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Petina Gappah



Petina Gappah

Gappah, author of An Elegy for Easterly, recently won the Guardian First Book Award, 2009 for her debut fiction. In this interview for , Zimbabwean compatriot Emmanuel Sigauke explores issues of the writer's identity and more


 Mastering the Short Story
Emmanuel Sigauke
Emmanuel Sigauke is a Zimbabwean writer based in Sacramento , California where he teaches English at Cosumnes River College, and Creative Writing. He has published poetry and fiction in various magazines. He co-edits the following print and online journals: Cosumnes River Journal, Tule Review, Poetry Now, and Munyori Literary Journal.

: Congratulations for winning the Guardian First Book Award. How does it feel to be the winner of this year’s prize?

PG: I am happy and thrilled. I keep looking at who else has won this award, writers like Zadie Smith, Yiyun Li, Phillip Gourevitch, and Alex Ross, last year's winner. These are all writers whose winning books I enjoyed hugely.

: What does this award mean to you?

PG: I love this award because it is selected in part by ordinary readers. I have read most of the books that were either shortlisted or have won this award, and they have always almost without exception been terrific reads. And as I will always be a reader before I am a writer, I am happy to have won a book that is chosen not only by writers and critics, but also by people like me, people who love to read and who read actively.

: What do you think is the role of awards in fiction writing? What’s your advice to those hoping to get literary awards for their writing?

PG: Awards are wonderful because they get people talking about books and writers. However, reading is inherently subjective, I do not think there is any such thing as the best this or the best that. I do not for a minute believe that my book was the best of those books, it just happened to be the book that resonated most with the judges and readers. Different judges might well have meant a different result, as indeed it has: the same book was up for an award in September, the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award, and those judges did not choose it as the winner. It will be up for other awards too as the award season continues; it might win more or it might not. So winning an award really only means that a particular group of people agreed that they liked this particular book. Awards are wonderful if you do get them, so there is nothing wrong with hoping to win. Aiming to win is something else, that way lies disappointment, and I would encourage writers to treat these things as bonuses, and not as the main reason they write.

: What was your experience being part of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?

PG: It was good to lose. It was good that my first experience of a big award was a loss. I hope to always remember the disappointment of that loss, I hope it stays with me as a sort of a memento mori, and makes me, for any other award I may later win, a more empathetic victor.

: The last Zimbabwean author to receive a Guardian prize is Dambudzo Marechera, and given the influence he has had on many young Zimbabwean writers, efforts have been made (by critics and readers) to locate a female Marechera. What do you think of the label, now that you have won the Guardian, the female Dambudzo Marechera?

PG: Human beings are comfortable with concepts and patterns because they make the world more comprehensible. So it is comforting to fit new things into what has come before. But maybe I am not the new Yvonne Vera or the female Marechera. Maybe I am the first Petina Gappah. I am happy just to be me.

: While on the subject of labels, let’s talk about your identity as a writer. You have made it clear that you don’t consider yourself an African writer because “it comes with certain expectations of you”. First, do you think the question of your identification with Zimbabwe, Africa, Switzerland or the universe is relevant in what you do as a writer?

PG: I am a lawyer. When the government officials I work with come to the ACWL for assistance with their trade matters, they do not come to see an African lawyer. They come to see Petina Gappah, a lawyer with more than 10 years of experience in WTO law, just as they come to see my colleagues, also experienced lawyers, who happen to be from Peru and Ireland, New Zealand and Canada, the Philippines and Germany. Where we are from is not relevant to our knowledge and experience. There was a post recently on the trade blog worldtradelaw.net where the news of my win was announced as "trade lawyer does good" or words to that effect. This is my world, a world in which I am judged and respected on achievements and performance.

I have recently become a published writer and have found myself in a world where my Africanness is rammed down my throat like it is some kind of virtue. I don't want to be read because I am an African, I want to be read because my work is good. It goes without saying that the two are not mutually exclusive, but people often talk as though the fact that I am an African is the most important thing about me as a writer. It is not. I wrote stories about Zimbabwe because I am from there, because I know the country and love it, and because I felt very strongly about what was going on there and felt I had something to say about it, because I wanted to. I have lived in Europe for all my adult life. I love Geneva, and London, and Graz and the other places I have lived in. Where I live, and how I have lived, and where I have found my place in the world is just as important to me as where I am from. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise. My world is bigger than my country and continent, my influences are many and from everywhere. And, as a writer, I want the freedom to choose any subject I want, and adapt my voice to it. From next year, I am writing stories about Switzerland. Will I face the criticism that I have become a traitorous African writer?

If the term African writer means that I am the possessor of a passport from an African country, then yes, I am an African writer because I am Zimbabwean. But if it means that I participate in something called African literature, then no, I do not see myself or my writing in those terms. I do not believe that what I and other writers from Africa are doing is separate from what Zadie Smith is doing, or what Margaret Atwood is doing, or what Salman Rushdie is doing. I have found that people often confuse platforms or opportunities with outcomes and results. The African Writers Series was supposed to bring to light unknown writers, it is the same for the Caine Prize, and this literary journal, African Writing. But people have taken from this that the aim of these initiatives is to create a thing called African literature. Nadine Gordimer, when she described Chinua Achebe, in a statement he has now rejected, said he his early work made him "the father of modern African literature as an integral part of world literature". The last part is often missing when people talk about "African literature", that it is part of something larger and not a thing separate unto itself.

So really, all it comes down to is that I see myself as just me, as Petina Gappah, as a writer who feels free to take on any subject within my capabilities. I will say again what I said before: I don't want to be read because I am an African, I want to be read because my work is good. And if my work is not good, then don't read it, but for heaven's sake, don't read it just because I am African.

