Sunday 6 December 2009


On 02 December 2009, Zimbabwean writer and lawyer Petina Gappah was adjudged the winner of the 2009 Guardian First Book Award for her début book “An Elegy for Easterly”. She was only the second writer to have won the award for a short story anthology in its 10 year history. An Elegy for Easterly” was also shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O'Connor Award and CLR is happy to present Nuvoyo Rosa Tshuma's review of this début effort by Ms. Gappah.

It is not every day in our ocean of writers that an African  counterpart gets picked up by one of the bigger vessels. Not only did Petina Gappah make headline news with her two book deal with the famous Faber and Faber, joining the very fertile house that published Ernest Hemingway and other bigwigs, she has also just made history by winning the much coveted Guardian First Book Award. Not only that; she is only the second Zimbabwean after Dambudzo Marechera to win this award. No easy feat that, and much deserved. Certainly the thirteen stories in this compilation, filled with a cynical humour (which in some instances can be interpreted as a humorous cynicism) were demanding for attention of such a scope.

With her début book “An Elegy for Easterly”, Petina Gappah does not waver on the page, penning down scribblings that are bold, straightforward and fearlessly ‘Zimbabwean’. These stories, all using something or other about the Zimbabwean situation as a back drop, comprise of very tangible and interesting characters.

‘At the Sound of the Last Post’ assumes the first person voice and ferries us through the burial of a ‘gallant hero’, viewed through the eyes of his wife. Everything in this tale seems to have assumed a cynical quality, from her husband’s once gallant political ideals, to his infidelity, to family squabbles; from the ageing President, to his corrupted Inner Circle, to the tired oration which takes yet another opportunity to lambast “the puppets in the so-called opposition who are controlled from Downing Street”. There is a particularly distinct piece of history mentioned in this piece of fiction, the brief allusion to ‘The Willowgate Car Scandal’, a scandal which was unearthed in Zimbabwe in the late 1980s and involved the procurement of vehicles for the ‘Government’ by Ministers who then sold them for their own profit.

‘In the Heart of the Golden Triangle’ is presented from the second person view point and affords us a glimpse of the wealthy, routine and insecure lives of the unemployed wives of the rich in a small surburb called the Golden Triangle.

‘An Elegy for Easterly’, the story from which the book takes its title, was originally published in Jungfrau: Stories from the Caine Prize 2006. Told from the third person omniscient voice, it ferries us into the squatter community of Easterly Farm, teasing the reader with memories of a more stable Zimbabwe where children knew not bearers’ cheques with more zeros than the fingers of one hand, but were able to identify with the coins so beautifully illustrated in their school text books. This tale, allowing us a peak into the daily toils of the small scale informal traders of Zimbabwe, those great connoisseurs of that slippery art of haggling who fearlessly negotiate stringent passport and visa terms by jumping borders into neighbouring countries, is mainly centred around ‘Martha Mupengo’, a mad woman who goes around asking for twenty cents and lifting her dress.

Another tale running with a stronger vein of ‘madness’ is ‘The Annexe Shuffle’, which is told from the third person point of view but with the elimination of the omniscient voice. This is the story of the ‘mad’ Emily, a law student who pays a brief sojourn to the mental wing of the Parirenyatwa Hospital. Our protagonist, due to the sophisticated voice assumed by the author here, suffers from a madness which takes on a different texture from that afflicting Martha Mupengo. It is a more psychotic madness; as you read you feel more like an observer of this mental wing who is able to get into Emily’s head and see what she sees, giving this story an interesting psychoanalytical angle.

‘My Cousin-Sister Rambanai’ is a hilarious account of the crafty and lovable Rambanai, who has come home for her father’s funeral but due to fraudulent papers and money constraints, is not able to return immediately to America. She suffers from what is famously known and the ‘Njiva Syndrome’ back home in Bulawayo - the tendency by family and friends who visit home from neighbouring South Africa (and in Rambanai’s case America) to either overspend or arrive with empty pockets, and hence find themselves forever ‘going back tomorrow’.  We are taken on trips all over Harare by Rambanai via our protagonist, who is presented to us in first person. Dear Rambanai ‘oohs’ at this and ‘aahs’ at that, lamenting on how things have changed since she was last home. This lovable character seems to suffer from two conflicting emotions, that rather hapless air of superiority that seems to affect ‘Diasporans’ upon their visits home, and their irresistible yearning for all things home. She talks about how ‘the public transport is very different in the States’ and how ‘there you can be anything you want, anything at all’, yet she is eager to take public transport everywhere, to go shopping in the Mbare township market and to drink Shake-Shake, a traditional brew which the protagonist associates with ‘gardeners, miners and other labourers who could not always afford beer’.

