Review of An Elegy for Easterly - Percy Zvomuya
Title: An Elegy for Easterly Author: Petina Gappah London, Faber and Faber Distributed in Zimbabwe by Weaver Press ISBN: 978 0 571 24693 9 Reviewer: Percy Zvomuya
The publication of Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly (Faber and Faber) and John Eppel’s Absent: The English Teacher (Jacana and Weaver Press) means that the fiction games in Zimbabwe have begun in earnest.
For years it seemed that Zimbabwe fiction writers lay helpless, cofounded by the enormity of crisis in their homeland. The tomes upon tomes that came out were largely non-fiction, written mostly by foreign journalists.
Christina Lamb wrote about the fate of specific victims: a farmer ad his domestic worker; British journalist Martin Meredith, making extensive use of the wonder that is called the internet, also put out a book on how Zimbabwe went down; and so did Heidi Holland, whose biography of Robert Mugabe is much acclaimed.
Zimbabwean responses were minuscule. The more significant came from nationalists Edgar Tekere who produced a biography; journalist Geoff Nyarota wrote his memories; Geoff Hill, already looking ahead, wrote about what needs to be done to get Zimbabwe working again; Judith Todd, using letters, diaries and other documents wrote an insightful book about how Zimbabwe was reduced to a shell of its former proud self.
Beside Gappah and Eppel, Brian Chikwava’s Harare North and Nyaradzo Mutizira’s The Chimurenga Protocol, were also recently published. I have also started reading architect Daniel Mandishona’s The Sound of Dreams, still in manuscript form, which will be launched at the Cape Town Book Fair.
Gappah’s collection of 13 short stories has been covered quite extensively in the western media. Perhaps this is because of the topicality of Zimbabwe as a post colony that got it horribly wrong. At the launch of her book in Johannesburg, Petina admitted that the west’s reaction to her work is mostly informed by how it views Mugabe and Zimbabwe.
I found most interesting the stories that had nothing to do with Zimbabwe’s politics. The Annexe Shuffle, about a mentally ill law student, is easily the best. Although its tone is dispassionate, its voice is sympathetic. The narrator is not pretentious, and is to be commended for her refusal to resort to easy solutions.
The story I disliked the most is At the Sound of the Last Post, about the widow of a former minister about to be buried at the Heroes’ Acre, the country’s national shrine. The choice of voice is rather unfortunate – its easy going accents not appropriate for such a subject. Perhaps the main problem with the story is its lack of distance from the actual events. Because it’s so close to the events the author is writing about, it feels like lazy political commentary and one feels obliged to criticize it not as fiction but as journalese.
The narrator described a minister’s suicide after the infamous Willowgate Scandal, a car scam involving ministers, as a “supremely self-indulgent act”. Maurice Nyagumbo, one of the more principled men in a Zanu PF that was increasingly materialistic committed suicide after being implicated in the scam.
Suicide is never easy, the narrator in Graham Green’s book The Comedians said it was “the clear headed act of a mathematician, (for) the suicide has judged by the laws of chance – many odds against one that to live would be more miserable than to die”.
Then there are the stale jokes. The one about the disappeared pearly gates in heaven and another about the country itself: “before the president was elected the Zimbabwe Ruins were prehistoric monuments in Masvingo Province. Now the Zimbabwe Ruins extends to the whole country”.
I felt the author is at her strongest when writing about the lives of individuals. This is apparent in stories such as Something Nice from London and Aunt Juliana’s Indian (perhaps a nod here to Chimurenga 14: Everyone has their Indian). Here the author is not regurgitating urban legends or forcing her opinions down the throats of her characters. These stories are true to life with no stereotyping, these are real people faced with real problems.
At her best in Switzerland based Gappah has a unique vernacular voice, unearthing the pains and sorrows of the ordinary. In many ways she can’t be from anywhere but Zimbabwe.
· (Review originally done for the Mail & Guardian)
Review of An Elegy for Easterly - The Literary Update
An Elegy for Easterly
2009: (pp: 275) 212 x 135 mm
An interview with the author on writing & being Zimbabwean
The Literary Update
15 May 2009
Interviewer: Emmanuel Sigauke
Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer with law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University, and the Universiy of Zimbabwe. Her short fiction and essays have been published in eight countries. She lives with her son Kush in Geneva, where she works as counsel in an international organization that provides legal aid on international trade law to developing countries. Her story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, is published by Faber & Faber in April 2009, and by FSG in the United States in June 2009. She is currently completing The Book of Memory, her first novel. Both books will also be published in Finland, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
Petina will be in Zimbabwe later on this month for the Zimbabwean launch of An Elegy for Easterly.