: What do you think is the role of the publishers, booksellers and readers in the classification of writers? If I were to go to a library in London, or to a bookstore like Waterstone, or Borders, would it be appropriate to look for your books under African literature, or under the regular literature sections of those establishments? In the United States, for instance, Yvonne Vera, where her books can be found, is increasingly categorized under African American literature, a section that’s often separate from the literature section because it contains urban fiction. Are you concerned at all with such arbitrary classifications? Or should writers worry about the classifications?

PG: My main bookshop here had an African corner when I first arrived in 1999. What this meant was that you never just stumbled across an Okri or Achebe unless you went looking for them in the little corner next to travel and short stories. I thought it was dreadful, this parceling out of an entire continent and relegating it to the unpopular corner. They have since changed their shelving system, but it makes me unhappy and depressed that some bookshops still continue this. In Graz, in Austria, where I lived for three years, one of the music shops even had a section called "Black Music" which I found bizarre as it mixed people like Lenny Kravitz and Michael Jackson!

: The year 2009 has been a busy one for you because of international trips to promote your book and to attend writers’ conferences and workshops. What effect has this schedule had on your writing?

PG: I have learned that the hardest part of being a writer is the end of the process where you have to promote the book, and you do not always have time to write. I write according to a strict schedule, so it has been hard to be snapped out of that routine.

: What’s the place of the writing process in relation to your other life roles?

PG: I am a writer, but I am also a lawyer. My job is important to me, and I have no intention of becoming a full time writer. I think being a lawyer helps me in my writing: for one thing, I want to write only because I want to and have something to say, and not because I have to.

: Your writing is about Zimbabwe, and as the world reads your work, there is clear evidence that your work is steeped in the context of Zimbabwe. In other words, your stories seductively take the readers to Zimbabwe. You are doing more work in exposing the beauty and ugliness of Zimbabwean culture than most travel books often do. Do you sometimes struggle to make your stories stay true to their contests, considering that you are not based in Zimbabwe anymore? Is there something in you that you turn on for the stories to ring true, or do you have to do research?

PG: I had no vision to present any particular side of my country when I wrote my stories: I did not set out to present a "positive" image or a "negative" image I only wanted to write about the Zimbabwe I know, and the people I know. And like any other place, it is a mix of good and bad.

It was important to me to get the detail right, especially as I no longer live there. My reward has been people telling me how much I got right. The poet Musaemura Zimunya said in public that I write of Zimbabwe much more convincingly than some writers like himself who actually spend all their time there! I have had some outside help in getting the details right: my sister Regina in Harare kept me up-to-date with the latest slang terms, the latest prices, and the latest jokes. This was important because Zimbabweans are insanely inventive with language, it changes all the time. If the government introduced a new note, like the billion-dollar note, it would have a new nickname in days. And whenever I went home, I listened to conversations in taxis and buses. I also read at least five online newspapers regularly, particularly the state-run paper the Herald, which rewarded me with some surreal stories about men dancing themselves to death and little kittens dressed up as babies.

: Your success has already begun to influence aspiring writers (as shown by posts on blogs comments on Facebook forums). What advice do you have for other writers who aspire to be like you, or to follow your example?

PG: I am not very good at giving pithy homilies, so all I will say is just write, and be yourself. Trust a few people to read your work, and accept criticism where it will make you a better writer. It is easier to talk about writing than to actually write, easier to slam more successful writers than to be a successful writer yourself, so as far as possible, avoid blogs and forums where disgruntled writers assemble to moan about how hard done by they are!

I would also encourage writers not to be in a hurry; it is better to have a small body of good published work than to have a lot of work published everywhere which is substandard. There are writing websites like Storytime, where you find some real, and raw talent, and exciting ideas, but where you also find that some of the writers are in too much of a hurry to be published to ever do good work, they do not allow themselves time to hone their craft before publishing their work. I have read three writers recently on that website who are particularly memorable and could be The Next Big Thing if only they were not hungry to be published before they are ready.

: There have been reports that while An Elegy for Easterly has been successful in Europe, North America and other places, it is not yet widely known in Zimbabwe. What’s your response to this, and what plans are there to ensure that this book is read in Zimbabwe, and other African countries? And is this important?

PG: About 400 copies were sent to Zimbabwe, and they have all sold out. Faber's distributor in Zimbabwe is Weaver Press, and between them and me, we are working to ensure that there will be about 1000 copies of the paperback moving around the country by March 2010.

I did a festival in Nairobi and a book launch in Zimbabwe, as well as different events in South Africa. Next year, I hope to do more events. I am hugely and unashamedly ambitious for my book, I wanted it to be read everywhere, especially in places where people assume people don't read books.

: Your recent story, "Miss McConkey of Bridgewater Close", takes us back to childhood memories of Harare. In interviews and blog posts you have referred to your childhood educational experience in Zimbabwe. How important is this childhood terrain to your writing?

PG: That story goes back to a time that I find interesting to write about, the move from settler rule to majority rule and the early days of independence. I am interested in exploring how independence materially changed lives, especially for the blacks who made it to the suburbs and whose children found themselves in the alien territory of formerly whites-only schools. It is easier for me to write of the past than of the present because the present is still fluid, but you can look at the past and see patterns and ominous foreshadowing, that sort of thing. I want one day to examine the use of the penal law to establish authority as part of colonial administration, I want to do a series of stories about crime in the new colony; it would cover the period between 1898 and the 1930s.

: I know you are working on your novel, but given the success of your short story collection, are you working on more stories. Have you started writing about life in Europe?

PG: This year affirmed my commitment to the short story. I became a short story writer by accident, but now I wish to be one by choice. I will write novels, definitely, but I want to master the short story. From next year, I will be writing stories about the other world I know, the world of the international civil service and expatriate life in Geneva.

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