“I Was Terrified of Being a One-hit Wonder” – Award-winning Author Petina Gappah Chats to Lauren Beukes at Open Book
Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer with law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University, and the University of Zimbabwe. Her story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, was published by Faber and Faber in April 2009 in London, and in June 2009 in New York, and won the Guardian First Book Award.
Beukes started the conversation by asking Gappah, with her tongue firmly in her cheek, why there is no acacia tree on the cover of The Book of Memory, and why no child soldiers feature in the story.
Gappah said she doesn’t see herself as an African writer but specifically as a Zimbabwean writer.
“What I’ve given myself as a mission statement is to explore Zimbabwe in its complexity, and to explore the multiple factors and identities that make up Zimbabwe,” she said. “That’s what I’m interested in. I’m not interested in presenting a cookie cutter version of what it is like to be an African writer. I’m interested in exploring the different ways of being a Zimbabwean.”
Gappah says for a long time after the publication of her first book she struggled with the question of what kind of writer she wanted to be.
“I spent six years writing this novel and part of that six years was, in a way, considering that question. And then it hit me. The kind of book that I want to write is the kind of book that absorbed me as a child.
“Everybody here, I’m sure, remembers what it was like as a child to be given a new book. That thrill of entering another world. And then your mother is calling you because she wants you to wash the dishes and you’re just so much in the world that you don’t hear what she is saying. That book that really grips you and takes you in so that that world becomes much more real than your own real world. That’s the kind of book that I want to write. I’m hoping that I’ve come a little bit close.”
Beukes asked Gappah about the use of language in the book, specifically Shona. Gappah said she is very conscious of the way people speak and wants to reflect that in her writing.
“Zimbabweans, we think we are very educated and very literate. But the way we use English is very special. I call it Zimglish. My favourite Zimglish word is of all time ‘Nicodemus’. You know Nicodemus? He’s the guy that went to Jesus at night and said, ‘How can a man get born again?’ So to do something Nicodemusly is to do something in a secretive manner! And it’s actually used in press statements, ‘The MDC takes great exception to the Nicodemus machinations of Zanu PF’.
“My other favourite Zimglish word from the world of politics is to ‘disturbalise’. It’s when you destabilise and disturb at the same time. Another great expression is ‘half-time oranges’, taken from school hockey or soccer. For example, ‘Zanu PF, they want to steal the election, and what we are saying is, we are not playing for the half-time oranges!’”
Beukes then asked Gappah about the “impostor syndrome” she has been very open about experiencing after achieving international acclaim with her first book.
“It’s a wonderful thing to win awards,” Gappah said. “But the prize was completely unexpected, and it feels like overnight you are a different person. People are looking at you with a slightly more critical eye, and despite the fact that the reviews were very positive I felt that I had conned everyone, and that they would soon find me out. There’s a phrase that’s funny but it’s horrible, one-hit wonder. I was terrified of being a one-hit wonder.
“All feels well, your book is selling, but privately you are going through a terrible time and you are doubting yourself. So this time around I’ve decided to keep the reviews and everything at a slight distance.”
During the question and answer session an audience member asked Gappah whether it was difficult to switch from writing short stories to a full length novel.
“The transition from short stories to a novel wasn’t the problem,” she replied, “it was being in the public eye. I was writing all the time, I just wasn’t showing anybody my work. I still get really freaked out when I see this book in the bookshops because as recently as the 19th of June I was uncertain whether to send the final manuscript in. My publishers had to threaten all sorts of things to make me let go.
“But, a novel is a different thing to write. And in fact I find short stories harder. I’m sure we’ve all read novels where you skip pages that bore you. You can’t do that with a short story. In short stories every sentence is necessary. It has to be part of the whole.
“However, I didn’t write a book of short stories; I wrote stories over the years that were collected into a book. It wasn’t a conscious book, whereas The Book of Memory was.”
Gappah also mentioned some valuable concrete lessons she learnt after signing her international book deal.
“The Book of Memory was bought by 10 publishers around the world on the basis of three chapters or so,” she reveals. “That seems like every writer’s wet dream, right? But it is actually the most hideous thing that can happen. I’ve learnt now never, ever, ever to sell a book without finishing it. Because you spend the money on a nice Italian handbag and then you have to deliver!”
Read some tweets from the event:
- The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah
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- The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
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Photographs from day 2 of Open Book: 10 September 2015
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