Petina Gappah: “A Short History of Zaka the Zulu”

"A Short History of Zaka the Zulu"
by Petina Gappah
Originally published in the September 26, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

september-26-2016Petina Gappah’s name came up on the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award (R.I.P.) a few years ago when her first collection of stories, 2009’s An Elegy for Easterly, was shortlisted for the prize. The collection also won the Guardian First Book Award. Last year, she published her debut novel, The Book of Memory, and her second story collection, Rotten Row, is coming out in the U.K. later this fall (I don’t see a U.S. publication date yet). I haven’t read anything by her yet, but what I’m seeing this morning as I’m doing a bit of research for this post, is very interesting. She does not like being called the voice of Zimbabwe just because she writes stories set in Zimbabwe — so don’t do that here!

I look forward to the story and to the discussion below!

29 thoughts on “Petina Gappah: “A Short History of Zaka the Zulu”

  1. In many ways there is nothing startlingly original about this story. It is presented as a schoolhood memory and in particular of a couple of fellow students whose lives became mysteriously intertwined, culminating in a tragic event many years later. I also don;t want to make too much of how it is interesting to get a peek into life in an African school, as in many ways there is a lot more that is generally familiar than distinctive here. But I found the way the story was written to be quite delightful. Clearly Gappah has a strong talent for storytelling.

    It is good that she does not make too much of unraveling the mystery of the relationship between the two main boys, because I found it easy to guess at least some central aspect of it fairly early on. I am sure most readers will as well. Instead the story is really one of the variety of positions of power and privilege and the changing attitudes that come naturally from occupying those different roles. I also quite like how without belabouring the question, the story does leave us wondering just how we ultimately should feel about Zaka. He is clearly a more complex person than the glimpses the other boys at the school got of him.

    I did wonder after I finished the story whether the blackmail plot really should have been as effective as it was. After all, had Zaka been accused he could have simply denied everything and accused the other boy of slander. But of course, it was not as simple as that. Even the mere accusation, once made, had the potential to destroy his life and so it would have been quite a risk for him to take that chance.

    This was a well-written story by an author I had never heard of before. But I do expect I will be looking for some of her other work as well.

  2. I agree that “there is nothing startlingly original about this story.” In many ways it reminds me of so many other writers’ (John Knowles) coming of age stories, which also are set in the isolated world of a boarding school. What strikes me, and probably why I enjoyed this particular story, is Gappah’s attention to character detail and her control over that information.
    Zaka follows the rules of school and church. He is young and feels he must obey strict guidelines that, if broken, could lead to a disastrous future. He is passionate about strategy and his chess game. Then “On the evenings that he chose not to be in the Prefects’ Room or swooping down on boys smoking outside the library, he would sit in the main common room, frowning over a chessboard with a headless queen and two missing pawns, which had been replaced with fifty-cent coins.” I believe this one quote foretells Zaka’s sexual blunder and resulting blackmail that leads to his crime.
    Gappah spends much of the story setting up the relationships of the boys and girls, the rigid environment and how it plays on the inhabitants of the community. The conflict doesn’t really come into play until much later in the story. Often this structure would never work; however, Gappah held my interest even with this long build-up.

  3. I don’t see why this is anything other than a genre piece, albeit a well-written one in terms of pacing and voice. Zaka has murdered Nicodemus. “We” (the readers and collective narrator) wonder why. And the Kasparov character tells us. The end. Mystery established and revealed. I enjoyed reading it as I turned the pages but the pat explanatory ending left me cold.

  4. I didn’t have any problem reading this tale all the way through on first reading. It doesn’t have any offputting quirks. It moves along at a steady pace. But as others have said, it’s not original. What’s amazing is how similar this story set in Africa is to any story of life in a boys’ school in England.

    I found the pace and style of this story pedestrian. When I was done, I thought, what a letdown. Not only predictable, but unenlightening. No entertainment value, unlike “The Polish Rider”.

    Perhaps she is trying to show the tragic effects of making homosexuality a sin? Kind of like the Cambridge Four.

  5. Roger, I find it odd you think this is a mystery genre story. The murder and the question of what the motive might have been are not presented as central to the telling of the story and the point of the story is not for us to look at the events of the school days to see if we can find evidence to “solve” the mystery of the motive for murder. It’s actually the opposite. As the title tells us, this story is a portrait of Zaka during one particular year of his life. So when we find out the motive for the murder, that informs us a bit about who he was then.

    William, I am not sure how a story can “move along at a steady pace” and have a “pedestrian” pace, but then again I am often mystified by what comments about a story’s “pacing” are supposed to tell me. I also don’t think she is tying to make a grand general comment to reveal that the repression of homosexuals is bad. We already know this. I do think she is trying to make a comment about how difficult it can be to really have an understanding of the character of people given who dramatically some unknown qualities about them can affect it. With Zaka, he at first seems like a typical power-hungry bully, but at the end seems more sympathetic. If there is a question left open it is how we ultimately should view him. Does his persecution explain and absolve him for how he acted as head prefect or does it merely explain without excusing?

