Petina Gappah is also the author of the short story collection An Elegy for Easterly. She lives in Zimbabwe.
Marina Cavazza/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Marina Cavazza/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Petina Gappah's new novel is narrated by a woman named Memory who is telling her story from inside a maximum security prison in Harare. She's been sentenced to death for murdering her adoptive father.
The story, Memory explains, "begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a strange man."
Memory has albinism — a condition that has always fascinated Gappah. "I wanted to say something about race without really saying anything about race," Gappah tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "In Zimbabwe somebody [with albinism] looks white but doesn't have the privilege that whiteness brings with it. And at the same time, that person is supposed to be black but doesn't actually look black."
The elegant white man who adopts Memory would raise her in postcolonial luxury that a black child in Zimbabwe could barely imagine. Throughout, his mystery mingles with her memory of a childhood both free and fraught.
I actually chose that particular condition because I wanted her to have a condition that manifested itself visibly to any person seeing her. ... It becomes very important later on in the novel, because her family ends up believing that her albinism is a manifestation of what they believe is a curse that is on the family.
On creating the mother character, whom Memory describes as "my beating heart, my palpitating fear"
The whole family in a way — you know that expression "to walk on egg shells" — they never quite know what mood she'll be in. So for Memory, her impression of her mother is that she's this unpredictable character and she never quite knows where she is with her. ...
And at the same time she's bound up with all these memories of joy and happiness, you know, when they'd sit around the radio and listen to country music.
By the way, Zimbabwe was raised on country music. We all know Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, "You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille ... " — we love those songs, and especially if you grew up in the townships in the '70s and '80s, they were the soundtrack to our growing up.
On the Zimbabwean names in the novel
They are real. My character, Memory, has a sister called Moreblessing, a brother called Gift. These are the kinds of names that Zimbabweans like — names that have positive qualities. Like Praise is a very popular name, Loveness is a very popular name. It's a confusion between happiness and love — so you have happiness, surely you must have Loveness.
But they can also be negative names in the sense that you're trying to send out a negative message. You could have names like Hatred, you could have names that mean something like Suffering or Poverty. So names are not just names; names have real meaning, and they tend to tell the world about the circumstances of your parents at the time that you were born.
I'll give you one example: Because we love our Bible — we consider ourselves a very strong Christian country — so we have a lot of phrases that we take from the Bible that we think are English words. So, for instance, Nicodemus is a man, a Pharisee who went to Jesus at night and said, "How can a man be born again?" So to do something "nicodemously" is to do something secretly, under cover of the darkness. So you have politicians condemning the "Nicodemus machinations of the government" and you think, "What?" It's my absolutely favorite Zimglish word of all time.
On Zimbabwean families
Zimbabweans, I've come to believe, we are very passive-aggressive people. We don't like conflict, we don't like confrontation, so we find all sorts of ways of avoiding that conflict and confrontation. We are not allowed to talk about bad things that go on in families.
There's even a proverb ... which means "what covers the house is the roof." You're not allowed to talk about domestic violence, you're not allowed to talk about child rape, you're not allowed to talk about any of those things.
So we carry these secrets, and at the same time we're also very linked in our extended family. So the notion of family is much bigger than in Western societies — it's not just the father, the mother and the children; you have the grandparents, you have the aunts ... and it's all part of that family.
In addition, some of the families are polygamous still, so you'll have all these really competitive relationships between the two wives of the same man and the competitive relationships between their children.
On having a very, very large family herself
There's more than 200 descendants of my grandparents, yes. My grandfather was a polygamous man, and he had two wives, and between him and his two wives, we are about 200 or so in our family ... and I know everyone. But it's absolutely fabulous because it means I am never, ever going to run out of stories.