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Inside Zimbabwe with Petina Gappah.


Following international critical acclaim for her first collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly, Geneva-based Zimbabwean trade lawyer Petina Gappah takes a few moments between blitz visits to literary festivals around the world to speak with Swiss News.

Born in 1971 in Kitwe, Zambia as the eldest of five children, Petina Gappah moved back to Salisbury (now Harare), in then Rhodesia, when she was nine months old.

"Our father Tererai didn't have the opportunity of a college education--only a limited number of blacks were allowed higher education in white-ruled Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe]--but he worked hard so that the rest of his family could acquire degrees." Zimbabwe became independent in 1980.

Tererai Gappah funded the tuition of his siblings and ensured that academic achievement and books played a major part in his own children's upbringing.

Petina Gappah did not disappoint. She got her first law degree at the University of Zimbabwe, which earned her a place at the University of Graz in Austria. During her time there, she not only learnt excellent German, but also found time to gain a UK Bachelor of Law degree from Cambridge University. She finally graduated from Graz as a Doctor of Law. "I finished my thesis in 1998. It was on the World Trade Organization in Geneva and before I had even completed it, the WTO had offered me a job."

She began her career as an international trade lawyer in January 1999, using part of her earnings to fund the education of her siblings. After three years, she moved to the Geneva-based Advisory Centre on WTO Law (ACWL), where she is still active "helping developing countries deal with trade disputes, and advising them on their obligations". It is, she says, a job she much enjoys and where she perceives her work as genuinely useful.

Writing: a parallel profession

Meeting her in her art-filled office in a stylish new building located near the UN in Geneva's International Quarter, I immediately see why one of the most prominently placed pieces of information on Gappah's blog is that she loves fashion and shoes.

Her dress has a stylish high waist and V neckline, and she wears vertiginously high strappy black wedges. Pictures in magazines, appearances on CNN's "African Voices" and the BBC, show a mass of long plaited hair that creates the illusion of stature. So it is a surprise to discover that Gappah is actually of diminutive height. However, the same fiercely intelligent, probing and irreverent gaze--poised to see the humour in everything yet almost childlike in its clarity and directness--is as striking in real life as it is in media images.

"As a child, I was a bookworm," she tells me after we've settled. "I read countless books including about half of [British children's writer] Enid Blyton's 800 books. At 10 and 11, I was writing science fiction and nonsense poetry. But just as I didn't think of being a 'reader' as a job, I didn't think of being a 'writer' that way either. It just didn't seem real. Writers were white."


Breaking through

Gappah kept writing over the years--"plays, poetry about social justice, but it was never consistent. Or finished."

And then in 2006, she says, came a change in her attitude to writing. Not only could she see her way to being a writer but also, "I realised that the way forward was to finish something, and then to revise." She joined the Geneva Writers' Group where she could get feedback on her work.

Without any broader strategy in mind, she also started submitting short stories. "My first submission was to Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Virtual Studio and I got not only feedback, but earned some money. Another story won US$3,000 in a competition sponsored by South Africa/PEN and judged by South African writer J.M. Coetzee. Then I was head-hunted by an agent."

The ultimate result was a two-book deal with British publisher Faber and Faber: what has turned out to be the astonishingly successful Elegy for Easterly, and a novel about the recollections of an Albino woman on Death Row in a Zimbabwean prison, The Book of Memory, scheduled for publication in January 2011.

Moving on

Gappah is a big fan of Jane Austen, and enjoys the work of Dickens and 20th century UK novelist Evelyn Waugh. Favourite living writers include fellow-lawyers Helen Garner and Alice Pung, Americans Paul Auster and Toni Morrison, Irishman Colm Toibin, Chinese novelist Yiyun Li, and J. M. Coetzee. (Anyone wishing to pursue other favourites can log on to Gappah's blog. She considers herself a reader before anything else and devotes a lot of space to the work of writers she admires.) "They've added a flavour to English that wasn't there before," she explains.

But her lively and frequently updated blog is also, she says, very much about demystifying "the whole process of how to get published".

Presently, she is completing The Book of Memory, and writing more short stories. "I'm going to do exactly what I did with the stories that ended up in Elegy--publish here and there as I write them."

Many of the stories explore "what it means to be a foreigner in Geneva; more specifically, an Anglophone [a person from the English-speaking world] in Geneva. I'm interested in that condition of aloneness. What is it like to live in a place where you don't pay taxes [due to her status as an international civil servant], can't vote: how do you develop a civic relationship? Your children start speaking another language. Soon you're no longer from one place, but also not fully of another."

Extended interlude

"I hadn't intended to spend more than about three years in Geneva," Gappah tells me. But after Zimbabwe started to "implode", returning seemed inadvisable. She had also begun to notice, as many expats do, "Switzerland and Geneva are totally seductive--people come here for a short time then they buy houses and stay on and on".

Since May 2009 and the aftermath of An Elegy for Easterly's publication, Gappah has reduced her full-time position at ACWL to 80 per cent. And her perception of Geneva--which, owing to her deep-rooted personal connections beyond Swiss borders, she saw as little more than a dormitory during her first five years living there--has started to evolve. She now knows more Swiss people and follows Swiss politics. Her five-year-old son Kush attends a bi-lingual English/French Montessori school, so French--a language she admits to not speaking well--is filtering more and more into her daily reality.

Gappah cherishes Geneva's unique blend of cultural and social influences. "We live next to the mosque, across the street from an ambassador, and some Sri Lankan refugees play cricket in a field nearby," she notes. But the rest of Switzerland beckons as well. After giving readings of her work in Zurich, Bern and other Swiss cities, she intends to pursue getting to know the entire country better.

In her own journey, she has reached a turning point: "I wouldn't have said this a few years ago. But now I think home is where you want it to be."

Inside the cover

A paperback version of An Elegy for Easterly was published in December 2009. Easterly refers to a township, which arose when unsightly areas of Harare, Zimbabwe were razed to improve the look of the city for Queen Elisabeth II's visit in 1991. Later on, the new township itself was demolished. The book's 13 stories show Gappah's strong interest in politics (she was a Marxist-Leninist in her student days, but says that's all behind her now), and her disdain for the corrupt lifestyles of the rich, as well as the grasping, wannabe attitude of Zimbabwe's burgeoning middle classes.

It's raw, powerful, and sometimes brutal, but there's plenty of humour albeit often of the gallows type. It reflects a keen observer's eye and in-depth understanding of the issues at hand, but this is not journalism--this is fiction, we feel the characters, we enter into the rhythm of the lives, the sounds and colours and smells, much aided by the author's use of "Shonglish", a mixture of English and the native language Shone. The book was short-listed for the 2009 Frank O'Connor Prize in Ireland, and won the prestigious, 10,000 [pounds sterling] ($16,000) Guardian First Book Award in December 2009.


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Title Annotation:expat profile
Author:Mangold-Vine, Gail
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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