  6. “The murder and the question of what the motive might have been are not presented as central to the telling of the story.”

    Au contraire, David. The first sentence of the story says that Zaka “was the last boy any of us expected to be accused of murder.” Soon thereafter, the mystery deepens: “And you can imagine our even greater shock when we read, fifteen years later, that he had been accused and found guilty of murdering Nicodemus, the boy who had been his best friend at school.” Then at the end, Zaka’s motive is revealed. I’m surprised you’d suggest the murder and its motive are somehow peripheral to the story, whose central aspect in your view is to provide a “portrait” of Zaka.

    Let’s test that. What layered complexities are revealed about Zaka that shed insight into the human condition? Well, we learn he was a closeted gay teenager at a Jesuit boarding school (not exactly a shock) and that being blackmailed made him hate his blackmailer (see previous parenthetical).

    You also suggest that Zaka’s self-centered tyrannical behavior may have resulted from his victimization by Nicodemus. But this can’t be true, because the “friendship” between the two doesn’t begin until Zaka is a senior, by which time Zaka’s behavior and persona have been well established. His behavior as head prefect is merely an extension of how he has behaved before his appointment to that position.

    Now, back to why I think this is nothing more than a genre story. I would not contend that all murder-mysteries are merely genre stories. They can also be considered literary fiction if, for instance, they suggest consequences for, or insights about, people other than the characters in the story. I.e., if they reveal or suggest something special about the human condition. For reasons already explained in my previous post and again in this one, I don’t see anything like that in this story. Certainly, the revelation of Zaka’s hidden homosexuality and his society’s cruel treatment of gay people isn’t enough to lift the story beyond its genre. Maybe that would be true if the story were published 25-30 years ago, but not today.

    All that said, I would love to see a post in here from a careful, thoughtful reader who found something that I missed in this one. I enjoyed the interview and, even from this story, can tell that Gappah is talented.

  7. Roger, the first paragraph does mention that he became a murderer, but also it tells us about his habit of wearing his uniform every day. This no more makes it a story about fashion than it does about a murder mystery. That he was a boy who grew up later to become a murderer is presented as a fact about him as we come to get to know the boy Zaka. In fact, there are a great many paragraphs that follow the first one that make no mention at all of the murder. They do, however, tell us a lot more about the boy Zaka. The title is, after all, “A Short History of Zaka the Zulu” not “Zaka the Mysterious Murderer”. So if you read all those many paragraphs thinking they were there to present clues to a murder mystery then I don’t think you were focused on the point of the story.
    .
    “Soon thereafter, the mystery deepens.” Soon? The passage you quote there is literally one-third of the way through the story some 16 paragraphs later. There is a whole lot of story you just skipped over there. Perhaps if you focus a bit more on that huge section you might find more of the “portrait” I pointed out and that the title suggests is being given.
    .
    “You also suggest that Zaka’s self-centered tyrannical behavior may have resulted from his victimization by Nicodemus.” No. I suggest that his self-centered tyrannical behavior may have resulted from his being gay, in the closet, and in a world where being gay could get him killed. “His behavior as head prefect is merely an extension of how he has behaved before his appointment to that position.” I agree. And there is an awful lot of space in this story devoted to detailing that character, giving us “a short story of Zaka” as the boy he was.
    .
    For me this story works equally well if the mentions of the murder had all been left to the end. Perhaps by doing so some readers, such as yourself, would not become fixated on a minor element of the story. In fact, Zaka need not have murdered Nicodemus at all for the story to still work. I, too, enjoyed the interview and I’m glad we at least agree that Gappah is talented.

  8. David, as I already pointed out, the first sentence of the story states, dramatically, that Zaka “was the last boy any of us expected to be accused of murder.” Not merely the first paragraph, as you emphasize – the first sentence. The reference to his school uniform is obviously dwarfed by the somewhat more significant revelation that he has been accused of murder. In the first sentence.

    And yes, the follow-on reference appeared “soon” thereafter except for the slowest of readers. (Slow reading, of course, is fine if the purpose is to be careful and take in what is on the page.)

    One of the nice things about this site is that unless one perhaps has administrator privileges, one can’t, in Orwellian fashion, change one’s previous post. In your 9:08 post, you tried to find a deeper dimension to the story by asking: “Does his persecution explain and absolve him for how he acted as head prefect or does it merely explain without excusing?” The only “persecution” Zaka experiences is the blackmailing by Nicodermus. I’ve pointed out that Zaka’s selfish, tyrannical behavior could not result from this “persecution” because his behavior precedes the blackmailing. So your question doesn’t work, which led you to reformulate it by now contending that you hadn’t been referring to the blackmailing after all. Rather, you state that you were referring to Zaka “being gay” in a world hostile to homosexuality. But “being gay” isn’t persecution. Being blackmailed is. Nice try.

