Read Women Write: Book 7: Petina Gappah: An Elegy for Easterly

Women, Writers, Zimbabwe, Petina Gappah, feminism

I found Petina Gappah’s collection of short stories at the second hand book shop near to my house. After many I downloaded SnapScan, and it was this particular book that made me do it. You see, I didn’t have any cash on me and the bookshop only accepts cash or SnapScan and so I did it.

Short Stories are not something I read frequently – occasionally I pick up a collection at a coffee shop, or in a book shop, to have a brief interlude in fiction. But I love the novel – I love getting stuck into characters and really having the time to get to know them and how I feel about them. But, Gappah’s collection came with the a recommendation from a very well known South African author on the cover, so I thought I’d give it a try.

I really enjoyed it. There are thirteen stories in the 274 pages and they are all about different elements of Zimbabwean society. Gappah is excellent on a sentence level – this was one of my favourites:

“Fame is an elastic concept, especially in a place like this, where we all know the smells of each other’s armpits.”

Those types of sentences make me jealous as a writer – it tells you so much about the people, the place, and the sensation of the scene that she’s trying to describe. My favourite stories, or at least the two that I have thought of most often since finishing the book about a month ago, were In the Heart of the Golden Triangle, and The Cracked, Pink Lips of Rosie’s Bridgegroom. These stories tell so much about what it means to live in a polite society, where people lie to each other for the benefit of not causing a fuss.

But surely, this collection was meant to cause a fuss. The very first story begins with reflections on the Presidency and the state of Zimbabwe’s political leadership. Many of the following stories develop this theme without being extensions of one another. Gappah tells things as they are, but does so in a way that doesn’t feel like a lecture, or like she’s trying to force you to believe in her point. I love that it feels like the personal is political in all of the stories, and that the political is personal in many of them.

One of the saddest stories is The Maid from Lalapanzi. When I finished reading that one it made me think a lot about how much children miss growing up, and how painful it is when you suddenly realise that the world is not an equal, friendly place, but that it is unequal, and that you are either privileged or not. Those are hard realisations.

Each of the stories is really strong and so I looked up Gappah wondering if she had written any more. The Wikipedia entry on her is outdated, another reflection on how African women writers are not given the attention or credit they deserve. But, both her book and the page revealed that she is fact a practising lawyer. I love that! I’m always so pleased when I find other writers who are trying to work their ‘real job.’ I always wonder whether they have dual passions, or whether they are just biding time.

She writes for the Guardian too and was an Open Society Fellow. You can read a piece written by her for Chimurenga this month here.

I have never been to Zimbabwe but Gappah’s collection made it come alive for me. I can tell that this project is going to give me major wanderlust.