The Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah speaks about her country's hardships, her plans for a novel and her debut collection of short stories.
A sense of hope
One way to get to the heart of a country in crisis is through the sneaked-out documentaries of journalists such as John Simpson and the private thoughts of bloggers inspired by Salam Pax's brilliant Baghdad Blog. But modern fiction is another way to gain an understanding of the people and problems of a nation. The celebrated Chinese-American author Yiyun Li says as much of Petina Gappah, a 38-year-old Zimbabwean author whose debut collection of short stories, An Elegy For Easterly, quite beautifully gets under the skin of her homeland.
"In an era when a never-ending newsfeed lets crucial events slip into oblivion, her stories are particularly important," Li says on Gappah's website, and she's absolutely right. Gappah not only deals in the intimate tragedies of people who are coffin makers or maids, but also revels in the surreal nature of a country where inflation - if you can indeed put a figure on it - is 3,325,000 per cent a year. All of her stories, even though they feature corruption and lies, place the personal before the political machinations of the Zimbabwean regime, though it's always there in the background.
"I did not set out to write political stories at all," says Gappah. "I just wrote stories about things that were important to me, about people whose circumstances mean that the very act of existence is a political one. For example, life in Iraq did not stop after the invasion: people still lived their lives, even under the threat of bombings. In Zimbabwe, too, inflation and the general economic hardship means that people have to be elastic, have to adjust, but life still manages to carry on."
That sense of a people who are irrepressible despite their situation is apparent in An Elegy For Easterly right from the epigraph. Usually, a reader might skip over the relevant quote at the start of a book; here, it's absolutely crucial. "More and more I have come to admire resilience," is the opening line of a poem by Jane Hirshfield that Gappah has chosen. It sums up these tales of human spirit - even if the only means of survival is laughter.
"It's a wonderful epigraph," Gappah says. "I love it because it expresses the essential quality of Zimbabweans, this fierce tenacity that makes them able to cope with any hardship. But yes, anyone who reads the book I wrote - and not the book they think I wrote - will see the humour. I was surprised by a reviewer who saw bleakness all the way through the first half when in fact the very first story is one of the most comical - that was the one JM Coetzee said was a darkly satirical comedy. So for someone to miss that was, I thought, not a little disturbing."
Gappah, who provided legal aid on international trade law in Geneva while she was writing the collection, is at a stage in her career where such comments - positive and negative - really matter to her. She's even noted down some of the constructive criticism in the hope it will improve the debut novel she's now working on. But I wonder whether the first story in the book, At the Sound Of the Last Post, would actually draw comments by the shadowy authority figures in her home country whom she so carefully lampoons.
In that story, a widow watches the pomp and ceremony of her husband's state funeral knowing full well that not only is he not in the casket, but that he - like many authority figures - was not the upstanding man he was made out to be. It's wryly funny, but one line at the end is awesome in its power: "Only the official truth matters." Gappah says: "You're asking me if I can go back to Zimbabwe without fear, and I can. Well, I am, actually, to launch the book. I can't imagine that there would be any danger at all, really; I don't think that our good men and women in dark glasses and polyester suits preoccupy themselves much with such trivial matters as fiction. Also, I have been covered in the state press. Most recently, The Herald, the state daily, carried a flattering, if erroneous, report about my book."
The author feels she needs any kind of publicity in Zimbabwe so her stories are heard by the very people they're about. The market for fiction in the country is tiny - not least because books are a luxury - and the distribution almost nonexistent. This, indeed, was the state of affairs Doris Lessing brought to the world's attention in her acceptance speech for the 2007 Nobel Prize for literature. "As I sit with my friend in his room, people shyly drop in, and everyone begs for books. 'Please send us books when you get back to London,' one man says. 'They taught us to read but we have no books.' Everybody I met, everyone, begged for books."
Gappah is not just familiar with Lessing's speech, she's familiar with the situation. "Doris has a close association with Zimbabwe, after all these years, and she is now involved with a literacy programme that seeks to bring books to Zimbabweans. She talked in her lecture about the hunger for the written word in Zimbabwe and it is true. People love to read, and they would read if books were more readily available. But there's also a lot that I can do to get my book out there, so I am donating 50 copies to different libraries and schools. I am also making copies available at a discounted price, and next year I hope to enter into an agreement with Faber where I can have a copy of the book available locally."
She means a Zimbabwean version that should be even cheaper than the discounted books from Faber. And you get the sense that this would be important because Gappah represents something different - she's not being subversive in An Elegy for Easterly as much as entertaining, educating and perhaps even soothing her fellow countrymen through shared experience. What has happened to Zimbabwe may be tragic, but Gappah can still see a better future. It might not be the future hoped for in her story Aunt Juliana's India, for example, where schools and electricity in the townships are promised. It certainly won't be the liberated country that bounced to the hope that came with independence, or that welcomed Bob Marley to sing Zimbabwe in Harare. But one of Gappah's real successes has been to show that the country wasn't always a collapsed state; that its people have dreams just like those of any other nation.
"There is a sense of hope," she says. "We have not been through the worst thing that can happen to a country. I was in Mozambique recently, and I was amazed about how it has risen from the ashes of its civil war. Mozambique went though terrible loss of life, and the infrastructure was destroyed. It is now one of the fastest growing economies in Africa today. Rwanda, Sierra Leone - these are countries that have been through far worse, and they are still standing. In fact, they are rising.
"We have one thing that is the envy of any country: an educated and highly intelligent workforce. Our hardships have meant an unprecedented brain drain, it is true, but we have also gained skills and been trained in a different work ethic in our adopted countries. If all that is somehow harnessed, and if even a quarter of those who have left return to join those who are already there, Zimbabwe will rise again."
Of course, Gappah is one of those people who left - although she did so not as a form of escape (she's said that at the time she went, Zimbabwe was a great country) but to study postgraduate law in Austria and Cambridge. Many of her characters, though, do toy with escape and its promise of a better life. And many of those characters are women struggling with seemingly impossible circumstances. "I do worry that the gains made by women in the 1980s and 1990s are being eroded by poverty," she says. "But it's so difficult: women with few economic prospects and young girls are dropping out of school to be the official wives of wealthy men. As in any such society, women perform the hardest labour for the littlest reward."
Yet the rewards for Gappah are potentially huge - not just financially but in terms of how the deserved success of this first collection will thrust the spotlight on how life is in Zimbabwe. It is quite something for a new author who admits there was no initial coherent plan for An Elegy For Easterly. "I just wrote stories, one after the other, in part to test and stretch their writing," she says with some bafflement at the praise they're receiving. "So it's difficult for me to talk about an intention behind the book. But if anything, my success is good news for a country sorely in need of it."
Zimbabwe might well be in need of such news. But the rest of the world is sorely in need of authors such as Gappah. An Elegy For Easterly (Faber) is out now.