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Petina Gappah



Petina Gappah

Gappah recently won the Mukuru Nyaya prize for comic writing. She also won 2nd Prize for her short story At the Sound of the Last Post in the 2007 HSBC Bank/ South African PEN Competition. Her first book, Elegy for Easterly [Faber and Faber, 2009] has just been published.

She speaks with .


 Comic Elegies and Dead Dancers
An Elegy for Easterly

: Thinking back now, was there a moment in the middle of a certain writing when you knew you were a writer? What was that story in which you found your voice as it were?

PG: I would say that moment came in March 2007, at the Caine Prize workshop at Crater Lake. I was working on a story, An Elegy for Easterly, that I knew broke every rule about point of view and the short story, etc, but I also knew that I would have to write it that way, or not at all. I imagined the story as a film where the camera jerked and moved and shifted the viewer's perspective in startling ways.  I was not at all sure that it would work, but I just knew that I had to write it that way. When my turn came to read to the others, I read a passage, written in the third person plural, that I had been particularly nervous about. There was this moment after I finished, where time sort of stopped, and in that moment was this stunned silence before anyone said anything, and in that moment, I knew that my instincts had been right. That moment after my reading, was the beginning of self-belief.

: Has your voice determined your vision as a writer?
PG: I don't know yet what my vision is. It is too grand a word to apply to my limited achievements to date. Let's come back to this question after my third novel, because as it is, there is a lot I am still working out.

: Do you find yourself exercising any form of self-censorship when you write? Have you ever found yourself dropping an inspiration or scrapping a short story because you found the subject or character unworthy of your time?
PG: I must confess that initially, I had a hard time writing about sex, because I imagined my parents and little brothers and sisters reading my words, and my boss and my colleagues at work!  And my son, when he grows up! Then I thought: well Nabokov had a mother. (Then again, she was probably dead by the time he came to write Lolita.) On a more serious note, it came to me that if I was to censor myself, there really was no point in writing anything. So now I block such thoughts from my mind and I write what I like, to quote Biko.

: Do you find yourself drawn to certain subject matters and territories? Zimbabwe and political ineptitude for instance? The Martha Mupengos [An Elegy for Easterly] of the world? If we define 'vision' in these narrow terms, could you plead guilty to having it? How would you define the territory of your current engagement and passions?
PG: I have been writing about Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans because it is the subject closest to me at the moment, I have been moving between rage and helplessness as I have watched my country implode. My stories were my small way of saying something that was important to me about Zimbabwe. The novel I am currently writing is also set in Zimbabwe, but the Zimbabwe of the recent past, while my next novel takes in the relationship of Africa with the world.  I can't say more, or else I will jinx it.  I am also planning a series of stories set in Geneva. I don't know that there is any broad thing or theme linking all these written and unwritten works. Paul Auster, one of my favourite writers, grapples with questions of identity through characters who are usually adrift in their societies - outsiders looking in. 

I am not sure that any of my characters have such a common bond as yet.  If there is one question I try to deal with in my writing, it would be the same question I grapple with in my life, namely, how to deal with loneliness, which is the essence of being human, loneliness which leads to a need to be rooted, and that yearning for rootedness that sometimes leads to the most sublime life-altering moments - having a baby, falling in love; or to the most catastrophic results - love affairs that end horribly, friendships that harden into enmity, family relationships that become ugly and twisted.  Since you are so insistent that I find a broader vision, let me put it as broadly as this:  I am trying to make sense of what it means to be us, what it means to be - as Ian McEwan said in a recent interview, "untrustworthy, venal, sweet, lovely humans".

