Petina Gappah

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Petina Gappah
Petina Gappah
EducationUniversity of Zimbabwe,
University of Cambridge,
University of Graz
Alma materUniversity of Zimbabwe
  • Writer
  • Lawyer
Notable workGuardian first book award with her short story collection An Elegy for Easterly in 2009

Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean lawyer and writer. She was born in Zambia, in Copperbelt Province, and raised in Zimbabwe. She writes in both English and her native ChiKaranga, also called Shona. She has law degrees from Cambridge University, Graz University in Austria and the University of Zimbabwe.

She lives in France with her son Kush and works as an international lawyer in Geneva, Switzerland.


Born in 1971, Gappah had 4 siblings. Her father worked in a bank and she went to a school in Harare where Africans were a minority. Gappah's dream was to become a journalist and writer, but her father insisted she become a lawyer.


Legal Career

Petina’s first job as a newly-qualified lawyer was with Kantor and Immerman solicitors in Harare where she assisted in the constitutional challenge to the monopoly of the PTC, a state agency, on behalf of Retrofit Engineering, the company that became Econet, Zimbabwe’s largest telecoms provider. She also worked for the Harare Commercial Arbitration Centre.[1]

She then joined the secretariat of the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization in Geneva, the tribunal that arbitrates trade disputes between and among nations.[1] She has been based in Geneva since 1998, and currently advises developing countries involved in trade disputes.[2]

Petina quit her job at the WTO in December 2015 to pursue writing full-time.


Gappah's first book, An Elegy for Easterly, a story collection that she says is "about what it has meant to be a Zimbabwean in recent times", was published by Faber and Faber in April 2009 in the United Kingdom and in June 2009 in the United States. It was shortlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the richest prize for the short-story form, as well as for the Orwell Prize and the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. The book has been described as "a collection of stories about every layer of Zimbabwean culture: from the educated and the elite to the quirky, the completely mad and the children running in the street." It won the Guardian First Book Award in 2009, at which time Gappah spoke of her objection to being labelled by her publisher (and subsequently Amazon) as "the voice of Zimbabwe", commenting in an interview: "'It's very troubling to me because writing of a place is not the same as writing for a place.... If I write about Zimbabwe, it's not the same as writing for Zimbabwe or for Zimbabweans.'" An Elegy for Easterly has been translated into several languages, including Chinese, Dutch, Finnish, French, Japanese, Norwegian, Serbian and Swedish.

In 2010 Gappah moved back to Harare for three years to work on her first novel, The Book of Memory. Published in 2015, it is the fictional testament of an imprisoned albino woman on death row, who is hoping for a presidential reprieve. The Book of Memory was described by Maya Jaggi in The Guardian as "a powerful story of innocent lives destroyed by family secrets and sexual jealousy, prejudice and unacknowledged kinship", and by Anita Sethi in The Observer as "a moving novel about memory that unfolds into one about forgiveness, and a passionate paean to the powers of language". In a 2016 interview, Gappah said: "I’m a frustrated historian, which is probably clear from the book. I’m interested in excavating the social histories of Zimbabwe.... History’s always distorted to suit a political purpose, but fiction can try to redress the balance. And those are the stories I’m interested in telling—the stories of everyday normal people, who even in this injustice still managed to find their humanity." The Book of Memory was awarded the McKitterick Prize from the Society of Authors in 2015, as well as being longlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Prix Femina étranger.

Gappah's second collection of stories, Rotten Row, was published by Faber in 2016. It was chosen as a "Book of the Day" by The Guardian, whose reviewer FT Kola concluded:

"Rotten Row hums with life, and it delivers one of the keenest and simplest pleasures fiction has to offer: a feeling of true intimacy, of total immersion, in situations not our own, in the selves of others. In its strongest moments, we want to stay there. Gappah has achieved the difficult task of rendering places some of her readers may never know or visit with such intimacy and aliveness that they feel instantly familiar. While this is an entrancing feature of the collection, its greatest achievements are due to her sensitivity to both human tragedy and the comedy inherent in existence. Gappah throws open the doors of a million lighted houses, and lets us look inside them. In each we find something wondrous and strange, not least a reflection of ourselves."[18]

Gappah's 2019 book, Out of Darkness, Shining Light was nominated for an NAACP Image Award in 2020 in the category of Outstanding Literary Work.

Gappah has also written for such outlets as The Financial Times, The New York Times, The Guardian and Süddeutsche Zeitung, and has been a columnist for OmVärlden, the Swedish magazine on development and global affairs.


  • An Elegy for Easterly - a story collection which won the Guardian First Book Award in 2009.
  • The Book of Memory - 2015
  • Rotten Row - a short-story collection that explores the causes and consequences of crime through a panoramic view of Zimbabwean society published in 2016. The book is named after the Rotten Row Street in Harare.
  • Out of Darkness, Shining Light - 2019


  • First Book Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and Zimbabwe’s National Merit Award for An Elegy for Easterly
  • Finalist for the Orwell Prize for An Elegy for Easterly
  • Zimbabwe’s National Arts Merit Awards 2010 award for An Elegy for Easterly


In 2011, she was appointed by Education Minister David Coltart to the Board of the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe. Betweeen 2011 and 2013, she chaired the Board of the Harare City Library where she initiated a million-dollar refurbishment project funded by the government of Sweden. [3]

  • In 2009, three of her stories were performed on BBC Radio 4 by the Zimbabwean actors Chipo Chung and Lucian Msamati.[3]



  • Gappah is passionate about languages and has said that she owns every Shona novel and volume of poetry published by the Rhodesia Literature Bureau. In 2007, she translated into English the novel “Zviuya Zviri Mberi” by Joyce Simango, the first novel to be written by a black woman in Rhodesia. In 2015, Petina led a Facebook Project to translate George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” from English into Shona. With the support of the Orwell Estate, the resulting book, “Chimurenga Chemhuka”[4]
  • Petina is a strong advocate of legal aid, prison reform and the abolition of the death penalty. [1]
  • After her first book An Elegy for Easterly came out, she was referred to as "the voice of Zimbabwe" by her publishers, a title she strongly objected to as she said writing "about Zimbabwe, it's not the same as writing for Zimbabwe or for Zimbabweans."[2]. She objected to her publisher, and the press material was rewritten.
  • She has also objected to being referred to as an "African writer" saying that

    I get irritated by the term 'African writer' because it doesn't mean anything to me. Africa is so big. There are some people who are happy to be African writers. They are pan-Africanists. I'm not a pan-Africanist. [2]


  1. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Stephen Moss, Petina Gappah: 'I don't see myself as an African writer', , Published:4 Dec 2009 , Retrieved: 7 Nov 2016
  2. 3.0 3.1 Petina Gappah, Petina Gappah official Webiste, Collaborations page , Petina Gappah, Retrieved: 7 Nov 2016
  3. Petina Gappah, Petina Gappah official Website, Languages page , Petina Gappah, Retrieved: 7 Nov 2016