    You miss the point in suggesting the story would have worked without the murder, and in any case that would be a discussion for you to pursue with the writer, as she didn’t just drop the murder in as an afterthought. (Did I mention that it is emphasized in the first sentence?) It isn’t the presence of the murder that mars the story. Rather, the story is flawed by what it lacks: a strong literary dimension. The reader is told that Zaka is accused of murder and we are told about life at the boarding school. We are reminded about the murder, and then, at the very end, the motivation behind the murder is explicitly revealed by a character. There is not much for the reader to ponder; rather, the author just deals out the cards, face-up. You may find that to be satisfying literature – and I know from other discussions that you prefer stories that don’t require the reader to do much work in divining meaning. I have the opposite preference.

    In my view we needed something more for the story to work. But I’m still hoping for a post from someone who can make the case otherwise.

  9. Roger: “Not merely the first paragraph, as you emphasize – the first sentence.” So you think that if she had moved the mention of the murder to the middle or end of the first paragraph that would magically transform the story from a genre story about a murder mystery to one that is a character study? That seems a bit bizarre. I would not put so much weight on it being The. First. Sentence.
    .
    “And yes, the follow-on reference appeared “soon” thereafter except for the slowest of readers.” One third of the way through a story is not “soon” in the context of that story’s length. There are 1700 words between the first mention of the murder and the second. “Soon” is not about time or speed of reading. It’s about how far into the story you have to go to find it again. If we use what you claim “soon” should mean, then that could extend right to the end of the story, making it pointless to say “soon” about any distance into the story.
    .
    “The only ‘persecution’ Zaka experiences is the blackmailing by Nicodermus.” This is nonsense, but something someone might believe if they don’t have any understanding what it can be like to be gay, in the closet, and living in a society where that can be a death sentence. Now I see why you might not be able to see this as a character study. You lack important background knowledge that Gappah would expect her readers to have.
    .
    It seems odd you think that first sentences are there to tell you what the story is all about. A few weeks ago with the story “Papaya” the first sentence is this: “Errol Healy should have retired by now from his marine-insurance business, but it was such a going concern it was hard to shut it down, and he worried about what he’d do in retirement.” But (spoiler alert) the story is not about the insurance business or what he does in retirement. Maybe this is just evidence to you of bad writing? So many rules… So many rules….
    .
    When a murder is mentioned in the first sentence you might think that is what is about, but then when she goes on to talk about other things and another time in Zaka’s life I would think sometime in those 1700 words you might realize it’s not a murder mystery. Maybe you read too fast looking for more mentions of murder. Shiny things can distract some readers.
    .
    It’s funny you accuse me of not wanting to do much work to understand a story because this was your first reading of the story: “Zaka has murdered Nicodemus. “We” (the readers and collective narrator) wonder why. And the Kasparov character tells us. The end. Mystery established and revealed.” It does not look like you did a lot of work there. The story is both different and more subtle than you give it credit for being.

  10. David, you still miss the point about the murder’s importance, and you’re tying yourself in knots about Gappah mentioning it in the first sentence. When I first pointed out that this is where the murder was first mentioned, you tried to obfuscate, posting that the murder was mentioned merely in the “first paragraph,” along with a reference to Zaka’s uniform, and suggested, ridiculously, that one was no more important than the other. If you didn’t think the murder’s appearance in the first sentence mattered, you would not have tried to obfuscate. It should go without saying (but evidently does not, for you) that a murder is a very significant event, regardless of whether it is mentioned in a story’s first sentence or later. Gappah’s mentioning it in the first sentence underscores the obvious (or what should be obvious). Put otherwise, it’s different from mentioning the insurance business in the first sentence.

    Is the murder mentioned again “soon”? Not according to you, because, in your words, “‘Soon’ is not about time.” Um, you are badly in need of a dictionary.

    Please spare me the sanctimony about how only those with special knowledge about what it’s like to be gay in a country like Uganda will be enlightened enough to understand the story. As I’ve pointed out, the only persecution Zaka experiences in the story is the blackmailing. (You haven’t refuted this, merely sniffing that it is “nonsense.”) Previously, you suggested that the story might be interesting because perhaps Zaka’s behavior as head prefect might be a result of his persecution. I showed that this couldn’t be so because Zaka’s bad behavior preceded the blackmailing. You had missed this, but rather than simply admit to it (we all make mistakes, David), your reaction is to lurch into some unctuous commentary about the plight of being gay in Zimbabwe. (More about that shortly.)

    You insist on calling the story a “character study” and, in support of this, you have cited the title. But the title is “A Short History of Zaka the Zulu.” If you’ve located a dictionary by now, you’ll find that “history” is defined as “a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc.” Indeed, if you concentrate, you may notice that “history” includes the root word “story.” So your title-fetish doesn’t end up supporting your mischaracterization of the story, in which Gappah gives us a hardworking plot in a briskly paced narrative. The problem, at least in my eyes so far, is that the plot just deals out the cards, face up, leaving the reader with little more than the summary in my opening post, nothing deep or meaningful to contend with.