: Have you noticed friends scouring your fiction for doppelgangers or shadows of themselves? (You do raid your relationships for fictional characters - or characteristics - I assume.) Have you ever experienced the embarrassment of being outed? When an inspiration arrives, rooted in an unflattering representation of a 'friend', are you ever restrained by a loyalty to the person, or are you utterly sold to your art?
PG: Writing is a compulsive sort of theft, except that mine is more like kleptomania rather than robbery or theft by conversion; I steal harmless little ticks and foibles, never whole personalities or characters. I would never write any friend into my story, for one thing, I love my friends, and would not use them in that way, and for another, I would hate to be sued for libel. I will, however, quite shamelessly steal a tick, habit or foible.  In one story, I have a character who only wears pink, this was inspired by a very dear friend who loves the colour and has lots of pink clothes. Another friend once challenged her husband, in the middle of a quarrel, to unlearn her the language, his language, that she now spoke after 15 years of marriage, and that became a central sentence for a character in another story. This is the limit of my theft, I would not risk any friendships by making unflattering representations of my friends. Mostly, I plunder from myself.

: You are a lawyer, with all the baggage that comes with that. Did you ever have to consciously change legal writing tics when you turn to literature. Has the legal heritage been a boon overall?
PG: I think that being the kind of lawyer I have been has helped and not hindered my writing. I work in international law, and I deal mainly with written texts. My first job after my PhD was in the Appellate Body, which is the World Trade Organization's tribunal of final instance for trade disputes between nations. My main function was to assist in drafting the judgments, and it was there that I learned to write clearly, concisely and crisply to convey meaning using the simplest words possible. I also learned that revision is the key to a polished text, and much of what we did was to rewrite sentences over and over and over until they were as close to perfect as we could get them.  It was also a high-pressured environment, we had only 90 days to finish an appeal, and so we had to turn drafts around very quickly. There was also a fairly brutal reviewing process, no one owned the text, what mattered was getting it right. So I can say that I learned all I know about writing from the Appellate Body: above, all I learned the importance of revision.

: Is the African writer totally sold to a Western mind frame for his art? In self-describing themselves as 'writers' 'novelists,' 'poets', is there any potential crossover into a African template for the writer's work - the griot-historian or the myth-maker, say? Do you think there is any literary tradition worth plumbing in that direction? To bring it to a personal level, your work is very much leavened with Zimbabweana, but beyond that, do you see yourself carrying a torch for an indigenous story-telling tradition?
PG: I think story-telling in the griot tradition and writing novels are two very distinct arts. There are, of course, novelists who have been inspired by this griot tradition, but I think they are different skills. I have been invited to participate in The Moth, in New York - The Moth is a movement that brings together story-tellers to perform and tell stories to live audiences. I am not sure that I will do it, because I suspect that I do not have the gifts that would enable me to hold an audience for the length of the story I am telling. So no, I do not see myself as carrying a torch for indigenous storytellers because what I do and what they did or do are essentially different things.

I am not sure why African novelists are so often juxtaposed against the "Western" tradition of the novel. The novel as we know it is very much a product of the West, it has not been around as long as the epic or the poem, which are common to almost all societies, it is a specific Western narrative form that developed fairly recently. Since its development, it has been improved, energized, given life support and sustenance by all sorts of different writers, many of them, of course, from the West where it originated, and many more still from outside the West, from Africa, from India, from Latin America, from China, Japan, and so on - in every country, in fact, where it has been adopted as the arguably now dominant form of writing.  So I cannot separate African novelists from other novelists; they are all part of something that began as a Western tradition and has now been embraced in almost all languages, including our very own African languages.

: Your story, Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euros, is about a gullible 55-year old Zimbabwean floundering in a technology far beyond his ken. Do you see something about his pathos in Africa's tragic affair with the 'technology' of the ballot box. Is it always a win-win for the fraudsters? Could your tragic story have 'realistically' ended any other way? Can Africa's story be any different?
PG: The poor man in that story is not so much a victim of technology as he is a victim of fellow Africans who chose to use technology for dishonest ends. In that sense, perhaps, the story speaks for the majority of Africans who find themselves the victims of a few of their countrymen, fellow Africans who have chosen to subvert tools of democracy like the ballot-box for their personal gains. Look at the lunacy of President-healer Jammeh, Gaddafi's empire fantasies, look at how Mugabe has pauperized a once prosperous country, look at the recent bloodbath in Kenya.  For as long as venality and self-interest drive the African political elite, Africa's story will not be different.