‘Something Nice From London’, although also with that Diaspora vein, is more concerned with the funeral proceedings and family squabbles surrounding the delayed arrival of  the dead body of a relative who has died while in London. Brewing with frothy veins of family jealousy and squabbles, all perpetrated by that powerful Diasporan currency, it beautifully illustrates the theatrical quality of mourning which is a part of the Shona Culture- relatives throwing themselves this way and that, shouting ‘uhhu uhhu’, ready to be buried with the deceased (We also see this in the funerals in ‘At the Sound of the Last Post’ and ‘My Cousin-Sister Rambanai’, where relatives make a show of jumping into the graves after the coffins).

‘Aunt Juliana’s Indian’ tells the tale of Aunt Juliana and her employer, Mr Vaswani, whom she refers to as ‘MuIndia wangu (My Indian). This tale is set during the Independence era, and, through Aunt Juliana, highlights the contrasts and opportunities awarded blacks before and after Independence, and that rather critical affection that they had for their employers, which appeared to be reciprocatory. Aunt Juliana constantly complains about her pay and the rather abusive manner with which her boss treats her, and harbours dreams of being a ‘top flight secretary’. This opportunity materialises after independence. There is much allusion to the Indian society, snippets channelled by those blacks who did work for the Indians; how ‘Indians did not wipe their bottoms with tissues; they washed them with water with their left hand….. they all owned shops’.

The Cracked, Pink Lips of Rosie’s Bridegroom” is the shortest story in this compilation. Here the author uses a dissociated voice to weave a scene centred around the theme of HIV/AIDs. This is a story about a rather superficial society that prefers to assume a complacent ignorance of this disease. The guests privately wonder if the bride, Rosie, can see what they see, “that her newly made husband’s sickness screams out its presence from every pore”, while they make a show of cheering and clapping. This was my least favourite story in the compilation, as it came across with a rather monotonous rhythm throughout.

Our Man from Geneva Wins a Million Euros’ tells the tragic tale of a gullible fellow who, not being well versed on the guiles of the internet, falls prey to those bogus spam mails many of us have at one time or another encountered in our email in-boxes, flashing a too-good-to-be-true message that we have won unbelievable sums of money in a lottery we never took part in. It’s an interesting take on just how the promise of money can stifle all form of rationality.

‘The Maid from Lalapanzi’ is a hilarious take on SisiBlandina told through the eyes of her employer’s child. SisiBlandina enamours the children with the superstition which many of us hear from our grandmothers, and eventually runs off in the hope of getting married to MukomaGeorge who works at the post office. We learn that our young protagonist’s mother has been through them all, the likes of ‘SisiLoveness, who was dimpled and glowed’ and was fired because ‘she cared too much about her appearance and not enough about the floors of the house’, ‘SisiDudazi’ who was caught doing some heavy dancing instead of working, ‘whistling like she was herding cows’ also lost her job and ‘SisiNomathemba’ who quit because she could not make the children obey her. It coaxes memories of those hilarious encounters with childhood maids.

In ‘The Negotiated Settlement’ we meet Thulani and Vheneka, a couple in a marriage which is being eaten away by infidelity and boredom. When Thulani, who is Ndebele, asks for a divorce, Vheneka, who is Shona, gives him an answer which is pregnant with so much thought and meaning - she shows him the scar she bears as a result of their son Nkosana through a Caesarean section and says ‘First you undo me this scar, then we can talk about divorce’.

‘Midnight at the Hotel California’ is another one of Petina Gappah’s very light and funny tales. Here we get to meet an unnamed protagonist who is as crafty as they come, determined to deal with the Zimbabwean hardships blow for blow. In this tale we get a glimpse of ‘dealing’ as it was done in Zimbabwe during the time when everything that could not be found in the shops was sure to be found decorating the pavements on the street, purchasable at exorbitant prices. As our protagonist advises us, “It’s against the law, of course, this black market thing, but they may as well arrest every living person between the Limpopo and the Zambezi and have done with it. This is the new Zimbabwe, where everyone is a criminal”. Our protagonist also makes jabs at the middle class who have been the hardest hit by the Zimbabwean disaster-train, “those poor sods who have found that their cherished degrees are useless in this new economy”. It is during one of his follow ups on a false lead that we learn of our protagonist’s memorable “experience” at The Hotel California, during the time “when Zimbabwe was still Zimbabwe”. Now for this “experience”, one needs to get hold of the book, to divulge it would be to kill great suspense, it’s that hilarious and that memorable.

I have left the best for last. My bias lies towards this story, which had me laughing the first time I read it, and which I have continued to enjoy thoroughly during subsequent readings. ‘The Mupandawana Dancing Champion’ tells the story of Mdhara Vitalis Mukaro, who is forced into early retirement due to foreign currency shortages and is given three pairs of boots as his pension for thirty years service to the company. The story takes place in “Mupandawana, full name Gutu-Mupandawana Growth Point”. It is during the ‘Mupandawana Dancing Competition’ that Mdhara Vitalis gets to show off his agility on the dance floor. Now, we all know that in Zimbabwe, a Growth Point is the ‘city’ of the villages, the ‘happening place’, where the cattle boys and young girls slink off to and get down to some energetic music with a calabash in hand. Music is a vital aspect of culture. It is through song and dance that many a tale is told.

