Petina Gappah is a writer and lawyer who was born in Zambia and raised in Zimbabwe. She studied law at the University of Zimbabwe and at Cambridge, and completed her doctorate at the University of Graz. An international lawyer specializing in the World Trade Organization, most recently, she worked for the ACWL, an organization in Geneva that advances the interests of more than seventy developing countries in the multilateral trading system.
Though she trained as a lawyer, Gappah always wanted to be a writer and in 2009, she published a volume of 13 short stories about a Zimbabwe experiencing economic and political meltdown, »An Elegy for Easterly« (2009), which was internationally acclaimed, was nominated for awards – such as the Orwell Prize – in six different countries and won the Guardian First Book Award. Already in this début, Gappah developed her trademark use of gallows humor: laughter is often the only defense left to victims of injustice, and it is this kind of humor – despite all tragic events – that makes Petina Gappah’s stories so remarkable. Her first novel »The Book of Memory« (2015) is set on death row in Harare’s Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison and narrates the story of Memory, an albino woman who is said to have murdered her white adoptive father. Petina Gappah uses the epistolary form to recount Memory’s turbulent childhood and explores the relationship between fate and choice as well as the redemptive power of love. Petina Gappah’s strong interest in the relationship between the law and justice is also expressed in her collection of stories »Rotten Row« (2016). Inspired by the stories of Ferdinand von Schirach and John Mortimer, in »Rotten Row« she exploits the possibilities of the short story form with skilled craftsmanship and an unsparing yet humorous eye at crime: its causes, its perpetrators and its victims. The English writer and short story master Helen Simpson said that Gappah has succeeded in »doing for Harare what Dickens did for Victorian London, with lethal comic relish and rage«. In her most recent novel »Out of Darkness, Shining Light« (2019), which she completed during her year as a guest of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program in 2017, Gappah illuminates an unknown chapter of Africa’s colonial history, narrating the journey taken by the African companions of the Scottish missionary David Livingstone (1813–1873) as they carried his body home from the interior of Africa to the coast, so that he could be buried in England. The American writer Yaa Gyasi describes it as an »engrossing, beautiful, and deeply imaginative novel that lends voice to those who appeared only as footnotes in history, yet whose final, brave act of loyalty and respect changed the course of it«.
Petina Gappah currently lives in Harare and was an advisor on international trade and investment to the post-Mugabe government of Zimbabwe from January 2018 to August 2019.