: 'I will rise at five, she thought, and catch the mouth of the rooster.' says one of your characters in An Elegy for Easterly. You are obviously transliterating a Zimbabwean language (Shona?). Elsewhere, you have regretted that your son may never have this proficiency for language and idiom. In your generation how widespread is this cultural loss, do you think? Is it the same across other racial groups? Can literature do anything to slow or change the trend?
PG: Yes, it is transliteration, kubata jongwe muromo is the expression. Like most Africans, Zimbabweans have this duality, this ability to move between languages.  It is more than just being bilingual. You have to switch gears very quickly to move from one language to the other - languages, for that matter, that offer two very different worldviews. I am fascinated by this duality, because I have had such interesting experiences with language; in my first three years of primary school, I was brilliant at Shona. Then with independence, we moved to a formerly whites-only area and I went to a former group A school, where there was only a handful of black kids.  We did not do Shona at all, and my Shona atrophied..

Then when I was about 12, we had to do Shona under a government directive which said all former Group A schools should do something called Shona as a Second Language. It was completely absurd in our case because we had at this time only one white boy in our class, and yet there we were, stammering and stumbling over our own language!  I then went to St Dominic's, a mission school where Shona, and not English, was the social language among the girls, and of course I had to read all these difficult texts in my Shona which had pretty much stopped developing at Grade 3. I was completely unprepared and I suffered. I was bullied fairly mercilessly by the other girls, and teased endlessly by two of the teachers, and for almost a year I said very little. Then I resolved to conquer this thing called Shona, and I did, to the point where I did it at A level, and got As in all my papers. I understand that when the news reached my old school St Dominic's that Petina was doing Shona at St Ignatius, there was much rolling on the floor and general guffawing. 

Then when I moved to Austria, I had another curious experience, I lived in German at such an intensity that it began to displace my English, I dreamt in the language, thought in the language, had rows in the language, and when I moved to England, I found myself saying things like, ja genau, much to the amusement of people around me.

I imagine that my son Kush will have even more of a schizophrenic relationship with language. Or it could be a more settled one, I don't know. Right now he speaks English and Shona, but French is his strongest language.  He will never achieve the level of proficiency in Shona that I have, unless we move back to Zimbabwe in the next three or so years and he learns it at school. I have some regrets of course, because Shona is important to me, but maybe French and the other languages that he will learn will afford him similar pleasures to those that I get from Shona.

: Are you a natural humorist? Is the process of writing humorously felicity or grief for you? Do the words come out with the right sauce of humour? Or do you have to agonize over your pages to ensure that your readers can fly through them?
PG: I think the world is pretty funny, so it takes no effort for me to write things that I think will make people laugh. My favourite story, The Mupandawana Dancing Champion, won a Zimbabwean award for comic-writing, and I must say that achievement will probably mean more to me than any other.  If I truly had the courage of my convictions, I would be a full-blown comic novelist.  Actually, make that a stand-up comedian. But the thing about comedy is that it is so individual, it is almost impossible to find a formula that can make everyone laugh. I recognise my limitations as a humorist:  all I can do, in a story like The Mupandawana Dancing Champion, is write what I think is funny, and if others respond, that is brilliant. Clearly, it would be foolish to expect that everyone laugh, it is simply not possible.  I had a gotcha! moment when I did a recording at the Guardian in mid-January. I read The Mupandawana Dancing Champion for their podcast series, and as I was reading, I could hear the sound engineer chuckling in the background. It was a wonderful feeling. 

