Petina Gappah interview: “My inspiration is – believe it or not – Margaret Thatcher”

Petina Gappah has been dubbed the voice of Zimbabwe and is a rising star of African writing. As her long awaited novel is released, The Skinny talks to Gappah about self-doubt, the tricks of memory, and her refusal to be categorised

Feature by Rosie Hopegood | 16 Sep 2015

It’s 7.30am in Geneva, Switzerland and already Petina Gappah has been writing for two hours. Every day, before breakfast, she writes 500 words, sets off to her full time job as a lawyer, and then edits the morning's writing on the bus home.

This, it seems, is what you need to do if you want to pen a Guardian first book award-winning short story collection while also working as a highly regarded lawyer in Geneva. Oh, and she’s also a single mum and has a law degree from Cambridge University. Feeling unworthy, and maybe slightly annoyed? Don’t. Gappah is a woman of incredible warmth who is, above all else, painfully modest about her achievements.

“The success of An Elegy for Easterly [Gappah’s first book, a collection of short stories] really made me doubt myself,” she says. “I kept feeling as if I’d be found out as an imposter. Is it really a good book? Is it because I’m black? Is it just because people are interested in Zimbabwe at the moment? I really began to question myself.”

Gappah’s success is of the sort that most authors only dream of. She’s Zimbabwe’s answer to Zadie Smith: just three chapters into her first novel The Book of Memory and it was snapped up and a publishing frenzy ensued. When her agent suggested that she put out a short story collection as a placeholder while she finished her novel, no-one could have foreseen the reaction the collection would garner. Gappah had been writing short stories for years, tucking them away and showing no-one. But An Elegy for Easterly was shortlisted for prizes galore (think the Orwell, the LA prize, the Frank O’Connor) before swooping in to scoop the big one: the Guardian first book award.

“I was completely astonished when I won, particularly because I was up against such astonishing talent as Eleanor Catton and Reif Larsen,” she says. “I just wasn’t expecting to win at all.” But win she did, gaining an enormous following along the way.

So, while the rest of us bemoan finding the time to go to the gym, how exactly does Gappah manage to balance writing, motherhood, and a high-flying career? “My huge inspiration is – believe it or not – Margaret Thatcher,” she says with a laugh. “She only slept four hours a night or something ridiculous.”

You might be excused for thinking that now Gappah is an award winner on book number three, she might decide to focus on her writing. Not so. “I tried to be a full-time writer for three years, and it wasn’t for me,” she says. “I just drove myself mad. At first you think, ‘Oh wow, I can just loll about in my dressing gown,’ but then it gets boring. Writing is a lonely business. Now I’ve figured out a way to write, which I love, but still make an impact in the world through my work, so I’m very happy.”

“Zimbabweans always mix comedy with tragedy,” she says. “Even at funerals it's traditional to appoint someone to imitate the departed, to make the mourners laugh”

There are many labels that can be given to Gappah – woman writer, African writer, the voice of Zimbabwe (which she was widely touted as when she won the Guardian Prize) – but she is keen to avoid being pigeonholed. “I’m not the voice of Zimbabwe; I can’t speak for every person in the country,” says Gappah. “I’m just a writer who is writing stories about Zim at the moment. I would like to be seen as a much more nuanced writer than just one who speaks truth to power. Plus, I don’t think terms like African writer or woman writer are helpful. It’s better just to focus on the content of the work.”

Yet her work is so intrinsically linked to her homeland, that even writing from Switzerland, Zimbabwe jumps off the page in a riot of colour. The long awaited The Book of Memory tells the story of Memory, an Albino girl on death row for killing a wealthy white man, who also happens to be her adopted father. A powerful exploration of race, the penal system and what it means to be a woman in Africa, the book is as provocative as it is absorbing, and as humorous as it is heart-rending.

“I wanted to write about race in a way that wasn’t too obvious,” Gappah explains. “I wanted to write about having white skin when you’re not a white person and you don’t have all the privilege associated with whiteness in Zimbabwe.”

Race is a key issue for Gappah, who grew up in a segregated country. It was only when segregation ended and her family moved to a formally white area that she had access to “the most enormous library I’d ever seen.” Unlike the younger generations of her co-patriots, she remembers a time before Robert Mugabe, who she has spoken out against on many occasions.

It is partly from this remembering of an alternative Zimbabwe that her fascination with memory stems. “Memory interests me because just how little things actually change. The more you think about how things used to be, the more you realise things are pretty much how they always were,” she says. “My generation look back at the 80s and think things were wonderful, but those political problems that we see today in the country were being created then – we just didn’t see it. For me, memory is important and history is important to understand where we are and where we are going.”

Despite writing a novel rooted in the justice system, Gappah was keen not to let her legal background overpower the story. “I wanted to stay away from more Charles Dickens-ish, justice-for-everyone sort of literature because, first and foremost, I wanted to write a story,” she says. “At the same time, I'm very concerned about the state of prisons in Zimbabwe and the fact that if you’re in prison there, you’re likely to be very poor because you’ve failed to pay a bribe.”

Despite tackling such weighty topics, the novel is deeply humorous in places: for Gappah, it would be impossible to write a novel set in Zimbabwe without incorporating elements of humour. “We always mix comedy with tragedy,” she says. “Even at funerals it's traditional to appoint someone to imitate the departed, to make the mourners laugh. Even in our saddest moments, there is a lot of laughter. If I had the guts I would write a fully comic novel about Zimbabwe, because it’s a riot and a very funny place.”

Is that a clue about her next novel? “Maybe! Right now, I’m just happy that The Book of Memory is being read. Actually, people don’t even need to finish the novel, just buy it, and use it as a doorstop or kindling!”

The Book of Memory is out now, published by Faber, RRP £14.99