    The really interesting discussion, however, is not between David and Roger. It is between David and David. After William suggested that “Perhaps she [Gappah] is trying to show the tragic effects of making homosexuality a sin?,” you responded by disagreeing, asserting hyperbolically that Gappah was not trying to make a “grand comment” about “repression of homosexuals.” Yet later, after your misunderstanding about the story’s chronology was revealed (Zaka’s bad behavior preceded his persecution), you’ve argued that the story cannot be understood without an appreciation of “what it can be like to be gay, in the closet, and living in a society where that can be a death sentence.” You had it right the first time, in substance, anyway.

    It may be true that “[t]he story is both different and more subtle than [I] give it credit for being.” I’d love to find that difference and that subtlety pointed out in someone’s post. I’d love you to find it there, too, so you could stop digging. And soon!

  11. After William suggested that “Perhaps she [Gappah] is trying to show the tragic effects of making homosexuality a sin?,” you responded by disagreeing, asserting hyperbolically that Gappah was not trying to make a “grand comment” about “repression of homosexuals.”
    Well either you are intentionally quoting me out of context or you didn’t even understand my comment (let alone the story). Let me spell it out for you. I wrote. “I also don’t think she is tying to make a grand general comment to reveal that the repression of homosexuals is bad. We already know this.” This is true, but far different from how you selectively quoted me. I am saying here that the point of the story is not to teach us the general truth that homophobia is bad and the repression of homosexuals is bad. We DO already know this, but I then wrote in the next sentence, ” I do think she is trying to make a comment about how difficult it can be to really have an understanding of the character of people given who dramatically some unknown qualities about them can affect it.” Again, I still agree with this. The story is not about the general problem of the affects of homophobia on people. (I see, by the way, you quite selectively omitted the word “general” when you quoted me even though it is the middle word of the phrase you did quote. How convenient.) It is about how, in this particular case, the unknown secret the character had was that he was gay and how this, in his particular case, might or might not alter how we see and assess his character. It is, after all, “a short history of Zaka” and not “a short history of the plight of gay people in general.”
    .
    Please spare me the sanctimony about how only those with special knowledge about what it’s like to be gay in a country like Uganda will be enlightened enough to understand the story.
    Uganda? Ok, but … nevermind. Anyway, at least you are admitting you don’t have that understanding. I stand by my claim that you need it to understand the story and most readers can reasonably be expected to have it.
    .
    “I’ve pointed out, the only persecution Zaka experiences in the story is the blackmailing.” Ummm … persecution is my word. The one I chose to describe his situation. We don’t need a dictionary to know what I meant. I have explained it to you. If your only reply is to accuse me of lying, then well, I can’t help you. But if you want to split hairs about whether “persecution” or “oppression” or whatever other word you want to nitpick about is the best one, go ahead. I don’t see why it’s so hard to understand the idea of a society persecuting homosexuals who are in the closet by making it a criminal offense punishable by death, but I guess you don’t understand it. But we already have established that, so let’s move on.
    .
    “David, you still miss the point about the murder’s importance.” I know. It’s a shiny thing. It’s hard for you to get past it. But it’s not important because this is a murder mystery. It’s importance is how it informs us about Zaka’s character. It is, after all, a short history of Zaka. Look, if you insist on seeing this as a murder mystery, then it faces all the problems you (and I) have identified – it’s pretty straightforward, a bit predictable, and established and resolved very quickly But rather than wonder if you were wrong to see this as a badly done mystery and consider it might be a better done something else, you stick with badly done mystery. You can do that if you want to, but you are missing a better story that is right there if you are willing to do the work to see it.

  12. Perhaps this story is a character study. Zaka the Zulu (the warrior) commits a murder; we know from the story’s opening line that he is accused of the crime. But then the story goes on to explain Zaka’s extreme behavior. He’s a perfectionist and adamant about following the rules. The conflict comes in when he expresses his sexual preference; it goes against everything “he” believes he should believe in. It’s his character “weakness.” If Gappah had made him disregard the rules in a heterosexual way, he would have been a hero. These were boys who measured and compared their erections. Gappah had to show a convincing flaw, one that Zaka would himself be tormented by yet couldn’t honestly control. I believe that his falling victim to a blackmailing scheme pushed him further against himself, his façade of perfection, at least according to the strict rules of his environment. And in the end all of this lead to his committing murder.

  13. Melinda, your take on the story seems plausible to me, and certainly more cogently framed than any other favorable assessment I’ve seen here. But even under this reading, I continue to find the story disappointing. Essentially, it seems that Zaka is a version of the self-hating gay man who has appeared in fiction so often over the years. An example that comes to mind is the character played by Chris Cooper in American Beauty. Not exactly the same as Zaka, but similar – he is so obsessed with playing by the rules and setting his son “straight” that he destroys that relationship and is consumed by self-loathing.