: You have no problem then, anointing favourite children? Go on then: give me a list of your all-time favorite tales (from your own pen). Why are they your most-loved?
PG: I love the The Mupandawana Dancing Champion [MDC] because I have great affection for the main character, M'dhara Vita. One of the pleasures of writing is assuming a voice that is not mine, in the MDC I told the story through the voice of a somewhat jaded man, and I loved that voice. It is also a hopeful story, a story about resilience.  It is also a very Zimbabwean story, it is set in a growth-point, sort of half-way between the rural and urban areas, the characters who people it are from the entire spectrum of Zimbabwe, the political elite, businessmen, shop girls, professionals, farming villagers, it presents a microcosm of Zimbabwean society. It features Zimbabwean music, music that has kept us going, that has kept us sane.  It is also my family's favourite story, Mdhara Vita's winning dance is my father's favourite song, my sister - who is a very good dancer - likes to perform the dances mentioned in it.  Everyone who has read it responds to it quite wonderfully. I am thrilled that this is the story that has given the Dutch version its title: The Dance Champion and Other Stories.

: Everyone who reads MDC will probably have their own hilarious moment. Our is M'dhara Vita arriving at the dance, wearing a third of his pension on his feet. Do you worry that the punchlines will vary from locale to locale. You have written an unglossaried book that faces Zimbabwe. For instance, while they will get the general point, your Dutch readers may not quite see how, when the security guard’s dance goes from ‘Borrowdale’ to ‘Mbaresdale’, it was actually degenerating from an exclusive neighbourhood to a, well, slum. 
PG: I am more willing to take the risk that the reader will fail to get something than I am willing to risk losing the reader by condescending to explain everything. Reading is a dialogue with a text, there is an effort that you have to make: is this meant to mislead me, is the irony here intended, surely there is another way of reading this, why does he keep mentioning the moon, what does it all mean. Reading is an active process, at least, the reading of literary fiction is an active process of engaging with the text. I dislike glossaries because I believe they are frequently an impediment.  And why have just a glossary for the Shona words? I could also "glossary" many of the literary allusions in the text, there is a lot of intertextuality, some overt, some hidden. That is as important in my writing as Shona, just as I think in Shona, I think in quotations and words from texts I have read, I am a reader before I am anything else, a gobbler of other people's words.

: The narrator in your favorite story (The MDC), is male, and a couple of things happen to him that would not (ordinarily) happen to a woman. Do you find it particularly hard, getting into the mind of a male character? Do you think you can pull this off convincingly in sustained prose. Will you someday attempt a novel in the male voice?
PG: I like that story particularly because I wrote it in a man's voice.  The last story in the book, Midnight at the Hotel California, is also told in a man's voice. My family has all sorts of creative gifts, one of them, which is shared by my mother and sister, is the gift of mimicry, those two can take on anyone of any age and you will ‘see’ that person before you. I hope to achieve that mimicry in my writing, I hope I am as convincing as a man as I am a woman or child. This is what I like about writing in the first person, the ability to be taken over completely by a character...

: Then this old chestnut: how would you self-describe, and why? Writer? African Writer? Zimbabwean Writer? When your Geneva stories finally hit the stands, will you accede that you have finally 'sold out'? Added a new voice to a European literary tradition that is already bristling with competent voices, while depleting a lean African choir? Or do you agree with Marechera that there should be no African literature as such, just literature.
PG: I am a writer and a lawyer.  I am a Zimbabwean, and therefore an African. How those terms are combined, whether by me or others depends on the context: Zimbabwean writer, African lawyer, African writer, Zimbabwean lawyer. Human identity is not that linear, it is more layered than that.  For instance, I am as much a Zimbabwean as I am a resident in a European city and country. Zimbabwe's stamp is an indelible mark on me, but it would be pretty strange if I refused to acknowledge the influence that Europe has had on me.  I have spent my formative adult years in Europe.   I left Zimbabwe as a very green student about 14 years ago, I have lived in three European countries, learned two other languages. My first real job was here, some of my dearest friends are here, my son Kush was born here, all my stories but one were written here. When I write my Geneva stories, I will not be ‘selling out’, I will simply be a Zimbabwean writer or an  African lawyer who has written stories set in the place she and her son call home.

