RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The characters in Petina Gappah's new collection of short stories could people a town in her home country of Zimbabwe.
On one corner, a one-time insurance salesman makes a deal in the black market. A woman in a shack longs for a baby she can't have. Urchins run past a limo carrying the polished wife of a banker. And a "Jabberwocky"-quoting student gazes out from a mental ward.
When Petina Gappah joined us, she began with the tale told by the widow of a high government official who's been designated as a hero of the struggle that put Robert Mugabe into power nearly 30 years ago.
Ms. PETINA GAPPAH (Author): The reason I wrote this story, actually, is because I have become increasingly upset about the way in which the government of Robert Mugabe has sort of appropriated this struggle as their struggle. And the one symbol of that is something that we call the National Heroes Acre, where every August, Robert Mugabe and his ministers go to remember the people who fell during the liberation struggle.
And it's now become a political game, where you only become a hero, you're only buried at Hero's Acre - which is sort of our Arlington - if you happened to be in agreement with the president at the time that you died.
MONTAGNE: So here we are the end of the funeral, and you have the president first speaking about this great hero that is being buried here among other great heroes. And then he moves on to, as your narrator sees it, another matter, and that's the country's sovereignty. And why don't you pick up reading that little part?
Ms. GAPPAH: I say to Blair and to Bush that this country will never, a trillion, trillion, trillion times never be a colony again. The microphone gave a piercing protest at the trillion, trillion, making the phrase jump out louder than the other words. There was a nugget of newness in the use of trillion and not million as a measure of the impossibly of recolonization. It is three months since inflation reached 3,325,000 percent per anum, making billionaires of everyone, even maids and gardeners.
MONTAGNE: And, of course, the great irony of that is it's making paupers of everyone, even the middle and upper class.
Ms. GAPPAH: There's a joke about Zimbabweans being the poorest billionaires in the world. And it's so sad. You see professionals - teachers are especially the people I feel sorry for, because there was a time when if you were a teacher, you were not only regarded as a valuable member of society, but you could also do things for your family. You could buy a nice house. You could employ a maid and a gardener. You could send your children to good schools. But now you find that this middle class, this professional, educated middle class, those skills are no longer good enough because what you need are other skills.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, one of the last stories in the book, and it's actually funny - the guy is funny the way he describes himself. He's an ex-insurance salesman who's fallen on the hard times that everyone in Zimbabwe has fallen on. That is to say, you know, it's hard to have a normal job there anymore. And he's moved on to doing what?
Ms. GAPPAH: He's doing what everybody else in Zimbabwe does, which is being a dealer. You just sell whatever comes your way. It can be milk, it can be Pampers. It can be anything, really.
MONTAGNE: So here's how this begins, "Midnight at the Hotel California."
Ms. GAPPAH: It is hard to remember that there was ever a time when you could buy half a dozen eggs, a package of Coke and sausages, two loaves of bread, a package of Tanganda tea, and still have change from a $10 note for two casa-loggers(ph) and a package of Everest cigarettes. I was thinking of those days as I walked from Mbare to Tynwald today. I had gone to Mbare to collect my car, but my mechanic, Lovemore(ph), had not finished with it. A couple more days in (unintelligible) he said. I had to contend with that. Shaky cold while I was in Mbare and said that he knew someone who knew someone who could get me a good deal on 50 liters of petrol. It is a super (unintellgible) he said. It is only valid today. Take it or leave it.
MONTAGNE: This is the character, clever by name and clever by nature, as he describes himself. One thing that helped him sell insurance back in the day when he - there was insurance to sell was he would carry, you know, a newspaper, even a tabloid under his arm.
Ms. GAPPAH: A newspapers and magazines. Yes.
MONTAGNE: People would eye it and…
Ms. GAPPAH: There's a wonderful image that always comes to mind when I talk about this with people, which is if you go into a rural area in Zimbabwe, you know, the really poor areas where there are no roads and there's a little shopping center with only, like, two buildings, and you will find usually if there's one person with a newspaper, they're reading it with six other people.
So somebody's reading the back, somebody's climbing the hedge to read around the front, and somebody's got a piece here and they're fighting over it. And it's - to me it's such an evocative image of Zimbabweans and their love of reading. And this image really is what partly inspired this character who always moves around with at least two magazines and three newspapers because he knows that people, especially in the smaller dust pockets of Zimbabwe, are really desperate to read.
MONTAGNE: I think someone reading this would be surprised, maybe even delighted at that sort of aspect of the Zimbabwean culture that wouldn't have been coming out in news stories over these last years.
Ms. GAPPAH: But this is the beauty of Zimbabweans. I really believe that Zimbabweans are amongst the - are Africans that are hungriest for the written word. So it's not at all surprising if you find that a Zimbabwean can quote Shakespeare or quote Thomas Hardy.
MONTAGNE: And there's another sort of great moment in one of these stories that gives you a sense of what it is to be in Zimbabwe, and it's a story about a dancing champion who is also, may I say, a coffin maker.
Ms. GAPPAH: Coffin maker.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: A Mr. M'dhara Vitalis?
Ms. GAPPAH: M'dhara Vitalis. M'dhara means old man. So he's old Vitalis. You know, Renee, you're not going to believe this. This was actually inspired by a true story that appeared in the Herald, which is Zimbabwe's daily newspaper, and the headline was "Man Dances Self to Death."
And I was completely entranced by this. I was just so amused and also, you just feel so much pity and sadness. And then I thought to myself, well, if I were to write the story of this man's life, who would he have been and why on earth would he have been dancing on this particular night? And so that's how I came up with this story.
MONTAGNE: He lost his job as a furniture maker. He decides he has to go back to work. He makes coffins, which he - of course, you can make a good living at because people are dying.
Ms. GAPPAH: He is exactly - and I say in the story that it's probably the only growth industry in the country.
Ms. GAPPAH: People always ask me how I manage to find humor in so much bleakness, but I think that this is almost a necessary skill to have, you know, the ability to laugh at yourself, especially in the bleakest of circumstances. Because what are you going to do? You know, so I always say to people that Zimbabweans are the funniest people in Africa. We even laugh at funerals. And it's true. I mean, there's so many jokes about funerals. There's so many jokes about AIDS. We find ways of coping with pain by laughing at it and by laughing at ourselves.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
Ms. GAPPAH: Thank you so much, Renee, for inviting me.
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MONTAGNE: Petina Gappah's short stories are collected under the title, "An Elegy for Easterly." Read her sweet and funny tale of how a coffin maker rumbaed himself into the grave at npr.org.