In ‘The Mupandawana Dancing Champion’ song, dance and the short story come together to form a magnetic coalition of mesmerizing story telling. Here, Petina Gappah’s pen flirts with the page. Here, the pen does marvellous things. It executes some complicated dance moves on paper to come up with a scene that leaps out of the page. The author is reeling off the names of some great and popular Zimbabwean singers, and already you can hear the strums of those lively guitars for which Shona music is so popular. As the author goes on to tell of the energetic dancing that went on, you can just picture those ‘Growth Pointers’ doing some heavy getting down. As you read, you are tempted to click your fingers and whistle and shout ‘Tshova George!’ (Tshova George is a term used to rally the dance- a sign of enjoyment). Another memorable line is “The security guard’s Borrowdale became a Mbaresdale”. Borrowdale is a very posh suburb in Harare, Capital City of Zimbabwe. There is also the ‘Borrowdale Dance’ which was invented by Zimbabwean singer Alick Macheso. Mbare is a township in Harare.  So upon the entrance of Mdhara Vitalis, the security guard’s dance was relegated from posh Borrowdale to township ‘Mbaresdale’- Zimbabweans would understand this upon first reading (hence the stark Zimbabwean flavour). ‘The Mupandawana Dancing Champion’ comes to a humorous and original end as Mdhara Vitalis dances himself to death.

Another hilarious and great twist is that the title ‘Mupandawana Dancing Competition’ has the acronyms of the name of the opposition party in Zimbabwe, Movement for Democratic Change- MDC. This point, another ingenious construction by the author, is illustrated in a passage where the Governor summons the Member of Parliament for the District to point out this anomaly: “What business does a ruling party MP have in promoting the opposition, the puppets, those led by tea boys, the detractors who do not understand that the land is the economy and the economy is the land and that the country will never be a colony again, those who seek to reverse the consolidation of the gains of our struggle.”

This passage is reminiscent of the many tired speeches laced with obsessive paranoia that one hears from the Ruling Party in Zimbabwe, usually broadcast on the sole National Television Station, Ztv, informally known as Zanu tv  (Zanu PF is the ruling party in Zimbabwe). This tale is an absolute original.

I read this book when I was at home, in Zimbabwe, and passed it on to a couple of people to read. The first comments were ‘What an unusual cover’, ‘What an unusual title’, ‘Oh, there is a Zimbabwean writer called Petina Gappah?’ The ordinary man on the street is not aware of the current stories being told re Zimbabwe. He will readily smile when you mention Dambudzo Marechera, Yvonne Vera or Tsitsi Dangarembga, but he will falter when you mention any of the fresh Zimbabwean writers. You cannot really blame him. In a country brought to its knees and where not much is done to publicize literature to its people; where the book shops are half empty and where most of its population would consider purchasing a novel a luxury, one can hardly be surprised. The Bulawayo Public Library boasts of a wide collection of Western fiction and only a cabinet of African literature; very little, if any of it current. Which is a shame, as stories such as those in ‘An Elegy for Easterly’ need to filter to the man on the street, who although does not  purchase books, does visit the local library. In this light, it is to be much appreciated and applauded that the author has taken it upon herself to ensure the availability of the book in the country, via distribution by Weaver Press publishers, and by making free copies available to libraries. My little sample of readers liked the tales told in this compilation; they felt that the stories speak about them and they appreciated that. They enjoyed the humour within their tragedies. One comment that stuck was ‘These are untold stories’. This, I believe, is what ultimately makes this book precious.

In writing fiction, the author has given a nice, touching and much valued account of the things Zimbabweans have to contend with; their ingenious methods of dealing with impossible situations and the character with which they have done so. The fearless fusing of the political with the rest of the themes makes for effective and real story lines, since Zimbabwe, as with many developing countries, is a highly political society. These stories are more than just about struggles and glimpses of the elite, they are also about lives and certain aspects of the Shona culture and the squabbles that go on; the things that human beings get up to.

This is indeed a precious compilation that has left me greatly looking forward to Gappah’s upcoming debut novel ‘The Book of Memory’.

[Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is a Zimbabwean student currently pursuing her studies at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has had short stories published in young people’s anthologies in Zimbabwe, and has a short story in the upcoming BED anthology by Modjaji Books (South Africa) as well as another short story in the upcoming in the Story Time ‘African Roar’ Anthology. Novuyo was twenty when she attained third prize in the Intwasa Short Story Competition 2008. Her short story ‘You in Paradise won the Intwasa Short Story Competition 2009 and will be published in the next issue of African Writing Online Literary Magazine. More of her musings may be found at]

1 comment:

  1. what is the theme in midnight at the hotel carlifonia