: You signed a two-book deal with Faber and Faber, Elegy being the first. What can you say about your next book due in 2010?
PG: My next book is my first novel, The Book of Memory. It is set in Zimbabwe - in Harare, to be specific. It is rooted in the present but goes frequently back to the eighties, the period after independence, and has occasional flashbacks to the period before the war.. 

: In the Heart of The Golden Triangle paints the stark emptiness at the centre of the Wives' Corp of an African rulership. Is this feminism's hell? A corp of convent-educated super-achievers from a world 'where achievement was everything. Who gets best marks, who can run the fastest...' ending up in the perpetual small house/big house (concubine/wife) shuffle. How pervasive is this failure of ambition - if you regard it as such? Is there an alternative model for today's students?
PG: I went to a school where some of the most gifted and bright girls in Zimbabwe were educated. There was such a lot of creativity within the school, and such personalities. We admired the achievers, the sports stars, the A-students, the gifted singers and actors.  Each girl had an individual personality.  I am always struck to see how almost 20 years later, most of the girls I went to school with have morphed into the same wife or mother. It isn't so much a failure of ambition as it is a complete shift in attitude that comes to women because they feel they have to define themselves first as wives.

: How much of your writing is serendipity, how much is carefully plotted. Did you notice that the acronym of 'Mupandawa Dancing Champion' also spelt the initials of a Zimbabwean opposition party - and then add that deliciously satirical twist, or did you plot it cold-bloodedly in advance in the writerly imagination? Is Zimbabwe such an absurdist writer's heaven, or are there really towns with outlandish names like 'Gutu-Mupandawana Growth Point'? Are mechanics routinely christened 'Lovemore'? Do hoteliers trade with names like 'Why Leave Guesthouse'?
PG: We have the most interesting names you will find, names like Memory, Morememories, Blessing, Moreblessings, Patience, Genius, Brilliant, Hatred, Praise, Promise, Lovemore, Loveness, Liberty, Gift, Trust, Melody. I have cousins called Adventure and Pardon, I went to school with a girl called Doris-Day. There are politicians called Welshman, Girls, and Lookout.  And it gets even more interesting in Shona, especially in Karanga, which is my family's original language, with names like Haruketi, Muchadura and Muchanyara, which translate to Death Does Not Choose, You Shall Regret Bitterly and You Will get Tired (Of Mocking Me/Laughing At Me etc) Professor Alec Pongweni has devoted a whole book to Zimbabwean names. Because names are not just names in our culture, they are a statement, an affirmation, a threat, a promise, they link the bearer with present circumstances, with past disappointments, with future hopes.

In choosing names for my characters, I am aware of this tradition, and I am inspired by the names around me. Place names too ... Why Leave is inspired by a Hotel Called The Why Not Hotel in the mining town Esigodini.  Zimbabwe is an absurdist's dream, I think, and not just because of the names: I have always said that the most appropriate fictional response to the current madness of Zimbabwe may be a comic novel. The MDC thing was actually not plotted, I wanted originally to write about an old man who loved to dance, and then when it occurred to me that everyone sees everything in such a small place, I thought it might be funny to bring the paranoia of Zanu PF into the mix.

: What is the colour of your politics. How successful are you at keeping your politics out of your literature? Is that a goal of your writing at all?
PG: I do not think it is possible to reduce my political beliefs to one particular thing. I am no longer as certain about isms as I was when I was a Marxist-Leninist student. The world is more layered and complex than one ism can explain.  I can only talk in vague terms about believing in social justice and equity, desiring an end to tyranny and oppression. In the context of Zimbabwe, I will not be joining the members of the Zanu PF Women's League who wear President Mugabe's face on their boobs and bottoms.

: What separated you from Marxism?
PG: I grew up.

