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Anya Pearson interviews Petina Gappah, Zimbabwean novelist and lawyer, whose first book An Elegy for Easterly was shortlisted for the 2010 Orwell book prize.

A powerful collection of human stories set against a backdrop of corruption and hypocrisy in Zimbabwe, An Elegy for Easterly won the Guardian First Book Award and was one of the very few works of fiction that did well in the original combined Orwell prize for fiction and politics  – the only novel to win was Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s Moses, Citizen and Me.

On the tenth birthday of An Elegy for Easterly, and a few months ahead of the UK release of her upcoming book Out of Darkness, Shining Light, Gappah reflects on her country’s socio-political transformation, the influence of Orwell on her writing, and the enduring power of fiction to reveal the truth.

Hi, Petina. In An Elegy for Easterly, many of your characters are striving to escape the grips of circumstance. Looking back over all the characters in the book, who do you think is now the happiest, ten years later?

I think M’dhara Vitalis, the guy who danced himself to death, is probably the happiest because he’s well out of it, right?! In my subsequent short story collection, Rotten Row, I flesh out some of the minor characters that appear in An Elegy for Easterly. So M’dhara Vitalis’s biggest dance competitor appears there.

When writing, how do you metabolise your lived experiences into fiction? What is the process? 

I try to give all my characters an aspect of myself to make them more real. Josephat’s first wife doesn’t have the same level of education as I do. She’s not a lawyer. She probably hasn’t travelled beyond Harare. But I like the bible, for instance, so I made her a very strong Christian.

The music of Oliver Mtukudzi, the Zimbabwean musical legend who sadly died earlier this year, feels like the unofficial soundtrack in An Elegy for Easterly.

I’m so glad you say that, because each one of my four books is animated by a different soundtrack. An Elegy for Easterly was very much about the Sungura sound of the 1980s to early 2000s. It’s is a type of music that’s found only in Zimbabwe. Songs go on for seven minutes, and four minutes of that is just the guitar going ‘da-na-da-na!’ There’s a lot of hardship, poverty, ‘woe is me, woe is us’. But it’s all very danceable!

Mtukudzi’s lyrics are political, but they’re kind of subtle, emotional messages. 

People have tried to make Oliver more of a political activist but he always resisted that. He writes about things that affect everybody, no matter what your politics are. His songs are about societal breakdown, marriage breakdown, and unhappiness.

He very different from Thomas Mapfumo, who had to leave Zimbabwe because he sang against corruption and poor governments. Oliver wanted his songs to be a uniting force. One of the books I am hoping to write is about Mtukudzi as an undeclared poet laureate of Zimbabwe. 

Is An Elegy for Easterly a political novel, or would you resist that categorisation?

I can see that it would be read as political, and I have no problem with that. But it wasn’t intended to be political. It came into a world where people were talking about the politics of Zimbabwe and there hadn’t been any books that had broken internationally that could have humanised those politics. I just wrote stories I wanted to tell about this collapsing country that I loved very much.

Do you think that fiction can have a special impact that is different from other kinds of political writing? 

Absolutely. I think fiction gets us to look at truths that politics can’t always get at. Politics is sometimes about taking sides. But one of the things that I challenged myself to do is to try and take the side of people whose politics I don’t agree with. In my second story collection, Rotten Row, the very first story is from the hangman. I am opposed to the death penalty, but I wanted as an exercise in empathy to put myself in the shoes of somebody whose job it is to kill people.

I love Orwell’s idea of political writing as a work of art. Dorian Lynsky’s The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 is probably the most literary biography of Orwell that’s ever been written. I believe very strongly that fiction can ­– a very fancy word – illumen politics in a much more humanising way. 

While writing An Elegy, were you wary of being read as polemical about social justice issues? How did you get around that, if so?

I’m very wary of being seen as a polemicist, especially because just recently I’ve been working for the government, made up of some of the same people I criticised! I was not writing against Zimbabwe, but out of a love for it. Being a critic of your government is a form of patriotism. My writing was driven by a desire to see us do better, not just in politics, but also in how we treat each other.

In ‘My cousin-sister Rambanai’, Rambanai comes back from America to Harare in the early 2000s and asks: “Where are all the luxury shops? Where are all the restaurants?” You write: “Her Zimbabwe was frozen in 1997, the year she left. Hers had been a country of money to burn… fast cars, and party after party”. What are your thoughts on that political moment in mid-1990s Zimbabwe, looking back?

It was an odd time. On the one side, there was the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme, which was creating severe hardship. But this was Zimbabwe when it was really booming – before the land invasions started – when there were tourists coming in from all over the world and we were not yet indebted to China.

That was reflected in the multicultural nature of Harare. Especially if you were as privileged as Rambanai was, your Zimbabwe was a country of parties and fun. It seemed as though you could have any type of future that you wanted.

There are strands of Orwell-inspired writing in An Elegy for Easterly. In ‘At the Sound of the Last Post’ a widow talks about the secrets in the life of her dead husband, a public figure. “Only the official truth matters, only that truth will be handed down through the history books… The injustices of the past have been redressed to consolidate the gains of the liberation struggle”. Does telling the truth matter to you beyond all else?

Orwell talks about propaganda to great effect in 1984. This idea of manufacturing facts to suit a particular purpose was very prescient now we live in the era of fake news. In Zimbabwe we even have a Ministry for Information. This idea that information can be managed and massaged is very chilling. 

But I think manipulating the truth can only go so far. Zimbabwe is now opening up to the world, yet the state media are still very much wedded to the same narrative. And it’s making them look more and more ridiculous. When you say there are no soldiers out on the street, and people have footage of soldiers on their mobile phone, you know it’s lies.

It’s apparent that the colonial legacy is very much still there for some of your characters, for example the grandmother in the Maid from Lalapanzi who still calls Harare its colonial name, Salisbury. You write: “Independence was a reality that did not alter their memories”. What were you expressing with this idea? 

It’s a perennial issue that I have. Colonialism is in the past for Europe but it’s very much part of Africa’s present.

I took a 28-day journey in a container ship in June to the Caribbean. It was incredible. I did it because I’m trying to finish my fifth book, and because I’m writing a film script set on a container ship. I am probably one of the few Africans in the history of the world who have voluntarily put themselves on a ship to cross the Atlantic! Then we got to Guadeloupe and Martinique, and every single person there is black. And that’s because all their ancestors were slaves. It really hits you quite viscerally.

[Regarding the Windrush scandal], you take people as slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, and then when they get a chance to come to England, you start deporting them? These people are in our part of the world because of our historical links. It doesn’t mean we have the apologise for the past, necessarily, or make reparations, but we need basic empathy. 

Do you think it’s important for books like yours to offer the possibility of a way forward, an indication of how society can be different in some way?

Yes, I think so. But the positive change I would have wanted to create with An Elegy for Easterly is in the reader. Just because a country is in the news for corruption and bad governance, it doesn’t mean that the people of that country necessarily lead meaningless or unhappy lives. Zimbabweans are wickedly funny. We even laugh at funerals!

Petina Gappah’s upcoming book, Out of the Darkness, Shining Light, is published in the UK by Simon & Schuster early next year.

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