Can anything good come out of Zimbabwe? Yes. A novel.

Amidst severe drought, ongoing tension over issues of Nationalization, and a very controversial leader in the person of Robert Mugabe, there is good news coming out of Zimbabwe. No, the nonagenarian isn’t stepping down from power, and there are no food aids for the country yet. However, Zimbabwe just got its first nomination for one of UK’s most prestigious awards in writing.

Swiss based Lawyer and author, Petina Gappah, has become the first Zimbabwean to be nominated for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, for her debut novel The Book of Memory. The novel is a fictional story about Memory, an albino woman facing the death penalty in Zimbabwe.

Gappah revealed that the novel was inspired by an article she read in 2006, which revealed there was only one woman on death row in Zimbabwe.The protagonist, Memory,  is in Chikurubi maximum security prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, appealing against her conviction for the murder of her adopted father.

The part time author who has worked as a trade lawyer in Geneva since 1999 currently has her name on the 20-strong longlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, vying for the £30,000 prize. Independent reports that Gappah got news of her nomination yesterday while in a video conference advising the Government of Pakistan on trade issues. “It’s a bit surreal. I am completely overwhelmed,” she said.

Petina Gappah Credit - Independent
Petina Gappah
Credit – Independent

Gappah is one of eleven first-time authors being recognized. “To be the first Zimbabwean nominated for this award is incredible. To be flying the flag makes me very proud.” Her book, An Elegy for the Easterly, an acclaimed selection of short stories won a first book prize in 2009. After that, it took the lawyer six years to publish her first novel, The Book of Memory, a feat she thought she would accomplish in two years.

“It was imposter syndrome. I was so freaked out by the early success of my book of short stories that I thought the more I wrote the more I would be found out,” she said. Gappah admitted that she had “no sleep” and “no social life” when she’s writing. She also revealed plans to quit being a lawyer for a fulltime career in writing. “I always knew that eventually I would want to try the writing thing for a while and see how far I go,” she explained. For her, this award nomination is an affirmation that she is in fact making the right decision.

Petina Gappah has law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University, and the University of Zimbabwe. She grew up speaking both English and her native dialect, Shona.

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