Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory is a revealing first novel, an assiduous observation of the Zimbabwean condition. In many ways, it is carrying the torch for Zimbabwean literature: exploring race, culture and class bold-faced and unashamed. But in other ways, it does not do enough, like eating a plate of sadza and vegetables with no meat. You’re left hungry for more.
The author begins with an audacious premise: the life of an albino girl called Memory who lives with her family in a high-density township in Harare. The township world is vibrant due to the prodigious skill of Gappah as she introduces and fleshes out each character. Through a series of events which she revisits constantly trying to make sense of them, our protagonist is plucked from her home and placed in a life in the leafy upper-class suburbs of Umwinsidale. There tension builds up to a mysterious, violent act, a decade or so later, that catapults her onto death row in Chikurubi, Zimbabwe’s most infamous maximum security prison. The book opens on our protagonist in these dire circumstances, and we wonder as we turn each page, whether or not she will survive.
Memory, at her lawyer’s urging, begins to write to an American journalist interested in her circumstances. In Gappah’s hands, the rich and nuanced details of her memories are explored page after page. As a Zimbabwean woman, she is easy to relate to, to like. She seems calm, reasonable, not at all like a killer who has been convicted. Yet, how did this happen? The answer to this question is not revealed until many pages in and until then, the reader is treated to all the details of Memory’s life, details of a Zimbabwean life that is familiar and acknowledged.
Like her debut effort, what is most apparent and delightful here is reading modern tales of the city of Harare; a city I know well and love.
Gappah’s way with words is extraordinary. Her debut collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly – a book she admits was a hard act to follow – gained international attention; won the Guardian’s First Book Award; and had various sources hailing her as the ‘voice of Zimbabwe’. Since then, she has been working on her highly anticipated follow-up and a new challenge of telling a novel-length tale from start to finish. In the Book of Memory, Gappah manages to do so, although readers should be forewarned that the book itself consists of a lengthy build-up to a climax that from my point of view, does not come fast enough. And although this could be viewed as a criticism of the work, it is a testament to Gappah’s ability to paint such a palpable picture of Zimbabwean life that – despite the slow pace – we are longing to find out how a young girl’s life turns out as pear-shaped as it does.
I enjoyed this book. Like her debut effort, what is most apparent and delightful here is reading modern tales of the city of Harare; a city I know well and love.
I managed to pin Gappah down to ask her a few questions. This is what she had to say.
What inspired this tale? Who is Memory? Do you know her?
I don’t actually know an albino woman who has been in prison and convicted of murder so she is entirely made up. Her situation did however arise from a fact I read some years ago, just before I started writing the novel, that there were only two women on death row in Zimbabwe. One of the women then died, leaving only one. The loneliness of that situation struck me and I worked that into the story.
I can’t think of any Zimbabwean literature that addresses the condition of albinism. How important is this condition for the main character and the events of her life as they unfold?
Memory’s albinism is what marks her as being visibly different, and it is that difference that drives most of the events in her life.
‘I am surprised that more writers don’t write about the wonderful absurdities of everyday Zimbabwe.’
Memory is an elusive, subjective, often conjured and malleable thing. Your book tells a painful tale, that obscures and reveals. Tell us about how your own memory informs this tale.
A lot of Memory’s childhood memories in the township are my own, only of course I was a participant in the games and so on that she describes. I relied very strongly on those memories in the first section of the novel.
You are – along with No Violet Bulawayo and Tsitsi Dangarembga – part of an accomplished group of Zimbabwean women writers who are writing the lives of Zimbabwean women post-independence. In The Book of Memory, so much of our everyday life as Zimbabweans is so recognisable that I found myself chuckling or affirming the things you describe in my head as I read. As a writer, how do you put this common, lived experience in words?
I am interested in the everyday, ordinary things that happen to people from all walks of life. Not in grand adventures or big moments, just the small everyday things of which life is made. In fact, I am surprised that more writers don’t write about the wonderful absurdities of everyday Zimbabwe.
My only struggle right now is that I have far too many ideas because every time I go to Zim, I come back with another idea. This is why I will write far more stories than novels: they allow me to explore multiple lives.
This tale includes a look at the Zimbabwean criminal justice system. As a lawyer, how would you rate Zimbabwe’s criminal justice system? Is it always that those who are guilty are punished? Are the sentences just? Or are there too many who simply get away with murder?
I am not a criminal lawyer – my area is international trade law – and I practised law in Zim for less than six months, so I have no expertise from that angle. As an ordinary citizen, however I am concerned about the corruption in the legal system, and about the fact that it is often the poor who get sent to prison rather than the wealthy. I am also concerned about how the correctional system treats prisoners once they are incarcerated. So while the treatment is not the focus of my book, I do hope that those concerns come out in the novel.
The Book of Memory does a great job of juxtaposing township life where Memory spends her first formative years and upscale, upper-class suburban life where she moves in with her adopted father. Historically, if you are black in Zimbabwe, you come from one and not the other. How have you seen this dynamic change since independence in 1980?
I went through the changes Memory did but my younger brothers and sisters know only the suburbs. The nature of Zimbabwe’s misrule means however that conditions are the same whether you are in the township or suburbs now, no water, no electricity, bad roads etc. The difference is that some people have a bit more money to alleviate and manage the mismanagement, while many simply do not.
‘Race is a convenient instrument that can be used to further the politics of exclusion.’
The Book of Memory shows an awkward mixing of culture and class that was perhaps more rare and has now become more common. This question is probably too often asked and maybe impossible to answer, but what do you think is Zimbabwe’s future? Will we be able to overcome our nation’s racist beginnings to strive for a functioning nation together?
For as long as race is a convenient instrument that can be used to further the politics of exclusion, whether they are the politics of Smith or Mugabe, we are never going to get past the racial dynamics that founded Zimbabwe.
Which Zimbabwean author do you most admire and which of their works is closest to your heart?
My favourite author is Charles Mungoshi. I admire his range, the beauty of his prose, his ability to write equally well in English as in Shona and his commitment to his lifelong project of interrogating the Zimbabwean notion of family. My favourite novel of his is Kunyarara Hakusi Kutaura? the novel that, in my view, transformed the functions and structure of the Shona novel.