    And that film came out in 1999. By now, the self-hating gay man seems to have become somewhat of a tiresome trope.

    I also thought that the story’s reference to boys comparing their erections – and the trajectories of their ejaculations – was a bit too much to believe. But it does fit in with the notion that proving their virility was important to them.

    David, by contrast, you assert:

    “I do think she is trying to make a comment about how difficult it can be to really have an understanding of the character of people given who dramatically some unknown qualities about them can affect it.” Say what? Thank goodness you’ve got me to help you out here!

    Despite that word salad, I think I can discern your current position based on some clearer statements: that the story “is about how, in this particular case, the unknown secret the character had was that he was gay and how this, in his particular case, might or might not alter how we see and assess his character.” Of course, this is different from your original suggestion that a reader might find Zaka’s behavior to be sympathetic because of his “persecution.” That argument didn’t hold up because the persecution (the blackmail) didn’t happen till senior year, after Zaka’s bad behavior had been going on for quite a while.

    Your latest attempt to cope with your inconvenient (for you) use of “persecution” is hilarious: “Ummm … persecution is my word. The one I chose to describe his situation. We don’t need a dictionary to know what I meant.” Congratulations – you are the winner of the Humpty Dumpty award: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

    You’ve also suggested, in the alternative, that by “persecution,” you really meant “society persecuting homosexuals.” The flaw in that approach is that this societal persecution isn’t inflicted on Zaka. Not in the pages of the story, anyway. He is persecuted not by “society” but by Nicodemus. We have no idea whether Zaka felt a sense of societal persecution or “oppression” (to distance this further from your initial word choice) prior to the blackmailing. He may have only grown into his sexuality shortly before his encounter with Gumbo. Or he may have been comfortable in his sexuality despite the need to keep it private. Speculating about this is simply that.

    Your new, post-persecution-post theory about the story is in roughly the same place as the theory William raised as a possibility — despite your emphatic disagreement with him when he raised it. The salient point, I’d submit, is that the world in 2016 really doesn’t need another story to tell us that persecuting/oppressing gay people (or a particular gay person) can have damaging effects. As you stated in your pre-persecution-post, we already know that. So it would be disappointing if this is what Gappah was going for.

    By the way, I never “admit[ed]” that I couldn’t appreciate the plight of a gay person living in a violently homophobic society. That’s just you making stuff up. It’s even worse than your quoting my erroneous reference to Uganda even though in the same post I referred to Zimbabwe. Naughty David.

    If only the energy you’ve put into this could have included an interpretation that would reveal why this story is good. But that’s not going to happen in one of your posts. Of course, you will probably try again. It’s so hard for you to resist that shovel.

  14. Melinda: “Perhaps this story is a character study.”
    Roger: “Melinda, your take on the story seems plausible to me”
    I guess that settles that. What took you so long?
    .
    Melinda, your comment that “in the end all of this lead to his committing murder” reminds me that it is actually left unexplained what the exact motive for murder is. Yes, Zaka was being blackmailed, but fifteen years pass between what we know about that happening and the murder. But did Nicodemus continue to torment Zaka throughout that fifteen year period until Zaka finally broke? Did Zaka manage to get away from Nicodemus and then fifteen years later come across him again and take revenge? Did Nicodemus leave Zaka alone once he fell on hard times and then many years later find him again and threaten to reveal his secret, giving a new reason for him to be killed? Leaving the gap of fifteen years leaves a lot of room for a lot of intervening events that could also be part of the story of why Zaka killed Nicodemus. But since the story is not a murder mystery, we don’t really need to know those details and we don’t really care about them. In some sense, the reason Zaka killed Nicodemus is still unknown to us, but the relevant information about Zaka’s character during his time at school is revealed by Kasparov’s information.

  15. Of course, David, Melinda’s post was much more substantial and persuasive than the gobbledy-gook served up in your rambling impersonation of Humpty-Dumpty. Moreover, her reading of the story, while quite clear and plausible, doesn’t rescue this genre piece – at most, it would mean the story rehashes too-familiar tropes about self-loathing gay men. My hunch remains that Gappah’s other stories are better than this one.

  16. I approve of this story, and I do think that TNY should publish more of this kind of thing; reading through the previous comments, I find myself agreeing with most of the praise and disagreeing with most of the criticism. Yet I somehow found myself totally unmoved by it; getting all the way through was definitely a chore. Maybe it was the overly familiar English-boys-school setting. Or, conversely, maybe I would have appreciated it more if I knew more about Zimbabwe or knew some Zimbabweans and could therefore place this in some context familiar to me Or maybe if Gappah was a professional writer she could have played some cute sentimental tricks to arouse sympathy for the protagonist, the way that even the hackiest of hacks knows how to do.

    Oh well, at least the interview was interesting and enjoyable. Hopefully I’ll develop a taste for this author with time.

