RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
"The Book Of Memory" is a novel concerned with the act of remembering. Its main character spends her days in a prison cell looking back on her life before she was sentenced to death for murder. Petina Gappah opens her novel this way.
(Reading) The story you asked me to tell begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and my father and mother sold me to a strange man.
He was a white man, elegant, with a secret, who would raise her in postcolonial luxury - a luxury that a black child in Zimbabwe could barely imagine. Throughout, his mystery mingles with her memory of a childhood both free and fraught.
Petina Gappah, welcome to the program.
PETINA GAPPAH: Thank you very much, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Your main character is named Memory. And she is also albino. Why choose to make her albino?
GAPPAH: I actually chose that particular condition because I wanted her to have a condition that manifested itself visibly to any person seeing her because 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. But at the same time, I also wanted to say something about race without really saying anything about race. I've always been fascinated by this idea of - in Zimbabwe, somebody who looks white but doesn't have the privilege that whiteness brings with it. And that person at the same time is supposed to be black, but doesn't actually look black.
MONTAGNE: Her father is a very loving person and very crushed by the deaths of two of her siblings. And her mother, though, is extremely compelling and more complicated. Why don't you describe her mother to us? And then there's a passage you might read where she thinks about her mother.
GAPPAH: So the whole family, in a way, is kind of - you know that expression, to walk on eggshells? 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. So I'll read from the last paragraph of the third chapter, where Memory says...
(Reading) And my mother? My mother comes to me with the music that we listened to on the nights that we did not listen to novels on the radio. She's all of these songs and more. She's Jeannie (ph), who was afraid of the dark. She's Tommy, the coward of the county. She comes with the scratchy sound of a record player. She carries a birthday cake that she hurls at the wall. She's the long, thin branch from the peach tree next door. She's the stranger that glances back from the mirror when I least expect to see her. She's my beating heart; my palpitating fear.
MONTAGNE: Somebody that Memory cannot really ever get away from.
GAPPAH: Exactly. And at the same time, she's bound up with all these memories of joy and happiness, you know, when they would sit around, you know, the radio and listen to country music. By the way, Zimbabwe was raised on country music, you know? We all know, you know, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton - (singing) 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, that was the soundtrack to our growing up.
MONTAGNE: One of the sweet things in this novel is that we meet people with names that are very Zimbabwean.
MONTAGNE: And these, by the way, are names that could be real.
GAPPAH: They are real. My character, Memory, has a sister called Moreblessing, a brother called Gift. So these are the kind 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, you know? But there can also be negative names. You could have names like Hatred. You know, 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.
MONTAGNE: These are names that are in English. You had spoken of something else, which is Zimglish (ph).
GAPPAH: Zimglish, yeah (laughter).
MONTAGNE: Zimglish. Give us some expressions that are sort of a perfect cross between English and a language in Zimbabwe.
GAPPAH: Yeah. Well, 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 nicodemusly (ph) is to do something secretly under cover of the darkness. So you have politicians, you know, condemning the Nicodemus machinations of the government (laughter). And you think, what? It's my absolutely favorite Zimglish word of all time.
MONTAGNE: Well, finally - ultimately, this book is about secrets, to a large degree, and families and secrets that carry on from one family situation to the next. How true is that to your notion of some part of what is Zimbabwean culture?
GAPPAH: Zimbabweans, I have come to believe - we're a 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 the bad things that go on in families. There's even a proverb, (foreign language spoken), 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. At the same time, we are also very linked in our extended family. So the notion of family is much bigger than in Western society. It's not just the father and the mother and the children. You have the grandparents, you have the aunts, you have the this, and it's all part of that family. And in addition, some of the families are polygamous still. You know, so you have all these really competitive relationships between the two wives of the same man and the competitive relationships between their children.
MONTAGNE: Now, I've read that you have, in fact, in your family, your grandparents have like a couple of hundred descendents - that means children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
GAPPAH: Oh my goodness, Renee, there are more than 200 descendents of my grandparents. Yes. My grandfather was a polygamous man. And he had two wives. And so between him and his two wives, we are about 200 or so in our family. And I know everyone.
GAPPAH: But it is absolutely fabulous because it means I'm never, ever going to run out of stories.
MONTAGNE: Petina Gappah, thank you very much for joining us.
GAPPAH: Thank you very much, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Petina Gappah's novel is called "The Book Of Memory."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.