: What are your literary influences, African or otherwise?
PG: I never know how to answer this question. It is easy to say that I am influenced by everything I read, the good and the bad, but that is probably not precise enough for you. I aim to write clean, prose that is simple but musical, I don't know if that is clear, it is better to give examples than to describe it -  I very much admire Paul Auster, JM Coetzee, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood. I also admire writers with a poetic command of language, writers like Toni Morrison and Yvonne Vera. I love to read something and feel a shimmering intelligence driving the words, so I admire the writers I have mentioned above, particularly Paul Auster who makes "cerebrality" accessible and writers like WG Sebald, Joseph Heller, Kazuo Ishiguro. I admire hardworking and prolific writers like John Mortimer, PD James and John Irving. I am particularly inspired by writers who manage or managed to combine writing with high profile careers, people like Achmat Dangor, Vikas Swarup, PD James, Scott Turow, John Mortimer, writers who are actively engaged with the world beyond writing because that is the kind of writer I want to be. The Zimbabwean writer I admire more than any other is Charles Mungoshi.

: Are you religious? If not, are there any vestigial sentiments either from parents or traditions?
PG: I am more familiar with different churches than most people I know. My parents belong to the African Reformed Church, which broke off from apartheid South Africa's Dutch Reformed Church, but they never forced us to attend services. When I was about 12, I began to attend a tambourine church which I loved because the songs were so happy, and there was all this speaking in tongues and people being attacked by the Spirit and fainting during services. There was always drama, and I loved it. Then I went to a Catholic boarding school and became a Catholic, mainly because I wanted to taste the wafer, if I am to be honest. Then, during my A-levels, I became a Buddhist, and told the headmaster, Father Berridge that I could not attend mass, and he said ‘Well, Petina your religion is one thing but the school rules are another  matter’. He also told me I was probably the only Buddhist in Zimbabwe. He may have been wrong there, but chanting namyohorengekyo over and over on my own got pretty lonely so I gave up after about three months.  Then I became a feminist Marxist-Leninist, which became a substitute for religion to me.  So religion is woven into my psyche, I love the Bible for literary reasons, especially the books of Job, Revelations and Amos.  Religion, both Christianity and traditional is central to most Zimbabweans, so it plays a big part in my stories.

: Where do your stories come from? And the talent, can you trace it through your parents? Whose study did you plunder as a child?
PG: Every story I have written is based on at least one true thing. This could be something that happened to me, to someone in my family, to a friend, to someone in a friend's family, or something I read.  My Aunt Juliana’s Indian was inspired by my childhood memory of Bishop Muzorewa’s campaigning in the townships of Salisbury in 1979 and 1980.  My Cousin-Sister Rambanai tells a story that is familiar to most Zimbabweans, the shedding of an old identity to assume a new one in the "Diaspora".  The Maid from Lalapanzi was inspired by the memory of some of the domestic workers who assisted my mother when my brothers, sisters and I were growing up. The Mupanadawana Dancing Champion was inspired by a news report in The Herald.  And so on. 
As for the talent, if I have any creative talent, then I inherited it from my parents, my mother is a brilliant storyteller and mimic, she is also highly inventive, she used to get me into trouble in secondary school when I would use Shona words we used at home only to find that no one else used them. My dad has the most curious mind I have encountered, he is a voracious reader and an autodidact, and from him I learned the habit of always asking questions. My parents also have a love for life, which, even if it may not be a talent, is something that I hope I have inherited. They are both really funny, and I hope that I have inherited that too, even though I was often the butt for their comedy. My family never really took this writing thing seriously, it was always, oh oh, here comes Marechera

: In the course of this conversation, Guinea-Bissau's president has been assassinated. This is politics with a capital P. How easy is it for a novelist from Guinea Bissau, from Zimbabwe, to write a novel that is not politically and socially aware?
PG: I know writers in Zimbabwe who do not write anything that could be called "political" and who resent "political" writing because it appeals to "the West" and is "all doom and gloom" and gives the country a bad name. So it is incredibly easy to avoid "politics" if you close your eyes tightly enough. 

