. And there were some really nasty white people in Zimbabwe. But there were white people like Peter Garlake, who lost his job because he argued that the Great Zimbabwe ruins were built by black people and not by Phoenicians.
History’s always distorted to suit a political purpose, but fiction can try to redress the balance. And those are the stories I’m interested in telling—the stories of everyday normal people, who even in this injustice still managed to find their humanity.
A shorter version of this interview was published in Trouw, February 16, 2016.