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Petina Gappah’s debut story collection An Elegy For Easterly was released to acclaim six years ago. Her debut novel, The Book Of Memory (Faber & Faber, £14.99) is the story of Memory, a black albino, who writes for her life from her cell in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder.

You have attributed the gap between An Elegy For Easterly and The Book Of Memory to suffering from imposter syndrome – has this affected the scope of your novel?

I honestly can’t say how this affected the scope of the novel. I can talk about how it affected the writing of the novel. The problem I faced was that the novel was bought on the basis of a few chapters. I then became terrified that the resulting book would not match the expectations of the publishers around the world who had bought it. I wrote many, many versions over six years. I wrote several drafts of the novel because I thought each draft was worse than the previous one. It was really only when my editor at Faber told me that I was free to abandon it if I wanted to that I felt truly free. So I wrote other things. Then I went back to it without telling anyone I was writing it again. That freed me to just write without worrying about expectations.

How has your experience of living in Zimbabwe and then moving away from it shaped the stories you tell?
I am much more conscious now than I was before of the importance of dialogue. I am much more attuned to the rhythm of speech, and much more aware of the various different registers of speech, particularly slang.

How have you incorporated Shona language into the book?
It is mainly in the dialogue that I have incorporated Shona because I would like to represent as closely as possible the way that people actually speak.

How do you feel about being classed as an African writer?
I am a lawyer and a writer. I am a woman and a single mother. I am a chatterbox and a perpetually sunny optimist. I am a bookworm and an art freak. I am a Zimbabwean and therefore an African. I am many more things besides. How those qualities or descriptions are then combined by others – and they can be juxtaposed as incongruously as you want them to be: African chatterbox, Zimbabwean bookworm, perpetually sunny African optimist – is completely irrelevant to what I want to do with my life, which is to strive to be my best self, to keep improving as a writer, to keep growing as a professional and to be the best person that I can be.

What questions does a black albino protagonist raise about racial identity?

The absence of melanin aside, having albinism does not change a person’s basic genetic makeup. My main character Memory, who “looks” white has the same genetic inheritance as her brothers and sisters with “normal” skin and who “look” black. I am coming more and more to the conclusion that race is a social construct based largely on visuals that cannot always be trusted, but I am afraid that I have more questions than answers on racial identity! It is partly for that reason that I wanted to interrogate a little bit the assumptions about whiteness in Zimbabwe. Whiteness usually means privilege, but for many poor people with albinism, the “appearance” of whiteness often means ill health.

How has your work as a lawyer informed your writing?
Being the kind of lawyer I am has definitely helped my writing. I work in international trade law, and I deal mainly with written texts. My first real job after my legal studies was in the Appellate Body, which is the World Trade Organisation’s tribunal of final instance for trade disputes. I assisted in drafting the judgments, and it was there that I learned to write clearly, concisely and crisply to convey meaning using the simplest words possible. I also learned that revision is the key to a polished text. We rewrote sentences over and over and over until they were as close to perfect as we could get them. There was also a fairly brutal reviewing process. No one owned the text – what mattered was getting it right. So I can say that I learned all I know about writing from the Appellate Body. Above all I learned three things: that the best writing is clear writing, I learned the importance of revision and I learned that it is OK, in fact, necessary, for every text to be edited. Because there is always something to improve.

Anna Freeman

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