: This May, Oxford will host a Dambudzo Marachera Festival. What do you think of the man and his work?
PG: Growing up, Dambudzo was a terrible person to have as the example of The Zimbabwean Writer.  You simply must understand that Zimbabwe is an extremely conservative society, much more then than it is now, where even just wearing your hair in dreadlocks was a visible sign of things gone terribly wrong.  So you had this feted writer with his uncombed hair sleeping rough and getting stoned and drunk and smashing plates and sponging on his friends and insulting ministers..  So then you went to your parents and said you wanted to be a writer.  And of course your parents were discouraging because who wanted their child to be a writer like Dambudzo who wrote about prostitutes, a writer who wrote stuff that people didn't understand - not because they were not clever enough, but (as they thought) because the dude was just plain bonkers.  He was the most visible writer in the public imagination; he lived his life out loud.

I was completely in love with him when I first read him at 14. I did not understand a word he wrote after House of Hunger. But I loved him and fantasized about marrying him.  Then of course he died, two years later.  He was a depressing person to "emulate", he was part of the reason I did not think I could be a writer. I could not get sufficiently angry to write in expletives, and when I tried, it seemed forced. 

What do I think of him now? What a waste of talent his life was. Achmat Dangor told me an extra-ordinary story about how he threw a manuscript out of a window in Oxford because it was not "good enough". What a terrible waste, but how lucky we are that he managed, to leave us so much that is just extraordinary.

: David Orr, writing recently in The New York Times ( review/Orr-t.html) says:

"When we talk about poetic greatness, we’re talking about style and persona, even when (or maybe, especially when) we think we aren’t. ... And the persona we associate with greatness is something, you know, exceptional — an aristocrat, a rebel, a statesman, an apostate, a mad-eyed genius who has drunk from the Fountain of Truth and tasted the Fruit of Knowledge and donned the Beret of. . . . Well, anyway, it’s somebody who takes himself very seriously and demands that we do so as well."

Is it possible to totally separate Dambudzo's larger-than-life personality from the allure, even stature, of his work? Does his iconic place in Zimbabwean literature owe something to his 'madness'?
PG: It is impossible to talk about Dambudzo's work without mentioning Dambudzo's persona. The reverence is for his writing as much as for his theatrical life. As I said, I found the whole thing terribly attractive when I was younger, but now, I don't think it is wise to romanticize addiction or mental illness.  Dambudzo was exceptionally talented, but he was also exceptionally troubled. This view of the writer as the rebel living out his life at a loud volume is something of which I have become suspicious.  Writers are selfish and self-absorbed enough without the world applauding their excesses and nodding to the whole misunderstood genius thing!

You see, the thing about David Orr's mad-eyed geniuses who take themselves very seriously is that they usually have someone cleaning up after them and taking care of them. The other thing about mad-eyed geniuses is the whole drugs and drink thing. There is a wonderful memoir on writing by Stephen King, where he breaks it down quite brutally and says: "The idea that creative endeavour and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. ...  Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we're puking in the gutter."

Poetic greatness is wonderful, I am sure, but I generally find that the kind of writer who "takes himself very seriously and demands that we do" tends to be the person I would least like to sit next to at a dinner party.

: And yet, Sir Vidia's authorised biography, The World is What it is, is hot off the press. Some commentators see Sir Vidia's extreme selfishness - for instance in his relationship with his late wife whom he denied any prospect of an independent career - as the price for his matchless prose. Ian Buruma, writing for the New York Review of Books ( says:

"Meeting Margaret [his mistress] made Naipaul feel sexually happy for the first time in his life. A heavy price was paid, notably by Pat [Vidia's wife], back in England, whom Naipaul felt unable to leave and treated as a kind of slavish mother figure; she continued to take care of all his needs, bore his endless verbal abuse, read his manuscripts, and listened to his confessions about Margaret. As Naipaul mused, much later, after Pat had died of cancer: 'I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable.'
            "What is striking is the somewhat extreme nature of Naipaul's selfishness... Naipaul the writer, however, was affected as well as the private person. He began to write explicitly about sex, especially violent sex, involving sodomy. His books, he remarked, "stopped being dry after Margaret, and it was a great liberation."

