Zimbabwean female writers on the rise
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah Faber & Faber 240 pages R210 at takealot.com
‘Their attitude was implicitly rooted in the language itself. Bofu is in noun class, denoting things, just like benzi, the word for a mad person. Chirema, like a chimumumu, is in noun class seven, also denoting things, objects, lifeless objects or incomplete, deficient persons. As murungudunhu or musope, I find myself with normal people in noun class one. But murungudunhu is heavy with meaning. As a murungudunhu, I am a black person who is imbued not with the whiteness of murungu, of privilege, but of dunk, of ridicule and fakery, a ghastly whiteness.”
So goes the paragraph that was to be my first encounter with The Book of Memory, the first novel by Petina Gappah.
It was a reminder of Gappah’s gift for unearthing and rendering complexity and meaning in the seemingly trivial and unremarkable as she did throughout An Elegy for Easterly, her debut short story collection which won her the Guardian First Book Award – the second Zimbabwean after Dambudzo Marechera to do so.
Memory is what Shona-speaking Zimbabweans might derisively call a murungudunhu (an albino woman). She has been accused of murdering Lloyd, the white man who raised her in the wealthy Harare suburb of Umwinsidale after her impoverished parents mysteriously sold her to him when she was nine.
In this book, we are privy to Memory’s testimonial of her unusual circumstances to a “white journalism woman” from America, who visits her periodically in the infamous women’s section of Chikurubi Prison to bear witness to the trial of the third woman on death row in the country’s history.
Although anchored in Harare in the 2000s, The Book of Memory unfolds itself almost seamlessly between Zimbabwe of several eras past and present, including the pre-liberation war Zimbabwe and post-independence Zimbabwe of the 1980s.
In setting out Memory’s Zimbabwe, Gappah takes care to render a sociopolitical setting that does not overwhelm the development of characters and plot.
As Memory recounts her life and the circumstances that led to the murder of her suspected sugar daddy, a line is drawn between the ngozi spirit which disastrously controls the lives of her poor Mufakose family and the Greek myth of Oedipus, which likewise controls Lloyd’s eccentric intellectual and domestic pursuits.
In the end we discover that Memory and Lloyd are both societal outcasts, regarded with “fear-laced fascination and suspicion” as they move between senses of dislocation and of belonging with each other and the wider world.
This ambitious plot is carried convincingly by Gappah’s near-flawless prose, which might be the result of her former job as a legal officer drafting judgments at the World Trade Organisation’s Appellate Body where, she says, she learnt to “write clearly, concisely and crisply to convey meaning using the simplest words possible”.
In the end the novel’s snag might be found in Gappah’s use of the term ‘white journalism woman’.
This narrative device allows for a slip in consistency of voice. Memory begins her account clumsily and rather inarticulately, betraying a sense of her less than urbane roots in Mufakose, as seen in the very description of a white journalism woman.
And yet, by the end of the book her voice leaves us fully convinced of her Umwinsidale bona fides. Perhaps this might be seen as indicative of the way in which a firmer grasp of her life circumstances leaves her with a sense of clarity and self-possession.
The other slip is that Gappah is given to sociopolitical and anthropological indulgences, presumably for the benefit of the “white journalism woman’s” audience.
Thankfully, this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Gappah is unapologetic in her use of local and Shona idiom.
As she stated in an interview in African Writing: “I am more willing to take the risk that the reader will fail to get something, than I am willing to risk losing the reader by condescending to explain everything.”
With this ambitious second offering, Gappah firmly solidifies her place within the canon of both Zimbabwean and wider global literature.