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Petina Gappah  [ Zimbabwe, Switzerland ]

Biography

Gappah, portrait
Copyright Bathsheba Okwenje

Guest 2016, 2017.

Bibliography

An Elegy for Easterly

Faber and Faber

London, 2009

Die Farben des Nachtfalters

Arche Literatur Verlag

Zürich/Hamburg, 2016

[Ü: Patricia Klobusiczky]

Die Schuldigen von Rotten Row

Arche Literatur Verlag

Zürich/Hamburg, 2017

[Ü: Patricia Klobusiczky]

Described by JM Coetzee in 2009 as »a rising star of Zimbabwean literature«, Petina Gappah was born in 1971 in Zambia and raised in Zimbabwe. Although she wanted to be a writer, Petina Gappah eventually studied law at the Universities of Zimbabwe and Cambridge, and completed her doctorate at the University of Graz. She subsequently carved out a high-profile career as an international lawyer specializing in the law of the World Trade Organization in Geneva. Her most recent job involved trade justice advocacy on behalf of more than seventy developing countries.

In her fiction, Petina Gappah writes in English, but draws on her mother tongue, Shona. Her debut, »An Elegy for Easterly« (2009) – a collection of 13 short stories set in a Zimbabwe in economic and political meltdown – received universal critical acclaim. It was shortlisted for awards in four different countries, including the Orwell Prize, and was awarded the Guardian First Book Award. Already in this first book, Gappah developed her trademark use of gallows humour: laughter is often the only defense left to victims of injustice, and it is this kind of humor – despite all tragic events – that makes Petina Gappah’s stories so remarkable. Her first novel »The Book of Memory« (2015) is set in the infamous Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison and narrates the story of Memory, an albino woman who is said to have murdered her white adoptive father. Writing from death row, Memory must write down her memories as she awaits her execution. Petina Gappah uses the epistolary form to recount Memory’s turbulent childhood, and to explore the relationship between fate and choice as well as the redemptive power of love. Petina Gappah’s abiding interest in the relationship between the law and justice is foremost in her most recent collection of stories, »Rotten Row« (2016). Inspired in part by the stories of Ferdinand von Schirach and John Mortimer, the stories in »Rotten Row« delight in the possibilities of the short story form, and in the craftsmanship the form demands. Petina Gappah’s unsparing yet humorous eye takes on crime in all its facets, zooming in on criminals and victims, enforcers and enablers, with a panoramic cast of characters as diverse as an ageing Rhodesian hangman, a corrupt policeman, hardboiled hairdressers, quarrelling market women, conniving lawyers and cynical NGO workers. Rotten Row has been described as Hogarthian and sweeping in its scope, with the writer Colson Whitehead stating that it »does for Harare what Dickens did for Victorian London, with lethal comic relish and rage«.

Petina Gappah is a guest of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program in 2017. During her fellowship year, she will complete a novel about the extraordinary nine-month journey undertaken by the African companions of the Scottish explorer David Livingstone as they carried his body from the African interior to the coast.

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