The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting.

Petina Gappah at Open Book

Memory writes her story as part of her appeal to a life sentence. She writes her life story to an American journalist, Melinda Carter. From the opening lines of the novel the reader is warned that book is a chronicle of pain and lose, “The story that you have asked me to tell you does not begin with the pitiful ugliness of Lloyd’s death. It begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a stranger.”

Petina Gappah has been called the “voice of Zimbabwe,” to her dislike; she made her literary debut with the publication of her collection of short stories Elegy for Easterly, which won the Guardian First book award in 2009. Her debut novel, The Book of Memory, is a story about a black albino woman on death row at Chikurubi Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, sentenced to hang for killing Lloyd, a white man to whom she claims her parents sold her.

Memory’s elaborate journey begins in Mufokase Township where she grew up. She gets teased and mocked because of her albinism. She is too white for the poor township of black she is persecuted for looking differently; always looking in from outside, wishing she could be like everyone else. The story vacillates between her childhood in Mofukase Township, boarding school, Cambridge, her time at Lloyds mansion — Summer Madness — and the present in Chikurubi as she patiently awaits the overturning of her sentence or the hangman’s noose — whichever one will come first. Through these recollections she creates her truth, letting her suffering speak. Prison doesn’t allow her freedom of movement or association, but through her writing she is free. She can transcend her confinement. She reconstructs her dismembered life.

The youth born post 1994 in South Africa, for instance, has been told over-and-over again that it is born free is now rendering a different narrative through reading, political organizing, “My parent were sold a dream in 1994. I am here for a refund,” read a placard by a student during the ongoing student protest.” The amnesia is wearing off — the empire is disrobing. Remembering becomes a contested space between the truth and fallacy. A place where you can subvert what you know and what you were told and create your present anew.

Gappah weaves a riveting narrative of a women’s loss, alienation, family and betrayal; a story about the tense relationship between the treacherous nature of memory and truth.

Kuhlekwa noma kufiwe,” a Zulu idiom that loosely translates to, even during times of death there is laughter. Memory gives a vivid and humorous picture of her prison inmate’s day-to-day conversation, their legal strategies, and what they did to be in this hell to being with. These inmates whom the justice system has designated the position of the scums of the earth, degenerates, prostitutes, murderous, though humor these women become human, flawed like anybody else.

In an interview with The Guardian, Gappah said, “all she wanted to do was to tell a Zimbabwean story.” The use of Shona idioms, phrases and dialogue left untranslated gives the book its Zimbabwean-ness, the country becomes a character and not just a setting. Gappah succeed in telling a Zimbabwean story, not only that, the story ends up telling is a universal story: The corruption of the justice system, the persecution of those who don’t conform to the norm, the euphoria an incoming black government, and the treatment of albinos in African. I know the author might cringe to this definition, therefore let me explain what I mean by this. In Tanzania albino’s are being hunted for their limp, in South Africa there are myths/stereotypes about albino that we grew up hearing without questioning.

Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Nevertheless, with everything that Memory has been through she never occupies the position of a victim. At no point the reader feels sympathetic for her, instead you become her confidant, her parson, the only person she has in that small prison cell in Chikuburi. She may come across at times as heartless, or ungrateful for all the sacrifices that the generous white man did for her, her mother and father, but she remains resolute in her innocents and all she has done and felt thus far. We always fear losing our memory, yet it’s the source of our trouble.

Gappah mixes narrative with politics here in a way that would seem to rewrite the novel form, the so-called “social realist” text.