  17. This is Petina Gappah here. What a great discussion. I am thrilled to be published in The New Yorker, especially as I am the first ever Zimbabwean whose fiction has been published in 92 years. And I am delighted to see such a passionate discussion of my story. I am obviously not going to respond to the critical reviews, both positive and negative, but I do want to say a couple of things.

    There is a comment above from Roger that “the self-hating gay man seems to have become somewhat of a tiresome trope”.

    This reminds me of a review, also from an American, accusing me of a “tired cliche” because a character in one of my novels is a mother with a mental illness. This criticism of “tropes” and cliches” only ever seems to come from Americans. Just because you have a whole gallery of self–hating men, or mothers with mental illness, in your literature does not put an embargo on writers from other lands, particularly those of us from countries and cultures where talking about such matters is considered taboo. I hope you have enough generosity, Roger, to see that conversations and topics that you think old and stale in your part of the world may be completely new in others. Our literature, like our country, is 36 years old. Everything is new to us.

    There is also the comment, again from Roger, that:

    “I also thought that the story’s reference to boys comparing their erections – and the trajectories of their ejaculations – was a bit too much to believe.”

    Ha ! I found this funny because over on Facebook, where this story has been dissected by Zimbabweans who have been to boarding school, this has been hailed as one of the most true things in the story about life in boarding school :) Quite a few people have told me that there is a “Tsar Liberator” in every school, and as there are are at least 20 boarding schools in each province, that’s about 200 Tsar Liberators a year. What a pity we can’t export them :)

    These two comments taken together, Roger, really put foreign writers like me in a bind: we can’t write about subjects familiar to Americans, because they are tiresome tropes, and we can’t write about true things that Americans have not heard of, because they are unbelievable !

    Finally, to Eric, who regrets that I am not a professional writer, like even the “hackiest of hack writers”, and who hopes that he will develop “a state for this author with time”. You really don’t have to, you know, it’s not compulsory :) And life is short !

    Thank you so much for all the great comments. I am an avid reader of this website and have learned a great deal from MookseAndGripes.

  18. Petina,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to join in this conversation and provide your insights. It is a rare (possibly unprecedented) treat and honor for participants in this forum to hear from the author.

    I in particular appreciate your educating me about the “Tsar Liberator” phenomenon at Zimbabwean boarding schools. I am now persuaded that something that would seem dubious coming from, say, a Tobias Wolff boarding school story may be perfectly accurate with respect to a boarding school outside the United States. I will count this as a lesson learned that I will bear in mind when reading other stories from writers outside the United States.

    I do think that the bind you describe for foreign writers publishing in the United States has two sides to it. On the one hand, as you state, it seems unfair for American readers to become grumpy and irritated at “tropes” that are actually new and different for the foreign writer. On the other hand, does that writer not have to take into account that, when publishing in an American magazine, you are writing into a context, one that will influence how at least some of the largely American readership will feel about your story? If your readers have read many stories about self-loathing gay men, or children dealing with a terminally ill parent, or any number of other too-familiar situations, perhaps it is reasonable for the writer to take that into account when writing for that readership.

    Finally, I’d like to commend you for your stamina and patience in making your way through the many prolix posts above. As I’m sure you’ve discerned, there are times when a couple of us get so wrapped up in our debating points that the discussion starts drifting away from the merits of the story itself.

    I will look forward to reading your upcoming collection, Rotten Row

  19. Roger, thanks so much for writing back with such consideration. Absolutely, you are right about the mountain foreign writers face here — this may be one of the reasons American publishers are so risk averse when it comes to publishing foreign authors, particularly in translation.

    I totally accept your observation that an American readership is likely to respond differently to a story published in a magazine like The New Yorker, when it seems “overly familiar”, but it does of course get a little complicated when that was not the original readership. To say that this publication is a huge surprise is an understatement. When I wrote the story, my aim was to write about an experience many Zimbos have had but that does not appear in literature, so getting such a distinguished readership did not even cross my mind. But you have given me a lot to think about, particularly on how to tell universal stories in a way that feels fresh.

    I am surprised you don’t have authors posting in more often. You all can be a bit, what is the word, straight-talking, but I have honestly never read anything here that I thought was malicious or mean-spirited. You are notoriously hard to please, is all :)

    Thanks again for having me !

  20. Petina, thank-you for your comments and for the story as well. I am curious about one comment in particular. Your reply about the issue of Zaka being self-hating seems to suggest that you don’t disagree with that description. While I would have said that this description is not inconsistent with the story, I did not find that the story was decisive that this was the case. Zaka seems to me to be consistent also with a boy/man who is not self-hating, but who is fearful of discovery and angry about the fact that he needs to be so fearful.
    .
    I also think that your story of Zaka does generalize to an interesting idea that goes beyond the issue of what it is like to be gay and in the closet, the idea that even people we think we know and whose actions we think we understand well might be more complex than we know. In Zaka’s case the something more he has is being gay and in the closet, but in other cases it could be any number of other things. So I think the story can work on both levels.
    .
    I got your novel The Book of Memory last week and it’s near the top of my stack of books to read. Thanks again.