Emmanuel Sigauke spoke to her about her new book and and other issues related to writing and life in her home country, Zimbabwe.
(ES) Congratulations for An Elegy for Easterly. What does this big step mean to you? (PG) Thank you very much. It is a huge step. It means the fulfilment of a life's dream. To be published by Faber, to be in the company of T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Siegfried Sassoon, William Golding, Orhan Pamuk, Owen Sheers, P.D. James, Kazuo Ishiguro and other writers I love is almost too good to be real.
(ES) How has your personal background contributed to your writing of Elegy. For instance, are there traces of yourself in any of the characters in the stories?
(PG) I think of my writing as a compulsive form of theft. 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 Muzorewa's UANC 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 I was growing up. 'The Mupanadawana Dancing Champion' was inspired by a news report in The Herald. And so on. Stories sometimes come to me when I least expect them: I was walking at Victoria Station in London a year ago, and playing a private game that I call 'Spot the Zimbabwean' – I have the finely-honed ability to spot a Zimbabwean in any crowd – and I saw two people who looked Zimbabwean. To prove this to myself, I moved closer to them, and heard one of them say: Ufunge, kubva musi waauya haana kana kumbotengawo kana nyama. I thought, Bingo, then I thought, Now there is a story there.
(ES) How long have you been writing fiction?
(PG) Almost every writer says, I have been writing since I was three, or I began to write before I drew my first breath, or something like that. I was not such a prodigy, alas. I have been writing for as long as I have been aware of the power of stories to create a firmer reality than the present. Not that I would have put it in those terms then, I was just a kid who liked stories and thought I'd try to write a few of my own. I wrote my first 'novel', if you can call it that, when I was about 10. It was set on Mars and called Return to Planet Earth! I was also ballet-obsessed at the time, and my second (and self-illustrated!) novel plagiarised quite shamelessly the Drina books by Jean Estoril. To amuse my brother and sister, I also wrote nonsense poetry in imitation of Ogden Nash and Hillaire Beloc, whose poetry we loved. These literary gems were taken for rubbish by the man who helped in our garden, and he burned them with other trash. My first published story, 'Marooned on a Desert Island', was published when I was in Form Two, in the St. Dominic's school magazine, Santa Dee Blues. My first earnings from writing came when I was in Form 4, when I won an award of 100 dollars in the Randalls Essay-Writing Competition. I then started writing really bad poetry like this: The beggar in the street sang out to me / I hurried on, averting the sight / To look on such suffering must be / Avoided at all cost / And still his raucous voice haunted me / His raucous voice still taunted me. It was grim. Happily, I very quickly got over that stage.
Then I went to university where I became consumed by my law studies, by being a Marxist-Leninist, and by falling in and out of love. I kept a journal through my university days, but wrote no fiction. I left Zimbabwe in 1995 for postgraduate studies, then I started working as a lawyer in Geneva in 1999. Although I sometimes contributed the occasional opinion piece to newspapers, I wrote very little but talked all the time about how I wanted to be a writer. Like an unfortunately large number of writers I have come to know, I wanted to be a writer without actually doing any writing! I really only started writing, and, this is a crucial distinction, finishing things, in 2006. My first short story, 'Something Nice from London' was published that year. My second story, 'At the Sound of the Last Post' did extremely well in the SA PEN contest, and the rest followed from there.
(ES) It's been said that your book deal with Faber and FSG is a big step in Zimbabwean literature. Do you agree?
The book deal is one thing, whether the books are any good is the question that will determine whether this is a big step for Zimbabwean literature. And that, of course, is not for me to judge. But there is this: I have found that in publishing, it helps to have a precedent. So the fact that both Brian Chikwava and I are being published by top publishers may, depending on our success, make other publishers take a closer look at other Zimbabwean writers who are coming up.
