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Author's Short Stories Offer Peek Into Zimbabwe

The characters in Petina Gappah's first book, An Elegy for Easterly, could people a town in her native Zimbabwe.

She's written 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.

Each are affected by the modern problems of the African nation: runaway inflation, unemployment, AIDS and death.

But the stories are peppered with humor and charm, and more than a bit of irony.

The story "At the Sound of the Last Post," is set at the funeral of a high government official, a hero of the revolution that ended colonization and put President Robert Mugabe into power some 30 years ago.

"I wrote this story actually because I have become increasingly upset about the way the government of Robert Mugabe has sort of appropriated this struggle as their struggle," Gappah says.

"It's now become a political game," Gappah adds, "where you only become a hero if you happened to be in agreement with the president at the time that you died."

The funeral takes place at what's known as Heroes Acre, Zimbabwe's version of Arlington National Cemetery. Gappah uses a speech there on Zimbabwe's sovereignty to illustrate the cost of years of official corruption and mismanagement:

I say to Blair and to Bush that this country will never, a trillion, trillion, trillion times never be a colony again. The microphone gave a piercing protest at the trillion, trillion. Making the phrase jump out louder than the other words. There was a nugget of newness in the use of trillion and not million as a measure of recolonization. It is three months since inflation reached 3,325,000 percent per-anum. Making billionaires of everyone, even maids and gardeners.

But, of course, the economic crisis and runaway inflation turned all but the richest and most powerful Zimbabweans into paupers.

"There's a joke about Zimbabweans being the poorest billionaires in the world," Gappah chuckles.

She also writes of how the professional and educated in Zimbabwe, what once was the middle class, have had to change. Gappah says "they've become dealers selling anything and everything that comes their way. It can be milk, it can be Pampers — it can be anything, really."

Gappah's short stories go beyond the headlines and news reports. She's quick to point out her countrymen's love of the written word, from characters quoting Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll to small dust-pocket towns where a newspaper or a tabloid is a treasure.

"People always ask me how I manage to find humor in so much bleakness," Gappah laughs. "I think this is almost a necessary skill to have.

"I always say to people that Zimbabweans are the funniest people in Africa," Gappah says. "We even laugh at funerals. And it's true. I mean, there are so many jokes about funerals. There are so many jokes about AIDS.

"We find ways of coping with pain by laughing at it and by laughing at ourselves," Gappah says.

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