Petina Gappah has a lot of energy. In addition to a demanding job as a lawyer at the World Trade Organization in Geneva, she has written two books. The first, a collection of short stories called “An Elegy for Easterly,” won the Guardian’s First Book Award. She also has a 12-year-old son.
“I actually don’t sleep much,” she says. “I only need about four hours a night.”
Now her second book is due out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “I started writing it in 2008, when I read about a woman on Death Row. I was fascinated by the idea of the sole woman on Death Row and wondered how she got there and what life would be like there,” says Gappah of her new novel, “The Book of Memory.” Its title character — an albino — is such a woman.
“I wonder why people commit crimes that are premeditated — to gain love, because of hatred or for financial reasons,” she adds, saying that she went to Rotten Row to observe criminal trials at the magistrate’s court there. The stories that appear in “An Elegy for Easterly” are also informed by that experience.
Gappah, who isn’t an albino, is from Zimbabwe and studied law at the university there and then at Cambridge University and Austria’s University of Graz. She feels that her drive comes partly from her father, whom she calls a feminist, noting that he waited until he was 32 to marry — considered very late in that place and time — because he wanted to help educate his sisters. In her culture, eldest children have a strong responsibility to care for their younger siblings, and, as the eldest in her family, like her father, she took that responsibility very seriously. She was the first person in her family to go to university, but now all her siblings have done so.
When she was growing up, her father used to take his children for long drives, going from the black neighborhood where they lived to places in the white suburbs, saying that one day they would live there. After the white Rhodesian government fell, they did. “Right after independence, we were able to get a mortgage,” she says.
Her co-nationals call their country Zim and its citizens Zimbos for short.
“I was one of the first six black kids to integrate a formerly all-white school,” she says. “I remember being looked at all the time and people laughing at my hair. I was also very self-conscious about the food I had for lunch. I had egg sandwiches, and the other mothers gave kids fancy stuff like bologna and Marmite. It took about a year to settle in. I wasn’t able to speak English fluently in the first year. So I was absolutely silent and read, read, read. “
Her father and mother, she says, are very happy about her success. Her father was moved when she took him up in a gondola in the Swiss Alps. He told her that, as the son of a poor man, he never thought that he would have a daughter who made enough money to send him a plane ticket and to bring him to a place like that.
She also says that she was particularly delighted to be published by Faber & Faber in Britain, since they also published one of her favorite writers, P.D. James.
Gappah used her own experience of being stared at to help shape the story of Memory who is a perennial object of curiosity because of her coloring. “I tell people that they’d better be nice to me or they might find themselves in one of my books,” adds the writer, who says that, in Geneva, “There’s a large international community, so I don’t get the sense that I’m sticking out in any way.”
In fact, she is very outgoing and often speaks with strangers in public.
But she does think that she might have another role in her country of origin one day. “I see myself in public service in Zimbabwe,” she says. “I would prefer an advisory role — cabinet secretary, minister of trade or the arts or something like that. I don’t want to be just a writer.”