Zimbabwean writing

#110. Go to a book reading and be enchanted by a Zimbabwean writer who has everybody talking. Her name is Petina Gappah and her book is “An Elegy for Easterly”, a collection of short stories that has garnered gushing reviews comparing her to writers as diverse as  Anton Chekhov and Chinua Achebe.

Judging by the response to her work from those who made it to Boekehuis at lunch time today, Gappah is worth watching — she has a novel due out soon — and certainly worth reading.

In a review in  The Observer, Tom Fleming wrote: “More and more I have come to admire resilience,” begins the epigraph, a poem by Jane Hirshfield. Yet sometimes laughter is the only form of resilience Petina Gappah’s characters can manage, and it is the frequent humour in these stories that makes them remarkable, even if their outcomes can be tragic. Often satirical, occasionally lyrical, they are a delight.”

A lawyer based in Switzerland, Gappah spoke about her attraction to writing and mentioned that the writers she had read as a child were “all white and dead”.

It was for that reason that I dropped out of English and took up African Literature as a field of study, in the early 90’s. My English 1 lecturer was not amused when I asked, after having to read so many poems about the English countryside: “Is there nothing about this place?” Ironically I ended up with Zimbabwean literature as my field of study. Then it was flourishing. Dambudzo Marechera, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Chenjerai Hove, Charles Samupindi. Black Writers with dead dreams.  The writing was post-war and disillusioned, haunted already by a sense of betrayal of the hope for a newly independent state and summed up by Marachera’s phrase: “Where once our heroes danced there is nothing but a hideous stain.”

Gappah’s exposure to  “white and dead witers” didn’t stop her from pursuing a literary career. Fresh from the Franschhoek literary festival, a gem of an event that brings together writers and readers for a few days of conversation in the valley that has produced the country’s finest restaurants – who could possibly find anything wrong with that combination –  Gappah  blogged her impressions.

Talking to Gappah about what can be the  burden of being recognised as an “African writer” she  emphasised that depite the UK press’s determination to make her the voice of Zimbabwe, and of Africa, she speaks for no one but herself.  An essay by her on what shaped her as a writer has been published in South Africa’s “brave” literary journal (as Gappah remarked), Words Etc, brave because despite how tough it is to sustain a literary magazine in this country, editor Phakama Mbonambi is producing a quarterly magazine (in its fifth edition) that is fresh and engaging and growing in reach and popularity. The current edition has a touching piece on what it takes to run a publishing house in Zimbabawe where there is no shortage of writers writing —  just electricity, paper and phone lines.

The event at Boekehuis is part of a regular series that brings a diverse range of authors  and conversations into the intimate setting of what is easily Joburg’s finest bookshop. Best because browsing the shelves you get a sense of someone — in this case, Corina van der Spoel –having carefully selected each title and put great care into the process, and because of the collection of local and world literature that always holds some surprises and genuine “finds”. The coffee shop and the tables in the garden also help to produce an atmosphere in which reading is more than encouraged. It is expected.  Not suprising that the store was voted one of the “50 unique bookshops” in the world by the International Booksellers Federation. It gets my vote.

* To get on the mailing list for events at Boekehuis – send an email to boekehuis@boekehuis.co.za. You can find the store at 34 Fawley Street, Auckland Park.  To find out more about the Franschhoek Literary Festival click here. For more on Gappah’s work, click here.

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