Petina Gappah: The Storyteller from Easterly
by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
First published in various media, September 2009. Reproduced here for archival purposes only.
Zimbabwe’s writers have lately been taking me by the literary hand and lovingly showing me wondrous places in the heart of their country – using beautiful prose. I cannot get enough of their works, starting with the late great and greatly troubled Dambudzo Marechera, then Brian Chikwava and now Petina Gappah. Ah! I have just finished reading Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly published by Faber and Faber, Inc. and now I am in love with Zimbabwe. The streets of Zimbabwe keep patrolling my mind creating gentle vistas and memories of a beautiful place that refuses to go away despite the horrific efforts of President Robert Gabriel Mugabe. And Oh, what a book. You should see this book. It is drop-dead gorgeous, an attractive spirit that stirs things in my heart and loins each time I spy it showing itself off on my coffee table. Quite simply, An Elegy for Easterly is a pretty book of gorgeous short stories and Gappah will probably end up being one of the smartest new writers to come out of Africa in a long time. I must say that her publisher, Faber and Faber knows how to put together a beautiful book. The workmanship shows professionalism and pride in an output. I looked and looked and looked and I could not find a single editorial fault with the book. The result is, well, drop-dead gorgeous. This is an attractive book, Africa as life, breathing deeply and richly out of its pretty cover, a book so pretty I was too intimidated to write notes on its pages.
In Gappah’s book, freshly-baked story-loaves fill my reading world with the complex smells of Zimbabwe. And Africa, that persistent lover, comes calling again. These are all tender stories told by a master story-teller. The brilliance of this book is its universality – short stories about Zimbabwe morph into a grand tour of our humanity. Sadness and joy envelop issues that are common to all of us – disease, injustice, corruption, patriarchy, sexuality, etc. The prose in these stories is pretty and gently muscular, just throaty enough to still keep you hanging on to the edge of your seat. At the Sound of the Last Post is a well aimed catapult salvo of insults fired gleefully at the house of Robert Mugabe. Gappah’s words are pretty little daggers gently drawn, plunging lustily into the manhood of oppressive beasts. The sweet bitterness of her words extracts sweet victory from felled dictators. Tart prose cuts everything in its path to bite-sized sniveling pieces as she expertly documents the circus that has hijacked authentic leadership in Zimbabwe, and by extension, much of Africa. Zimbabwe’s government is exposed as populated by buffoon-leaders goose-stepping to the pretty drum-beats of pretend rituals pilfered from more purposeful and serious societies.
In Gappah’s stories, we go to places of despair now owning only pretty names and precious little else. But comedy steals past filthy skirts of despair and it is really funny. The chaos is uniform and universal. It is too early to compare her to Jhumpa Lahiri but her debut book is on par with Lahiri’s latest, Unaccustomed Earth. Indeed, where Lahiri is proprietary and almost insular (albeit in a disciplined way), Gappah expertly reaches out beyond the boundaries of Zimbabwe to speak to all of us.
The title story An Elegy for Easterly is an elegant, intimate story of a man hyper-dancing to the rhythm of Zimbabwe’s fading fortunes. It is quite simply beautiful, this story and it showcases Gappah’s intimate, loving mastery of the Zimbabwe landscape. The story At the Sound of the Last Post explodes with guns gently blazing at Zimbabwe’s handlers: “It is three months since inflation reached 3,000,325 percent per annum, making billionaires of everyone, even maids and gardeners.” (p9). Keep reading, gentle reader; the prose gets even more scrumptious, if that is possible.
Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euros is easily one of the funniest stories of greed fueled by need that I have ever read in my lifetime. It is delectable and masterfully done. The main character is caught in a 419 money scam; told he has won a million Euros, he dreams of riches that he will use to quell the raging financial demands of his nuclear and extended family. The story races breathlessly to a predictable end, but still leaves the reader sighing with an overwhelming sense of sadness and empathy for the victim, and us. Gappah is that good. It is easy to forget that like Zimbabwe, the characters in these stories mostly go nowhere fast. The banality of impoverished existence haunts and poetry rises to sweetly ambush the reader already wary of sad Africa stories. And sad and haunting is the prose-poetry. Just when you think Africa has exhausted her store of sad stories, a fresh batch unearths itself. Is there an end to this?
The Maid from Lalapanzi is a heartbreaking love story, beautiful in its simplicity and in its complexity. The story spoke, in joyous prose, of a time when there were tight physical boundaries and it was easier to fight for freedom than to flee from terror. In this story Gappah warmly travels through the remains of Zimbabwe, planting seed-stories of life. The heartbreak is of the good kind multiplied many times over and it in turn mass produced multiple sighs from my rugged heart. This writer is good. The Maid from Lalapanzi will stay with me for a very long time for it unleashed in me a warm gush of childhood and adolescent memories. I grinned as I read the love letters. Love blooms happily and lustily, even in the terror-infested weeds of Zimbabwe. The love letters were penned Onitsha Market literature style: “My sweetheart Blandina… Time, fortune and opportunity have forced me to take up my hand to pen this missive to ask how you are pulling the wagons of existence and to tell you how much I love you. My heart longs for you like tea longs for sugar. I wish for you like meat wishes for salt, and I miss you like a postman would miss his bicycle…” (p139) Hilarious. And sweet.
Meticulously researched details are important to Gappah. Not even the most private of details escapes her eyes. She notes everything including the invasiveness of the new commercialism: “The women from Johnson and Johnson had come to the school, and separated us from the boys so that they could tell us secrets about our bodies. They said the ovum would be released from the ovary and travel down the fallopian tube and, if it was not fertilized, it would be expelled every twenty-two to twenty-eight days in the act of menstruation. It was an unsanitary time, they said, Our most effective weapon against this effluence was the arsenal of the sanitary products that Johnson and Johnson made with young ladies like us in mind, they said, because Johnson cared.” (p137) In this story, we witness crass commercialism promoting self-loathing to sell the excess of capitalism. Lovely.
It is fortunate and refreshing that Gappah’s stories do not follow the formulaic patterns favored by the story minting machines of MFA programs. However, there is probably enough to quibble about in the stories. Every now and then, Gappah tries too hard to end a story and it becomes an unwieldy elephant that has been wrestled down and lashed together with weak cords of incredulity. An Elegy for Easterly gathers her wrappers too tightly and clatters too quickly to an ungainly full stop. They say most writers begin with autobiographical stories. One or two of Gappah’s stories come across as fairly autobiographical. Also there are all these lovely stories that trick the reader into forgetting that sometimes, their key ingredient is their improbability. But so what? Life can be improbable, life is an untidy mess. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Gappah could be accused fairly or unfairly of spreading contempt for African men. There is this persistent hint of misandry – the stories are populated by weak waves of weak men fashioning absurd rules to fit their anxieties. That, plus her thinly veiled contempt for Mugabe exposes her to the charge a number of her stories are political statements masquerading as short stories. My verdict: I don’t care, I love this book.