  21. What a delight to have the author commenting on the post! Thank you!

    Last year I went to a 25th year reunion of my school in India, and much of this seems like familiar territory. One of the things that got discussed after many drinks was the fate of all the gay couples at school. Almost all the boys knew exactly who was carrying on with whom, but it was news for the girls, who had no idea.

    As a former Mary Ward writing from the point of view of a Boarding School boy, maybe this was the only thing that struck me as strange – that the narrator and most boys seemed completely unaware of this and there was only one boy who was aware of the whole thing. Is it possible that the story would have worked better from a Mary Ward’s point of view?

    Also, the story of Ripley and Zed – I wondered if there was a tiny autobiographical element or a little private joke there!

  22. Avataram, ha! I had a teeny crush on a Middle House boy when I was a Mary ward, so you may have something there :)

    David, thank you for this comment. “Zaka seems to me to be consistent also with a boy/man who is not self-hating, but who is fearful of discovery and angry about the fact that he needs to be so fearful.”

    I think it is both that he is self-hating, AND resentful and angry that he needs to be fearful of discovery. These feelings are all on the same spectrum. Zim is a space that simply does not recognise that being gay is a perfectly valid thing to be. And yet it is a space in which homosexual experiences are extremely common. Common but hidden. From a societal perspective, we simply do not accept that we have gay men in Zimbabwe. Rather, we have men (and boys) who commit a crime that is defined in our laws as “sodomy”, or an “unnatural offence”. Interestingly, sodomy between a man and a woman is also potentially punishable. We truly are like the Victorians.

    So now imagine that you are a boy or a man who finds joyful sexual release in committing “sodomy and unnatural offences”. Imagine the feelings of shame and guilt, and the strong, all-pervasive instinct to hide it, to hide this unnatural thing you are doing, and because you are doing this, you yourself become “unnatural”. And imagine the power this gives to someone who spies out this appalling secret about you, and the lengths you would go to keep it.

    For a long time, I have been haunted by the most well-known case involving “sodomy and unnatural offences” in Zim. It involved our first president, Canaan Banana, who was notorious for using his power to force his aides into sex. One of them, Jephta Dube, was mocked by a colleague who called him “Banana’s wife”. Jephta Dube responded by killing the man. Banana’s abuse of the men who worked for him came out during Dube’s trial. Poor Dube died in prison a few years later.

    So this is the context in which homosexual acts between men are not only considered unnatural, but also effeminate. Had poor Zaka’s life continued on the predicted path, he would no doubt have been a married father of three, a staunch Catholic who got his kicks on the side, then went on to make a full confession every week. A pillar, in fact, of the community. In the US, he might well have been a Republican Congressman :)

  23. Petina, thanks for the further background on Zimbabwe. My only personal experience of Africa is West Africa. I spent a fair bit of time in The Gambia in the 1990s teaching (local kids and adults, not ex-pats). Attitudes to homosexuality there were a little different, but still not positive at all. More recently it has gotten a lot worse and sounds closer to what you describe.
    .
    One of the (many) privileges I had as a foreigner was that locals who felt like outsiders sometimes would feel safer talking to us than they would feel talking to other Gambians. I heard a few firsthand stories about what it was like being gay there. Of course, the locals who were more self-hating would have been a much more strongly disinclined to talk to anyone about it, local or foreign.
    .
    While what you say about how Zimbabweans view homosexuality is, no doubt, quite right in general, I do wonder how well it represents how most gay Zimbabweans see homosexuality. You say that being self-hating and being resentful of repression and the attitudes of others are on the same spectrum, but they are fundamentally different on the question of whether homosexuality ought to be regarded as acceptable. In fact, the self-hating gay person accepts as legitimate the negative attitudes of others and shares them.
    .
    My own experience talking to people in Gambia tells me that even in a culture where most people don’t recognize that homosexuality exists and cannot conceive of it being valid, gay people can and do view things differently. So while you conceived Zaka as being self-hating, I still contend that the story as written is not decisive on that point, nor need it be. As I read the story, that ambiguity makes it even stronger.