Is there a point (a Booker prize? Nobel laureateship even?) at which the loyal folk that gravitate around successful writers become fair game - especially when they literally donate themselves to the cause.

PG: Is the selfishness the price for matchless prose or is it the matchless prose the excuse for selfishness'?

: Naipaul appears to think, for instance, that his sado-masochistic sex with his mistress helped him better write similar sex in his book, Guerillas. He says, his books 'stopped being dry after Margaret, and it was a great liberation'. Where, in your cosmology, does the god of literature rank?
PG: Literature ranks way below my son Kush, my family and my friends. But perhaps, one day, if I take the whole thing seriously enough, I will do psychological experiments on Kush, you know, dress him as a girl and call him Minnie and speak to him only in Latin, and see what effect that has on him, and then I can turn the whole experience into a novel about a tortured cross-dressing Latin-speaking little African boy called Minnie and win the Booker and when Kush grows up and has to check into The Priory to fight his psychological demons, I can just tell him, ‘darling, it was for the art, for the matchless prose’.

: What 3 novels do you wish you had written? Why?
PG: My only concern right now is to finish my novel, so I could say at this point, any novel you put in front of me is a novel I wish I had written.  Heck, The World is Full of Married Men, by Jackie Collins, is a book I wish I had written.

: But you have written some important fiction. Do you have the sense, deep down, that a writer of fiction does not 'arrive' until she has written a decent novel? Is that pecking order between the novel and short story settled in your mind? Will the short story genre lose your future stewardship to the novel?
PG: No, not at all. I only mean that it would be presumptuous for me, a writer who has not even finished a novel, to pick and choose and say she wishes she had written this novel or that novel. My only wish at this point is to finish writing a novel.

: You have almost finished your first novel. In what way has that writing process differed from your earlier engagement with short fiction? Have you personally found it a more amenable, enjoyable challenge or medium?
PG: I think the less I talk about it, the more I will get done. All I can say is that it is going well and I hope to be finished soon.

: Do you write any poetry at all?
PG: When I was a kid I wrote nonsense poetry in the style of Hillaire Belloc and Ogden Nash, to amuse my self and my brothers and sisters. Then as a university student I tried to do the whole angry poet thing. I have written no poetry since then.

: Your books should proceed duly into Italian, French, Dutch editions. Are they likely to make it into Shona, Ndebele, Xhosa, Swahili translations? How vibrant is literacy in indigenous languages in Zimbabwe or elsewhere? Do you see a market for your books, for other African writers' books in Zimbabwe?
PG: And Norwegian, and Swedish and Finnish! I am very excited. I don't know that they will be translated into Shona and Ndebele, I am not even sure it is necessary, and this is for a practical reason: apart from the very old generation in Zimbabwe, everyone who can read Shona or Ndebele can read English, anyone who went to school after 1980 can read English. So it would be a duplication. There are other ways of developing and promoting local languages, translating a book understandable to everyone is not one of them. Next year, I want to write a television drama in Shona, because that is a medium in which I believe I can most effectively contribute in Shona. African writers are extremely popular in Zimbabwe, always have been, although you find that the newer writers are not as well known as the older, simply because their books are not as present as those of the previous generation. I bought my copy of The Famished Road from the UZ bookshop, which also had Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and David Lodge and Ngugi and Chinua. And Mia Couto in Portuguese and Camara Laye in French. The economy means that books are no longer a priority. There is still a little space for new African writers if their books are available. A local publisher has put out a cheap version of Chimamanda Adichie's Purple Hibiscus because it is a set book at A-level.

: It's been lovely talking with you, Petina. Best of luck with your new book, and your literary career.
PG: Thank you very much for this intensely wonderful experience. And do allow me please to say how important African Writing, and you dear Chuma, another lawyer-writer, have been to me.  I am grateful that you rooted for me back when no one knew me.  I hope that you will continue to be part of the bringing to light of many unpublished writers in the way that you did me. Thank you Chuma.

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