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The Good Book Appreciation Society

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Jeanne-Marie Jackson interviews Petina Gappah on GBAS

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Welcome to Cocktail Hour at The Good Book Appreciation Society, today at 5pm, Jeanne-Marie Jackson spent an hour interviewing Petina Gappah on her highly anticipated novel, The Book of Memory. Here’s an excerpt of that interview:

[To join The Good Book Appreciation society, simply friend Bea Reader on Facebook, or email goodbookappreciation@yahoo.com]

Jeanne-Marie Jackson: Hi Petina, nice to “see” you here. (And I don’t plan to grill you, don’t worry.) Since I know some people haven’t had a chance to read the novel yet, I’ll try to avoid plot spoilers as nimbly as I can. But, let me offer just a bit of background to make sure our conversation is intelligible: the theme of memory that the title of your novel announces refers to both the narrator, whose name is Memory, and to the contents of her narration. She is trying to piece her life story together from her present-day imprisonment at Chikurubi, a maximum security prison in Harare where she waits on death row after being convicted of murder. Memory is an albino woman who is raised first by her Shona parents, and then by a white Rhodesian liberal named Lloyd – a sympathetic character who fought on the side of Zimbabwean independence. In many ways, the novel is also a reconstruction of how Zimbabwe as a whole remembers its past (I’ll go back to this topic later). I want to kick things off by posing a more explicitly literary question, though: what makes memory such an attractive concept to the novelist?

Petina Gappah: Memory is attractive precisely because it is so uncertain. We remember imperfectly, but at the same time we are quite certain about what we remember. I wanted to write a novel rooted in an imperfect memory of one particular event in this person’s life. So certain is she that her memory of it is accurate that she explains her entire life by that ultimately untrue memory.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson Yes,and as we’ve briefly discussed here before, you’ve writing yourself into a long and venerable tradition of “memory novelists.” It seems to me that this is most evident in the way you construct Memory’s voice: she brings together two “versions” of the unreliable narrator, each with their own literary heritage. On the one hand, there is the highly educated, canny, even manipulative adult narrator that many people associate with Modernism (your Vladimor Nabokov reference brings him to mind, but Virginia Woolf might be the best known example), and on the other hand, there is the child narrator whose memory is naturally subject to gaps in understanding. Memory occupies both of these roles, at different points in the novel. Can you speak a bit to the relation between these two narrating personas? What are some of the practical challenges of moving so frequently between Memory’s childhood and adulthood?

Petina Gappah It is a tough one: behind Memory obviously was I as the teller of the story. I manipulated quite deliberately the information that you as the reader receive. She could have told her story in one chapter. “My parents sold me, and I grew up with Lloyd, then Lloyd died and this is how he died and oh no, I was wrong about them selling me and this is why.” The story, like all stories, could have been told in one paragraph. To stretch it out over 90 000 words or so required some manipulation. So moving between Memory the adult and Memory the child was a necessary part of that manipulation.

Petina Gappah Yikes, sorry for all the typos, I will edit while I wait for more. The questions are coming from an echo chamber beneath the earth’s surface, so I have time.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson Ah yes, the magic number of 90,000 words! (Have just spent a lot of time cutting — I hear you.) It’s interesting that you use the word manipulation there, which is obviously technical, but it strikes me that there’s also an audience dimension. The adult, highly educated Memory who kicks off the novel is a self-consciously “literary” figure, but then the childhood Memory is so very, vibrantly Shona, and local. Do you feel like you had to be conscious, as you were writing, of reaching a Zimbabwean audience and a broader one in different ways? What I loved about the book is that it truly does do both.

Petina Gappah I write (so far anyway!) stories about Zimbabwean characters, and so I want them to feel true to Zimbabwean readers. But I am published around the world and I would like the specificity of my Zimbabwean characters to find an echo in readers everywhere. But it is an easy thing to pull off, I think, if I write what feels true. Because pain is pain, love is love, it does not have a national character. What we eat may have that character, how we live may have it too, and the names we choose for our children may be specific to our location, history, education and so on, but ultimately, I write about human concerns.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson It’s a refreshing change of pace for many readers, I think, from seeming to be caught in a tug-of-war between endorsing the “African writer” label and then refuting it. What you’re doing is, as you say, much more specific: it’s the old idea of the very big connecting to the very small, or the specific and local being the surest path to the “universal,” if we can call it that. I have to confess here that I’m a bit of a Shona nerd, and on that note I really loved how you brought such playful, musical Shona into the text through childhood games, songs, proverbs, etc. It got me wondering about the question of literary influence in again, a really local-but-literary way. I felt like I could hear some of those classic Shona novels that you must have grown up with in the background (Pafunge, Mungoshi’s Shona novels, etc)! What are some of the Zimbabwean sources that loom largest for you as you produce such ambitious work?

Petina Gappah The Shona novels were the first thing I read as a kid at a school in Rhodesia. We also used to listen to the serialisation show Kuverengwa Kwemabhuku, a sort of book at bedtime show. It was agony to wait from wine week to the next for the story to continue. And one of my earliest memories as a kid was steeling a dollar from my mom to buy for 25cent novels from the Literature Bureau van outside our school in Glen Norah. Then I moved to Alfred Beit and just went crazy. All the books! There were books everywhere!

So for me, reading has always been about pure story. You are compelled to find out what happened next.

I love books that grab you, hook you, draw you in, and will not let you go.
That is the kind of book I want to write the books I read as a child.
You see how deftly I am evading the “African writer” question

Jeanne-Marie Jackson It’s an incredibly influential canon, in Zimbabwe, don’t you think? I’m always amazed by how hard those books from the 80s in particular are to find, because people just remember them so vividly. On that issue of “hook,” though, why Memory in particular? I don’t mean the concept, I mean the woman, and then the girl. What about her demanded to be written?

(Haha, no “African writer question” here, I assure you.)

Petina Gappah I loved your earlier reference to Nabokov because along with the Shona novelists, he played a huge role in getting me to write this novel. It started off, if you will believe it, as Lolita in reverse. It was supposed to be a sort of Zim Lolita writing her story about the man she lived with and seduced etc etc. It was HIDEOUS! Oh it was terrible! I had to tell myself, lady, you are no Nabokov. Stop this nonsense.

So several drafts later, I wrote what felt like a more honest book. But she was always called Memory, she was always an albino woman, and she was always in prison, that part never changed. What changed was that I started with a very very unlikeable, very cocky character, and I hope I ended up with someone much more sensitive, fragile, and uncertain……….

To read the rest of this fascinating interview, join The Good Book Appreciation Society by friending Bea Reader on Facebook, or emailing goodbookappreciation@yahoo.com.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson is an Assistant Professor of English at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale, and also works in Russian, Afrikaans, and Shona. Her first academic book is South African Literature’s Russian Soul: Narrative Forms of Global Isolation (Bloomsbury 2015). She’s now researching a book on Zimbabwean intellectual culture, and also writes for outlets like n+1, Africa in Words, Bookslut, and The Literary Review.”

Petina Gappah is a lawyer and writer from Zimbabwe. She lives in Geneva, where she works as an international trade lawyer. Her work has been published in more than a dozen languages. From 2007 until 2014 she wrote the blog The World According to Gappah. She shut it down after it topped 160 000 words and she realised that no one needed to read, or write, that many words about basically nothing.

You can pick up Petina’s novel here, or in any decent book store.

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