  24. The author has some decent storytelling chops. The comparison by one commenter to John Knowles seems apt as this seems more like mainstream fiction or YA than literary fiction. It starts off well enough but before long it devolves into something both coy and trite (especially regarding the homosexual angle) and I agree that the Zimbabwe setting is one of the few original components. Would the New Yorker have published it had it been about a boarding school in Buckinghamshire or New Hampshire? Probably not. At the very least, a larger discussion about tokenism, “liberal racism,” and fetishization of the Other seems quite naturally to follow.
    It’s not an outright disaster prose-wise but I can’t give more than a middling grade to a piece that includes the line “We were everywhere, home and abroad, displaced by ambition and by the shrinking hopes of our own nation, but on the Internet we gathered to relive the dappled, sunlit days of boyhood.” The last line of the story is also rather cringe-inducing, as is Gappah’s assertion in her interview with Treisman that “I don’t believe in the ‘write what you know’ school of writing” said almost directly after claiming that she was one of the Mary Wards at the very same type of school! So you swapped out the genders and wrote from a male POV, whoop-dee-doo, you still very much “wrote what you know.”
    Russell Banks’s novel The Darling did something similar, in that case a male writing from a female POV & set in Africa. And certainly that continent has a rich and increasingly more widely read literary heritage, most notably with the deservedly canonical classic Things Fall Apart (Achebe). But honestly, this one didn’t make me long so much for Gordimer, Farah, Soyinka or Aidoo as it made me want to go back to other, superior boarding school narratives, whether the fictional worlds of John Irving or the great Orwell essay “Such, Such Were The Joys.”
    Interesting too that someone claiming (convincingly, if it’s not actually her) to be the author posted on this forum. Has that ever happened before here at mookseandgripes?
    And yeah, erection-comparing & masturbatory contests are commonplace in homosocial male environments like boarding schools, college dorms, and sports team locker rooms.

  25. Interesting too that someone claiming (convincingly, if it’s not actually her) to be the author posted on this forum. Has that ever happened before here at mookseandgripes?

    It has, though not often. The first, I think, was Linda Grant back when I reviewed The Clothes on Their Backs in 2008. For New Yorker writers, Thomas McGuane recently did, but I can’t remember where. It’s far more common, though still not frequent, that the authors simply email with their appreciation or anger. Several wrote to correspond with Betsy in particular, and I think she’s still in touch with a few of them.

    I’m just glad that it’s never chilled our discussions here — surely that’s the last thing the authors want!

  26. Sean, in the context of the interview it makes sense for Gappah to point out that she doesn’t believe in the ‘write what you know’ school of writing. Treisman’s first question asked if she was drawing on personal experience for the story and the second question asked why she wrote from the boys’ perspective and not a girl’s perspective. Both questions implicitly ask about how much she was writing what she knew. After all, Treisman asked why she didn’t write from the perspective of a Mary Ward and not why she didn’t write from the perspective of a teacher.
    .
    The advice “write what you know” is good advice for someone who wants to write but does not know what to try to write about. It is also good advice for a person who is not able to sympathetically inhabit the points of view of others, no matter how much research they do. Politically, it is given as advice for authors where there are concerns about who gets to speak for whom. But Gappah makes the point here that just because she was a Mary Ward is no reason to expect her to write from that perspective. Furthermore, rejecting the limitations of “write what you know” type thinking (as expressed in both of the first two questions from Treisman) does not mean that a writer is committed to only writing about things with which she has no familiarity at all. So it is not inconsistent for her to reject the limitation and still choose to set her story in a school much like one she attended.

  27. I’m just catching up with my NYer reading. I don’t have much to add to everyone’s thoughtful responses, but I’ll just say that I liked this piece overall. It has solid bones. I think it’s an example of clean storytelling, with nice attention to detail. As has been pointed out, the boarding school tale has sort of been done to death, but placing it in a non-Western setting does give it a new dimension, in my view. Regional interest might not translate into literary value, but I felt this story gave me a glimpse into another world in a measured, authentic way, and I appreciated that.

    One thing I wasn’t crazy about was the anonymous first person plural narration. Interestingly, Zadie Smith also used this device for her recent story in The New Yorker, “Two Men Arrive in a Village”, which was set in Africa as well (or, at least, heavily implied to be). I’m generally not a huge fan of the first person plural, but I think it was a bit more effective in the Smith piece because it was clearly going for an archetypal, universal vibe. I think a more personal POV might have worked better here? Just a thought.

    I do also want to thank Ms. Gappah for taking the time to join the discussion. What a rare and lovely treat! I always think we’re in sort of a bubble here, but that’s obviously naive. Everyone’s plugged in these days, and Trevor does such a terrific job with this site, and its coverage of NYer fiction. I wonder if the editors lurk too. Knowing the authors could be reading our posts might inhibit me from being as catty as I’d like, but that’s probably a good thing! Though, now I’m dying to know who sent in angry emails. ;)

  28. This epic story thread has been such an enormous pleasure for me to read:

    David and Roger – Your back-and-forth was so thrilling. Your passion and attention to detail kept me at the edge of my seat!

    Petina – Your grace really shined through after Roger’s and David’s intense exchanges. Thank you for the rare author feedback!

    Avataram – Thanks for your personal anecdote, and for exposing the cute Ripley and Zed subtext!

    Sean – As always, your keen technical observations help us grade this piece in a truly objective manner.

  29. What I most appreciated in the story was Ms. Gappah’s ability to parse Zimbabwean words and situations so that although the names and places were new to me, I read effortlessly and knew where I was and about whom I was reading. Often we need footnotes and translators’ comments to help us set the scene; here, the story moved seamlessly to show familiar humanity in an unfamiliar setting.

Leave a Reply