Petina Gappah grew up in Zimbabwe — it was Rhodesia until she was about ten — and today she lives in Geneva as an international lawyer. Her debut collection of stories, An Elegy for Easterly, is odd to read. Zimbabwe is a country with more problems, and grimmer, than I have standing to name: surreal hyperinflation (“I handed over a million dollars to the driver” is a common sort of phrase in these stories), AIDS, poverty, dictatorship, corruption. But these stories are everyday stories. They are wry slices of Zimbabwean life, whether that’s the life of the very poor or the very rich or somewhere in between. They sparkle with irony; they are often outright funny. Yet later — days later, weeks later — they are still with me, speaking in my ear of the human beings who populate them.
Many of Gappah’s stories tell the stories of women. Women are vulnerable in Zimbabwe’s social structure, whether they are rich or poor. Stories like “In the Heart of the Golden Triangle” and “At the Sound of the Last Post” are about women who live luxurious but confined lives as the wives of the country’s most powerful men. The sarcastic widow who narrates “At the Sound of the Last Post” from her husband’s state funeral stands on the same platform as Robert Mugabe as he delivers a eulogy. For these women, the daily fight is against their husbands’ infidelities – the men all keep mistresses in ‘small houses’ – and the perceived impertinence of their maids. Below these daily indiginities, the fear that eats away at them is of disease, of HIV:
You worry because you have not found condoms in his pocket. You find yourself hoping he keeps them in the small house. You watch for the tell-tale signs of illness which crosses over into the golden triangle and touches your gardener Timothy and your security guard whose name you can never remember. They both have the red lips that speak their status. The only red lips you want are from lipstick but you fear you may have them too if your husband continues to establish small houses all over the city.
This is a world in which infidelity means betrayal, of course, but it can also mean eviction and eventually death. These women do not have control over their own bodies, but neither do they have the control that would deny their husbands access to the bodies of other women. They cannot, because even as they sit and pray for their own health, they also depend entirely on their husband’s goodwill for protection and subsistence.
Gappah is equally comfortable writing about the very poor: in the title story, for instance, or in “The Maid from Lalapanzi,” in which a beloved maid and nanny commits suicide when she finds she is pregnant and has no other recourse. “That is what happens when you try to help these girls,” says the narrator’s aunt. The point of the story is to humanize the maid; Gappah spreads out a wealth of light, amusing social detail, and you almost don’t recognize how brutal the story really is until it’s over.
In fact, that’s the effect of most of these stories. There’s a story about a Zimbabwean man who gets involved in an email scam out of Geneva and loses all his money: it’s played for comedy, but it’s painful too, and it left me thinking for days. “The Mupandawana Dancing Champion” is about a man who’s lost his job but received three pairs of shoes as severance, and takes up dancing in competitions as a retirement scheme, because he can’t really retire; it’s funny and poignant and sad and dire all at once. Laughter and dancing and weeping and irony and death are mixed up in these stories. Gappah starts the collection with an epigraph from Jane Hirschfeld that seems extremely apt:
More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on the one side,
it turns in another.
I found myself deeply engrossed in these stories. I would love to read Gappah’s novel, The Book of Memory, and see what more she has in store.