(ES) I have often told people that you are a hardworking writer, have noticed that you are involved in many writing projects. You have participated in international writing contests, have won second place in the PEN/Africa Prize judged by J.M. Coetzee. But you have also been a columnist for media outlets like the Zimbabwe Times, where your stinging criticism of poor governance in Zimbabwean politics has intrigued readers. You are also a satirist of the highest order, and you maintain a frequently updated, professional blog. On top of all this, you are a busy lawyer. How do you manage to do all this, and in what ways have you been able to balance fiction and non-fiction works in your writing career?
(PG) Thanks for those kind words. I believe it was Susan Sontag who advised writers to engage with the world. Hemingway shot things, climbed mountains and wrote. Scott Turow writes thrillers, and runs a legal practice devoted to death penalty cases. P.D. James worked for the NHS, raised her children as a single mother, and gave us the wonderful Dalgliesh novels. Lady James in particular is an inspiration, because she shows it is possible to have two lives: she had solid professional achievements before she turned to writing. I was a lawyer before I became a writer, I published academic papers on international trade law before I published fiction. I see no conflict at all between my professional life and my writing of fiction. If anything, the one feeds the other, and I am grateful to have both. I love my job and being a lawyer, and I love writing. But as I want to do both, I realised right at the beginning that I needed to find a way to fit my writing into my life. The most obvious thing seemed to be to create a longer day, so I get up very early around 4, 4:30, then I write, and around 7:30 I stop and the rest of my day follows. As for the commentary on Zimbabwe, I have not found it difficult to balance the fiction and non-fiction. Most Zimbabweans have views on what is going on at home. All I do is to write my views down, a thousand words at a time.
(ES) I haven't read a review copy of Elegy for Easterly, but I am aware that some of your stories I have read are anthologized in it, for instance, 'The Annexe Shuffle', which was originally published by Per Contra, and a satirical piece that appeared in Prospect. In reading these, I have been moved by your use of language, the playfulness of your style. How much attention do you pay to language use and style in your writing? What does this playing with language mean to you as a writer?
(PG) Language is important to me. I like precision, crispness; I like uncluttered sentences. I like writing to be musical. I want to write dialogue that sounds like people talking. Three of my favourite writers, J.M. Coetzee, Ian McEwan and Paul Auster, in their very different ways, have this quality, to give but three examples from their many books, The Life and Times of Michael K, Moon Palace and On Chesil Beach are just wonderful. Being Zimbabwean, I cannot separate the question of language from Shona. I use a lot of Shona in my writing because I write about Zimbabweans who speak Shona. The Shona has to feel true to me, and has to be true to Zimbabwe. I had a crisis when I wrote the slang term for South Africa as Ndaza instead of Ndazo, and the story was published like that. I have since corrected it, but that kind of thing makes me nervous. Also, I positively detest glossaries so the Shona I write has to be clear within its context. I am particular about the way people talk; I have a character called Ba'munin'ba'Thomas, written as one word, because this is how we think of people in Shona, the identity is contracted, and the person has that one identity depending on your relationship to him. So I aim for my writing to be musical yet crisp, and for it to feel true both in the language and the characters.
(ES) In one story you deal with the challenges of the Zimbabwean diaspora. How has living out of Zimbabwe influenced you as a writer?
(PG) Living outside Zimbabwe has been good for my writing because it has enabled me to have the sort of financial security that is not possible for a number of writers in Zimbabwe. I am also lucky to live in Geneva, a cosmopolitan city. I have friends from all over the world, which has helped me to appreciate that we are all pretty much the same screwed-up people wherever we come from, we are what Ian McEwan in a recent interview called 'untrustworthy, venal, sweet, lovely humans'. Understanding people, or, at least, trying to understand people, is part of what drives me to write.
(ES) Do you agree that this may be the time for Zimbabwean literature to shine? Do you see it as a time for a kind of Zimbabwean literary renaissance?
(PG) Every crisis presents an opportunity, this is a terrible thing to say but it is true. Award-winning war correspondents emerge only in wars. I am a great believer in bearing witness, in writing things down so that those wiser than us can learn from our mistakes. Without Jung Chang, from whom I learned the horrors of China's Mao through her memoir Wild Swans, I might still have believed the Zim government's version of the history of China. One of my favourite writers of the moment, Yiyun Li has, through fiction, unpeeled the layers of pain beneath the efficiency of contemporary China. The horror of Afghanistan gave us Khaled Hosseini's searing novel, The Kite Runner. Think of The Gulag Archipelago, and how Solzhenytsin opened up the West's understanding of Russia. Closer to home, think of Es'kia Mphahlele, Dennis Brutus, Athol Fugard and that whole body of writing that came out of apartheid. So yes, for writers like Chris Mlalazi from Bulawayo who is writing wonderful stories and plays, for Brian Chikwava, for Raisedon Baya, another playwright, for all writers prepared to write the truth of Zimbabwe as they see it, then this is the time.
