Petina Gappah on the elusive nature of writers’ satisfaction – at Auckland Writers Festival

“Thank you for coming today, when you should all be in church. You will all go to hell.”

This is how Petina Gappah charms the audience at Auckland Writers Festival right at the start of her Sunday session. And than she just keeps the jokes coming.

This Zimbabwean born author has, until recently, had an impressive career in international law in Geneva, while being an award winning writer and a single mother at the same time. She says she hasn’t slept since she had her son, which was 12 years ago. “But I am not as efficient as Margaret Thatcher,” she adds.

Petina Gappah
Petina Gappah – writer, translator, single mother and lawyer. (Image supplied)

Looking at her work, that’s hard to believe. Her first published book, An Elegy for Easterly, is a collection of short stories and has won, among other awards, the Guardian First Book award in 2009. Even though it was labelled by her publisher as “the voice of Zimbabwe”, Petina does not feel comfortable talking on behalf of a whole Zimbabwe, never mind the whole of Africa. She feels that labelling writers as “coloured” comes with expectations of what they should write about.

And what does Petina write about? Corruption, hypocrisy, abuse of power, exploitation, memory, love, loss and – superstition. While her collections of short stories bring a multitude of voices of modern Zimbabwe, the story in her first novel, The Book of Memory, is a monologue narrated by an albino woman, who was sold off as a child by her parents and ended up in a maximum security prison in Harare for murdering her adoptive father. She is prompted by her lawyer to write down her memories, her story as she remembers  it – so Memory finds herself writing for her life – both literally and metaphorically.

Cover of An elegy for easterly
The winner of Guardian First Book award in 2009.

Even though Petina has been writing since she was 11, it took her 6 years to finish the story of Memory. As it was her second published work, it put her under a lot of pressure. As usual expectations were huge. When asked about how she overcame this “second novelitis” crisis (term coined by Bianca Zander), Petina laughs: “Who says I  got over it?” But she manages to see the crisis of confidence in a more complex way: “The beauty of being a writer is the elusive nature of satisfaction. I always want to develop as a writer, to always be in  battle with myself.”

After the great success of The Book of Memory and after her son “took himself to boarding school” she decided to hand in her  notice at work so she could dedicate more time to writing and exploring. “I want to take a gap year. That thing kids do before the university.”

Cover of The book of memory

I am with you, Petina! Let that gap year roll into another and another and another …

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