Debut Author Snapshot: Petina Gappah

Posted by Goodreads on February 1, 2016
Petina Gappah

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In an attempt to appeal her conviction, Memory, a death row inmate at Zimbabwe's notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, begins to write down her life story. Petina Gappah's debut novel, The Book of Memory, flashes back through time to describe the unusual life of her narrator, all against the backdrop of Zimbabwe's troubled history. As an albino black girl, Memory always felt isolated. She tells of how her parents sold her at age nine to a white man, Lloyd Hendricks, the adopted father she is now imprisoned for murdering. Gappah slowly reveals Memory's years spent in Lloyd's home in a wealthy suburb, far removed from her parents' bustling township, but how does she end up on death row? The line between Memory's gaps in memory and gaps in truth begins to blur.

A Zimbabwean writer who has also practiced trade law in Geneva, Gappah won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009 for the short story collection An Elegy for Easterly. She shares her inspiration for The Book of Memory and reveals what she's writing next.

Goodreads: Tell us about your inspiration for the character of Memory.

Petina Gappah: I started the book so long ago—in 2008—that it is hard for me to actually pinpoint what exactly the initial spark was! It was possibly a news account that I read about there being only one woman in Zimbabwe on death row. I thought how incredibly lonely that experience must be. Then the other elements of the story fell into place, like that she was an albino woman, she had an adopted family as well as her original family. But that was the initial inspiration—the idea of the only woman on death row telling the reader how she got to that isolated, and isolating, place. I have to say that in the first few drafts, she was initially a fairly unsympathetic character, and I grew quite tired of writing in such a horrible, cynical voice. It was when I added a touch of vulnerability that she became more real to me and much easier to write.

The house in Umwinsidale, Harare, that was the model for Lloyd's house in The Book of Memory.
GR: Since you could not visit Chikurubi prison without agreeing not to write about it, how did you put yourself in the mind-set of a prisoner on death row? How did you learn about the prison environment?


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PG: I read a lovely collection of memoir pieces narrated by women prisoners who had been released from prison. It is called A Tragedy of Lives and is published by Weaver Press, a Zimbabwean publisher that also distributes my books in Zimbabwe. I also found very helpful a series of newspaper articles by a journalist called Thelma Chikwanha, who writes for the Zimbabwe Daily News. But the best book about what it was like to be in Chikurubi was written by Simon Mann, who is, of all things, an Old Etonian who was accused of being part of a plot to assassinate the president of Equatorial Guinea in Central Africa. He was intercepted and arrested in Zimbabwe, where he and his fellow plotters were supposed to pick up guns to take on to Equatorial Guinea. He was imprisoned in Chikurubi before being extradited to Equatorial Guinea. His memoir [Cry Havoc] makes for riveting reading. His attempts to exonerate himself are unintentionally funny (he was doing it all for the good of Africa, bless him), but the Chikurubi chapters are wonderfully observed. So those three sources gave me the "factual" aspects of how life is lived inside the prison, but as to the mind-set of a prisoner, that was down to just good old-fashioned imagination.

View from the house in Umwinsidale, Harare.
GR: Memory is isolated by her albino condition, which "makes [her] black but not black, white but not white." Do you view her as being in racial limbo? Why was this an important choice for her character?

PG: I made her an albino because I wanted her to carry a visible, external manifestation of the "curse" that their family believes is on them. But I also wanted to use the idea of a black person who looks white without having the privilege that comes with being white in Zimbabwe—at least, the Zimbabwe in which the character grew up in. In the end, I am not so sure that I was as successful with this aspect of the "racial limbo" as I had hoped to be. Because ultimately it really is Memory's transplantation from the township to the suburb that puts her in racial limbo—if she had remained in the township, living with her poor family, she would not have had the kind of advantages that living with her new family gave her.


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GR: Memory isn't always a reliable narrator. Who are some of your favorite tricky narrators in literature?

PG: Definitely Humbert Humbert from Nabokov's Lolita. I also loved Barbara, the self-deluding schoolteacher in Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal. Brian Chikwava, a Zimbabwean writer, has a wonderful unreliable narrator in his novel Harare North. But I also love unreliable narrators who are unreliable simply because, like my character Memory, they don't know or are blind to the full truth of what they see. The best example of this is Stevens, the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro's magisterial The Remains of the Day. And I love slippery, misleading narrators in detective fiction or thriller films, like Verbal Kint from the film The Usual Suspects.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

PG: My main plan is to try and get better with each new book. I have just finished Rotten Row, a collection of stories with the central theme of crime and the justice system in Zimbabwe. I have really enjoyed writing it, and I am thrilled that my publisher in the U.K. thinks it is good enough to be my next book. It will be out in the U.K. and the Commonwealth before the end of this year, 2016. As soon as that book has been put to bed, I will continue with my fourth book, a novel called The Last Journey, which tells the story of the African companions of the Scottish explorer David Livingstone. I am very excited to be writing it.


Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Darlene (new)

Darlene Jacobs Sounds so interesting!


message 2: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen Burkinshaw What a fascinating read this will be!


message 3: by Meryl C. Hill (new)

Meryl C. Hill Sounds very intriguing to me!


message 4: by Ravi (new)

Ravi Torane i liked the interview
ravi torne, india


message 5: by Abigail (new)

Abigail SO glad I took a risk and bought this book without knowing a thing about it. Gappah's insight into her writing and thoughts really expands on the book itself.


message 6: by Masuka (new)

Masuka Looking forward to reading the Livingstone book.


message 7: by Geoffrey (new)

Geoffrey pretty much touched by the interview and look forward to reading more of your work....


message 8: by Doris (new)

Doris Raines This. Book. Should. Be. Among. The. Best. Sellers. Thanks. Doris


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