(ES) Which writers influenced you?
(PG) I never know how to answer this question, so I will tell you some, just some, not all, but some of the writers I admire. I love the three gentlemen I mentioned above, Coetzee, McEwan, and Auster. I also love Toni Morrison. I love the crime fiction of P.D. James and Dorothy L. Sayers. I have great admiration for Daphne du Maurier. I reread Austen … every year. Charles Mungoshi is my favourite Zimbabwean writer. And, as we are having this conversation in the context of Easterly, a short story collection, I will also mention the following short story writers: Charles Mungoshi (his Walking Still is sublime), Chekhov, who is, of course, the master of the short story, Can Themba, the most underappreciated writer I know, Edward P. Jones and Yiyun Li who have written the two best short story collections I have read in years and Ali Smith who is strange and funny and brilliant.
(ES) So what should readers expect in An Elegy for Easterly?
(PG) I hope readers will be amused and moved. I hope that my Zimbabwean readers will find echoes of their own lives in my characters, and may even recognize themselves or people they know.
(ES) This book received a trans-Atlantic deal. Do you have plans to tour both Europe and the United States soon? Africa? Asia? How busy are you going to be?
(PG) This year is going to be extremely busy. So far I am scheduled to appear at the Cuirt festival in Galway, Ireland, at the PEN festivals in both London and New York, the Edinburgh Book Fair in Scotland, and the Melbourne Writers Festival in Australia. I will also go to the Franschhoek Literary Festival in Western Cape. I will also have book launches here at home in Geneva, in Johannesburg, and, I hope, in Harare.
(ES) You recently went to Zimbabwe. Did the trip give you new ideas about writing? In other words, how did the writer in you respond to what you saw?
(PG) There is a lot to say and write about the terrible crisis at home. I wrote a short piece that has been published in the latest issue of the Africa Report. I am currently writing about my tortuous experience in getting a passport for my son, which I hope will be published by Granta. There is plenty to write about. The only issue really is filtering it all, because there is just so much going on.
Originally published in the Munyori Literary Journal (March/April 2009) www.munyori.com/petinagappah.html
© The author/publisher
Review of An Elegy for Easterly - The Guardian
An Elegy for Easterly
2009: (pp: 275) 212 x 135 mm
25 April 2009
Reviewer: Aminatta Forna
Petina Gappah's debut collection is a book of two halves. In the first half are stories of people – women, mostly – coping. The women are downtrodden, exploited, mad, the abandoned, forgotten widows and wives of Big Men. One grieves over her husband's empty coffin at a state funeral attended by the President (here, as in Harare North, Mugabe, though never named, is a constant and menacing presence). Another grieves over her empty marriage and lifeless existence in one of Harare's most exclusive suburbs. An infertile woman watches with envy the swelling stomach of the local madwoman, never realising the unborn child belongs to her own husband. A talented law student finds her future tainted by a spell in a mental home. It makes for bleak reading. Frankly, too much so.
Gappah is a talented writer, but one who wears her heart too obviously on her sleeve in these first few stories. And then, almost halfway through the book, comes 'The Mupandawana Dancing Champion' and everything changes. With this absolute gem, which tells the story of a retired coffin maker's attempt to win a local dancing contest, Gappah comes into her own. It is clever, beautifully crafted and very, very funny. Her sense of humour is the key, for it tempers a tendency towards didacticism; it puts the politics where it should be – in the background – and brings the characters to the fore.
From there it just gets better. 'Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euros' is the story of a Zimbabwean embassy clerk who falls for a Nigerian scam. 'The Maid from Lalapanzi' reveals the secret past of a formidable household help. 'Aunt Juliana's Indian' explores the complex relationship between an Indian shop owner and his assistant.
Though Gappah's characters run the gamut of class from super-wealthy to destitute, she is at her best in her depiction of ordinary people, their ambitions and dreams of a better life even as everything around them crumbles. Through humour and compassion, she depicts that most quintessential of African characteristics: the ability to laugh at life, for fear of crying.
© The author/publisher