Trade lawyer impresses critics and readers alike with ‘disarmingly funny’ short stories of Zimbabwe.
Petina Gappah has won the Guardian First Book Award with her short stories on life in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. Photograph: Sarah Lee
A Geneva-based international trade lawyer whose poignant, humane and funny collection of stories about her home country, Zimbabwe, has impressed critics was tonight named winner of the Guardian First Book Award.
Petina Gappah became only the second short story writer to win the award in its 10-year history, the first being Yiyun Li in 2006. Gappah’s collection of 13 stories, An Elegy for Easterly, tells of the lives of people, rich and poor, caught up in events over which they have little control.
The Guardian’s literary editor, Claire Armitstead, who chaired the judging panel, said she was thrilled to name Gappah as winner, particularly since 2009 is the year of the short story. There had been some wonderful first books, she said, and “Petina Gappah’s humane and disarmingly funny mosaic of life in Zimbabwe is undoubtedly one of the very best.”
The Guardian award is unique in that it gives a vote to the collective voice of reading groups, organised by Waterstone’s at branches in Bath, Oxford, Edinburgh, Leeds and London. The book chain’s Stuart Broom was the readers’ representative on the panel and he said: “There is a quietness, humour and charm to this book that resonated with the Waterstone’s reading groups. Many readers commented on the delicate simplicity of the stories, which belies the fact that a number of the short stories explore very harsh political realities. It’s going to be fascinating to see what Gappah does next as a writer.”
The answer to that is that she is working on her first novel, called The Book of Memory, which Gappah said was about “jealousy and obsession and the triumph of evil over good”.
Gappah said she was bowled over at winning the prize. “When I was told, I think I laughed. It was the last thing I expected. Did you read the books on the shortlist? I mean, seriously good. If I’d been judging the prize I certainly would not have chosen me.”
Gappah has been writing unpublished novels for many years, rather rockily. “I’d start one and not finish it, I lost one when my computer crashed, I had a computer stolen,” she said. “This wasn’t meant to be a collection because everyone kept telling me ‘oh, publishers hate short stories, don’t write them, write a novel’. So I’ve been writing novels but I kept writing the stories in between.
“I’m really happy as well to be only the second short story collection to have won this prize and also the fact the other person is Yiyun Li, one of my household gods. To be spoken of in the same breath is incredible.”
Gappah has been praised for movingly conveying the sheer awfulness of lives being destroyed by the ruined economy and HIV/Aids but also writing of joy and jokes and laughing. The novelist Aminatta Forna, in her Guardian review of the collection, praised Gappah for brilliantly conveying the reality of life in Zimbabwe, adding: “Through humour and compassion, she depicts that most quintessential of African characteristics: the ability to laugh at life, for fear of crying.”
The impressively educated Gappah – law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University and the University of Zimbabwe – lives in Geneva with her six-year-old son. She was given her prize of £10,000 this evening at a ceremony hosted by one of the judges, the BBC broadcaster Martha Kearney. The other judges were the poet and novelist Tobias Hill, the author Nadeem Aslam, the political philosopher John Gray, Broom and Guardian deputy editor Katharine Viner.
The Guardian First Book Award was created in 1999 and is open to all first-time authors writing in English, across all genres.
Gappah won from a shortlist that included a work of non-fiction – Michael Peel’s A Swamp Full of Dollars – and three novels: The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton; The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey; and The Selected Works of TS Spivet by Reif Larsen.
From An Elegy for Easterly
The wedding guests look upon the cracked, pink lips of Rosie’s bridegroom. They look at Rosie’s own lips that owe their reddish pinkness to artifice, they think, and not disease. Can Rosie see what they see, they wonder, that her newly made husband’s sickness screams out its presence from every pore?
Disease flourishes in the slipperiness of his tufted hair, it is alive in the darkening skin, in the whites of the eyes whiter than nature intended, in the violently pink-red lips, the blood beneath fighting to erupt through the broken skin.
He smiles often, Rosie’s bridegroom. He smiles when a drunken aunt entertains the guests with a dance that, oustide this celebration of sanctioned fornication, could be called obscene. He smiles when an uncle based in Manchester, England, calls on the mobile telephone of his son and sends his congratulations across nine thousand kilometres shortened by Vodafone on his end and Econet on the other. His smile broadens as the son tells the master of ceremonies that the uncle pledges two hundred pounds as a wedding gift; the smile becomes broader still when the master of ceremonies announces that the gift is worth two hundred million dollars on Harare’s parallel market. He smiles and smiles and smiles and his smile reveals the heightened colour of his gums.
Extract from a story in Petina Gappah’s collection, An Elegy for Easterly